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Taking the following definition of dystopia:

an imagined world or society in which people lead wretched, dehumanized, fearful lives

It would seem there’s a certain aspect to it that is very much subject to context. What we envision today a dystopian future could be a dream society for people of the Roman Empire.

That got me thinking about when literature evolved to imagine a future in which society had evolved for the worse (therefore making the present, by comparison better or more just.)

On the one side I have the (completely unjustified) feeling it is a reasonably “new” concept, maybe dating back 2 or 3 centuries top, fueled by the industrial revolution. On the other, given the amount of myths and stories in old Greek or Roman times I see no reason they couldn’t have had their own “imagination”.

What would be the first work of fiction to envision a dystopian future?

Clarification: What's interesting to me is when people started imagining dystopian societies, that is, a future where society has gone sour as it implies a way of thinking that envisions future as something that can go wrong rather than improving.

Note a dupe: I don't feel First appearance of the "wake up from a coma, discover the world has ended" trope? answers the question as a) end of the world is not the same as dystopia and b) I don't care about comma, the main interest is "when did people start thinking about this?"

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  • What is that definition quoted from?
    – user14111
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 22:34
  • From here: merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dystopia Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 22:37
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    To avoid plagiarism, you should acknowledge the source of the quotation in the body of your question.
    – user14111
    Commented Jul 9, 2022 at 22:41
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    Not really. Dystopian future or society is not the same as end of the world. Plus I’m more interested on when people started imagining dystopian societies as a topic to explore in literature. Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 17:19
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    The Danish 1895 novel Guld og Ære (Gold and Honor) by Otto S. Møller is about the invention of a cheap way to make gold, ultimately leading to the a collapse of the global economy and the world's nation nation states, resulting in many small, despotic regimes. lydbog.com/Lydbogsbiblioteket/Guld%20og%20Aere/guldogaere.htm Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 9:00

2 Answers 2

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It's not set in the future (indeed since it's given from the viewpoint of the gods, it's not necessarily set in any particular time), but my research for this question turned up a poem from 1747 that describes a place as a dystopia.

[Note that I have rendered a long 'ſ' as an 's' throughout for readability]

Not stor'd with wealth, nor blest in air:
No useful Plants could ripen there;
Mismanag'd by th'unskilful hinds,
Or nipt by chilling Easter winds:
Or if they flourish'd for a Day,
They soon became some Insect's prey:
For many such infest the soil,
Devouring th'honest lab'rers's toil;
So venomous, that some had rather
Have, in their stead, the toad, or adder.
Unhappy isle! scarce know to Fame;
DUSTOPIA was its slighted name.

(Where "dustopia" comes from an alternative transliteration of "υ" in the prefix "Δυς".)

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  • This was just too interesting a tidbit to completely drop, and it's too long for a comment. :)
    – DavidW
    Commented Jul 18, 2022 at 21:03
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Despite a lot of activity in the comments, it seems nobody wants to commit to an answer. To set a mark, I will suggest Erchomenon; or, The Republic of Materialism by Henry Crocker Marriott Watson from 1879, or The Revolt of Man by Walter Besant from 1882 (Besant wrote another dystopian novel, The Inner House, a few years later in 1882). While Jules Verne published The Begum's Fortune in 1879 which contains some dystopian elements in the description of Stahlstadt, the conditions under which the city comes into existence are sufficiently contrived that I do not think it really counts.

Erchomenon is somewhat similar to the scenario Wells explored in The Time Machine. Six hundred years in the future it seems that humanity leads an idyllic life, but underneath the surface this is maintained by unpleasant social practices; for example, children are separated from their parents at birth to be raised on "baby farms" where euthanasia is common. A reviewer on Goodreads remarked that "I would recommend it to dystopia lovers with a high tolerance for putting up with crap" (the "crap" being the large amounts of Biblical scripture inserted into the text).

The Revolt of Man presents a more obviously dystopian society. From the Amazon summary:

It presents a dystopian vision of a female-dominated society of the 22nd century, where women keep men in complete subordination after the historic Transfer of Power.

Eventually society stagnates, as it appears Besant assumed that women would have little interest in science and economy, and the subjugated men organise a successful revolt to return to the "natural order" of a male ruling class.

So I would say that the idea of a society decaying into dystopia arose in the late nineteenth century, with 1879 being a plausible first publication date. This would fit roughly with the use of the word "dystopia" in a speech by John Stuart Mill to the House of Commons in 1868, which was thought for a while to be the first recorded usage of the word. As DavidW points out though, this date has now been pushed back to 1747, where it was used in Lewis Henry Younge's Utopia: or Apollo's Golden Days.

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