There are so many dystopians on the market these days, the word is losing its meaning. Check out this Goodreads list named Dystopia! It's kind enough to provide a definition: "no singular catastrophe may have occurred but things have somehow still slipped into a horrid state of paranoia and oppression."
I like that definition a lot. Unfortunately both history and modern politics provide us with ample states where paranoia and oppression rule. So when looking at a dystopian, the question is how does this compare to Stalin's Siberia or modern-day North Korea? A shortage of consumer goods and rampant disease do not a dystopian make. Hunger and pestilence are humankind's eternal companions. We keep them at bay for only short periods of time throughout history. In other words, a dystopian requires more. It's a heck of a lot easier to research history than to create an entire world.
Looking at the list, we see people arguing over what novels are really dystopian. Catch-22 is on the list. Nonsensical power structure that leads people who follow the rules to death? Check. Rules that bring about extreme paranoia and oppression? Check. And yet isn't it historical fiction? It's a novel about a specific place and time in history.
The Adoration of Jenna Fox is on the list too, and I'd like to protest that. It takes place in the future, and horrible things happen to some specific characters. But in general, society seems to be a kinder place with great advances in medicine and education. Look, bad things have to happen to your main characters or nobody would read your story. But that doesn't make it dystopian.
Here's a tough one: Watership Down. Dystopia? I don't know! Horrible things happen to several societies of rabbits. Each society has a particularly awful way of dealing with life's harshness. There is a way out, but it comes with a huge price attached. The stakes are life and death. Of course, it's about rabbits in a field in England. What do you think? Dystopian or not?
-- Kate, Miss Perfecting the Pages