Some of you may recall how a few months back, I posted a video from Mr. Jack Collins that provided a breakdown of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. As it turns out, that video was just the tip of the iceberg for what he and others are doing over at Academic Earth, a website dedicated to media literacy and education in an age of evolving technology.
So far, I’ve found several items of interest, but this other video breakdown of another dystopian classic – Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged – was especially eye-catching. Here, Collins breaks down the books plot, themes, characters and message with the same thoroughness and incisive commentary that he brought to Bradbury’s classic tale of a society base on censorship and mindless leisure.
Of note is how Rand’s philosophy of Objectivism – which combines individualism, freedom and self-interest – is unapologetically portrayed in this book. Having witnessed the horrors of Soviet Communism firsthand, she had a good deal to say about a society that promoted social equality at the expense of creativity, enterprise and personal merit. Rand’s book has often been criticized as “hateful” and the perfect example of class-antagonism, but to conservative thinkers and fans of dystopia alike, it remains a classic.
Years later, Atlas Shrugged remains a controversial story, due to its stern and at times vitriolic attack on what Rand saw as systems that promoted mediocrity in the name of “social justice”. In contrast to the idea that the wealthy have a social obligation to those less fortunate than themselves, Rand retorts by stating that those with wealth exist by their own merits and are essentially holding up the needy, poor, and working classes of society – a la Atlas.
By urging these people to “shrug” off this burden, Rand was rejecting the idea that the social classes owe each other anything and claimed that society would be made better by enshrining the ideal of self-interest and unfettered rewards for individual effort. And as Mr. Collins notes, by story’s end, it was… for some people.
In short, there’s a reason people like Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin, Sean Hannity and Rupert Murdoch love this book and its author. Nothing says “go capitalism” or promotes Cold War-era ideology like a Russian emigre who thinks that the free market is the pinnacle of civilization and things like charity, welfare, and social assistance are crutches that need to be kicked out. I’m biased, I know. But then again, so was Rand…
And as usual, I’m looking forward to using this somewhere down the line, should this book ever appear on my student’s reading list. Check out the full video at the link below:
This morning, I came across a very cool article in Scoop.it, about science fiction as a genre in the former Soviet Union. As it explained, until recently this area has remained virtually unexplored, with historians focusing on the “greats” of the 1920’s – men like Eisenstein – and the “socialist realism” of the 1930’s (aka. Stalinist propaganda). However, between those decades and the opening up of the former Soviet Union in 91, a lot of interesting developments happened. And, interestingly enough, it seems as though sci-fi in the Eastern Bloc went through a similar transition to that in the west.
And let’s not forget that, even though there was a very real wall preventing cultural exchange between East and West during these years, some degree of exchange did take place. Take for example Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of “We“. His classic tale of a super-rationalized world state where emotion and individuality were suppressed and sex served only reproductive purposes had a profound influence on George Orwell, Ayn Rand and (presumably) Aldous Huxley, thought he denied ever reading it.
In addition, Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita (Queen of Mars), a story about a man who travels to Mars and finds a totalitarian government which he helps to topple, inspired a movie adaptation. Made in 1924 and featuring constructivist-style sets, the movie had a profound influence on Fritz Lang, who’s 1927 classic Metropolis featured sets of similar design. The 1957 film Road to Mars, directed by the famous Pavel Klushantsev, contained several slow-motion scenes of astronauts floating weightlessly through space. This movie apparently had a profound influence on Stanley Kubrick and his shooting of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
And with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the west was flooded with previously inaccessible stories which began to be adapted (or plagiarized, depending on your point of view). Not the least of these was Hungarian sci-fi writer István Nemere’s story Holtak harca. Translated to “Fight of the Dead”, this story is about a criminal and a police officer who are cryogenically frozen, only to wake up in a future where society has been purged of violent behavior. This story became the basis for the Hollywood movie Demolition Man, not to mention a law suit or two!
In any case, it’s a good read and makes me think I should be on the lookout for added movies and book titles. Here’s the link and I recommend checking it out:
Well, after many, many suggestions on how my list of dystopian franchises could be augmented – this mainly consisted of poeple asking me “what about (blank)?” – I decided there were a few that I really couldn’t proceed without mentioning. This will be my last tour of the dystopia factory, lord knows that place gets depressing after awhile! But one thing at a time. Here’s my final installment in dystopian science fiction series, a hybrid list of novels, graphic novels, and movies!
