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Detail of the dystopian painting Shores of Oblivion by Eugen Bracht , 1889
Landscape painting with a dystopian atmosphere
The Deconstruction Machine, 2005
Acrylic on canvas, 50 × 300 cm
Location: Aargauer Kunsthaus
Artist: Matthias AK Zimmermann
Figure in a live role play with a dystopian scenario
People leaving the cities. Vision of the artist Zbigniew Libera - dystopia

A dystopia , also anti-utopia , seldom also called cakotopia or mätopia , is a counter-image to positive utopia , eutopia, and in literary studies a fictional narrative with a negative outcome and set in the future.

She creates a future-pessimistic scenario of a society that is developing into a negative, and thus represents an alternative to Thomas More 's Utopia . Often the authors of dystopian stories want to draw attention to dubious social developments of the present and their consequences with the help of a pessimistic image of the future to warn.


The term dystopia (from ancient Greek δυς- dys- "miss-, un-, evil-" and Latin topia "landscape painting, description", this from Greek τόπος tópos "place, place, area") has been particularly broad in recent times Use found. Synonyms are anti-utopia , negative utopia , black utopia or counter-utopia ; seldom kakotopy ( κακός kakós “bad”) or mätopy (from μή “not”) is used. Dystopia is also a medical term used to describe a mutual negative influence of diseases.

A utopia is, in the true sense of the word, the description of a "non-place", i. H. a place that doesn't exist in real life; it is a desired nowhere: the Greek prefix ου- ou- is negative like the German “un-” in the sense of “not-”. Philosophical and literary utopias are in fact executed but draft of a state or country whose society is well organized, which is why sometimes similar sounding Eutopie is called (in English even equal sounding) because the Greek prefix ευ- eu stands for "benign" or "well-". For this very purpose is δυσ- dysplastic counterpart. In this respect, the terms dystopia and utopia are not exactly opposite terms in the sense of e.g. B. Dysphoria and euphoria .


A dystopian society is usually characterized by a dictatorial form of rule or a form of repressive social control . Typical characteristics of a dystopia: The individual is deprived of all freedom by mechanized superstates, communication between people is restricted or otherwise disrupted, and awareness of their own history and / or values ​​is cut off.

History and origin

The history of dystopias only begins in the age of the industrial revolution . There have always been opponents of science and technological progress, but this never resulted in a counter-utopia. Even those who believe in progress initially doubted the technological possibilities. It was only when their ideas of reality were caught up in a reason to attack technological advancement and its tendencies.

The first approaches can be found here at ETA Hoffmann ; the first dystopia in the strict sense is Mary Shelley's novel Verney, the last man .

The first use of the word is attributed to John Stuart Mill , whose good knowledge of Greek suggests that by dystopia he meant not only the opposite of Thomas More's Utopia , but rather a place where, in the broadest sense, it was bad about the Things are ordered.

Limit of optimism for progress in the industrial revolution

The destruction of the belief in progress gradually begins in the last third of the 19th century. This can be attributed to the following reasons:

  • technical development at an unprecedented, exponentially increasing speed
  • growing centralization of countries and the balance of power within them
  • general and collective fin-de-siècle fears
  • Almost all habitable and manageable land areas on earth are owned by people or institutions, such as governments, and the limits of spatial expansion are clearly beginning to emerge

Basic features of a dystopian society

A dystopian society will usually have at least one of the following features from this non-exhaustive list:

