The word “dystopia,” meaning “an unhappy country,” was coined in the seventeen-forties, as the historian Gregory Claeys points out in a shrewd new study, “Dystopia: A Natural History” (Oxford).In its modern definition, a dystopia can be apocalyptic, or post-apocalyptic, or neither, but it has to be anti-utopian, a utopia turned upside down, a world in which people tried to build a republic of perfection only to find that they had created a republic of misery.
The world got too hot, so a wealthy celebrity persuaded a small number of very rich people to move to a makeshift satellite that, from orbit, leaches the last nourishment the earth has to give, leaving everyone else to starve.
(“We are what happens when the seemingly unthinkable celebrity rises to power,” the novel’s narrator says.) Or: North Korea deployed a brain-damaging chemical weapon that made everyone in the United States, or at least everyone in L.
A., an idiot, except for a few people who were on a boat the day the scourge came, but the idiots, who are otherwise remarkably sweet, round up and kill those people, out of fear.
“We are, as a nation, better educated, more tolerant, and more connected because of—not in spite of—the convergence of the internet and public life. The argument of dystopianism is that perfection comes at the cost of freedom.
Partisanship, religion, geography, race, gender, and other traditional political divisions are giving way to a new standard—wiredness—as an organizing principle.” Nor was the utopianism merely technological, or callow. Every new lament about the end of the republic, every column about the collapse of civilization, every new novel of doom: these are its answering thunder.
“Looking Backward” was so successful that it produced a dozen anti-socialist, anti-utopian replies, including “Looking Further Backward” (in which China invades the United States, which has been weakened by its embrace of socialism) and “Looking Further Forward” (in which socialism is so unquestionable that a history professor who refutes it is demoted to the rank of janitor).