A Clockwork Orange: This dystopian novella was originally written in 1962 and was adapted into film by the great Kubrick almost a decade later. In addition, it was adapted into play after the author realized he didn’t like how the adapted movie ended. Having experienced all three, I can tell you that the movie was probably the best. In addition to the rather ingenious ideas presented by Anthony Burgess, it also benefited from Kubrick’s directorial genius and the superb acting of Malcolm McDowell.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the story revolves around a British youth named Alex who is growing up in a world permeated by youth violence. He is the leader of a group of thugs known as “The Droogs”, young men who go about committing acts of “ultra-violence” which consists of them beating up homeless people, random strangers and other gangs, as well as committing theft and gang rape.
In time, Alex and his friends go to far (even for them!) and an innocent woman is murdered during a break-in. His friends, who are already angry over his bullying and strong arming of them, decide to betray him and leave him to the police. Once in prison, Alex decides to cut his sentence short by undergoing a radical government experiment – an artificially created conscience through Pavlovian conditioning!
The result of this conditioning is that Alex is no longer capable of committing any acts of violence. In fact, even the mere thought of violence produces a reaction so strong that he breaks down and is overwhelmed by nausea. This renders him benign, but also helpless. And in time, all his past crimes begin to catch up with him and he is nearly killed. Once he wakes up in the hospital, he discovers the conditioning has worn off, and he can either resume his old ways, or strike out on a new path…
Another interesting side effect of the conditioning is that he can no longer listen to Beethoven without getting sick either. This has to be one of the most curious and intriguing scenes in the movie, where a restrained and helpless Alex begs the doctors to turn off the symphony because he can’t stand the idea of not being able to listen to it. Much like everything else he does, it speaks volumes of his sociopathic nature.
Ultimately, the movie differed from the novel in that the final chapter was omitted. Immediately before this, we see how Alex is now freed from the conditioning. He also seems intent on blaming the current government, which will oust them from power. But beyond that it not quite clear what’s going to happen. However, the following chapter shows how Alex has realized, independently, that he doesn’t want to live a life of violence anymore. Human freedom, he’s determined, is the ability to make choices for oneself, free of persuasion and operate conditioning.
As I said, I truly think the movie was an improvement on the novel, which is a rare thing with adaptations. Still, it is was in the film that the point of the story really came through, thanks to Kubrick’s usual attention to detail and subtlety. Whether it was through those long, close-up shots of McDowell and his crazy eyes, the combination of wide angle action shots in slow motion, or the way that it played to the tune of Beethoven, you really got a sense of the odd combination of genius and madness that is the anti-hero Alex. The reliance on white, sterile settings also helped to punctuate the sociopathic nature of the story – how underneath the veneer of domesticity, brutality and violence can exist! And last, by leaving the ending a mystery, the moral was more ambiguous, which made for a far more effective dystopian feel!
A Scanner Darkly: Next up, we have Philip K Dicks seminal novel about drug abuse, self-destruction and the various hypocrisies arising out of America’s war on drugs. In this near-future scenario, which takes place in California in 1994 (seventeen years after it was written), a new drug has hit the streets known as Substance D – or SD, which stands for Slow Death. This powerful hallucinogenic is a great high, is violently addictive, and can render users brain damaged after too much use and abuse. And as a result of its popularity and impact, society is gradually becoming a full-blown police state, where cameras – or “Scanners” – are on every street corner and in the home of every suspected dealer.
Written from the point of view of an undercover narcotics agent, the story follows his descent into addiction and his eventual inability to tell reality from fantasy. Through repeated use of Substance D, he gradually becomes brain damaged himself, is released from the police department, and must go to a privately run recovery-center known as “New-Path”. There, he discovers that these centers, which operate like franchises, are actually growing the plant that Substance D is synthesized from. An interesting twist in which we learn that the people profiting from the side effects are the one’s providing the drugs. A stab at strong-arm governments or the pharmaceuticals industry, perhaps?
For the sake of adapting the movie to film, director Richard Linklater shot the entire thing digitally and then had it animated through the use of interpolated rotoscope. The effect of this was to render every single image in a vivid, almost cartoon-like format, which could only be interpreted as an attempt to mimic the effects of hallucinogens. This animation also came in handy with the rendering of the “scramble suit”, a sort of cloak-like device that PKD invented to ensure that undercover agents in his story could completely disguise their appearance, voice, and any other identifying characteristics.
