What is a utopia?
The dystopian genre is a direct offshoot of Sir Thomas More's 1516 book, Utopia. More depicted his idea of the perfect society, where people live in a state of contentment and equality (for the most part), a stark contrast to 16th-century European life.
Without diving too deep into etymology, the name of the book has two critical meanings. The one people are most familiar with relies on the Greek prefix "Eu," which makes the title mean "good place." However, More himself makes it clear that the intended prefix is actually "Ou," making Utopia "no place."
From this emerged the idea of a utopia, which is both a world without problems and one that can never truly exist. The idea if frequently invoked in political settings to explain why certain problems can't be solved. An opponent's ideologies are often characterized as either dangerous or stupid, as their idealism is fundamentally impossible in the real world.
What is a dystopia?
Working from that origin, the dystopian genre often asks, if there cannot be a perfect society, how can the idea of a Utopia (good-place) actually be weaponized against its people? Other dystopias simply present the opposite of the Utopia. In either case, the idea of good and bad are put into question to illustrate the complex shades of gray.
According to Alex Gendler in his TED Talk on the subject, the blueprint for a dystopia is "Imagining a world where certain trends in contemporary society are taken to extremes, exposing their underlying flaws.” While some are simply imagined horror-scapes, they almost always provide some critique on either the world the author lives in or the one that others imagine as a better world.
"Think back to the perfect world you imagined. Did you also imagine what it would take to achieve? How would you make people cooperate? And how would you make sure it lasted? Now take another look. Does that world still seem perfect?"- Alex Gendler