Dystopias and Utopias often, though not always, are born from the desire to achieve the best society possible. They are less of opposite concepts and more the two sides of the same coin.
From the outside, both are the respective black and white of a Black-and-White Morality system. Look deeper. What's necessary to achieve a perfect society? What if the approach taken is wrong? What if the premise is great but its flaws overtake it? What does even mean the idea of "the best society"?
Well, in terms of social satisfaction, that is, the population's contentment with their society, things can vary wildly. Hence, this sliding scale.
- Hell On Earth — The average person is dirt poor, resources are scarce, so only very few get access to them. Surviving is the top priority, so intellectual queries, revolutions, and entertainment are nearly impossible to pursue. If someone else is restricting freedom, then there's neither freedom nor safety. If the world has succumbed to absolute anarchy, then there may be freedom but the world is so dangerous, that freedom is used in the worst ways possible.
- Controlled But Well-Fed — People have their basic necessities provided for but only to the limit the government sets. That means they have no commodities whatsoever. Freedom is highly restricted but there's a modicum of safety. Just a little, because if you fail to toe the line, nasty punishments await. Totalitarian regimes are usually at fault.
- Knowledge is Forbidden — The living conditions are overall better, but the population is kept complacent by limiting its access to knowledge and (political) power. Because, you know, knowledge is power and anything unknown to you is useless and should be burned.
- Peak of Crime — The main cause of concern and of societal disruption is crime, organized or otherwise. Illegal activities rule the government and the average person has no means to defend themself from it to the point most are forced to engage in them in order to survive. The difference between this and pure anarchy is that there is a social system that ought to protect people from criminals, it's just that it can't or it won't. People's lives are otherwise fairly normal. This level and the ones before are Crapsack Worlds.
- Revolution is the Key — This is the first level in which revolutions born from societal discontent can, in fact, provoke a change in the system. Whether it's for better or worse depends on how cynical the tone is. In either case, the morality is gray and black as, in the second case, it's implied a new generation of revolutionaries can succeed where their predecessors failed. Heavily enforced cast systems are not rare in this kind of setting, as they are the perfect fuel for upriot.
- Technology/Magic Compensates For Life Quality — Technological advances or magic have produced miraculous health care, the coolest of entertainment, and an easy solution to most mundane problems (from farming to getting a coffee). However, the world's wealth disparity has sharply worsened. Cancer can be cured but people are robbed of their agency and ability to impact the world's politics. People are mostly free, though.
- True Neutral — Society is heterogeneous enough to present all levels in this sliding scale. There's a near dystopia in some sectors while others bask in an almost utopia, as well as several others in between. Huge settings are the perfect broth but smaller societies might still qualify. This level and the ones before are Worlds Half Full.
- Outside is Burning, Inside is Safe — The government might be of dystopian levels of nastiness but it grants its population a good standard of life and even access to commodities and safety. If you fall to toe the line there are consequences, but absolute homogeneity is not mandatory.
- Too Happy to Care (aka Utopia Justifies the Means) — Everything is done for the greater good, measly things such as individuals can be damned. The ones in power scapegoat anything/anyone and occasionally forgo democracy as long as it warranties that the majority will be happy, well fed, and, most importantly, well entertained. Everyone is too busy being high, having sex, or enjoying their best lives to care about what the government must do to ensure such a lifestyle. This level and the one before are Crapsaccharine Worlds.
- Sweet with a Helping of Sour — The world is a beautiful place, both in terms of living conditions and aesthetics. Especially the second. It's not exempt from the occasional problem, though. The difference with the level above is that the issues are not hidden from the general population.
- Heaven On Earth — It can be achieved through multiple means but the consensus is that it has the best from the previous levels plus veritable freedom, access to knowledge, and politicians are honest. In some utopias, benevolent AIs run everything, so nobody has to work. In others, people only work in what they love, not needing to concern themselves about money. There's both freedom and safety.
