Some academic circles distinguish between anti-utopia and dystopia. As in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, a dystopia does not pretend to be utopian, while an anti-utopia appears to be utopian or was intended to be so, but a fatal flaw or other factor has destroyed or twisted the intended utopian world or concept.
This can take the form of social stratification, where social class is strictly defined and enforced, and social mobility is non-existent (see caste system). For example, the novel Brave New World's class system is prenatally designated in terms of Alphas, Betas, Gammas, Deltas, and Epsilons, and a permanent mental and physical distinction is made by poisoning fetuses with alcohol in varying amounts.
Another, often related form of restriction lies in the requirement of strict conformity among citizens, with a general assumption that dissent and individuality are bad. In the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, people are permitted to live out of public view for only an hour a day. They are not only referred to by numbers instead of names, but are neither "citizens" nor "people", but "numbers." In the lower castes, in Brave New World, single embryos are "bokanovskified", so that they produce between eight and ninety-six identical siblings, making the citizens as uniform as possible.
Some dystopian works emphasize the pressure to conform in terms of the requirement to not excel. In these works, the society is ruthlessly egalitarian, in which ability and accomplishment, or even competence, are suppressed or stigmatized as forms of inequality, as in Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron. Similarly, in Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the dystopia represses the intellectuals with particular force, because most people are willing to accept it, and the resistance to it consists mostly of intellectuals. Moreover in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, the protagonist Dagny Taggart struggles to keep Taggart Transcontinental thriving in a world that spurns innovation and excellence. All of Dagny's opponents cite "equality of opportunity" and the "public good" as their justifications for opposing free market capitalism and competition.
Among social groups, independent religions are notable by their absence. In Brave New World, the establishment of the state included lopping off the tops of all crosses (as symbols of Christianity) to make them "T"s, (as symbols of Henry Ford's Model T). The state may stage, instead, a personality cult, with quasi-religious rituals about a central figure, usually a head of state or an oligarchy of some sort, such as Big Brother in 1984, or The Benefactor of We. In explicitly theocratic dystopias, such as Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, the religion is the state, and is enforced with the same vigor as any secular dystopia's rule; it does not provide social bonds outside the state.
Even more than religion, family is attacked by dystopian societies. In some societies, it has been completely eradicated, but clearly at great effort, and continuing efforts are deployed to keep it down, as in Brave New World, where children are reproduced artificially, where the concept of a "mother" or "father" is obscene. In others, the institution of the family exists but great efforts are deployed to keep it in service of the state, as in 1984, where children are organized to spy on their parents. In We, the escape of a pregnant woman from the United States is a revolt; the hostility of the state to motherhood is a particularly common trait.
In When the Sleeper Wakes, H. G. Wells depicted the governing class as hedonistic and shallow. George Orwell contrasted this to the world of Jack London's The Iron Heel, where the dystopian rulers are brutal and dedicated to the point of fanaticism, which he considered more plausible; this is, indeed, more typical of dystopias in general.
Utopian politics are often considered as idealistic in practice towards the society in which they are dictated and enacted. Dystopian politics, however, are considered flawed in some way or have negative connotations amongst the inhabitants of the dystopian “world”. Dystopian politics are portrayed as oppressive. Dystopias are often filled with pessimistic views of the ruling class or government that is brutal or uncaring ruling with an “iron hand” or “iron fist.” These dystopian government establishments often have protagonists or groups that lead a “resistance” to enact change within their government.
Examples of dystopian politics in literary fiction can be read in Parable of the Sower, 1984, and V for Vendetta. Dystopian politics are portrayed in films such as Fahrenheit 451, Brazil and THX 1138.
In some dystopian societies, such as that of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange there is little government control and the people themselves cause chaos: in the videogame Bioshock, based on Objectivist principles, the antagonist Andrew Ryan built an underwater city where "the artist would not fear the censor... where the great would not be constrained by the small", ie. a capitalist utopia. Science, technology, and business were all essentially powered by competition. When Frank Fontaine, a mobster turned businessman, begins to overturn Ryan Industries' domination of the "free" market, however, Ryan panics and begins to use more heavy-handed methods of control, leading to civil war.
