The genre of dystopian fiction grew out of a response to the utopian fiction of the 16th century, which posited that human beings were perfectible and that alternate social and political structures could override human selfishness and antisocial behavior. Conversely, dystopian writers believed that inherent human nature meant utopias were an impossibility, and society was doomed to get worse, not better, if people didn’t actively resist the corrupting forces of power and greed.

Read more about the development of dystopian literature in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

In 1984, Orwell casts a dim view on utopian social programming by showing how it runs counter to human instincts toward food, sex, pleasure, and aesthetics. When reflecting on the bad food served in the Ministry of Truth cafeteria, Winston comments, “Always in your stomach and in your skin there was… a feeling that you had been cheated of something you had a right to,” and he remembers feeling he had a right to food during famines, even taking food from his sister and mother to get it. While Winston is the protagonist of the novel, he often acts selfishly, suggesting that fear and deprivation bring out the worst in people, and that governments can create these conditions to manipulate people’s inherent weakness.

Literary influences on Orwell and precursors to 1984 include Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 novel We, a dystopian criticism of Soviet social engineering. The plot of 1984 closely resembles the plot of We: a man known only by a number lives in a futuristic totalitarian society characterized by mass surveillance, sexual repression, and control of the population, and he meets an alluring woman whose influence eventually inspires him to try to resist the society. Orwell was also familiar with Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, especially drawing on its themes of social conditioning versus human nature and its vision of a rigidly controlled society preoccupied with shallow entertainment. Orwell was also inspired by Jack London’s The Iron Heel, which portrayed a future rise of fascism in the United States, played out in a similar way to the history of the Revolution and the Party in 1984. After 1984, a range of writers adapted its message to other countries and time periods, such as postwar youth culture, as in the 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess, or government control of free thought and expression, as in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which was published in 1953.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as computing advanced, many writers turned to concerns about the encroaching role of technology in organizing human behavior. Whereas 1984 and earlier dystopian novels featured societies ruled by humans, dystopian literature began to depict societies ruled by and constricted by machines. Later writers created dystopian scenarios to explore themes related to the environment and social justice issues. The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, published in 2005, depicts a father and son trying to survive in a future America where the natural world is dead or dying and most animals are extinct.

Feminist writers adapted dystopian fiction to comment on political realities as experienced by women, drawing attention to gender inequities in society. In Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, a totalitarian fundamentalist Christian movement has overthrown the United States government and suspended nearly all women’s rights, and limited fertility means that women who are able to bear children are randomly assigned to high-ranking men as property. Contemporary dystopian novels such as The Hunger Games, which was written by Suzanne Collins and published in 2005, incorporate fears of environmental catastrophe, social injustice, and government surveillance to tell stories of characters fighting to maintain their individuality.