In addition to being science fiction genius, these cloaks were a clear allegory to the anonymity of undercover agents and a faceless system of justice. While responsible for infiltrating and busting up the narcotics subculture, PKD clearly understood that this sort of profession can lead to an identity crisis, especially if the agents in question find themselves using drugs and becoming over-sympathetic to the people they are spying on. This, of course, is precisely what happens to the main character in the story!
In short, the novel was a commentary on the dangers of recreational drug use, but also on the reasons for why such subcultures come into existence in the first place. In addition to ruining lives and causing crime, repression, domestic surveillance, and other extra-legal practices can become quite commonplace. All of this mirrored PKD’s own experiences with the drug subculture and the law, which is why he dedicated the book to all the friends he had who succumbed to drug abuse and died as a result. Very sad!
And let’s not forget the name, a play on the words from the Biblical passage, 1 Corinthians 13:12 : “Through a mirror darkly.” In this day and age, where “scanners” are the means for monitoring society and police officers spend hours looking at their feeds, the scanner has become a sort of means through which people attempt to gaze into other peoples’ souls. But, as with the Biblical passage, this title is meant to refer to how, when we look at the problems of drug use in our society, we are seeing it all through a haze, the result of our own prejudices and preconceptions.
Akira: How the hell did I forget this one last time? I mean seriously, this is one of my favorite movies and one of the most inspired Mangas of all time! Not only that, it’s a pretty good example of a dystopian franchise. And yet, I forgot it! WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?! But enough self-flagellation, I came here to talk about Akira! So, here goes…
In 1988, famed Japanese writer, director and comic book creator Katsuhiro Otomo undertook the rather monumental task of adapting his Manga series Akira to the big screen. Though some predicted that a two hour movie could never do justice to the six-volume series he had written, most fans were pretty pleased with the end product. And the critical response was quite favorable as well, with the film being credited for its intense visualizations, cyberpunk theme, its post-apocalyptic feel, and the exploration of some rather heavy existential questions.
To break it down succinctly, Akira takes place in Neo-Tokyo, a massive urban center that was literally build up from the ruins of the original. According to the story’s background, WWIII took place in 1989, and after twenty years of rebuilding, the world once again appears to be one the brink. However, as we come to learn, the destruction of Tokyo was not the result of the nuclear holocaust per se. It’s destruction merely heralded it in after the world witnessed the city’s obliteration, assumed it to have been the result of a nuclear attack, and starting shooting their missiles at each other. The real cause was a phenomena known as “Akira”, an evolutionary leap that scientists had been studying and lost control of…
Quite the story, but what I loved most about the adapted movie and the manga on which it was based was the level of detail. Set in 2019 (the same year as Blade Runner, coincidentally!) this series incorporated a lot of concepts which made for a far more intricate and interesting tale. First off, there’s the concept of a post-apocalyptic generation that is filled with unrest and angst, having grown up in a world permeated by the horrors of nuclear war. Second, there’s the ever-present element of gang warfare that has sprung up amidst the social decay. Third, there’s a government slouching towards dictatorship in response to all the protests, unrest and chaos that is consuming the city.
Into all this, you get a secret military project in which the Akira phenomena is once again being studied. Though motivated by a desire to control it and prevent what happened last time from happening again, it seems that history is destined to repeat itself. Once again, the survivors must crawl from the wreckage and rebuild, their only hope being that somehow, they will get it right next time… A genuine dystopian commentary if ever I heard one!
But what was also so awesome about the series, at least to me, was the underlying sense of realism and tension. You really got the sense that Otomo was tapping into the Zeitgeist with this one, relating how after decades of rebuilding through hard work and conformity, Japan was on the verge of some kind of social transformation. Much like in real life, the characters of the story have been through a nuclear holocaust and have had to crawl their way back from the brink, and a sense of “awakening” is one everybody’s lips and they are just waiting for it to manifest.
A clear allusion to post-war Japan where the country had been bombed to cinders and was left shattered and confused! Not to the mention the post-war sense of uniformity where politicians, corporations and Zaibatsu did their best to repress the youth movements and demands for social reform. Well, that was my impression at any rate, others have their own. But that’s another thing that worked so well about Akira. It is multi- layered and highly abstract, relying on background, visuals and settings to tell the story rather than mere dialogue. In many ways, it calls to mind such classics as 2001, Clockwork Orange, and other Kubrick masterpieces.
