In 1516, Thomas More transported readers to Utopia, a fantastical island with an ideal society: religions are tolerated, hospitals are free, and, amazingly, there are no lawyers. More's joke, of course, was that "utopia" meant "no place" in Greek, and for nearly 400 years, writers such as Jonathan Swift, H.G. Wells, and Aldous Huxley, have been imagining more believable worlds—dystopias. Bad places.
In "Fresh Hell" The New Yorker's Laura Miller examined the rise in dystopian fiction for young readers. "The Hunger Games is not an argument," Miller wrote of Suzanne Collins' dark fantasy. "It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader."
Creating the dystopic world of Nineteen Eighty-Four nearly killed George Orwell, as Robert McCrum revealed sixty years after the classic novel's publication. "From the spring of 1947 to his death in 1950 Orwell would re-enact every aspect of this struggle in the most painful way imaginable," McCrum wrote of the author's battle with tuberculosis. "Privately, perhaps, he relished the overlap between theory and practice. He had always thrived on self-inflicted adversity."
A year after we reached Orwell's landmark year, Margaret Atwood published her novel The Handmaid's Tale, about a chauvinistic theocracy that had overthrown the United States—what she called an "Ustopia." In her Byliner Serials I'm Starved for You and Choke Collar and now Erase Me, Atwood returns to those themes with a futuristic society and a kinky, gated community known as Consilience.
Of course, not all dystopias are imagined. In 1993, Wired sent novelist William Gibson to Singapore for a glimpse into the techno future of the world. "There is no slack in Singapore," Gibson wrote. "Imagine an Asian version of Zurich operating as an offshore capsule at the foot of Malaysia; an affluent microcosm whose citizens inhabit something that feels like, well, Disneyland. Disneyland with the death penalty."