October 7th, 2012

Dystopian Futures - Why the Fascination?

Written by Bernice Watson

This month on the Liberation Frequency Podcast the LF editorial team is discussing Rise of the Machines, works of fiction where humankind’s own technology has turned against it with dire consequences. From The Terminator series to The Matrix and Battlestar Galactica, the idea of humanity’s own technology being the ultimate agent of its destruction is as common as it is compelling. As the development of computer technology continues to move forward in leaps and bounds one can’t help but reflect on the wisdom of continuing to turn over more and more power to the machines we, as a species, have created. As our reliance upon technology grows, both as a society and as individuals, so too does the potential for disaster should we lose control. But what is it that makes stories that explore this theme, and by extension dystopian fiction in general, so appealing to us as an audience?

Science fiction has, by its very nature, a broad mandate that can dip into any number of themes but one that continues to thrive, in a variety of mediums, is the idea of the dystopian future. Whether it appears in the form of the zombie apocalypse, a nuclear event, some sort of natural disaster, or as the result of a plague or biological warfare, stories in which the golden age of humanity has come to a dismal close continue to fascinate us as a society. But why? What is it about seeing humanity decimated, teetering on the brink of extinction and struggling for survival that so captures our imagination? What morbid curiosity is it that drives us, again and again, to read books and comics, to watch films and TV shows, and even to play games about the downfall of our species?

A pre-occupation with the end of mankind is not a recent phenomenon. Humans have been cringing in anticipation of the end of days for millennia. In the Abrahamic religions the end times are described in the eschatological writings and foretell the ultimate destiny of humanity and the final day of judgement. Similar doomsday scenarios can likewise be found in many other world religions.

Perhaps the reason that so many of us are taken with stories of our own dystopian future is because it in some ways reflects a collective suspicion that our own, real life apocalypse is just around the figurative corner. Like passing the scene of a train wreck, we just can’t look away from films or literature that lay before us the many possible ways we can destroy ourselves or be destroyed by events outside our ability to control. Maybe it is a symptom of the fact that, although we tell ourselves we’re technologically advanced, in reality we know that our existence is a very fragile thing. One meteor, one particularly nasty virus, and it’s game over for the human race.

In the 21st century we live with the reality that humans are slowly but surely destroying the environment. Yet, despite the rising tide of awareness that as a species we’ve climbed out on a limb and appear determined to cut it off behind us, we have not yet reached the turning point where positive solutions have been found and we can map our way out of the mess we’ve made. Blade Runner (based on Phillip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) proposes a world where most people have left Earth for colonies on other planets. Humanity’s home planet is irredeemably damaged, acid rain falls constantly and only the dregs of society remain.

Similarly, we all live with the spectre of nuclear holocaust. It may not be something that the average Joe dwells on overmuch on his journey to work or while exercising at the gym but it is something that we are all conscious of, to one degree or another. Consequently, when you read a novel like The Road by Cormac McCarthy there is a part of you that knows, that while this is fiction, it is also well within the realms of possibility that something horribly similar could happen in reality. McCarthy’s vision of a post-nuclear apocalypse future is one of the grimmer on offer. His unnamed protagonist recalls only a flash in the distance to mark the beginning of the end. Years later he and his son struggle to survive in a world completely decimated and dead. No animal or plant life has survived. Although a dwindling number of humans remain, the reader is left to wonder if they are just the last stubborn few who resist the inexorable advance of death.

For the majority of us who live in the West, who have comfortable lives, warm houses and plenty of food, maybe dystopian fiction opens a window to a facet of life we are no longer party to. By living vicariously through these characters as, like our ancestors, they fight for survival and treasure the most simple of luxuries is a balm to our overwhelming middle-class apathy. When you read Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead series or The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins where the highlight of a character’s year is a slice of freshly baked bread or a hot shower, you can reclaim a sense of satisfaction found in the smallest of things. It is a refreshing reminder of how fortunate we are to never worry about where our next meal will come from or whether we will live through the coming winter.

Dystopian science fiction allows us to explore elements of our own psyches and to unearth some of our deepest fears. Richard Matheson’s classic sci-fi/horror I Am Legend first asks, how would you cope if you were the last person on the planet?  Serious consideration of this idea will stir feelings of anxiety and disquiet in most people and a genuine dread in many. Humans are a social animal by nature and historically do not cope well with forced isolation. This novel later asks, what if you were the last remaining bastion of a near-extinct species? What if evolution had overtaken you? The twist in the tail of this story is enough to send a cold shiver down anyone’s spine. 

Like William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, I Am Legend and many other dystopian fictions explore how individuals and communities behave when conventional social structures have been destroyed or undermined. Many such stories, like the Mad Max series and The Book of Eli to name only two, show a world where most communities have reverted to a state of anarchy and savagery ruled by violence and fear. Others, like The Walking Dead, explore survivors’ attempts to hold onto social structures that don’t always fit with the new realities of their lives. The tension between the demands of survival and the dictates of culture create a unique space for storytelling and a keen examination of human nature. Stories like these also challenge their readers/viewers to consider whether they would survive if they were suddenly bereft of the conveniences that pervade every aspect of their lives. In the Liberation Frequency Podcast on the Zombie Apocalypse the editors discussed how they would survive and some were forced to admit that they most likely wouldn’t as, for most, modern life simply doesn’t equip individuals with the necessary skills or attitude.

By contrast other stories herald the rising of totalitarian regimes and the widening of the gulf between the rich and the poor. In a world of ever increasing population and where already wealth is held by the few while the many live in poverty, this theme speaks to very real anxieties in society today. Fritz Lang’s 1927 epic Metropolis is a classic example of this kind of dystopian science fiction while Alan Moore’s V For Vendetta explores similar themes. The appeal in these stories is that in the current political and economic climate such a future seems like a very real possibility and one that you can see in its embryonic stages even now. This may seem like something of a stretch but it’s not a difficult one to make.

Ultimately, perhaps the reason we are so taken with dystopian fiction, the reason that we come back to it again and again in novels, films, comics and television is because it speaks to our collective anxieties about our future and the fate of our planet. Whether it is the collapse of society beneath the weight of capitalism, the destruction of the Earth through continued environmental damage, nuclear war between nations bent on mutual annihilation or the rising of the machines we created to make our lives easier, each of these scenarios takes the seed of worry in the present and lets it flower in our imaginations into a its worst possible potentiality. There is something cathartic in exploring such eventualities through fiction while perhaps there is also an element of redemption in seeing humanity laid low for its arrogance and folly. At its core, maybe dystopian fiction is simply a method of exercising our collective demons.

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