Children of Men: Made famous by the 2006 adaptation starring Clive Owen, this dystopian science fiction story was originally written by author P.D. James in 1992. The movie was only loosely based on the original text, but most of the particulars remained the same. Set in Britain during the early 21st century, the story takes place in a world where several subsequent generations have suffered from infertility and population growth has dropped down to zero. The current generation, the last to be born, are known as “Omegas” and are a lost people.
What’s more, the growing chaos of the outside world has also led to the creation of a dictatorial government at home. This is due largely to the fact that people have lost all interest in politics, but also because the outside world has become chaotic due to the infertility crisis. Much like in V for Vendetta, the concept of “Lifeboat Britain” makes an appearance in this story and acts as one of the main driving forces for the plot.
In any case, this also leads to the birth of a resistance which wants to end the governments tyrannical control over society, and which comes to involve the main character and his closest friends. In time, the plot comes to revolve around a single woman who is apparently pregnant. Whereas some of the rebels want to smuggle her out of Britain and hand her over to the international Human Project, others want to use her as a pawn in their war against the government. It thus falls to the main character to smuggle her out, protecting her from resistance fighters and the military alike.
Naturally, the movie drew on all the novels strongest points, showing how society had effectively decayed once childbirth effectively ended. It also portrayed the consequences of impending extinction very well – chaos, withdrawal, tyranny, etc. However, when it came time to adapt it to the screen, Mexican film director Alfonso Cuaron (who brought us such hits as A Little Princess, Y Tu Mama Tambien, and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban), also used a variety of visual techniques and sets to convey the right mood.
For example, most of the sets were designed to look like near-future versions of today. In Cuaron’s estimation, all technological progress would have ceased once the implications of the crisis had fully hit, hence all cars, structures, weapons and gadgets were only slightly altered, or used sans modification. So while the billboards, newspapers and signs were all updated and carried messages appropriate for the period, cars, guns and other assorted background pieces looked entirely familiar.
In addition, much of the movie is shot in such a way so that the images are grey and the light effect seems piercing. This conveys a general mood of drab sadness, which is very accurate considering the setting! Last, Cuaron and his camera crews made many continuous action shots using wide angle lenses in order to capture a sense of crisis and how it effected so many people. Never was there a sequence in which you only saw the main actors and their immediate surroundings. The focus, like the scope of the story, was big and far-reaching.
Ghost in the Shell: Much like Akira, this franchise comes to us by way of Japan and is cyberpunk-themed. In addition, it also came in the form of a manga, then onto a film, but with a television series to follow. And in many respects, it qualifies as dystopian, given that it took place in a dark future where technology has forever blurred the line between what is real and what is artificial. In addition, it also tapped into several cyberpunk trends which would prove to be quite apt (i.e. cyberspace).
Again, this story takes place in Japan in the early 21st century, a time when cybernetic enhancements and technological progress have seriously altered society. The main character is named Motoko Kusanagi, a member of a covert operations division of the Japanese National Public Safety Commission known as Section 9. She is affectionately known as “Major” given her previous position with the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. And did I mention she’s a cyborg? Yes, aside from her brain and parts of her spinal cord, she is almost entirely machine, and this plays into the story quite often.
In addition to facing external threats, Kusanagi and her companions also face conflicts that arise out of their own nature. These deal largely with issues relating to their own humanity, whether or not a person and their memories can even be considered real anymore if they have been replaced by digital or cybernetic enhancements. These questions were explored in depth in the movie, where events revolve around a sentient program that was developed by the government, but which has since gone rogue and is seeking an independent existence.
However, another thing that makes Ghost in the Shell a possible candidate for the category of dystopia is the setting. Whether it was the manga, the movie, or the television series, the look and feel of the world in which it takes place is quite telling. Always there is a dirty, gritty, and artificial quality to it all, calling to mind The Sprawl, Mega City One, and Neo-Tokyo.
As in these settings, things look futuristic, but also rustic, poor and improvised, hinting at extensive overcrowding and poverty amidst all the advanced technology. This is a central element to cyberpunk, or so I’m told. In addition to being futuristic, it also anticipates dystopia, being of the opinion that this “advancement” has come at quite a cost in human terms.
