–nouna society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression,
disease, and overcrowding.
The word dystopia, as exampled by this dictionary definition, has taken on an exact meaning in contemporary times. This definition both narrows and broadens the original classification of the word. Literature has defined what the word means, but this literature itself has been defined in many variations throughout the past 100 years.
To understand dystopia, one must understand what is working in opposition of. The prefix dys- indicates a lack of functionality. Dystopia therefore comes to mean "a non-functioning Utopia." But we accept the term Utopia at face value, as it has merged into our modern lexicon. But the word has a single and definite point of origin. When Thomas Moore penned the idealistic Utopia in 1516, (highly influenced by Plato's Republic) he understood the optimism involved with the concept. Utopia means "no place" in Greek. He constructed this word because it was clear even in conception that utopia could not exist.
By looking at the meaning of Utopia we can see the true definition of dystopia is "a non-functioning no place." Is your head spinning yet?
Originally the works written in opposition or dysfuction of Utopia were called anti-Utopian because it in some way appears to be dystopian. The society and government control is working for the supposed betterment of society, or at least did at conception. But the aim of the work is to show the flaws of a supposed Utopian society or the belief in that society. Both the reader and the main character strive to see the flaws of the society exposed. The anti-utopia can have different levels of acceptance or disillusionment of the society by the main character. He tends to either be initially naive to the situation or distrusting of it from the beginning. Either way, he begins to chip away at the lies that have been formed around him. Seeing the little inconsistencies in his life.
A true dystopia is based in a world with no hope and no protection and no false sense of unity. There is now and never has been the illusion of dystopia, if but only the distant past being good enough as to be a Utopia compared to what is happening now.
Even books with successful utopias can often have a dystopic element because the character must emerge from the perfect world into the realities of life. Both dystopia and Utopia seem to be an "other", set apart from something else, whether it is another part of the world or from the past.
With all these fragmentations off the original Utopia, dystopic fiction becomes a difficult category to define. Also confusing is the consideration that the classification of dystopia can cross many genres.
We use the world "dystopian" to now classify all the subcategories of utopia and it's negative off shoots. Therefore it becomes increasingly harder to fine what dystopia is with a dictionary. It is also important to understand that a piece of fiction may NOT be a dystopia but still be dystopian!
if there is non-historical or alternately historical governmental control, it is probably dystopian
if there is a group or person in power who is lying or hiding something, it is probably dystopian
if the outer world has been "destroyed" or is "dangerous", it is probably dystopian
if the world has been destroyed due to government control, lies, or revolution against such things, it is probably dystopian
if the people are blissfully being mind controlled, then it is probably dystopian
if the inhabitants find out they live in a false world, it is probably dystopian