In light of recent events, it seemed that it would be an appropriate time to revisit that cynical list idea I had a few weeks back. It was Election Day and I was feeling disheartened by the political climate. Things haven’t gotten much better since then. So, here we are. Today, I’m going to list some dystopias in no real particular order. For those who don’t know, according to Dictionary.com a dystopia is “a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding.” Now, I’ve decided to keep post-Apocalyptic dystopias off of this list to the best of my ability. They’re their own genre, after all. Withour further ado, let’s get dystopian.
Charles Dickens (1812 – 1870)
Wait, what? You’re probably staring owlishly at the screen right now. I don’t blame you. You’re thinking of A Christmas Carol right now because ’tis the season. With Christmas around the corner, it’s only natural. Just think of the environment that Tiny Tim was subjected to on a daily basis. The poor air quality and limited food probably exacerbated his condition, whatever that was. His dad worked under a miserly jerk who didn’t truly pay him a living wage. I mean, seriously, things sucked for people who didn’t horde their gold. That’s just one example of how totally crappy life was in the England of Dickens’ writing. I mean, seriously, look at Oliver Twist. That poor kid couldn’t catch a break until he managed to get super lucky. Charles Dickens‘ world was dystopian.
Logan’s Run (1976)
It was a rite of passage among my friends. As we all turned 30, the Logan’s Run jokes would occur. As I am one of the last to have reached that age, it’s somewhat sad to see that tradition die off. It’s sort of fitting, though. Anyway, in Logan’s Run, resource scarcity leads the people to kill anyone who reaches the age of 30. Everything’s great and good until the clock begins to wind down and you realize that your time has come. Your hand has this little light that shows you how far off you are from your doom. When that light turns red, it’s all over. It’s a great sort of commentary on the aging process and our youth-obsessed culture. At least you could make that argument anyway.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
So, Fahrenheit 451 is about a society in which all books are banned. Any and all books, when found, are burned by “firemen.” As a lifelong bibliophile, this story was always more than a little unsettling. True, there’s a deeper meaning within the tale about humanity and its foibles. I get that, but, seriously, who wants to live in a world without books? I’m sure that sort of nightmare kept Ray Bradbury up at nights. Like most dystopian fiction, this story was designed to reflect some of the darker parts of ourselves and the way things could be. In some ways, part of the future that Bradbury envisioned in this novel has come to pass. People are eschewing books in favor of television. Fortunately, I don’t think things will get as dire as they were in the book and filmed adaptations. Hopefully.
On the subject of burning, let’s talk about Equilibrium. It’s a movie starring a pre-Batman Christian Bale, the ever-gorgeous Taye Diggs, and the frequently-killed Sean Bean. In it, humanity has decided that the one thing that keeps ruining it for everyone is emotions. Yep. Pesky feelings. Therefore, people take medication to suppress their emotions. Anything that might provoke an emotional response, like art and music, is banned. Bale’s character is a Tetragrammaton Cleric who’s tasked with rooting out “sense offenders.” I love this movie for a number of reasons, like the fight choreography and the memories I have of being with friends and talking about what it takes to get Bale’s character to start a revolution (like puppies and having a nice apartment). What always struck me about it was how the Prozium the population is required to take reminded me of how some people had described their experience under various forms of prescription medication for psychological issues. As I understand it, this was a deliberate choice on the filmmaker’s part.