Logan’s Run: Considered by many to be a classic dystopian story, Logan’s Run takes place in a 22st century society where age and consumption are strictly curtailed to ensure that a population explosion – like the one experience in the year 2000 – never happens again. In addition, society is controlled by a computer that runs the global infrastructure and makes sure that the all the dictates of population and age control are obeyed.
In any case, the story revolves around this concept of an age ceiling, where people are monitored by a “palm flower” that changes color every seven years. When they reach 21 – on a person’s Lastday – the crystal turns black and they are expected to report to a “Sleepshop” where they will be executed. Those who refuse to perform this final duty are known as “Runners”, and it falls to “Deep Sleep Operatives” (aka. Sandmen) to track down and terminate these people.
The main character – Logan 3 – is one such operative. On his own Lastday, he is charged with infiltrated the underground railroad of Runners and finding the place they call “Sanctuary”. This is a place where they are able to live out their lives without having to worry about society’s dictates and controls. However, in time, Logan comes to sympathize with these people, due largely to the influence of a woman named Jessica 6. In the end, the two make plans to escape together for Sanctuary, which turns out to be a colony on Mars.
Right off the bat, some additional elements can be seen here. In addition to the concepts of Malthusian controls and ageism, there is also the timeless commentary on how rationalization and regimentation can lead to inhumanity and repression. Much like in We or Anthem (by Ayn Rand), people do not have names as much as designations. All life is monitored and controlled by a central computer, and it is made clear towards the end that the computer is in fact breaking down. I can remember this last theme appearing in an episode of Star Trek TNG, where a planet of advanced people are beginning to die off because their “Custodian” is malfunctioning and no one knows how to fix it.
Metropolis: A true classic of both film and expressionist art, this movie also has the added (and perhaps dubious) honor of being a classic of dystopian science fiction! Created in Weimar Germany in 1927 by Fritz Lang, this movie tells the story of a dystopian future where society is ruled by elites who live in vast tower complexes and the workers lives in the recesses of the city far below them where they operate the machinery that powers it all.
This physical divide serves to mirror the main focus of the story, which is on class distinction and the gap between rich and poor. To illustrate this artistic vision, director Fritz Lang relied on a combination of Gothic, classical, modern and even Biblical architecture. In an interview, Fritz claimed that his choices for the set design were based largely on his first trip to New York where he witnessed skyscrapers for the first time. In addition, the central building of the futuristic city was based on Brueghel’s 1563 painting of the Tower of Babel (right>).
The theme of class conflict is further illustrated by the fact that the workers who live in the bowels of the city are also responsible for maintaining the machinery that makes the city run. One is immediately reminded of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and the divide between the Morlocks and the Eloi. This comes through even more when the workers decide to revolt and begin ransacking the neighborhoods of the elites. Ultimately, it is only through the love of the two main characters – Freder and Mariah – that the gulf between the two is sealed and order is restored, a fitting commentary on how society must come together in order to survive and achieve social justice.
In another act of blatant symbolism, we learn early on in the movie that the workers have taken to congregating in a series of tunnels that run under the city. It is here that they meet with Maria, their inspirational leader, and makes plans to change society. So in addition to tall, Babel-like buildings illustrated the gap between rich and poor, we have workers who are literally meeting underground! Wow…
In addition, several other dystopian elements weave their way into the story. The line between artifice and reality also makes an appearance in the form of the robot which the movie is best known for. This robot was created by Rotwang, a scientist who is in the service of the main character’s father – Joh Fredersen, the master of the city. Apparently, this robot is able to take human form and was created to replace his late wife. Once this robot was released into the city, she began sowing chaos amongst men who begin to lust after her, and is the very reason the workers began revolting in the first place. She even causes the character of Rotwang to go insane when he can no longer distinguish between the robot and the woman she’s impersonating.
Neuromancer/Sprawl Trilogy: Gibson is one of the undisputed master’s of cyberpunk and future noire lit and it was this novel – Neuromancer – that started it all for him. In it, he coined the terms cyberspace, the matrix, and practically invented an entire genre of Gothic, techno-noire terminology which would go on to inspire several generations of writers. His work is often compared to Blade Runner given the similar focus on urban sprawl, cybernetic enhancements, the disparity between rich and poor, and the dark imagery it calls to mind.
