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Utopias and Dystopias: Meaning and Function

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The first of the two to appear was the term utopia. Utopia derives from the Greek prefix “ou-“, meaning “not”, and topos (τόπος), “place”, so a no-place, or place that does still not exist. The initial “u” can also be interpreted as the Greek prefix “ευ”, Ancient Greek for “good”, so the translation of utopia can also be the “good place”, but it’s only by combining both meanings that we truly get a wrap of what this term represents: the best place that could exist but that it does not. This last part is important since it can be, and it is, also interpreted as a place “too good to exist” or, in other words, that could not exist, normally due to its excess of idealism.

The term was first used by the English lawyer Thomas More in his narrative work: Libellus vere aureus, nec minus salutaris quam festivus, de optimo rei publicae statu deque nova insula Utopia (On the Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia). Thomas More’s would be the first of an extense and rich new genre, the Utopian fictions, a genre that would flourish at its fully in the XXth century, first through books such as 19841, Fahrenheit 4512 and We3, the book which redefined the term and brought it back to the surface of the literary paradigm, and following this literary movement, utopias and, even more importantly, dystopias, started to spread through a variety of other art forms.

But what was and is the purpose of this unattainable proposals if, as it has already been established with the definition of utopia, they are over idealistic? Although the term was first used by More, as it has just been mentioned, the first example of what a utopia would become to mean was Plato’s Republic, published in 380BC. Plato’s proposal is a great example to explain what a Utopia is and to introduce its other side: the dystopia.

Plato’s Republic began as a mental experiment of what a perfect society would have to be like from a structural (or political) point of view. For this purpose, he created a written city that worked specifically as what he perceived as the closest to a paradise city and, for him, that was one in which everyone fulfilled an specific role, the role he was meant to fulfil. So in very brief lines, Plato’s Republic was organised by three main classes: the erudites, wise men who would rule the city4 having as the only interest the best for the people (it is important the specification of the word men for Plato wasn’t a revolutionary of his times in what genders refers to, so he could only think of erudites as males), the soldiers, defenders of city and what would be the current police and army forces, and lastly, the producers. For Plato this would have been the perfect organisation for society, but would it also be for everyone else?

Erudites are humans too and, as such, can be corrupted, soldiers may be more than just strong brutes and producers might be great artists, philosophers or scientists who also happen to like to craft or cultivate the land. Plato’s vision of humanity as pictured in his Utopia, was too unidimensional, it lacked the most interesting element of the human kind: its capacity for individuality, a bless, a course and the very reason for which creating the perfect organisational system it’s such a difficult matter. Taking this into account, is the Greek philosopher’s proposal really a perfect society? Or is it, on the other hand, the complete opposite, an anti-utopia, or, as it is also known, a Dystopia?

Plato lived in Ancient Greece were people lived in city-states called polis such as Athens. These questions tried to be answered, focusing also on the individuality element, in Veronica Roth’s trilogy: Divergent5. In Roth’s books she challenges that idea of each person fulfilling a specific role in society based only in what one has, supposedly, more affinity with. In the trilogy’s world, teenagers are made to choose only one faction out of five, in which they will spend the rest of their lives. Each faction performs a specific role in the city’s organisational system, just as in Plato’s Republic, only difference being the amount of divisions for Plato’s society, as previously exposed, was divided in three sections whereas Roth’s uses five. Be the differences as they may, the core concept stays the same and for that reason it is clear that Veronica Roth based her books on Plato’s Republic. And she isn’t the only one.

Exploring other sides of already pre-existing political systems, with the objective of challenging them and highlighting aspects of such systems that might have been over- looked, is also a characteristic of the utopian-dystopian genre. Examples of this would be 1984, Orwell’s take on communism plus the technological new tendencies of his time, The hunger games, again another take on Plato’s Republic, Blade Runner, capitalism plus, also, the alienating technological tendencies of the author’s time etc. This double edge that started to be perceived about Utopias, the inherent drive of people to question perfection, it’s what brought the term Dystopia, but its meaning has evolved a great deal since its first use back in the XIXth century, first known use by Jhon Stuart Mill6 in a Parliamentary Speech: 'It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians7. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable' (1868)

In this quote, Mill uses the term as the addition of the Ancient Greek prefix “dys”(δυσ-) Ancient Greek for “bad”, to the already existing “utopia” although with a slight reinterpretation of the initial “u” as “eu” (ευ-), Ancient Greek prefix for 'good', instead of the original “ou”, Ancient Greek prefix for “not”. So, Mill reinterpreted Utopia as the Parliamentary Reform, synonym of dystopia. “good place” instead of the “no-place” and created a complementary term to express the complete opposite: the worst possible “bad place”, a Dystopia, in contrast to the best possible “good-place”, a Utopia.

Since then, Dystopias have become very popular and have taken many other meanings and forms. Besides representing the worst possible case scenario, as used by Mill, and showing twisted sides of what was initially thought to be a Utopia, as Veronica Roth does in Divergent with Plato’s Utopia, Dystopias have also explored other possibilities, for instance, the dystopian futures.

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In the XXth century the world experimented the greatest and fastest changes of humanity in every field. The means of production had been experiencing exponential changes since the second industrial revolution and the colonial empires were running out of lands to conquer and exploit, the perfect climate for a war that would thrive to never before reached scales. The First World War began in the 1914 and would extend until the 1918, leaving a trail of deaths and a world that would never be the same.

