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Defining Genre

The concept of utopia--a place of perfection--was first set to writing by Sir Thomas More in 1516 in a whimsical imagining of the ideal society. The birth of the dystopia followed over two centuries later during the French Revolution, when social commentators imagined governments toppled.  In The Machine Stops (1909), E.M. Forster penned what is largely considered the first dystopian novel. In his work, Forster described a world in which humanity had lost the ability to live on the surface and were controlled by a vast "machine," representative of technology.

WORTH NOTING:  Forster's novel, in some ways, predicted many of the effects technology would have on modern society, including: globalization, networked communications, and even the loss of face-to-face relationships as a result of technology and other social problems.   

If literature is a reflection of society, the dystopian novel offers authors and their readers a decidedly pessimistic view.  But dystopian literature is more than a dismal prediction.  Rather, the "what if?" in this speculative genre interrogates the world, raising awareness to issue in a way that is both jarring and moving. Consider:

  • 1984 by George Orwell was written amid the threat of the Cold War and Soviet aggression.
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood was written after the elections of Reagan and Thatcher herald in a move towards conservatism.

According to Chris Robichaud, an ethics professor at Harvard University, fiction has always allowed us to "work our way through problems by telling stories."  Teens may gravitate towards dystopian fiction because they are, themselves, beginning to take on adult problems--to grapple with larger world they see messed up by older generations.  Dystopian novels offer a validation that their perceptions aren't off...that things need to change. Dystopian literature prepares young adults to step into the world as problem solvers.

Lepore, Jill. A Golden Age For Dystopian FictionThe New Yorker, 29 May 2017 (Editorial)


Lock, Charley, et. al. The Real Reason Dystopian Fiction Is Roaring Back WIRED, 22 Feb 2017.


Nadworny, Elissa. Why Teens Find The End Of The World So AppealingNpr.Org, Dec 18, 2017. 

The Classics

  • 1984 by George Orwell
  • Animal Farm by George Orwell
  • Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy
  • The Running Man by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

Great YA Dystopian Novels

Library Information and Media Center - Monona Grove High School - Monona, Wisconsin

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