Dystopia and Deathmatches in Sci-Fi

Battle Royale:
This controversial story, also adapted into a film, takes place in an alternate universe where Japan is a member region of a totalitarian state named the Republic of Greater East Asia. Alluding to the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of WWII, it is clear that this a world in which Japan won the Second World War and continued on the path of fascist Imperialism.

In any case, the story revolves around what is called “The Program”. Under the guise of a “study trip”, a group of junior high school students from a fictional town are gassed on a bus. They awaken in the school of an isolated, evacuated island and learn that they have been placed in an event where they must battle each other to the death, or all will die.

Officially a military research project, it is a means of terrorizing the population, of creating such paranoia as to make organized insurgency impossible. Every year, fifty classes are selected to participate where students from a single class are isolated and are required to fight the other members. It ends when only one student remains, with that student being declared the winner.

Their movements are tracked by metal collars, which contain tracking and listening devices; if any student should attempt to escape the Program, or enter declared forbidden zones, a bomb will be detonated in the collar. If no one dies within any 24-hour period, all collars will be detonated simultaneously and there will be no winner.

Banned in many countries (the novel and the film) because of its controversial and graphic nature, Battle Royale has gone on to inspire such books as The Hunger Games.  Combining a Lord of the Flies-style appraisal of human psychology with a indictment of reality TV, this story remains one of the most effective pieces of modern dystopian literature featuring death matches.

Dune:
Fans of Dune will remember the lovely scene in the novel where Count Fenrig travels to Geidi Prime to speak with the Baron. Once he arrived, and in honor of Feyd Rathau’s birthday, he was treated to a gladiator match between Feyd and a slave gladiator. This is a common feature on Geidi Prime where death matches are considered public entertainment and every major city has its own arena.

And what better place for this kind of entertainment than Geidi Prime, a world run by ruthless overlords and characterized by harsh, perverse brutality? And that was the point after all. The Harkonnen’s were the bad guys in this tale and everything about them, their appearances, ethics, and homeworld was designed to match.

Robot Jox:
Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world where conventional warfare is forbidden between nations, Robot Jox tells the tale of a gladiator-style sport where giant mechs do battle in open arenas. This is how the two super-nations – the American-influenced Western Market and the Russian Confederation – work out their differences.

Of course, espionage and betrayal remain an integral part of the games, mirroring the Cold War. What’s more, the games often rigged to ensure that one bloc can get a leg up on the other. And in the end, the entertainment factor is also a driving force behind the games. In a post-apocalyptic world, the masses need some form of entertainment to distract them from the shock and horror of their daily lives.

The Hunger Games:
Following in the same vein as Battle Royale and Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games tells the tale of a not-too-distant future where the United States has degenerated into a tyrannical government ruled from a political seat known only as “The Capitol”. Every year, the rulers of this city force all the outlying districts to send two young people – one boy and one girl – to compete in a free-for-all known as the Hunger Games.

The purpose of these games is simple, to keep all districts in a state of awe and fear so they won’t be able to contemplate another uprising. Years back, it is said that the 13 districts committed to one such uprising, the result being that District 13 was destroyed. The remaining twelve now send their competitors and try to exploit the incentives, which just happen to be rations.

Throughout the book, several things are made clear about the games which highlight its satirical nature. Satirizing reality TV shows, we learn that the games are televised, incentives are offered to keep the games going, and contestants draw sponsors based on their popularity. In addition, extra elements like romances and collaborations are encouraged to ensure that the games remain interesting and dramatic.

In the end, the games serve the purpose of keeping people down but also exploiting their destitute nature by offering them a shot at something better. When the games are over and only one person remains, they will receive enough rations to last them a lifetime. Many times over, it is also shown how life in the capitol is opulent and comfortable, whereas the outlying districts are malnourished and must do things like hunt illegally for food. And of course, the farther the district from the capitol, the more difficult life is, another aspect which the capitol exploits to ensure its continued survival.

The Running Man:
Written by Stephen King under the pen name Richard Bachman, The Running Man is also a near-future dystopian tale set in 2025 where the US has become a totalitarian state because of economic fallout and wide-scale starvation. For a population dogged by hunger and martial law, the only real source of enjoyment is a televised TV show where convicts are forced to engage in gladiator-style combat against seasoned “hunters”.

Aptly named “The Running Man”, the show begins when a series of “enemies of the state” – i.e. convicts – are released into a massive arena where they are pursued by a group of network-employed hitmen. For every hour they remain alive, they earns 100 dollars, plus a bonus for every Hunter they kill. If they survive 30 days, they earn a total of 1 billion “New Dollars” and a full pardon. Or so they say…

Though the novel and the movie differ in terms of plot and resolution, the basic elements are the same. In a future where the vast majority of the population is indigent and desperate, brutal spectator sports are seen as the only outlet. In both versions, much is made of how popular the games are and how important they are to both the network and the government, hence why every attempt is made to ensure that the Hitmen always win.