After the WWI and the instauration of the Soviet Union the world had undergone a deep change. But the world scale events didn’t stop there, in 1941 another world war, this one even more brutal and destructive than the last one. Both wars marked a before and after the whole world’s history, both changed the balance of powers, the maps’ borders and the relation of powers between countries and, lastly, both were the most devastating events the world had seen up until then, for the second completely overpassed the first in every field. Having the world experienced such great consecutive wars and given the tension between the two leading powers that raised after the WWII, the EEUU and the URSS, it’s no wonder so many art works appeared trying to figure out how the future would be, thus the increase in dystopian fiction in the time.

Having lived two wars and two atomic bombs, it was only obvious to wonder what would happen if a third was to happen. For this reason, many films and books started to depict futures that developed after said third war would have taken place, these were dystopian futures, and they did not play a simply entertaining role, but also a social- awareness one. And with these we enter our next point: the dystopias social function.


As it has been mentioned previously, utopias are mental, written or imagined proposals that try to display perfection, the best possible social scenario with the objective of then trying to achieve such ideal, because having it figure it out, the path to paradise already has a clear ending point. On the other hand, dystopias display the worst possible scenarios but, obviously, not for the reason of achieving them, then with which objective are as many authors and thinkers stuck with this? Why not think of more utopias so we can have a lead as to how should our world be improved? Because perfection, as it has previously been exposed with Plato and Roth, perfection is not the same for everyone.

But doesn’t then the same principle apply to dystopias? How do they then manage to successfully fulfil a social awareness raising role? Because as difficult as it may be agree on perfection, it is very easy to agree on what it is not, because there are endless possibilities, all social systems have flaws, at least the ones known, and tried, up until known, and there are many world problems that could become worse, and this existent flaws and problems that “could become worse” are what fuel dystopias.

Dystopian authors base their artworks on already existent problems or tendencies and explore the “what if it went wrong”, “what if it became extreme”, thus warning the reader of how things could develop. 1984 was composed in the times of the cold war and so, it warns against totalitarianism regimes and extreme government control, Blade Runner, by director Ridley Scott, dates from the 1982, a time were wonders of programming were starting to reach the common people and talks of how far pcs would go were becoming more and more frequent and so, the film explores a future in which on one hand, super consumerism has been taking to alarming alienating extremes and, the culmination of such alienation, IA androids so perfect that telling them apart from humans is one the film’s central plot. Regarding religion, we can turn, for instance, to Margaret Atwood’s novels, The Hand Maid’s Tale.

Atwood’s books base its dystopian future in two current issues: the increase in the infertility rates in the technologically developed countries and the decrease of the Catholic’s church power. In her proposed future, women’s fertility rates have decreased to such low levels that pregnant women are almost miracles. There are very children, and their numbers have kept on decreasing for some decades from when the book’s actions take place. In this alarming adult world, a radical movement with roots on the bible beliefs, but taken to the extreme, take over the country imposing a new social with the objective of ensuring and protecting childbearing. But a dystopia can be made of any socially controversial subject: the TV series Utopia8, deeps in into the overpopulation issue and the pharmaceutical companies overwhelming power in the current times, Altered Carbon9, another TV show, explores a future where technology has advanced so much as to allow the uploadment of the human consciousness into a chip, making human virtually immortal as long as one has money, also treating the inequality issue, The Clock Work Orange10 , a take on the individual against society on an over moral controlled world etc.

Therefore, dystopias not only pursue a fictional creation but also a social function, dystopias seek to make its consumer think and reflect about the issues they display. Nowadays the dystopian genre is very common since so many threads to the humanity’s existence, global warming, the continues fear of a third world war, the overpowerment of governments by the multinational companies, the imminent thread of running out the resources, etc. And so, the world’s future, if any, has never been of such popular interest and, since dystopia explore all this possible future, its success, and impact is only natural considering the current world state.


Regarding the initial question on which Is the purpose of utopian and dystopian works, the answer must be divided into two, for the purpose of each concept it is different. First, utopias are meant to be exercises to review what a perfect society would have to be like to try, in my opinion, to improve our own society. Trying to think about how things should really work without the restrains of how they work in realty, frees the mind and it allows a more creative thinking since in the plane of the imagination everything is permitted, no tradition nor logic nor moral act against the free world of the mind so, in this way, good utopian works allow the reader, or consumer in general, for not only written utopian works exist for instance the work of Frank Lloyd Wright and his Broadacre city.

On the other hand, dystopias’ purpose, even though their creations process are very similar, both work on the limitless imagination field but, contrary to the utopias very root, dystopias use the conditions given in the current world and exaggerate some of them with the objective of analysing better these specific conditions (or issues). By doing these, dystopias have the power to explore what the world could “end up being”, and the result of this process shows the consumer the dangers of possible futures that follow the tendencies of the times in which each work was created. This can be very enriching for a society since, disguised as with the tag of “fiction”, it raises awareness on issues that are actually very real, specially between the masses since many dystopian works, such as films and tv shows, are very accessible mediums that don’t require special effort so it’s one of the best methods to raise awareness about a social topic as divulgative media.


  1. Roth Veronica (2011), Divergent, NY, EEUU, Katherine Tegen Books
  2. Orwell George (1948), 1984, UK
  3. Bradbury Ray (1953), Fahrenheit 451, EEUU
  4. Zamyatin Yevgeny (1921), We, Soviet Union
  5. Burgess Anthony (1962), A Clockwork Orange, EEUU
  6. Morgan K Richard (2002), Altered Carbon, EEUU
  7. Kelly Dennis (2013), Utopia, TV show, UK
  8. Scott Ridley (1982), Blade Runner, EEUU
  9. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Ethics and Politics in The Republic
  10. The Cambridge companion to utopian literature (2010), edited by Gregory Claeys, Cambridge University Press, UK
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