A commonly occurring theme is that the state is in control of the economy, as shown in such works as Ayn Rand's Anthem and Henry Kuttner's short story The Iron Standard. Some dystopias, such as 1984, feature black markets with goods that are dangerous and difficult to obtain, or the characters may be totally at the mercy of the state-controlled economy. Such systems usually have a lack of efficiency, as seen in stories like Philip Jose Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage, featuring a bloated welfare system in which total freedom from responsibility has encouraged an underclass prone to any form of antisocial behavior. Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano depicts a dystopia in which the centrally controlled economic system has indeed made material abundance plentiful, but deprived the mass of humanity of meaningful labor; virtually all work is menial and unsatisfying, and even very few of the small group that achieves education is admitted to the elite and its work.
Even in dystopias where the economic system is not the source of the society's flaws, as in Brave New World, the state often controls the economy. In Brave New World, a character, reacting with horror to the suggestion of not being part of the social body, cites as a reason that everyone works for everyone else.
Other works feature extensive privatization. In this context, big businesses often have far more control over the populace than any kind of government and thus act as governments themselves instead of businesses, as can be seen in the novel Jennifer Government. This is common in the genre of cyberpunk, such as in Blade Runner and Snow Crash, which often features corrupt and all-powerful corporations, often a megacorporation.
Because dystopian literature typically depicts events that take place in the future, it often features technology more advanced than that of contemporary society. Usually, the advanced technology is controlled exclusively by the group in power, while the oppressed population is limited to technology comparable to or more primitive than what we have today.
In order to emphasize the degeneration of society, the standard of living among the lower and middle classes is generally poorer than in contemporary society (at least in United States or Europe). In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the Inner Party, the upper class of society, also has a standard of living lower than the upper classes of today. This is not always the case, however; in Brave New World and Equilibrium, people enjoy much higher material living standards in exchange for the loss of other qualities in their lives, such as independent thought and emotional depth.
The story usually centers on a protagonist who questions the society, often feeling intuitively that something is terribly wrong, such as Winston Smith in 1984, or V from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta. The hero comes to believe that escape or even overturning the social order is possible and decides to act at the risk of life and limb; in some utopias, this may appear as irrational even to him, but he still acts. In Half-life 2, the player's character Gordon Freeman is assigned a messianic status by the oppressed citizens of City 17, and eventually fulfils their hopes by igniting an armed rebellion and deposing the city's Administration. Significantly, Freeman is involuntarily inserted into the dystopian society in secret and is hence nicknamed "the one free man" by the resistance movement, lacking the restrictions imposed by citizenship in City 17. This freedom, the result of his being an outsider, partly allows him to evade the surveillance of the Combine Overwatch, and so contributes to his success in the role of protagonist.
Another popular archetype of hero in the more modern dystopian literature is the Vonnegut hero, a hero who is in high-standing within the social system, but sees how wrong everything is, and attempts to either change the system or bring it down, such as Paul Proteus of Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano.
There is usually a group of people somewhere in the society who are not under the complete control of the state, and in whom the hero of the novel usually puts his or her hope, although often he or she still fails to change anything. In Orwell's 1984 they are the "proles" (Latin for "offspring", from which "proletariat" is derived), in Huxley's Brave New World they are the people on the reservation, and in We by Zamyatin they are the people outside the walls of the One State. In Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, they are the "book people" past the river and outside the city.
If destruction of the dystopia is not possible, escape may be, if the dystopia does not control the world. In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, the main character succeeds in fleeing and finding tramps who have dedicated themselves to memorizing books to preserve them. In the book Logan's Run, the main characters make their way to an escape from the otherwise inevitable euthanasia on their 21st birthday (30th in the later film version). Because such dystopias must necessarily control less of the world than the protagonist can reach, and the protagonist can elude capture, this motif also subverts the dystopia's power. In Lois Lowry's The Giver the main character Jonas is able to run away from 'The Community' and escapes to 'Elsewhere' where people have memories.
Sometimes, this escape leads to the inevitable: The protagonist making a mistake that usually brings about the end of a rebel society, usually living where people think is a legend. This concept is brought to life in Scott Westerfeld's novel Uglies. The main character accidentally brings the government into the secret settlement of the Smoke. She then infiltrates the government to escape, but chooses to join the society for the greater good.