Utopia: an ideal place or state, or a vision of political or social perfection; term first used in Thomas More's Utopia (1516)*
Dystopia: a society characterized by human misery-poverty, disease, oppression, overcrowding, and so on; originated in 1800s, a combination of the Greek "dys" and utopia*
Each type of fiction represents a view of things, either the best or the worst. Utopian works** include Plato's The Republic, Thomas More's Utopia, Francis Bacon's New Atlantis, William Morris' News From Nowhere, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, and more into the latter part of the 20th century. Dystopian works** include Anna Bowman Dodd's The Republic of the Future, Ignatius Donnelly's Caesar's Column, H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, Jack London's The Iron Heel, Kafka's Metamorphosis, Ayn Rand's Anthem, Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Lowry's The Giver, Terry Brooks' Shannara series, Collins' The Hunger Games, Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey...you can see a trend developing already. Utopian fictions represent our greatest hopes, while dystopian fictions represent our greatest fears-and we have many fears.
One of the most telling things to me in looking at the literature at the turn of the 20th century and comparing it to now is that there is a much higher number of dystopian fictions than utopian now. In fact, in my digging, the most recent utopian fiction I found was the latter half of Marshall Brain's Manna, which describes a dystopian society in the US, and a utopian society in Australia.
Utopian fictions can be found as early as around 380 BC, with Plato's The Republic, though the idea wasn't given place in Western culture until Thomas More's Utopia brought the idea of a utopian society to the Western world. At the turn of the 20th century, utopian fictions often illustrated a societal change based upon economic (as in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward) or gender equality (as in Lady Florence Dixie's Gloriana). They appear to be used, for the most part, as commentaries on the current society or as political statements-sometimes one was written in response to another, as in the case of Bellamy's Looking Backward and the response, William Morris' News From Nowhere. Some, like Sir Julius Vogel's Anna Domini 2000, begin with a pivotal point-in Vogel's vision, it is the death of a young man who stole bread to provide for his family, and the resulting social outcry triggers a shift in the economic and political processes resulting in the improvement of humankind. By and large, the stories are told from the viewpoint of an observer, several times from the past, or on occasion, from the future. Most telling is the fact that these types of stories are not commonly found in current fiction; whether this signals that they are not being written as often or not being published as often (books without any conflict are not very easy to read when one is used to a quick pace and some sort of conflict, and most of the utopian fictions have little conflict and a relatively slow pace) or it is a combination of multiple factors, the fact remains that utopia is less often looked for these days in literature than it once was.
Dystopian fictions have had a more consistent run of it in recent years. They first gained momentum in the 1800s (right about when utopian fictions were starting to slow down) and have had consistent success since. Turn of the 20th century dystopias in the books I have read once again center on observers, or occasionally, revolutionaries. There is very little of the "in the thick of things" type of viewpoints that we find now. Then as now, they are used to explore how things can go wrong. At the turn of the 20th century, as with utopian fictions, dystopian fictions were often used as commentaries on societal ills, or economic models that the authors agreed or disagreed with-for example, in Jack London's The Iron Heel, we are presented a manuscript of a revolutionary who attempted to overthrow the Oligarchy, which the academic narrator outside the manuscript tells us, sprang up, apparently without much provocation and much opportunity, out of capitalism's excesses and human greed (London had some strongly socialist views, if you couldn't guess)-the Oligarchy having slowly and methodically gained control of everything and crushing anyone who stood in the way. In Caesar's Column we are again presented with the "evils" of capitalist society from the view of a visitor to New York-at first the society has its appeals; clean energy, better health, and so on. Upon further reading, we learn that not only are the upper classes first seen of a shrewd, and heartless, mien, but the lower classes are downtrodden, left without hope of advancement, and indeed, ignored entirely by the upper class, even as they form the basis of the success for the upper class. On the other hand, in Dodd's The Republic of the Future, everyone is equal, the epitome of socialist society has been achieved-but no one is happy, there is no individuality or creativity at all, and even families have ceased to exist.
We see many of those themes in the dystopian fictions of today-oppression of those who are different or less fortunate, totalitarian rulers who gained power from the prejudices or fears or ignorance of the upper classes, and finally, technology taking over-the fear that what we create will eventually rule us. Even at the turn of the 20th century there was that fear: in E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops, we are presented with a world that has become reliant upon the Machine for everything, eschewing human interaction entirely, and allowing their lives to be controlled by a Machine which they do not know how to maintain. Of course, we can guess how it ends-the Machine stops working, and with it, society dies. The dystopian fictions of today work in all of the issues of today-science gone wrong, extreme reality shows, apocalyptic versions of society, freedom of speech or choice (or rather, the lack thereof), technology advancing beyond our ken, intolerance taking root in governments and changing the world for the worse, censorship-with the timeless issues of classism, racism, ableism (it existed in the early 20th century and even before-asylums were full of people who were not fully abled and had no family or no one to provide for their care in any other way-there simply wasn't a word for it) to explore our fears and apprehensions of the future of humanity. Dystopian fiction, through out its history, is a way to view human nature at the baser levels-our failings, our fears, our vices-and hopefully to avoid them.
In conclusion, while there are more dystopian novels than utopian now, the underlying message has barely changed. There is, as the phrase goes, nothing new under the sun; even our hopes and fears are relatively unchanged compared to those of 117 years ago.
*Definitions from dictionary.com
**Book lists from utopiaanddystopia.com
***I used Unto This Last, an anthology of Victorian utopian and dystopian fiction published around the turn of the 20th century, for specific examples. This anthology is available from Monroe St. Classics, a press that specializes in Victorian literature.