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In the film The Book of Eli, the world is in state of disarray, with no government, weak or non-existent town and family structures, and widespread hunger, poverty, and regressed technologies. Is this considered a dystopia?

From Wikipedia:

A dystopia (from Ancient Greek: δυσ-, "bad, ill", and Ancient Greek: τόπος, "place, landscape"; alternatively cacotopia,[1] or anti-utopia) is, in literature, an often futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian. Dystopian literature has underlying cautionary tones, warning society that if we continue to live how we do, this will be the consequence. A dystopia, thus, is regarded as a sort of negative utopia and is often characterized by an authoritarian or totalitarian form of government. Dystopias usually feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, a lack or total absence of individual freedoms and expressions and constant states of warfare or violence. Dystopias often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and how humans individually and collectively cope with technology that has evolved too quickly such as the car, the flamethrower or the microwave. A dystopian society is also often characterized by widespread poverty and brutal political controls such as a large military-like police.

Dictionary.com includes "overcrowding" as a descriptor, which is definitely not the case in post apocalyptic type worlds where much of humanity has died out.

From these definitions, it is vague as to whether it must be characterized by a powerful government, overcrowding, and advanced technologies, or whether these are just most often the case. Is the world in The Book of Eli, or such worlds as "zombie apocalypses" considered dystopias? If not, what is a better word to describe these "post apocalyptic" worlds?

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3 Answers 3

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A dystopia is simply the opposite of a utopia and that can mean any kind of imagined world which is bad for whatever reason. (Note that utopia does not necessarily mean "good place" but comes from the Greek meaning "not place" as in "nowhere [to be found]" — cf. Samuel Butler's Erewhon, which is "nowhere" spelled backwards with the w and h reversed.)

A good, functional example set may be found in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. All of the societies described in Gulliver's encounters — Lilliput, Brobdingnag, Laputa, the country of the Houyhnhnms, etc. — are dystopias for one or another reason, and for that reason each is found to be inimical to Lemuel Gulliver. Lilliput wars against Blefescu over where eggs should be broken (bringing computer science the concepts of Little Endian and Big Endian), the "scientists" of Laputa (the floating island) cannot live in the real world because they prefer impractical abstractions, and the Yahoos (ape-like humans) make life miserable for the Houyhnhnms (which are really horses, and the most intelligent creatures encountered in the whole series). None of these places is dystopic on the level of, say, a 1984, but each nevertheless qualifies as a dystopia.

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Erewhon could be the phonemically reversed spelling of nowhere, or even phonetically in some non-rhotic accents...so the w and h are only reversed in the most obvious sense. ;) –  Jon Purdy May 24 '11 at 6:59

A dystopia is simply a world which is bad.

The commonalities in your example criteria are not required, but are popular among writers of fiction because they speak to the fears of the reader; they recall us to dystopias of the past (e.g., Nazi Germany) or project our fears of current social problems into the future. They are also frequently invoked for social commentary; George Romero made zombie movies in part as a satire against consumerism.

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from the Wikipedia entry that you quoted:

any dystopias found in fictional and artistic works present a utopian society with at least one fatal flaw, whereas a utopian society is founded on the good life, a dystopian society’s dreams of improvement are overshadowed by stimulating fears of the "ugly consequences of present-day behavior." People are alienated and individualism is restricted by the government. An early example of a dystopian novel is Rasselas (1759), by Samuel Johnson, set in Ethiopia.

In the Book of Eli's case - what's missing is the Bible. So I think the key is to find that "one fatal flaw". Remember the quote of Mr. Smith in the Matrix?

The first iteration of the Matrix was too perfect, according to the Architect, which is why humans initially rejected it.

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