Have you ever wondered what the world is going to look like in the future? Will there be flying cars and neon lights? Or will there be an all-powerful AI that rules over us all? Or perhaps the human race will be forced to extinction?
Dystopia is defined as, “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic.” These are worlds where the system of governance has fallen, leading to a decline in the standard of living. Dystopian worlds are the exact opposite of a Utopia, a perfect world.
Dystopia is a popular setting in multiple works of fiction, seen in many books, TV shows, movies, and video games. But what makes these rotten worlds so intriguing for us, as we enjoy them from our comfy sofas and 4k Monitors?
Dystopias have different forms. There are limitless ways where humans can go wrong with our good intentions, or often evil greed, only to end up creating a nightmarish world.
In our bloodied past, conflicts, battles, and entire wars have been fought when a strong political ideology reached its peak. Humans not being a race where equality is in-built, such belief in a person or a political party have been seen throughout history, from Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany to Stalin and the USSR, and multiple cult leaders. People are swayed by these leaders alone, giving up their freedoms, their beliefs, their whole lives to these governments, which become authoritarian superpowers. Such is the case when it comes to the novel 1984 by George Orwell, which takes place in an authoritarian superstate of Oceania in 1984. In Oceania, every citizen is constantly monitored and free thought is not permitted. History, media, law, economics, and war, is heavily regulated. Even having rebellious thoughts could cause you to disappear, with a Thought Police on the look-out. With everyone under constant surveillance by the leader of the Party, ‘Big Brother’, you could never know whether someone was a spy or a rebel. The very slogan of the government is the biggest concern: ‘War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength’.
Even though the thought of such a government seems repulsive, it’s not impossible to think that it could happen. 1984 serves as a reminder of what a world can become when too much power is given to the government and nothing to keep them in check. The smartest part of the novel is that it can even make the readers question themselves, as the promise of war was able to unite entire continents worth of countries to form governments and destroy one another. Does it matter if you’re at war when you’re united? It is something we should question.
War itself though? War never changes. Such is the slogan of the video game series Fallout. The series takes place in a world where the transistor was never invented, leading to the usage of nuclear power increasing exponentially. This led to the extension of the Cold War, with the enemy of the US shifting from the USSR to China. The reason is not known, but the nuclear stalemate between the countries is broken, and the bombs fall, leaving the US almost completely irradiated, with their biggest cities destroyed and the radiation mutating many living beings. In preparation for this, the US government made nuclear bunkers called Vaults, to save the people.
The thing was, not as nearly were made to save the population, only to allow the survival of the US. After some amount of years, the ‘Vault Dwellers’ were allowed to explore the world again with the remains of their once beloved country on display. With no government to unite them, and only some parts of the land safe to live on, the US is a terrible place to live with bandits out everywhere, and the loss of life being an everyday thing. Survival in a world where even the air you breathe can kill you makes you wonder if the moral code you live by stacks up to your survival and if there are any good choices in the world. The devastation of the nuclear holocaust is depicted very well in the series, with many political and moral dilemmas being questioned. A dystopia such as this one would be one of the worst futures and is well visualized in the series.
Even though a nuclear holocaust is possible in our future, through our own experiences it would seem a pandemic is more of a threat to our civilization. Countless movies such as ‘Contagion’, ‘Bird Box’, and even zombie movies like ‘28 Days Later’ and ‘World War Z’ are famously known for this type of dystopia. A great example of such a pandemic dystopia is the 2009 movie ‘I Am Legend’. The movie is set in a virus-infected New York; the virus has affected the whole world. More than 90% of the population is deceased and the rest have contracted rare symptoms of
dementia. Only 1% of the population is immune to the virus. The survival of people relies on the last human survivor of New York finding a vaccine from his blood as he remains immune to the virus. Earth from the beginning of its time has had multiple species existing simultaneously, where a lot of these species have gone extinct. According to Darwin’s theory of Evolution, every species aims for their survival, and the fittest survive. Humans have made the most progress out of any species on the evolutionary scale; the need for survival that we possess is what makes us human. Hence, the results of these instincts are captured in this type of dystopia. This type of story also tests the viewers’ instincts and is meant to satisfy the desires caused by these instincts.