A truly ungodly long list, complete with ongoing discussion, can be found here. It rates fictional cultures and races by letters in order of pleasantness to horror for humans to be conquered by them.
Note that this is a Your Mileage May Vary trope for a reason. Not everyone will rate fictional societies in this exact order. Some may consider the most freedom-oriented regimes more favorable while others may prefer those where resources are more homogeneously distributed. Or place the same media work in different categories, depending on their personal take. There's plenty of room for interpretation.
Please put alternative categorizations as separate sub-bullet (**) points. Do not rewrite the other classification nor argue with it.
Anime & Manga
- Naruto: "Outside is Burning, Inside is Safe". The Hidden Leaf village can be seen this way since it purports itself to be the least cruel and inhuman of the ninja villages. Which it is, to an extent, scheming elders and incompetent leaders notwithstanding. Additionally, it's the richest and most powerful of them. However, given it's a militaristic state, its ninjas get up to morally dubious means to ensure that — they sabotage other villages and the Hokage is just short of being a dictator who can sentence death penalty and even the genocide of one of the Clans. And that's not counting the "hired assassins and mercenaries" business that defines every ninja village.
- Puella Magi Madoka Magica:
- "Knowledge is forbidden". The Incubator's system only works because they purposefully refrain from giving key information to the magical girls. For example, that their Soul Gems can become tainted not only by using magic but also feeling negative emotions. And when it's totally black, they don't die, they turn into the very witches they fight.
- Gets upgraded to "Revolution is the Key" at the end of the anime and even more in The Movie: Rebellion. Thanks to Homura's shenanigans, Madoka gets powerful enough to become the Law of Cycles and rewrite the universe to save magical girls from their bleak fate. She rebels against the Incubators by making a wish that backfires on them. Then, in Rebellion, Homura takes it to the next level, rewriting the universe again so the Incubators have to suffer the pain they've inflicted upon magical girls.
- V for Vendetta: "Revolution is the Key". The book's whole premise is that anarchy can be a positive force, at least when the alternative is fascism. This is furthered when in the end, the revolutionaries succeed at taking down the government. Whether it's for better or worse, it remains to be seen.
- Paradoxus: Magix starts off as "Too Happy to Care". Thanks to the Winx Club, the villains with bad publicity have been disposed of. However, there are still plenty of villains with good publicity — namely, the power-hungry Council of Magix and more than a few corrupt noblemen. Alone, they are no threat that most of the royal-born heroes couldn't deal with (so Magix would be the "Sweet with a Helping of Sour" that it is in canon). If you insert a Demon Lady borrowed from another dimension into the equation, you get those small-fry villains working their butts off to allow her to enter Magix, weakening its militaristic system (sabotaging the magical schools), and luring its population into a false sense of security. When the Burning Legion invades it, most of Magix rapidly degenerates into "Hell On Earth", with the war zones ranging from extinct-by-Fel Unholy Grounds (like Solaria and Isis) to devastated, politically unstable realms (like Domino). The regions lucky enough to have held their ground maintain a perilously fragile "Outside is Burning, Inside is Safe".
Films — Live-Action
- Brazil: "Knowledge is Forbidden". Specifically, knowledge about the devastated outside world and the barely-functioning nature of the government, which, by the way, is highly controlling as well.
- A Clockwork Orange: "Peak of Crime". The government finds itself unable to curb the rampant street crime in England. Young people are unhinged and particularly prone to violence, with the protagonist being the boss of a gang, the "Droogs", that terrorizes the suburbs.
- The Purge: "Peak of Crime". The US government enacts a period of 12 hours where nothing is illegal in order to satisfy people's violent impulses. Mayhem ensues and only the rich can truly protect themselves.
- Star Wars: "True Neutral". Given the fact the setting comprises an entire galaxy, it's only logical for there to be all kinds of societies with varying life standards and satisfaction levels in their populations. On one extreme, there are planets like Tattoine, with slavery being its primary economical sector, and Neimoidia, where the younglings are basically subjected to a Battle Royale to weed out those not enough ambitious and unscrupulous. On the other extreme, there are planets like the peaceful, democratic Naboo and Mandalore which, after years of war, set to a pacifist culture inside domed cities.