The first installment in the “Sprawl Trilogy”, this book takes place in the BAMA – the Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Axis (aka. The Sprawl). In this world of the 21st century, cyberspace jockeys or cowboys use their “decks” – i.e. consoles – to hack into corporate databases and steal information. The purpose is, as always, to sell off the information to the highest bidder, usually another corporate power. In addition, guerrilla tactics and domestic terrorism are often used to get employees out of their contracts, seeing as how most companies have no intention of ever letting their talent go!
Also, there is the massive gulf that exists between the rich and the poor in these novels. Whereas the main characters tend to live in overcrowded tenements and dirty neighborhoods, the rich enjoy opulent conditions and control entire parts of the world. In addition, the richest clans, such as the Tessier-Ashpools and Vireks, actively use cloning and clinical immortality to cheat death, and often live in orbital colonies that they have exclusive rights to. Much like in his “Bigend Trilogy”, much attention is dedicated to the transformative power of wealth and how it affords one better access to the latest in technology.
But always, the focus is on the street. Here, jockeys, freelancers and Yakuza agents are at work, pulling jobs so they can buy themselves the latest enhancements and the newest gear. In the case of Molly Millions, a freelance lady-ninja, this includes razor nails that extend from her fingertips. In the case of Yakuza enforcer from the short-story (and movie) Johnny Mnemonic, it consists of a filament of monomolecular razor wire hidden inside his thumb. For others, it might consist of artificial limbs, new organs, implants of some kind. Whatever ya need, they got it in the Sprawl. If not, you go to Chiba City or Singapore, chances are it was made there anyway!
*Interesting Fact: according to Gibson, Blade Runner came out when he was still tinkering with the manuscript for this novel. After seeing it, he nearly threw the manuscript out because he was afraid Ridley Scott had pre-empted him! Funny how things work out, huh?
Final Thoughts: Gee, there really isn’t much more to say is there? One thing I have noticed is that much of modern dystopia comes to us in the form of the cyberpunk genre. Though the definition of cyberpunk appears to constantly be evolving, it is generally acknowledged that it is a postmodern form of science fiction that combines “high tech and low life.” Having sorted through several modern examples of dystopian sci-fi, I can say that this is certainly an apt description.
In essence, it assumed that the presence of high tech would entail the emergence of a dystopian society, that the endless march of progress would lead to the destruction of the environment, the devaluing of human life, the elimination of privacy, and the line between real and fake. This last aspect was especially important, embracing cybernetics, virtual reality, and things like cloning and clinical mortality. Since the 1980’s, all of these notions have infiltrated science fiction movies, television, and have even become cliches to some extent.
This genre has given rise to new kinds of science fiction as well. For example, it is generally acknowledged that a sub genre known as post-cyberpunk emerged in the 1990’s which broke away from its predecessor in one key respect. Whereas it too focused on the rise of technology, it did not anticipate dystopia as part of the process. This is best exemplified by books such as Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, a 21st century bildungsroman which predicted vast social and political changes as a result of nanotechnology.
Other sub genres that have emerged in recent years include “Steampunk”, a literary form that combines Victorian era technologies with the punk genres noire sensibilities. Other derivatives include Dieselpunk, Nanopunk, Biopunk, and even fantasy-punk crossovers like Elfpunk. Yes, like most things in the post modern era, it seems that literary genres are becoming fragmented and tribalistic!
But alas, I still feel the need to ask the question, what’s happened to dystopian literature of late? In my initial post, I got a lot of people asking me if I could include some more modern examples. You know, stuff that’s come out since 1984 and The Handmaids Tale. But unfortunately, what I’ve found tends to be more of the same. Just about every example of dystopian fiction appears to draw its inspiration from such handy classics as the one’s I’ve already mentioned, or is in some way traceable to them. Does this mean that we’ve hit bottom on the whole genre, or could it just be we’ve moved away from it for the time being?
Well, I recently learned from an article on IO9 that Neal Stephenson himself stated that science fiction needed to stop being so pessimistic and had to start getting inspirational again. Perhaps he’s onto something… Maybe we’ve gone too far with the whole cautionary tale and need to steer things back towards a brighter future, urging people on with common sense and technological solutions rather than laments. Maybe we need to let them know that such problems as world hunger, overpopulation, pollution, climate change, poverty, war, licentiousness and greed can all be overcome.
Then again, I’m working on a couple dystopian tales right now… Is it too much to ask that this craze last just a few years longer?
