Saturday, August 21, 2010

Dystopian genre-what was it called before?

Try reading a book catalog or publishing website without running across a novel described as 'dystopian'.  Does this strike anyone as being sort of new?  I know the concept isn't (described as an imaginary place inhabited by fearful, oppressed lives and suffering from disease, overpopulation, and political strife), but it seems like the word is everywhere.

I read alot, and while I've read many of the titles that are considered classics of the genre, I don't remember them being called dystopian at the time.  Maybe it just went over my head, but it seems that only the last two years have specifically branded that word into a genre.

Classic titles described as dystopian are: 1984, The Handmaid's Tale, Farhenheit 451, and Lord of the Flies.  An article from

describes the trend:
As dystopian fiction has become more widespread and popular since the end of World War II, critics have grown comfortable in classifying dystopias based on their own generic qualities, rather than explicitly by contrasting them against utopias. The term dystopia has also grown more familiar and is commonly used to refer to any dark or unpleasant future. Finally, by the end of the twentieth century, critics seemed to have abandoned the effort to segregate dystopia from science fiction, the larger literary genre to which dystopia belongs.

This makes sense, as Merriam-Webster seems to link the use of the word to the 1950's.  Obviously, it's the opposite of More's Utopia, which I thought was a pretty awful place when I read portions of it this last semester.  It actually seemed just as constrained and limited as 1984.  I found references to dystopian fiction in literary journals as far back as 1983, but it wasn't commonly used to describe actual novels.

So, what were they called before they became "dystopian"? 


  1. I wish that I could help but I can't. I have no idea what they were called, but it is an interesting topic to think about

  2. I am not sure what they were called before, but I am glad that you made this post~! You are right, every time I click a new page, it seems that dystopian literature pops up. I am getting ready to read The Hunger Games series which falls into this category. (Secretly glad it is not called science fiction, which I am not overly fond of - we shall see)

  3. Maybe anti-utopia? Though I'm not sure how widely it has ever been used.

  4. I think if it wasn't called dystopian, then it would be science fiction.

    I think dystopian writing has been since people talked about utopian societies, it just hasn't been popularized so much until recently.