Dystopia in Pop Culture: Fiction or the Future?

The most frightening fictional dystopias are recognizable extensions of our current world. 

Dystopias have become a staple of popular entertainment, and despite predictions to the contrary, they show no sign of tapering off. Yet most of us have only the vaguest sense of what a dystopia is.

For starters, a dystopia is the opposite of a utopia. A utopia is a pretty old concept; Thomas More created the term in 1516 to describe a perfect society. “Dystopia” is a more recent term, dating to the 19th century: it comes from the Greek ”dys” meaning “bad” and “topia” meaning “place”. While a utopia is an ideal civilization, where everyone has their needs met, a dystopia is a society that is essentially harmful. The central arc of dystopic fiction almost always puts the hero in conflict with the government or the group of people in charge.

The most frightening fictional dystopias are recognizable extensions of our current world. These worlds answer “What If” questions about the future with the most pessimistic of responses.
What if the earth runs out of oil?

What if we stop having as many children?

What if the government used reality TV as a form of propoganda?

What if there was no law and order?

What if we lived in a military run state?

Dystopian fiction imagines the worst-case scenarios for our future. However paranoid these imaginings may seem, they also expose important truths about our current reality.


Some media may contain mature content. Discretion is advised when viewing with students.

Lesson Plan

LEARNING OBJECTIVE: This lesson will help students understand how societies are shaped by history and ask them to analyze social structures.

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Lesson tags: Books, Dystopia, Eighth, English, Featured, Film, History, Language Arts, Movies, Ninth, Pop Culture, Social Studies, Tenth, Video Games

Alex Heimbach

Alex Heimbach Alex is a writer and educator in California. She is a pop-culture fanatic and an experienced tutor. After several years as an educator and tutor, she has taught everything from the Pythagorean theorem to Dickens. Alex is also a freelance writer who routinely covers pop culture, writing for publications such as Slate and Thrillist.