What Does Dystopian Mean, Anyway?

When I describe the premise of books like The Hunger Games or The Giver to my friends, I use the adjective “dystopian”.  And even with all of the hype surrounding Suzanne Collins’ popular books, that term still makes people wrinkle their brows and say, “What?”  So let me roll up my word nerdy sleeves and explain.

Dystopia = the opposite of utopia

Sir Thomas More, way back in the 16th century, introduced the idea of utopia : a place of social perfection.  The term dystopia takes More’s unrealistic ideal and flips it on its head.  Remember that the prefix “dys” means difficult or bad, as in dysfunction, dyslexia, and dysentery.  So, in dystopian fiction, we find a society, often of the future, crippled by at least one horrible, inherent flaw.
Dystopian books tackle themes about government, politics, religion, or technology in a hypothetical setting.  They often explore the delicate balance between what’s best for the individual versus what’s best for society as a whole. 

Dystopian literature isn’t new

Dystopian books appeared well before The Hunger Games.  According to Wikipedia, the term was first used in the British House of Commons in 1868 when John Stuart Mill spoke to the assembly about the faults of the English government’s land policy in Ireland. 
During the 20thcentury, several authors explored dystopian themes.  Some examples:
  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Brave New Worldby Aldous Huxley
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
  • The Giver by Lois Lowry

Dystopian literature addresses moral issues without being didactic 

Dystopian books challenge us to thoughtfully consider what’s important, both for ourselves and society as a whole.  A good dystopian piece might take a current idea or practice and push it to extremes, forcing people to think, would this way of life really work better?

For example, in Ally Condie’s Matched, the government chooses everything for its citizens in order to optimize productivity- that includes food, occupation, and spouse.  Type two diabetes and obesity would definitely NOT be a problem in Condie’s world, but, at what price?
Many dystopian titles target young adult readers, giving teenagers great material to ponder as they form their opinions about religion, politics, and society.  I’ve enjoyed discussing controversial issues from The Giverwith my kids, and I hope that we will have more great conversations as they read the other books listed in this post.

Current popular dystopian reads

Here is a list of popular dystopian books from Goodreads; click the link to learn more about these and other books:  

  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Matched by Ally Condie
  • Divergent by Veronica Roth
  • The Maze Runner by James Dashner
  • The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
  • Ship Breaker Paolo Bacigalupi
  • The Host by Stephenie Meyer
What does the term “dystopian” mean to you, and can you recommend any books that fit the category?  Thanks for adding to the discussion.

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Julia Tomiak
I believe in the power of words to improve our lives, and I help people find interesting words to read. Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, Pinterest, and Google+. Member of SCBWI and Wordsmithstudio.org.


  1. The word dystopia is redundant. The use of this word assumes that there is such a thing as utopia. The whole point of these utopian novels is to imagine what living in a utopian society would be like. Utopia is defined as the ideal society, based on ideals. Nature and the natural tendencies of living creatures are not ideal. Ideals of any kind have to be imposed. Therefore, utopia and dystopia are one and the same. Or at least two sides of the same coin. At best, dystopia is the implementation of utopia in reality.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Curt. I can’t agree that utopia and dystopia are the same thing. Utopia is a place of ideal perfection, and dystopia is a depressingly wretched place (to quote Websters). However, I like your idea that dystopia is the implementation of utopia, because, as you say, the natural tendencies of living creatures are, unfortunately, not ideal. Even if the intent/ideal is good, the practice often is corrupt.

  2. Is it the same Veronica Roth???

    I love coming here for book recommendations! “Divergent” is on my list, and I’m going to add “Fahrenheit 451”. I don’t think I’ve ever read this, which begs the question: what have I been doing all these years?

  3. Can I forward this directly to several friends and family members? I too get the wrinkled brows and “huh?” expression when I use the term dystopian. Which is a lot, considering my YA debut, OTHERBORN, is a dystopian/sci-fi novel. You’d be amazed at the reactions I get when I try to explain the premise. Sometimes I just want to say, “Seriously? Don’t you people read?”

    Anywho, great blog! Looking forward to your reviews. Divergent is great!

  4. Thanks for your insight Julia. My 7th grader is reading “Fahrenheit 451” this year in Literature and it intrigues me (I haven’t yet read it). I also clicked over and read your post on the Hunger Games and appreciate your feedback on that too. I felt the same as you (b/c my son just turned 13 last week.) and I know he is intellectually ready but not emotionally. Thank you for you for sharing.

    Take care, Hester 😉

  5. I really didn’t know what that term meant. Thanks for the GREAT and simple dissection. My daughter loves Matched and Hunger Games. I’m still meaning to read Atlas Shrugged.

  6. I was wondering if that Veronica Roth was our Veronica Roth– how exciting!

    I love dystopian books, and I had wanted to read Matched, but I kept forgetting about it. Thanks for the reminder, and I’ll look forward to all your reviews.

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