The word dystopia came into being in the 19th century, through two modifications of existing words. First, the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, in his Plan of Parliamentary Reform, simply changed the prefix of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia (οὐ or “u” means “not” — so “no place”), which signified a fictional place, to κακό or “bad,” to create cacotopia: a bad place. Decades later, in 1868, Bentham’s disciple, John Stuart Mill, made a speech to parliament in which he reiterated “cacotopia” before upping the ante with his own neologism, “dystopia.”
Mill simply attached δυσ or “dys” (meaning “ill” or “abnormal” or “bad”) to the front of the word:
Does the noble Lord really think it possible that the people of England will submit to this? I may be permitted, as one who, in common with many of my betters, have been subjected to the charge of being Utopian, to congratulate the Government on having joined that goodly company. It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or cacotopians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable.
It is significant that the word “dystopia” originated in Utilitarian philosophy and parliamentary debate. For those writers and orators, the idea of “dystopia” or “cacotopia” was deeply rooted in material possibility, the idea that such a bad place does or could soon exist. Utopia, on the other hand, was from the first always about the opposite: a perfect place that is also a fiction — a place that by its very etymology cannot exist. This, too, is where dystopia gets its power. We remember Orwell’s 1984 because it has so often paralleled our own societies.
There is something powerful about this distinction when you consider the enormous upswell in dystopian narratives in recent years. We’ve long had depictions of places or spaces that have gone to hell; pick more or less any house in Greek tragedy and you’ll find a “bad” or “abnormal” or “ill” place. But in the last several years, the flood of dystopian fiction in particular, from young adult blockbusters to genre-bending literary works, has become unavoidable. From Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam Trilogy to The Hunger Games, from William Gibson’s Jackpot to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, there is no shortage now of dystopias rooted in material reality.
And “flood” is the right word; it all feels like a flood. Even the proliferation of genre books over the last few decades didn’t bring with it quite this number of dystopian narratives. Dystopia now feels less like a genre than a mode that can be imported and exported between genres.
But is this true? Are we really in the weathering a flood of dystopian literature? Judging by frequency of the search term alone, this would seem to be the case:
It’s clear that usage of “dystopia” in terms of “literary genre” has increased at an increasing rate since 2005, whereas prior to that year it was relatively flat. And it also appears that the increase occurs after a massive spike in 2005, one that defibrillates the entire concept into notoriety.
A closer look reveals that, indeed, usage of the term was flat before 2005. It also shows that the spike occurred precisely in September 2005, or when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans:
If we go back to the original concept of dystopia, a bad place that could well come to exist, then it’s easier to understand why Katrina precipitates such a huge upswing in searches: the events following Hurricane Katrina, and, without question, the hurricane itself, exemplify our shared fears of ecological disaster, state control, and state failure. Hurricane Katrina shook American art into a greater awareness of an upbuilding disaster; it also laid bare the governmental mechanisms used to control black bodies and lives. And the initial shock of the storm itself, the lack of governmental aid and support, the violent ghettoization of New Orleans’ black population in the Hurricane’s wake — these disasters permeate the dystopian narratives that will follow over the course of the next several years.
Likewise, the idea of Katrina as the Prime Mover in the rise of dystopian narrative might also explain the increase in Ark narratives that would inundate cinema and visual art over the next few years. The ark came to represent humanities act of saving itself without that help of a deadlocked government. From Children of Men to Wall-E to Evan Almighty to Noah, just to name a few, the end of the last decade and the beginning of this one have been given over to the creation of ark-works at a speed we’ve never encountered.
It is sometimes asked why we never had a great novel about Hurricane Katrina. I’ll leave that debate open. But maybe it’s time to ask whether every dystopian novel written since owes its existence to the enormity of that disaster, and its lasting effect on our imaginations — our understanding of the possible.