With an increase in the usage of technology in our world, it’s not impossible to think that one day there will be some sort of technological takeover as seen in movies like ‘The Terminator’. Human-made technology overtaking humans on the evolutionary scale and then turning against humanity itself is a scary thought. The Black Mirror episode “The Entire History of You” revolves around a young married couple in a society where a person can store all their memories in a small biochip called a ‘Grain’.
The story presents a very microscopic version of a technologically advanced society. A person essentially records all their memories on the chip and can be recalled and replayed at any point in time. The idea of such a grain seems extremely resourceful, but this type of dystopia shows the dark side of this piece of technology where the protagonist starts obsessing about his wife’s friendship with another man through a series of memory rewinds and unfurls a basket of lies. The episode makes you think about the basics of society, with its technological dystopia teaching us the importance of sometimes letting go.
An example of a technological dystopia at its highest point is a Cyberpunk dystopia. Cyberpunk plots often have recurring themes in which we see highly stylized megacities, with high levels of technological advancement, ridden with a bright Neon glow. These plots often take place shortly and tell a story about the degradation of human society. So many popular works of fiction are based on this genre such as Blade runner, Blame! and many video games like Cyberpunk 2077. One of the best films in this genre is the 1988 movie Akira, based on a manga series of the same name. The movie shows 2019 as a future dystopia and takes place in Neo-Tokyo, a city filled with corrupt politicians, drug abuse, religious fanatics, a failed economy, and biker gangs that visually illustrate the low-life of the city.
Neo-Tokyo is created after the destruction of Tokyo in World War 3. The reconstruction of Tokyo led to the creation of a corrupt, lawless society, which seemed shiny and fancy from the outside, but one peek inside would lead us to see the devastating impact it left on the inhabitants. Experts draw a parallel between this movie and the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and how it deeply impacted the Japanese cyberpunk culture. The idea of rapid westernization after the second world war seemed scary. In the west, Cyberpunk rose to popularity in the 70s and 80s, as swift economic development led to the popularisation of technology. This led people to dream about the limitless possibilities that the internet and an automated world would have soon.
Consumerism as seen in the cyberpunk genre, and even our real world, has been a huge cause of concern, with humanity using up more resources than the Earth can keep up with. Our Earth dying of a slow death due to our incapability of caring for it is seen in movies like ‘Interstellar’. A movie that takes this idea to the extreme is Wall -E, a Disney- Pixar animated film that tackles many environmental concerns. In this world, humans have left earth an inhabitable place, due to rampant consumerism and fled to space.
Earth is no longer capable of supporting any kind of life. It takes place in the far future where humans have grown so dependent on technology, that they can’t even do simple tasks without the help of their robot companions. This makes for a fun kids movie, but the underlying message is very deep. The people in the movie think that they are in a Utopia, floating around in space, and have forgotten about their home planet, that they destroyed. However, in reality, they have trapped themselves with the powerful technologies that control their life. We are taught that our smart-phones and computers are mere tools for entertainment and productivity. A reality in which these tools govern our lives, and man-made robots roam on an empty earth is truly frightening.
Humans make critical decisions every day. We have a natural curiosity to explore the unknown. We dive into the deepest seas and climb the highest mountains to quench this thirst for exploration. We also dream about colonizing the galaxy and setting a foot on different planets to call them home. However, not every step taken in this direction leads to positive results.
The cautionary tales told by any dystopian fiction shouldn’t be taken lightly, as these stories quite often reflect our current reality. We are no stranger to disaster, violence, and war, with our history full filled with innumerable stories of catastrophe. In some ways, when we look at dystopias, we think of both how lucky we are that we don’t live in such a state, but also as a learning experiment. With each dystopia, there was a line of ethics that was crossed, be it by someone’s messed up philosophy or by an ideological dilemma taken too far. This also begs us to question whether these are dystopias at all, as the people who live in such societies may think of them as utopias, and see ours as the dystopia. With the imaginary line of ethics so thin and variable, the morality of such choices is questioned. On the bottom line, it comes down to us to keep in check how our world turns out to be. The choices we make have a huge impact on how the future will turn out to be, whether those be good or bad. In some ways, dystopias are built on these choices, so let’s hope we make the right choices and don’t lose our humanity along the way.
-Anurag, Shlok and Yash