© 2015 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.

Dystopian Literature

Welcome to tomorrow, Shmoopers.

This course is dedicated to the dystopian genre—a.k.a. the emo one. In these dark and not-so distant futures, society as we know it has collapsed and been replaced with a repressive regimes, insane anarchies, or desolate wastelands. Sometimes all three at once!

Here, we’ll explore and analyze a wide variety of the most famous foreboding futures. We’ll witness Big Brother’s oppressive reign over the hearts and minds of an entire populace. Books and ideas will be burned as sacrifices to the gods of ignorance. Sex and drugs will mask a social-hierarchy built on human suffering. Teenagers will kill each other for the amusement of the masses. Memories and emotions will be locked away from humanity. Sounds fun, right?

As we question and extrapolate ideas from these painful ridden realms, we’ll learn that one man’s paradise is another’s Hell, and that what we consider warnings about the future might just be the condemnations of today.

Here's a sneak peek at a video from the course. BYOP (bring your own popcorn).


Course Breakdown

Unit 1. A Tale of Two (or Three) 'Topias

To kick this thing off, we'll survey two old-school utopian texts, Plato's Republic and Thomas More's Utopia. Then, because we can't go a whole unit without trying to destroy the world, we'll crack open H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, a rip-roaring adventure through time into a future society that is anything but ideal.

Unit 2. Beware Dystopia's Great-Grandfather

This unit will discuss the dystopian society that we most often think of when imagining a dystopia—the totalitarian regime. We'll start with George Orwell's 1984 and then take a look at V for Vendetta, which is basically 1984 but with superheroes (or maybe super-anti-heroes) and bald Academy Award winners.

Unit 3. You're in Dys-turbia

This unit will tackle, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and the movie Gattaca. We're bringing on the sci-fi, so we hope you packed your nerd goggles.

Unit 4. Funny Because It's Sad (Except for When It's Just Sad)

In this unit, we're talking about Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury's novel in which burning books is all the rage. And once the smoke clears, we'll introduce some humor into the mix with Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron." Bradbury and Vonnegut were contemporaries (i.e., they were around at the same time), so we'll see if their views of dystopia line up, too.

Unit 5. The Gift that Keeps on Giving

Memory abounds in this unit, as we read The Giver and "The Defenders" and watch Blade Runner. Yeah, it's a motley crew.

Unit 6. Get Ready to Rumble

Both Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games(2008) and Koushun Takami's Battle Royale (1999) are overflowing with ultra-violence as their characters engage in a pastime that seems to be both an American and Japanese favorite: kids slaughtering kids for the entertainment of others. Talk about killer ratings.

Unit 7. Blurred Lines

This final unit will cover Orson Scott Card's sci-fi classic Ender's Game, Harlan Ellison's short story "'Repent, Harlequin!' said the Ticktockman," and Dr. Seuss's The Lorax. Why not end with a surprise?

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 12: 'Ello, Eloi. Move over, Morlocks.

Our intrepid Time Traveller finds himself cavorting with the Eloi—who are beautiful, fragile, and lazy—and running from the Morlocks, who are strong, dark, and scary. These two races of far-future humans are so extreme, you might start thinking Wells is making some sort of social commentary here. Yeah, he's about as subtle as a boot to the head.

In H.G. Wells' dystopian future, mustaches are small and puny.


In The Time Machine, Wells creates something that's the complete opposite of the utopian romances of the past. Where Plato and More were, in their own ways, dreaming of a perfect future (regardless of its possibility), Wells is all but saying that perfection will never be achieved and, in fact, it's all downhill from here. In other words, these are the golden days, so enjoy them while you can.

See, Wells is playing with the expectations readers might have from reading Plato's or More's utopian literature by turning those conventions on their head and shaking them until all the good stuff falls out of their pockets. By doing this, he's creating a dystopia (yes, we finally said it): a world where everything has gone wrong, even as it was striving to do right.

In this lesson, we'll take a look at the horrors humanity might become if we continue down the same path. We'd give you the choice between Team Eloi and Team Morlock, but neither one seems like a winner to us.