In honor of the inauguration of our president-elect, human-hating alien swampbeast Donald Trump, I’m here with six ways to approach any dystopian future you may be imagining for your sci-fi works and/or depressing reality this coming year.
But first, a very pressing question:
What is Dystopia?
There’s a reason that the words Dystopia and Utopia are so closely related. Originally coined by Thomas Moore in his eponymous philosophical tract, Utopia was no-place, a perfect nation-state which was, by definition, impossible to achieve. But it goes back further than that. Arguably one of the earliest utopias appears in Plato’s Republic–otherwise known as Socrates and Co’s drunk conworlding session. In The Republic, drunk Socrates and Co follow a series of philosophical inquiries to design the perfect state, all in order to figure out the nature of justice. Of course, with such rules as: “no booze” and “no villainous monologuing in your epic poetry,” it’s debatable just how perfectly enjoyable living in Socrates’ republic would actually have been for anyone.
And here’s where we get to the rub, because one person’s heaven is another person’s hell. So it follows that any idea of utopia, is, by definition, also someone’s dystopian nightmare. After all, as anyone who’s organized a fancy cocktail party knows, you’ve usually got two options when it comes to your social circle: invite everyone and watch the drama go down, or “forget” to invite certain people and hope they don’t show up bearing apples, or spindles, or curses on your firstborn.
If you truly want a drama-free, happy party, or a blissfully peaceful utopian state, you’re just going to have to tell certain “undesirables” to keep out. Otherwise, they’ll be asking for rights and free press and social equality, and we all know that those things just make people uncomfortable and lead to confrontation. So, now that we’ve established what a dystopia is, the general flavor of a dystopia boils down to two things: WHY have our evil overlords decided to subjugate us? And HOW do they plan to keep us in line?
DEAR GOD WHY?
As we’ve established, a dystopia is, in general, someone’s broken idea for establishing a kind of ideal society. In terms of the WHY, there are usually three main reasons for this attempt:
1. For Idealism/Peace/The Greater Good/Technological Progress
In the purest form of dystopia, an oppressive government establishes itself in the pursuit of some higher ideal, or evolves naturally from the march of technological progress. This is the very definition of a broken utopia. Whether pursuing world peace, religious enlightenment for all of a higher power’s chosen, or simply a kind of state that functions without the upset caused by people disagreeing, you can expect the despotic ruler of such a place, if she exists at all, to be some kind of well-intentioned extremist.
2. For Survival
This is similar to 1, but slightly more pragmatic. Simply put, an outside threat or some sort of natural disaster can easily tip a society toward dystopia, as citizens become more wiling to give up their individual freedoms in order to preserve their people–and humanity in general. Of course, sacrifice for the survival of the species is all well and good right up until the point where the state decides that you need to be the next offering to our apocalypse-bearing Elder Gods.
3. For the Lulz
Finally, there really are some people who simply want to see the world burn. Whether striving to shape their ill-gotten country into their own personal playground, or simply pulling the strings to watch the ensuing chaos, the leaders of these dystopias are always Chaotic Evil, and likely to actually be human-hating alien swampbeasts in ill-fitting orangutan suits.
Of course, once an oppressive government takes charge, they have to figure out a way to keep control of their population, and this is defines the second aspect of your dystopia of choice. Most dystopias fall into one of two categories, most easily defined by the ur-examples of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.
The Orwellian Surveillance State
In 1984, every aspect of civilian life is monitored, from the telescreens in every apartment, to members of the inner party on the lookout for Thoughtcrime, to the kids themselves being indoctrinated to keep close watch on their own parents. Food is scarce, luxuries are non-existent, and resources are being constantly funneled into a never ending war with Oceania… or was it Eastasia? (I always get those two mixed up.)
In essence, the Orwellian surveillance state keeps hold of its populace by denying them everything. Every desire, every human emotion is quashed, channeled into service and worship of the state itself.
The Immaculately Civilized World State
In Brave New World, on the other hand, citizens of the World State are carefully engineered to derive shallow satisfaction from their established roles within civilized society. In contrast to the savages of the Reservations, who practice monogamy, carry out rituals, and give birth naturally without the genetic engineering of hatcheries, members of the World State live safe lives of consumerist comforts, free love, and stable conformism.
Unlike the Orwellian method of absolute denial, Huxley’s World State keeps its population in line through abundant luxuries and shallow pleasures, crushing individual human dignity not by force, but by gently coaxing it into something far less noble.
Mix and Match
So, given our reasons for why, and our methods for how, we end up with six ways to destroy the world. Will your dystopia crush its populace into fearful sheep, all for the Lulz, as in Orwell’s 1984? Or will it cater to every base desire of its citizens, in order to maintain a peaceful existence, a la Brave New World? Or perhaps, subjugating the districts in order to pacify the elites of the Capitol with prime entertainment is your method of choice for preserving a viable population of humans, Presidents Snow/Coin.
It’s a veritable smorgasbord of horrific possibilities. Which one will you choose?