V for Vendetta (1995)
As it was recently November 5th (more or less), it would be wrong of me not to mention V for Vendetta and the graphic novel upon which its based. Mostly, though, I’ll talk about the movie because it’s been a while since I read the book. Anyway, things in England are crappy. They’re under a brutal regime where people who do not conform to societal standards are whisked off the streets and put into camps. This fascist society needed a hero and that hero decided to don a Guy Fawkes mask and blow things up. Now, I get the irony here in that Guy Fawkes wanted to bring theocracy to England and failed. V (Hugo Weaving), the revolutionary, was probably well aware of it when he chose that mask to wear in his efforts to fight back. What bugs me now is how many people are now adopting that iconography based on the rebellious acts of V in this film. See: Anonymous
In the not too distant future, humanity has decided that it can makes itself better by tweaking the genes of their unborn to create more perfect people. This sounds like a great idea in theory. After all, who doesn’t want the best for their children, right? Well, see, this is where we get into the touchy subject of eugenics and what happens to those who decide to opt out on altering their babies. In Gattaca, there is a definite hierarchical structure based on your genes and the protagonist played by Ethan Hawke goes to great lengths to follow the dreams that his “inferior” genes would have prevented him from realizing. The lengths are painful and extraordinary. As we learn more about ourselves and our potential, I hope this movie wasn’t oddly prescient.
Soylent Green (1973)
In the best and worst piece of marketing ever, there’s a company out there trying to push this food substitute called “Soylent.” Now, as it’s soy based, it’s hard to tell if the name choice was deliberate or just accidental. See, in the dystopia of Soylent Green, overcrowding and scarce food led to some creative manner of feeding the remaining population. I don’t want to spoil the big reveal for you, but the movie is over forty years old. Spoiler Alert: “Soylent Green is people!” That’s one way to solve your overcrowding and starving population problem.
The Hunger Games (2012-2015)
Speaking of starving, the Districts of Panem in Suzanne Collins’ trilogy turned film series are hungry for food and for hope. Neither of these things seem particularly forthcoming under the rule of the Capital and President Snow, played wonderfully in the movies by Donald Sutherland. Each year, two children from each District are chosen as Tributes and sent off to compete in The Hunger Games. They are expected to kill their rivals and be the last one standing. This lasts for far too many years until Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) arrives and breaks things. She never chose to be a revolutionary, but some things happen. Now, there are going to be those who say that Battle Royale was the best movie about teens killing each other for sport. Those people are missing the points that Collins is trying to make. I’ll get into that after the last movie comes out next year.
You can’t have a list about dystopias without talking about 1984. George Orwell’s classic novel and subsequent film adaptation is such an ingrained part of Western culture now. I mean, a 90’s pop band sang about it. Don’t believe me? Look up Real McCoy’s “Run Away.” In the news, we talk about the overreaching of the NSA and other security branches and refer to them as “Big Brother.” Where did that come from? 1984. It’s all about life under a totalitarian dictatorship that prizes conformity above all else. Anyone caught trying to step out of the mold? Well. Let’s just say that it’s not a good idea. It’s a thoughtcrime, if you will. The more disturbing thing is just how many similarities one can draw between Orwell’s fictional dystopia and the way society is heading today.
Now, as you guys might know, I’ve never seen RoboCop. I keep meaning to but, like Blade Runner (which would have been on this list if I’d managed to see it by now), I still haven’t seen it yet. That said, I have it on very good authority (Micah’s) that while the Detroit featured in this movie is in a pretty bad way, it is nowhere near as bad as how Detroit really turned out. I’m inclined to agree and this will nicely dovetail into my next point.
Here and Now
I try not to get political or anything on this site. Again, that’s not what I’m here to do. With that in mind, however, I think it would be wrong to not point out just how close we are to some of the worlds I’ve mentioned in this list. See, one of the aims of dystopian fiction is to put a darkened mirror up in front of us to see the parts of us we’d rather ignore. In the exaggeration of existing problems and repetition of some of humanity’s past mistakes, they’re attempting to teach us about ourselves and how we can do better and be better. What’s so frustrating is to see that potential for greatness disregarded and squashed.
For every bit of progress we might make, it sometimes feels as though we’re just going backwards. We’ve got a planet that’s on its way to an uncertain future, a rising police state in America, and unrest in various parts of the globe. Even a cursory glance at the news some days is enough to drive one to despair. That’s why we need dystopias to remind us of how bad things could possibly get. Sure, it’s fiction, but those ideas have to come from somewhere. Humanity can do some terrible things, but these stories can also remind us that we are capable of so much more. It’s about time we started acting like it.