Gerry Canavan is an assistant professor in the English department at Marquette University, teaching 20th and 21st century literature. His current research projects include Science Fiction and Totality and Modern Masters of Science Fiction: Octavia E. Butler, as well as co-editing The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction. His edited collection of critical essays, Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, is out now from Wesleyan University Press. You can follow Gerry on Twitter as @GerryCanavan.

Dystopia, Anti-Utopia, and the End of the World

by Gerry Canavan

One of my great frustrations as a teacher of science fiction is the imprecision with which we use the word “dystopia.” We typically speak as if “dystopia” is the negation of utopia, but this is not quite right. Dystopian speculation more properly describes the opposite of utopia: utopia is the good place (eu-topia) that is not a place (ou-topia), while dystopia is the bad place (dys-topia). But the bad place of the dystopia still has something to teach us: it is the warning of the bad times that will come if we refuse to act, the reflection of our own bad times that we must work to change. This is why the typical plot of a dystopian narrative is actually pretty hopeful: the story of the heroic revolution that overthrows a corrupt regime, or the time traveler who changes history to prevent it, or the story of how our heroes might run fast enough and far enough to break out of the confinement of the nightmare city altogether and escape into the free and open country outside.
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