Dystopia Then and Now: A Short Insight Into the Progression of the Genre Throughout the Ages

Dark broody story lines, twists at every turn and characters hand crafted to appeal to the teenage angst of today’s young audiences, dystopian fiction is undoubtedly one of the biggest trends to emerge as of recent times amongst young adults.

For a generation raised on dystopian themes, whose parents listened to music such as “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head”, “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”, “Feel Good Inc”, “Another Brick In The Wall”, Animals and  “The Unforgiven”,  from classic bands such as The Gorillas, Pink FLoyd, and Metallica, it is unsurprising that as a way of expressing teenage identity and spirituality that today’s young audiences would turn to texts such as the Hunger Games trilogy, Divergent series and The Maze Runner series of novels.


One of the most popular series, The Hunger Games trilogy (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) by Suzanne Collins, a story wildly popular amongst young audiences tells the tale of Katniss Everdeen, a young woman who must struggle for survival in a televised fight to the death, sparking a rebellion against the oppressive powers of her fictional existence, all whilst coming to terms with the inner turmoil of love and loss, family, and struggling to establish her own identity beyond “The Girl on Fire” – themes hand crafted to appeal to a teenage audience.

Collins’ novels, and the subsequent movies based on them, have been incredibly popular amongst audiences of all ages, but most especially young adults. The first book, published in 2008, was at one point on the New York Times bestseller list for more than 200 straight consecutive weeks, with the movies thus far earning a combined $1,169,814,624 at the box office. Collins work is a testament to the re-emergence of dystopian fiction, reigniting a genre and rekindling a passion for literature in an age group deemed uninterested in reading.

However before Collins, and the subsequent craze that followed, the dystopian genre was most recognizable for it’s literary classics – texts such as Animal Farm, 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale,  and Fahrenheit 451 were the staples of the genre; a literary representation of the fears that plagued the world during events of war and hardship.

A comparison of dystopian texts throughout the ages helps us understand the growing trend and gives insight into how dystopian literature has evolved as society has progressed.

Feminism, The Rise of the Heroine

One trend that has developed and changed throughout time has been the representation of gender within dystopian texts, from the male dominated world of Orwell and Huxley’s time, to the fight for women’s rights thanks to Margaret Atwood, and Gwen Harwood – the androgynous 90’s and Emergence of the Heroine in modern literature.


During the early emergence of Dystopian literature between early 1900 and 1950, texts such as Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and Animal Farm were largely male dominated, With Brave New World going as far as to suggestively position women as inferior to men, for example there is never explicit reference to a female Alpha – the highest caste of society, hinting at a subversive sexism from the author when compared with the amount of Alpha-Male characters, women are also presented as superficial with the female character Fanny Crowe being a posterchild of the society’s values, “‘Again?’ Fanny’s kind, rather moon-like face took on an incongruous expression of pained and disapproving astonishment. ‘Do you mean to tell me you’re still going out with Henry Foster?’”, even the texts leading female character Lenina is presented as a slave to her conditioning, unable to grasp concepts discussed by Bernard such as his appreciation of the oceans violent emptiness, “On their way back across the Channel, Bernard insisted on stopping his propeller and hovering on his helicopter screws within a hundred feet of the waves. The weather had taken a change for the worse; a south-westerly wind had sprung up, the sky was cloudy. ‘Look,’ he commanded. ‘But it’s horrible,’ said Lenina, shrinking back from the window”.

Following the primarily male centric dystopian novels of the early 1900’s, the next movement to take place within dystopian literature was the feminist movement. Pioneered by authors such as Margaret Atwood and Gwen harwood, they explored the concept of women within dystopian society, however differing from current movements in that they did not make their women overly heroic. The characters, instead, represented the oppression faced by women in their times – the characters a reflection of struggling to overcome hardship. In Margaret Atwood’s text The Handmaids Tale the character of Offred is the protagonist of her tale, with the novel taking an extreme reaction to the male dominance that had long grasped the genre. The text positions the majority of its male characters as ‘Evil’, sympathising with the female characters. Harwood’s texts, “Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day”, “In the Park”, and “Suburban Sonnet” takes a more neutral stance, instead examining the dystopian elements of suburban female life, “Zest and love drain out with soapy water” summarises perfectly the tone of Atwood’s work, demonstrating the fatigue women face as they perform their dystopian domestic duty.


Emerging throughout the 80’s, through to the early 2000’s, following the feminist movement, was the ‘androgynous’ movement. Dystopian literature during the period, explored extensively by musical media, was more about the collective experience of society going through a period of hardship rather than the individual struggle. Songs such as “Fire Coming Out of the Monkey’s Head” by The Gorillaz and “Another Brick in the Wall” by Pink Floyd exemplify the sense of communal dystopia rather than a sense of individual, gendered dystopia. The two songs are creative responses to then current events being faced collectively by humanity. With “Fire Coming Out Of The Monkey’s Head” a possible response to the outbreak of war in the middle east due to the United States conquest for oil,

“There was a town where the people known as Happy Folk, lived

Here they played out their peaceful lives

Innocent of the litany of excess and violence that was growing in the world below

Then one day, strangefolk arrived in the town

They came in camouflage, hidden behind dark glasses

But no one noticed them

They only saw shadows.

