A dystopia (from Ancient Greek: δυσ-, "bad, ill", and Ancient Greek: τόπος, "place, landscape"; alternatively cacotopia, or anti-utopia) is, in literature, an often futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian. Dystopian literature has underlying cautionary tones, warning society that if we continue to live how we do, this will be the consequence. A dystopia, thus, is regarded as a sort of negative utopia and is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. Dystopias usually feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions and constant states of warfare or violence. Dystopias often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and how humans individually and collectively cope with technology that has evolved too quickly such as the car, the flamethrower or the microwave. A dystopian society is also often characterized by widespread poverty and brutal political controls such as a large military-like police.
I tend to notice that people seem to think that all science fiction is dystopian. This is not the case. Just like not all science fiction takes place in outer space. Again taken from Wikipedia:
Science fiction is a genre of fiction dealing with the impact of imagined innovations in science or technology, often in a futuristic setting. Exploring the consequences of such innovations is the traditional purpose of science fiction, making it a "literature of ideas".
Science fiction is largely based on writing rationally about alternative possibilities. It is similar to, but differs from fantasy in that, within the context of the story, its imaginary elements are largely possible within scientifically established or scientifically postulated laws of nature (though some elements in a story might still be pure imaginative speculation).
The settings for science fiction are often contrary to known reality but the majority of science fiction relies on a considerable degree of suspension of disbelief, which is facilitated in the reader's mind by potential scientific explanations or solutions to various fictional elements. These may include:
- A setting in the future, in alternative timelines, or in an historical past that contradicts known facts of history or the archaeological record
- A setting in outer space, on other worlds, or involving aliens
- Stories that involve technology or scientific principles that contradict known laws of nature
- Stories that involve discovery or application of new scientific principles, such as time travel or psionics, or new technology, such as nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel orrobots, or of new and different political or social systems (e.g., a dystopia, or a situation where organized society has collapsed)
On the other side of Dystopia you have a Utopian society. Again, from Wikipedia:
Utopia ( //) is an ideal community or society possessing a perfect socio-politico-legal system. The word was imported from Greek, by Sir Thomas More for his 1516 book Utopia, describing a fictionalisland in the Atlantic Ocean. The term has been used to describe both intentional communities that attempt to create an ideal society, and fictional societies portrayed in literature. It has spawned other concepts, most prominently dystopia.
We know from the past that Hitler, James Jones and David Kuresh all wanted to create these utopian societies until their egomania took over and they created monsters. Utopian societies in the past have always collapsed and in turn have become more dystopic than the Garden of Eden (the first Utopia?).
One book that starts Utopic and quickly becomes dystopic is Lois Lowry's, The Giver. I don't think you can have one without someone trying to create the other. For teens, it seems to be a hard genre to grasp because they all have roots in each genre. You can create a Utopian society in space (Alien) until you upset the alien and then everyone is out for themselves and turn on each other (dystopian). Or you can have place where everything is the same. No color, no bad people. Everyone following the rules (Pleasantville) until someone decides to take matters into their own hand and wants more than the same-old boring life (Reese Witherspoon). People think of life after WW2 as sort of a Utopian society. No war, men were home, women were happy. But then the 60s come around, and dissension is growing in the University community. Countries are being invaded (Vietnam). The US is on the verge of war with Cuba, Russia and entering the conflict in Southeast Asia.
Now, I'm not a history major, buff or anything, just trying to explain the differences. We live in a world for science fiction (paralyzed people walking to get their college diplomas, face transplants, heart transplants, venturing space, etc...) We can understand these genres by looking around us and seeing what is going on in the world.
I know nothing of high fantasy, so I'll leave that one alone :)