- Firefly: "Revolution is the Key". The show's tone is very anti-authoritarian, critically pointing out how despite the Alliance might think Utopia Justifies the Means, they are only restricting people's freedom, justifying genocides by biological weapons, and overall don't know what's best for the people. Previous revolutions have only tightened the Alliance's grip on society. However, it's proved that the smaller rebellions hold meaning still — one can go against the current on a scale as small as a ship's crew and defy everything the totalitarians stand for. It might not impact the world but it shows a revolution's spark is very difficult to completely extinguish.
- Star Trek:
- "Heaven on Earth". Roddenberry's vision of the United Federation in The Next Generation is that of peaceful humanity in a post-scarcity society — nobody has to worry about lacking money for food or medicine, nor there is overpopulation. This is true for humans of every race and gender. To boot, freedom is not restricted. Quite the opposite, in fact.
- "Outside is Burning, Inside is Safe". Roddenberry's utopia comes with a cost. Outside the United Federation, there's war and a helping of hostile aliens whose societies are not as idyllic. Even if they change their minds later, the Federation's government is shown to be ready to do anything to ensure their utopian lifestyle.
- "Sweet with a Help of Sour". The United Federation aspires to be utopian and is mostly successful at it. However, hatred, crime, and bigotry still slip through the cracks. Humans of the XXIVth century try their best to deal with injustice, it's just that some issues seem unavoidable to even the best of societies.
- Nineteen Eighty-Four: "Controlled But Well-Fed". Individual thought is prohibited (called thoughtcrime), the Big Brother oversees society's every level, and people may not starve but always eat and do the same. Nor they are allowed to own any kind of commodity. On top of that, nasty punishments await those who fall to be mindless sheeps.
- Brave New World:
- "Too Happy to Care". As fun as it is, mindless entertainment harms society. For it to thrive, it needs knowledge.
- "Knowledge is Forbidden" category. You can have this take if you think the Central Theme of the book was censorship. What whit systematic book burning.
- Harmony (2008):
- "Outside is Burning, Inside is Safe". There are worldwide conflicts ravaging the countries outside of the Admedistration territory, but people inside of it have peak health thanks to Applied Phlebotinum.
- At the very end, it gets downgraded to "Controlled But Well-Fed". Under the reasoning that if people don't have a conscience, then everyone is happy and only furthers the greater good.
- Kherishdar: "Too Happy To Care" since it leans heavily toward the Idealistic end of the scale. The noble castes' concept of Esar, or leadership, involves a combination of job placement skills and psychology to determine where an individual will serve best for society and their own happiness. The government, nonetheless, takes some unsavory means to achieve that, such as torture and the whole Shame business.
- The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas: Since the book is Meta Fiction, it actually questions the reader whether the utopian Omelas is "Heaven on Earth" or a case of "Too Happy to Care". Especially, since the revelation that it's all only possible due to a child's suffering is just thrown out to satisfy the overly cynical reader that thinks "Heaven on Earth" can never be attained without a catch.
- We: "Controlled But Well-Fed". The numbers are generally well cared for but have next-to-nothing degrees of freedom, especially in the sexual domain. And, well, sexual repression of women and the LGBT+ community is one of the world's biggest problems and causes of suicide and violence. Ah, and The Benefactor watches them all.
- Warhammer 40,000: "Outside is Burning, Inside is Safe". Grimdark is what characterizes this tabletop game, so it comes to nobody's surprise that the society best off, the Imperium of Man, shamelessly acknowledges itself as a dystopia. It might be terrible, but compared with the rest, it's a far better sight. On the other hand, there's the deluded Tau Empire — it believes itself to be an utopia but everyone not belonging to it begs to disagree.