  • an apparently utopian society, free from poverty, disease, disease, conflict and even emotional depression. However, just the opposite is revealed beneath the surface. The central aspects of the story are first the problem itself, second the way in which it is covered up, and third the chronology of the problem.
  • extensive privatization of public services without functioning supervision and regulation of the state. As a result, poorer layers are not supplied with energy and water.
  • Privatization of public administration, as well as its mere system-related hypertrophy , e.g. B. in Franz Kafka's The Trial
  • social stratification , whereby the division of society into social classes is strictly defined and just as strictly enforced. There is a lack of social mobility , e.g. B. in the novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley the division into alphas, betas, gammas, deltas and epsilons ( caste beings ).
  • a wealthy upper class isolates itself in sealed off (and sometimes luxurious) residential complexes, while the rest of the population has to live in simple conditions, as in The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins .
  • A high wealth gap ensures the rich upper class access to high quality food and water, while the rest of the population has to be satisfied with artificial foods.
  • Little or no participation of the lower classes in political decisions that are made solely by the authorities.
  • state propaganda and an education system that compels most citizens to worship the state and its government and to believe that life under the regime is good and fair.
  • the introduction of a language that makes criticism of the state or the organization of an uprising impossible, since the words are simply missing for this purpose (see Newspeak ).
  • strict conformity and the prevailing assumption that dissent and individuality are an evil.
  • As a rule, there is a figurehead of the state who is fanatically worshiped by the citizens, accompanied by an elaborate personality cult , such as B. for the character of Big Brother in the novel 1984 by George Orwell .
  • Fear or loathing of the rest of the world outside of one's own state.
  • the prevailing view that traditional life (especially traditional organized religions) is primitive and nonsensical. Alternatively, the complete domination of society by a state religion, e.g. B. Engsoz (Englischer Sozialismus, Engl. Ingsoc = English Socialism) in 1984 , or the " Technopriests " in the comic book series Der Incal about the private detective John Difool .
  • the “historical memory” of bureaucratic institutions supersedes or takes precedence over people's collective historical memory. In the novel 1984 , the Ministry of Truth is entrusted with adapting the “autobiographical” social memory to the needs of the regime.
  • a penal system that lacks an appropriate code of criminal procedure up to and including privatized penal systems .
  • Lack of essential goods for large parts of the population, accompanied by preferential care for privileged classes. This can go up to almost eternal life for the privileged ( In Time - your time is running out ).
  • permanent surveillance by the government or its authorities.
  • Absence or complete co-optation of the educated middle class (e.g. teachers, journalists, scientists) who would be able to criticize the ruling regime.
  • militarized police forces through to the privatization of the police and military.
  • the banishment of the natural (biological) environment from everyday life.
  • Constructing fictional views of reality that are forced upon the masses.
  • Corruption , incompetence or usurpation of democratic institutions.
  • fake rivalry between groups that actually form a cartel .
  • the established forces insist that they realize the best of all possible worlds and that all internal problems are caused by the forces of the (if necessary also fictitious) enemy.
  • an overarching, slow disintegration of all systems (political, economic, religious, infrastructural ...), which is due to the alienation of the individual from nature, the state, society, the family and oneself.
  • Criticism that becomes public despite repressive measures by the regime is absorbed by society's media and entertainment culture, trivialized and thus turned into the absurd. B. in Brave New World , in which the story of the protagonist "Michel" (in the English edition "John", also the Savage "the savage") is processed by the state media for the pure purpose of entertainment for broad sections of the population .
  • Orientation of society and economy towards stability. The economy in dystopian societies is structured in such a way that the government or the economic system itself is immune to change or disruption.
  • Industries work with maximum efficiency and capacity, the generated surplus is absorbed by the state. In 1984 the necessities of life are rationed and the surplus generated is absorbed by the perpetual "war" against Eurasia or East Asia. In Brave New World , the surplus flows into the extreme consumer behavior of the population, to which the population is even conditioned by the government.
  • the state is indoctrinating the people into non-reproductive sexual behavior such as necrophilia to control birth rates.

Basics of dystopian fictions

Many films and literary works about dystopian societies tend to have some of the following features:

  • a selective prehistory of a war, a revolution, an uprising, demographic upheaval, a natural disaster or a climatic change with dramatic social effects.
  • a standard of living in the lower and middle classes that is generally below the level of contemporary societies. However, there are exceptions, e.g. B. in Brave New World and Equilibrium , in which the population enjoys a comparatively high material standard, but at the price of ideal qualities such as B. bought the loss of emotional depth.
  • a protagonist who questions social conditions and often senses intuitively that something is wrong, like protagonist V in Alan Moore's V for Vendetta , or Neo in Matrix .
  • necessarily, if the fiction is based on our world, a shift in the focus of control towards large corporations, autocratic cliques or bureaucracies.

To captivate the reader, dystopian fictions usually use familiarity as another means: it is not enough to portray life in a society that seems unpleasant. In the fictional dystopian society, elements from the here and now must echo that are familiar to the reader from his own horizon of experience. When the reader can identify the patterns or trends that could potentially lead our society today into fictional dystopia, preoccupation with fiction becomes a compelling and impactful experience. Writers can use dystopias effectively to express their own concerns about societal trends. George Orwell's novel 1984 is based on political developments in the year it was written in 1948, when an icy climate was already emerging in post-war Europe. Similarly, Ayn Rand wrote her story Anthem (German: Die Hymne des Menschen ) as a warning against the subordination of the individual to the state or "the we". In Sebastian Guhr's novel The Selfless , animal rights are placed above human rights. Margaret Atwood wrote The Maid's Report as a warning of the rise of religious fundamentalist totalitarianism in the United States and the hypocrisy of 1970s feminism that played into the hands of its opponents.

Dystopian fictions are often (but not always) unsolved, that is, the story is about individuals who are unsatisfied and may rebel, but ultimately fail in their efforts to change something. Not infrequently they end up complying with social norms. This narrative arc, leading to a feeling of hopelessness, is characteristic of classic dystopian works such as 1984 . They stand in stark contrast to fictions in which a hero successfully resolves conflicts or otherwise turns things for the better.