This serves to reinforce the notion that enemies of the state will always lose when faced with the governments brand of justice, which in this respect is similar to a show trial. It also ensures that the most profitable business in that day and age, since the show grosses billions of dollars in sponsorship and betting on convicts is also a big side-business, stays up and running. So in addition to serving as a source of social control, the games are also an example of corporatism, where the government has a lucrative arrangement with its biggest corporations.

Unreal Tournament:
Don’t laugh! Yes, this may have been a glorified (and gory) first-person shooter in it’s time, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t also inspired. Though gamers cared little for the storyline, the fact remains that Unreal Tournament actually had a dystopian theme that drew from several classical sources. Set in a future where the Earth government creates a no-holds-barred arena deathmatch game to settle disputes between deep space miners.

However, when it became clear just how profitable and popular the games were, the games expanded to become an interstellar affair where anyone could fight and the prizes were astronomical. In turn, the corporate responsible for creating the games also became incredibly powerful and used every tool in its crooked arsenal to make sure that competitors were in good supply and things always worked in their favor.

Any player who survived long enough to make it to the end would square off against the companies own cyborg. If they were fortunate enough to kill him too, they received the grand prize and rank of Tournament Champion! All of this, though it took the form of a first-person shooter, calls to mind all the previously mentioned examples of dystopian science fiction and psychological realism. By pitting the desperate, the brutal and the avaricious against each other, a company was able to make an obscene amount of money and keep people blind to the true abuses of power in their universe.

Final Thoughts:
In the end, all of these examples have one thing in common. Whether the setting is a post-apocalyptic world or just a destitute nation dealing with economic downturn, the element of social control is always there. By throwing the powerless, hungry and greedy into an arena and ordering them to kill or be killed, a government ensures that it not eliminates potential threats but channels discontent into something truly atavistic and brutal. Though this is in many ways inspired by the Roman example, modern developments seem to be the true inspiration.

Like all dystopian literature, it seems that developments within the late 19th and early 20th century were the crucial factor. It was here that writers and social commentators truly came face to face with humanity’s abundant capacity for distraction, atavistic behavior, and indifference to suffering. That is another thing that all these pieces of literature have in common. Whether it is the brutal cynicism of those who profit from the games, or the uncaring nature of those who enjoy them, a disgusting lack of empathy runs through them all like a vein.

For what is worse than exploiting misery for the sake of entertainment? It’s one thing to persecute people directly, but making the oppressed and exploited fight each other for the scraps off your own table? That’s a real dick move!

Speaking of which, stay tuned for my review of The Hunger Games. I’ve finally gotten to the end of the book and will sharing my long-promised thoughts on them real soon! Thank you all, and remember: don’t let the bastards pit you against each other! FIGHT THE POWER!

6 thoughts on “Dystopia and Deathmatches in Sci-Fi

  1. We had the gladiators of Rome in the past, our present is chock full of reality tv, and then we even have how all of this dystopian lit is becoming part of our pop culture. And the latter isn’t a bad thing, but it does allude to a certain fascination with pitting the down-trodden against one another, even though the hope and tendency is to see these character prevail against the system.

    It just fascinates me how our literature, and even the re-emerging of interest in certain lit can give a bit of insight into where a culture is focused.

    Great post on these pieces!

  2. I downloaded Battle Royale a long time ago and still haven’t watched but I try to check it out this weekend.
    Dystopian stories are my new love. They just make sense to me these days.

  3. I liked Battle Royale. But part of that was because it was so over the top that it set it outside the realm of believability. I think Logan’s run fits into the theme. While not a large death battle, it is more comparable to a one on one fight between a runner and a sandman. It is heavily based on social control. A population that only lives 21 years doesn’t have time to revolt. Runners are vilified and Sandmen are glorified in much the same way a movie star or sports figure is glorified now days. The story itself was based on the fear of an ever expanding and increasing population of young people, not unlike the fear of the out of control younger generation that is the set-up for Battle Royale. Logan’s Run is perhaps a bit different in that it also contains other elements such as the worship of youthfulness and age descrimination in that old equals bad.

      1. I suppose that is true, untless the points being made are entirely different in focus. I’m mostly in my grumbling holding pattern for the past 7 years as they keep teasing me with a remake that will more closely resemble the book. So I tend to have Logun’s Run on the brain at any random point in time.

  4. you forgot “Gamer”, it was kind of a crappy movie, but it was still a deathmatch thing, where prisoners are controlled by third party “gamers” through battlefields, like a real life Halo. It was also set in the near future and I think they started the game for entertainment and to help allieve the prison over-population.

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