My first thought is that in order to have science fiction in the middle age you need science. But magic and science aren't opposites, Amazonian tribes have a unique knowledge and a accurate taxonomy of the green world --ie a scientific method is needed. So it's more about the place of science than the technology milestones that are important. Nowadays science holds an authority figure more than ever.

I would be interested to know if there's any dystopian science fiction writer before the XVIth century.

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    Would John the Apostle (Book of Revelation) count? Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 9:39
  • I would rather categorize this in fantastic, but you highlight the fact that we need a common definition of dystopic science fiction. But I like the suggestion thanks !
    – Deewy
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 9:42
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    @JeremyFrench No, the Book of Revelation is not considered science fiction. Please take a look at our policy on answers that count religious texts as fiction.
    – Null
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 13:34
  • @Null how is it possible to include all religions ? If someone has Harry Potter as a religion, what should we do ?
    – Deewy
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 13:44
  • 2
    @Deewy Deciding what does and does not constitute a religion is in some cases a tricky problem (although not for the book of Revelation, which belongs to a major religion). There is some discussion of how to make that decision here. Consensus was to ask if the work in question would appear in a religious section of a library/bookstore or not. Harry Potter does not appear in the religious section so it's not considered a religion.
    – Null
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 13:53

4 Answers 4


Plato, with The Republic, written circa 380BC. Plato may have intended it as a utopia, but it looks distinctly dystopian to modern eyes (e.g. those of Jo Walton in The Just City).

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    While dystopian to modern eyes, I'm not sure I'd consider The Republic to be science fiction, even with respect to ancient Greek science.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 12:06
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    @ZeissIkon As I understand the concept of Sci-Fi isn't just about advanced technologies, it is taking an idea and extrapolating it out to a sort of logical conclusion. Usually this involves technology to allow the idea to be fully implemented, and in the case of The Republic it could be argued that the testing of what type of a soul someone has was more advanced than the Greeks had at the time, and they would have considered such a test to be 'science,' even if we don't today.
    – Daishozen
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 20:35

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, was written in 1924 in Russia. It is the story of a spaceship engineer in a totalitarian society set sometime after the year 2900. This was one of the very earliest "dystopian" science fiction novels, and inspired Orwell and Huxley in the creation of their own dystopian stories.

  • We is a classic dystopian novel, but the OP specifically asked for works from before the 16th century, i.e., antedating More's Utopia.
    – user14111
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 18:42

This is going out on a limb (is more fantasy than Sci-Fi), but the Hell in Inferno by Dante is pretty nasty and could have some of the common themes of a dystopia. A large subjugated populous and evil overlords controlling them.

It was written about 1320, before the printing press was invented so it wasn't published as such until 1470.

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    It's science fiction -- it extrapolates from the most advanced scientific knowledge available to Dante, which happened to be in the science of theology.
    – Mike Scott
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 14:17
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    Since the question asks for the earliest example, every answer should include the date of the proposed work. What is it, 1320?
    – user14111
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 18:45
  • Edited to include written and publish date. Needed to wait for printing press to exist before publishing. Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 19:30
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    Are you serious? You think nothing was published before the invention of the printing press in 1470? Wow.
    – user14111
    Commented Aug 11, 2017 at 19:37
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    Purgatorio or Paradiso are more dystopian than Inferno is -- Hell isn't supposed to be nice.
    – Spencer
    Commented Feb 9, 2023 at 19:46

A play from 1861 might be a partial answer.

The Tragedy of Man has several scenes which can be considered science-fiction: set in the future, it describes a different human society which uses futuristic technology, and the relation between technology and society forms an important plot point in the story.

The story goes through many eras of human history, from biblical times, through classical antiquity, middle ages and the author's present, but the last scenes are set in the future. Scene 12 presents a highly technocratic society, where poetry and emotions are banned, every member has one and only one job through their entire life, and people are referred to only by numbers. Any form of emotional relationship is banned, babies are separated from their mothers and raised in a communal nursery. That society is based on extreme utilitarianism: nothing is tolerated which is not immediately practically useful. Poetry is banned, flowers are extinct, and so are almost all species of animals and plants. The only remaining land animals are heavily genetically engineered:

What lives is what is useful or what science
Has found no adequate substitute for yet
Like pigs and sheep, but not in the poor state
The nature so ineptly left them in.
One’s living fat, the other meat and wool,
They serve our needs, exactly like these test-tubes.

Like many modern dystopian works, on first glance it seems like a utopia, and the protagonist at first thinks it is one, and only later does the inhumanities come to surface.

Not only is this society dystopian, it is so by necessity, because the world itself became dystopian due to severe resource exhaustion by preceding civilizations.

Later, it turns out,

even these drastic measures were unable to save human civilization. A scene set a few thousand years later shows a snowball Earth, with barely survivable arctic climate around the Equator (and completely dead everywhere else) where the last few human survivors eke out a miserable living, degraded back to the stone age, heading inevitably towards complete extinction.

  • interesting - borderline as a religious critique rather than intending to tell a science fiction story. Has my upvote for effort but I don't think it counts as such. I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Well's "The Time Machine" (1895)
    – NKCampbell
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 23:01

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