In a dystopian society there are mostly parts of the population that are not under the complete control of the state, and in which the hero of the story usually places his hopes, but in the end fails. In 1984 by George Orwell these are the “Proles” (the proletariat), in the dystopia We by Yevgeny Ivanovich Zamyatin it is the people outside the walls of the “One State”.

Criticism of the concept of dystopias

Just as most philosophers, political scientists, and writers have given up the idea of ​​a perfect society or " utopia, " many have also expressed skepticism about the likelihood of real dystopias as Orwell and others set out. Although there have been many states with absolutist claims to power in human history, writers like Gregg Easterbrook and others point out that such societies tend to self-destruct or are destroyed by neighboring societies. Dictatorships and similar regimes tend to be short-lived, as their policies and actions continually attract new potential opponents.

A critical view of dystopian social conditions is to see them as the threatening course of events. Accordingly, all social constructs (ideas like organizations) strive incessantly to achieve synergetic gains by restricting the degrees of freedom and nonconformities of individuals. To a moderate extent, this results in the blessings of culture and civilization for the individual; in excess, this leads to dystopia, namely when attempts are made to shut down the (more complex) biological substructure of the individual, which is just as essential to being human, through overregulation and forcibly administered drugs the social superstructure.

Modern dystopias

Already in the 19th century there were dystopian scenarios ( Edward Bulwer-Lytton : The Coming Sex ), but these remained marginal. In the 20th century, Samjatins Wir, the first “classical” dystopia, shows where the statistic utopian tradition can lead if it is based on the technical and scientific standards of the 20th century. Short stories by Philip K. Dick such as Kolonie , Autofab and The Minority Report (filmed as Minority Report ) are classics of dystopia. The Warhammer 40,000 universe, created by Games Workshop as a tabletop game, but continued in books and video games, shows the path of mankind in the 41st millennium: constantly oppressed, tyrannized by a bureaucracy on behalf of the so-called "God-Emperor" in the eternal war and defensive struggle against humanity hostile factions such as aliens and demon-like beings. The Canadian Margaret Atwood et al. Is considered a modern author of dystopia. a. with the novels Oryx and Crake and The Maid's Report.

Literary dystopias

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Films and TV series (selection)

Radio plays (selection)

Fine arts (selection)


  • Hans Esselborn (Ed.): Utopia, Antiutopia and Science Fiction in the German-language novel of the 20th century. Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2003, ISBN 3-8260-2416-8 .
  • Bartholomäus Figatowski: Where a child has never been before ... - Childhood and youth images in science fiction for young readers. Kid, Bonn 2012, ISBN 978-3-929386-35-6 , pp. 122-131 u. 228-260.
  • Agnes Heller: From Utopia to Dystopia. What can we ask for? Edition Konturen, Vienna / Hamburg 2016, ISBN 978-3-902968-20-3 .
  • Eva Horn : The future as a catastrophe. Fiction and prevention. S. Fischer, Frankfurt am Main 2014, ISBN 978-3-10-016803-0 .
  • Krishan Kumar: Utopia and anti-utopia in modern times. Blackwell, Oxford 1991, ISBN 0-631-16714-5 .
  • Stephan Meyer: The anti-utopian tradition: a representation of the history of ideas and problems. Lang, Frankfurt am Main 2001, ISBN 3-631-37492-5 .
  • Dunja Mohr: Worlds Apart? Dualism and Transgression in Contemporary Female Dystopias. McFarland, Jefferson 2005, ISBN 0-7864-2142-8 .
  • Thomas Müller; Thomas Möbius; Gregor Ritschel (Ed.): Digital Dystopias , Berliner Debatte Initial , Issue 1/2020, ISBN 978-3-947802-49-4 , ISSN 0863-4564.
  • Thomas Nöske : Clockwork Orwell. About the cultural reality of negative utopian science fiction. Unrast, Münster 1997, ISBN 3-928300-70-9 .
  • Ralph Pordzik: Utopia and Dystopia in the New English Literatures. Winter, Heidelberg 2002, ISBN 3-8253-1312-3 .
  • Agata Waleczek: Society in cinematic dystopias as system failure based on the films "V for Vendetta", "Sin City" and "I am Legend" . Grin Verlag, Munich 2011, ISBN 978-3-656-39162-3 .

Web links

Wiktionary: Dystopia  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wiktionary: Eutopia  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. Dystopia on duden.de, accessed on January 4, 2011.
  2. ^ S. Meyer: The anti-utopian tradition: a representation of the history of ideas and problems. Frankfurt am Main 2001, ISBN 3-631-37492-5 , p. 15.
  3. Mätopie on Wissen.de
  4. ^ John Stuart Mill: Public and parliamentary speeches - Part I - November 1850 - November 1868 . University of Toronto Press, Toronto 1988, ISBN 0-415-03791-3 ( libertyfund.org ).
  5. ^ Vittorio Ferretti: Back to Ptolemaism: To Protect the Human Individual from Abuses of Social Constructs. Amazon, 2012.