- CthulhuTech: "Outside is Burning, Inside is Safe". Life in the Arcologies is quite good because of the fact they are safe heavens in a ravaged world and thanks to archanotech that provides advanced healthcare which includes psychiatric care for essential workers. Alas, there's the Aeon War on the outside and while the government is the only thing protecting humanity from cosmic horrors, it's a Police State.
- Project Moon games like Lobotomy Corporation and Library of Ruina are set in a very dangerous world: The City, which houses almost all of the world's population, is a gigantic Wretched Hive controlled by an enigmatic Mega-Corp that defies basic morality or logic, as well as countless criminal syndicates. Mercenaries/bodyguards/assassins called 'Fixers' are one of the most prolific job careers, simply walking around at night puts you at high risk of getting murdered and your organs harvested by petty thugs, or turned into dinner by crazed cannibal chefs (in fact, one entire district is dedicated to Cannibalism) and the closest thing to a police force are ordered to stand down and let murderous criminals ravage the street at a specific hour every night to 'purge' them of the poor and homeless. Why would anyone want to live in this hellish place? Because the world is an extreme version of "Inside is Safe, Outside is Burning", since the wastelands outside the City are even worse.
- Fallout: "Hell On Earth". The natural conclusion of "Outside is Burning, Inside is Safe", is that sometimes the fire will enter the inside and downgrade the living standards to something horrible. Nuclear War has taken its toll on the Commonwealth and turned it into a wasted land of Scavenged Punk, radiation, and confused, recently-defrosted people from two centuries ago.
- Arcane: "Technology/Magic Compensates For Life Quality". The city is divided into the poor, polluted bottom, Zaun, and the rich, idyllic topside, Piltover. The economical disparity between the two is abysmal — the former's economy revolves around highly toxic chemical substances produced by gang bosses (the Chembarons). Meanwhile, the latter's economy is far more diversified, priding itself on its inventing capacity. Technology and, to a lesser extent, magic are present on both sides, providing solutions impossible to a real-life, average person.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender:
- The city of Ba Sing Se, considered the best-protected sanctuary, operates on "Outside is Burning, Inside is Safe". The city makes sure everyone inside is safe from the war (how well depends on social class), but mentioning the war is prohibited, and don't cross the Dai Li, the inner police, or they will brainwash you or make you disappear.
- In the Fire Nation's case, it can be said that they are the ones burning the outside. The Fire Nation enjoys a great standard of life inside its frontiers. In fact, the reason why they started the war in the first place is that their way of living, access to resources, and technological prowess are far superior to that of the other nations.
- Shera And The Princesses Of Power: The Horde is "Knowledge is Forbbiden". Orphaned kids are abducted very young to be brainwashed into thinking the magic-wielding princesses are evil and must be eliminated so Etheria can prosper. This is how Hordak and Shadow Weaver justify waging war on the otherwise pacific and idyllic population centers of the planet. Of course, most cadets realize this crude reality after they've been deployed for a while. Some of them even earlier. However, they feel they owe the Horde too much and/or that the Rebellion won't accept them. This mentality is quite poignant in Adora's change of heart — she honestly didn't know the Horde attacked civilians for essentially no reason.
- Winx Club: Classifying Magix is tricky because of the continuous soft reboots. From seasons 1 to 4, it's a solid "Sweet with a Helping of Sour". Lingering problems such as political betrothals, poverty, and civil wars are mostly only alluded to as the conflicts stem from power-hungry individuals, but they exist nonetheless. Magix is mostly a very good place to live in — magic and technology fuse to make things such as interplanetary travel or repairing buildings extremely easy. Earth, meanwhile, it's the "True Neutral" it is in real life, therefore giving the impression that magic does make things better, albeit not perfect. From season 5 onward, the aforementioned lingering problems are not even mentioned anymore. Villains (the Trix and Tritannus) can still be veritable menaces but society is essentially a Sugar Bowl at this point. This is lampshaded with the art style shift in season 8 and the fact most of the clashes against the villains are solved without involving violence.