Dystopian literature is undoubtedly one of the most popular, bestselling genres of today. The word dystopia was first used by John Stuart Mill in 1868 as an antithesis to the word utopia, meaning a perfect society. A dystopia is a community or society that is undesirable, frightening, or headed for destruction, often including some popular elements such as totalitarian governments, natural disaster, or dehumanization. Dystopian is a branch of apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction; usually, dystopias are formed after something went wrong in a previous society.
Divergent, Insurgent, and Allegiant are some of the most famous dystopian novels of the present-day, along with works such as The Hunger Games, the Uglies series, and the Matched trilogy. But present-day dystopia lovers often know very little about the older novels that pioneered the genre and heavily influenced contemporary favorites.
Perhaps the most famous dystopian novel of all time is George Orwell's celebrated work Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was published in 1949 as a chilling prophecy of what the year 1984 would look like, taking place in a futuristic Great Britain in a society full of war, constant surveillance, and public manipulation. The entirety of society is constantly overseen by a tyrannical Party leader who calls himself "Big Brother." This novel arose at the very beginning of the Cold War, during a time when the Western world greatly feared communist threat and the tyrannical control it would bring about. Nineteen Eighty-Four made George Orwell the most famous dystopian writer of the 20th century.
Another notable 20th century dystopian novel is Brave New World by Alduous Huxley, published in 1932. This one, however, is set much further into the future (2540) and concerns a society living with major scientific advancements in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury was published in 1953, about a futuristic American society where books are outlawed, and "firemen" burn any books that are found. Lord of the Flies by William Golding in 1954 tells the story of a group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island who attempt to govern themselves. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand in 1957 talks about a dystopian United States in which most vital industries collapse.
Later on in the 20th century came novels like Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, about mankind after nearly being wiped out by aliens, and The Giver by Lois Lowry, about a society that has eliminated pain and strife by converting to a system called "Sameness." There are hundreds more famous dystopian novels from the 20th century, however, and to list them all here would be impossible.
But why are dystopian depictions of society so popular? Part of the reason is because they intentionally hit very close to home, dramatizing current problems in politics, economics, or religion or imagining what could go wrong if overpopulation, violence, or environmental abuse get out of hand. Though they certainly entertain readers a great deal, dystopian novels can also serve as a warning to be careful of our lifestyles, because we have no idea what could go wrong or what the future might look like.