Social reformers are probably as old as society itself. I’ve been reading Thomas More, who wrote his social satire, Utopia, early in the 16th century, only a few decades after Columbus’ famous voyage, and a few years after Amerigo Vespucci published on his travels to the New World.
Spinning off of these real-life current events, More imagined yet more hitherto unknown countries, especially the nation of Utopia. He used this imagined idyllic society to critique the Tudor England of his time. Later in his life he would lose his head after going head-to-head with Henry VIII over the tyrant’s break with the church.
(Swift’s satirical work more than two centuries later, Gulliver’s Travels, did much the same for his own contemporary politics, but was a bit more light-hearted, and had more to do with parliament and less with the monarchy.)
Today utopia is used as a general term referring to any fictional perfect society, and there has been somewhat of a literary tradition in imagining such societies, perhaps as lost tribes, alien races, or our own future. But just as important has been the literary tradition of dystopias, which have exactly the same purpose at heart.
Just as a utopian work contrasts the flaws in the writer’s society (if only implicitly) with an envisioned better one, the dystopian novel exaggerates the flaws and dangers in our society by imagining how much worse they might get. The most famous example would be Orwell’s 1984, imagining a totalitarian future England (and, in fact, the rest of the world is implied to be much the same). But there are many more.
Post-acopalyptic works could be considered a major sub-genre of the dystopian novel, and there have been no shortage of them since knowledge of nuclear weapons become public in 1945, though not every imagined apocalypse is a nuclear one, and not every dystopian novel takes place after armageddon. In many, the world changes no slowly no one notices, and this can be just as scary.
More derived the name Utopia from a Greek root meaning “nowhere”. He may simply have been winking at the reader that his supposed real-life discussion of a little-known country is entirely imaginary, or he may have been suggesting that a truly perfect society could never exist.
Recommended dystopian works (novels, comics, film, gaming): 1984, Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, The Road; V for Vendetta; Soylent Green, Logan’s Run, The Road Warrior, Gattaca; The Mirror’s Edge.