You see, without the truth of the eyes, the Happy Folk were blind

In time, the strange folk found their way into the higher reaches of the mountain

And it was there that they found the caves of unimaginable sincerity and beauty

The strange folk, they coveted the jewels in these caves above all things

And soon they began to mine the mountain

It’s rich seam fueling the chaos of their own world

The text deliberately ignores the traditional convention of discussing gender in dystopian texts, where it could have quite easily alluded to the sexual trade and rape that occurred as a consequence of war in the middle east, this is most likely due to the trends in dystopian literature during the period.


Finally following the androgynous movement came the rebirth of feminism in dystopian literature that underpins the majority of modern dystopian texts, however unlike it’s predecessor during the initial feminist movement, current texts tend to position their female protagonists as beings of extreme heroics and not the victims of male oppression. Two primary texts that highlight the current trend are the Hunger Games Series by Susan Collins and the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. Each of the series feature a strong female protagonist, who much like the male protagonists of early dystopian literature serves as the primary protagonist and hero within their respective text.

Oh The Humanity! Biological and Social constructs in Dystopian texts


A common theme amongst a wide variety of dystopian texts, and one that has maintained throughout the ages, is the exploration of themes of control through both manipulation of relationships and biological birth.


During the early era of Dystopian literature authors were obsessed with the concept of scientific control of natural birth. Novels such as Brave New World and 1984 extensively explore the concepts of artificial birth and the bastardisation of the traditional family unit, “Standard men and women; in uniform batches. The whole of a small factory staffed with the products of a single bokanovskified egg.” (Brave New World).  In these novels the process of traditional procreation  is considered to massively taboo, demonstrating the fear of the influence that technology and government power would have on our society,  each of the novels also shares the common theme of corrupting the traditional family unit, in 1984 this is done through representing family as a mere necessity of procreation, a temporary place holder whilst society perfects artificial birth, used to maintain an insight on the citizens of the texts society “The children, on the other hand, were systematically turned against their parents and taught to spy on them and report their deviations. The family had become in effect an extension of the Thought Police.”, Brave New world does this through using a world where in promiscuity is the norm and commitment is taboo, “‘Again?’ Fanny’s kind, rather moon-like face took on an incongruous expression of pained and disapproving astonishment. ‘Do you mean to tell me you’re still going out with Henry Foster?’”.

The trend of procreation and the bastardisation of family values is one that further continued into the early feminist period of dystopian literature, Margaret Atwood and Gwen Harwood both examine facets of the genre convention within their texts. In Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale there is pertinent exploration of the concept of unnatural birth and unfamiliar relationships; in a world devastated by nuclear fallout and war, infertility is an issue for which society has struggled to overcome. In the text natural birth is replaced through a system of forced surrogacy where in fertile females are assigned to infertile families in the hope that they may bear children. Though not unusual in the sense of surrogacy, Atwood bastardised the concept of sex and  birth though use of ‘weird’ religious ritual and impartial, informative dialect, “My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body. I do not say making love, because this is not what he’s doing. Copulating too would be inaccurate, because it would imply two people and only one is involved. Nor does rape cover it: nothing is going on here that I haven’t signed up for. There wasn’t a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose . . . I wish he would hurry up.” Poet Gwen Harwood also explores concepts of fractured relationships in her texts, particularly use of quotes such as, “O where’s the demon lover, the wild boy / who kissed the future to her flesh beneath / what skies, what stars, what space! and swore to love her / through hell’s own fires? ” (Suburban Sonnet: Boxing Day) which imply the existence of a long lost lover who has left the the poem’s protagonist to care for her children alone, a bastardisation of the traditional nuclear model of the family that at the time was the social expected norm that points towards the characters own sense of personal dystopia.

The theme of manipulating natural human development is one that is explored in musical pieces of the 80’s and 90’s, with Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” (1979), the piece shows the development of the genre in that it is less concerned with the fear of controlling natural processes or destroying the nuclear model of the family, rather that it is concerned with the de-individualisation that occurs as a result of schooling. The music video made to accompany the piece intermittently changes between a school setting and showing rows of children marching in formation through a dark factory like setting whilst a character dressed to represent the stereotypical teacher of the time barks orders and watches on. The piece is a response to the education system’s tendency to ‘mass-produce’ bland ‘robots’ designed to regurgitate information and function as an identical member of society, hence the title “Another Brick In The Wall” – schools are literally mass producing bricks which fit evenly and identically into the wall of society.


However with the current trend in dystopian literature, the theme of controlling biological and fundamental constructs of family isn’t one that is commonly explored. Arguably aspect of the concept have found their way into texts such as The Hunger Games as with the ‘The Reaping’ or the ‘choosing ceremony’ in the Divergent series,  however these do not serve to criticize an aspect of society pertaining to biological or cultural processes. This may be due to the time in which we live, or the target audience for which these books are intended, In our time the nuclear model of the family is not as important as it was during Huxley’s time, and biological birth is not seen as important with the societal acceptance of surrogacy and In-Vitro fertilisation.

By J.N.


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