Thanks to all who’ve written in and “liked” my dystopian series! Hope to see y’all again soon as I get into ore cheerful things…
Picking up where I left off last time, I thought I’d get into some examples of how dystopian fiction has influenced popular culture. And given all the feedback I got on my previous post, I also wanted to incorporate some suggested titles as well. But, just to be clear, I still haven’t read Hunger Games, so please don’t ask about it!
Alright, so last time, I mentioned just about every examples of dystopian literature I could find. From the earliest examples of Candide and Gulliver’s Travellers, onto the more modern interpretations of The Time Machine and We, and culminating with classics like BNW and 1984, I essentially ended before I could get into how these novels have had an influence on film and other media. In addition to inspiring the written words, these classics have inspired an entire culture of iconography, symbolism and motifs.
Not surprising, really. Every work of dystopian fiction and satire has sought to create images in the reader’s mind, using highly specific descriptions in order to paint a scene and inspire the right mood. Whenever these novels have been adapted to film, or directors were simply trying to convey similar themes, the task of properly conveying it all visually has always been a hefty one. The same is true for graphic novels and any other visual medium. So today, just for fun, and perhaps to complete my romp through the realm of this inspired genre, here are some examples of dystopia in modern media:
Blade Runner: Granted, Blade Runner was based on Philip K Dick’s Do Android Dream of Electric Sheep?, a dystopian story in some respects, but not in the same way that the movie was. Whereas the novel took place in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles (circa 2019) which is sparsely populated and where a living animal is seen as a status symbol. In the movie, the year and location are the same, but the setting is starkly different. Here, it is a stuffy, polluted, mega-city made up of massive skyscrapers and giant animated billboards, where the streets are dirty and packed with people who spoke a strange dialect known as Cityspeak (check out my post on Cityspeak for on that).
And what made it all so awesome, aside from the plot, was the attention to detail. Director Ridley Scott, the same man who brought us Aliens, brought his usual artistic touch and a team of first-grade set designers to the table. Overall, they produced some pretty awesome concepts, ones which are still being praised to this day. Here are just a few:
The Tyrell Corp. building, which was kind of the focal point of the movie. Early on, we get a birds-eye view of it as Detective Deckard Cain (Harrison Ford) is being flown there in a Spinner (flying car). Later on, the leader of the Replicant party, Roy Batty, travels there as well seeking answers to some of life’s most basic questions.
For starters, the building is clearly based on a the design of a Ziggurat, the breed of ancient Babylon temple that inspired such legends as the “Tower of Babel”, and which serves as a clear representation for the almost godlike power Tyrell wields. The interior design, with its large columns, soft lighting, candles, an owl (a possible reference to Athena’s owl) and the way Tyrell can block out the sun at will all serve to further illustrate this point. That scene near the end where is dressed in lavish white robes also seemed pretty symbolic, I’d say!
And for those who read 1984, there is a possible encoded reference to the four ministries as well- Truth, Peace, Love, and Plenty – all of which were pyramid-like in design. Coincidence? Who knows? All that matter is when it comes to massive structures that harken back to ancient Egypt and Mesapotamia, the symbolic value is clear. Much like the civilizations that built them, these things stood for power and dominion, both over lesser subjects and the afterlife itself. They were the ruler’s way of achieving immortality by creating something that embodied their power and would stand the test of time. As Shelley said in his poem “Ozymandias”: “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
And when it comes right down to it, this old-world kind of mentality, updated for the modern age, is indispensable to any dystopian story: Absolute power, wielded by the few over the many and represented in conspicuous and obvious ways! In many cases, it comes in the form of totalitarian governments (a la The Party) who runs things with an iron fist and build massive government buildings to remind everyone of who’s in charge. But in other cases, it takes the form or corporate dominance, where the wealthy rule society like feudal barons while the rest live like serfs. And much like their bureaucratic peers, they choose to lord this by building lavish buildings to themselves and covering themselves with ornate symbols!
Another trademark bit of dystopian set design were the massive skyscrapers, complete with giant video-billboards. No doubt, these too were designed to give the impression of the control corporations had over the people of LA in the future. As if regular sized billboards ads weren’t enough, (or televised, print, bench, flier, blimp, and radio ads) now it seemed that corporate monopolies were splastering their logo’s on screens the size of buildings!
And just to make it realistic, Ridley Scott and his designers were also sure to use logos that were already big in the early 80′s and seemed destined to get bigger – Atari, Coca Cola, Pan Am Air, Cuisinart, Bell System. But interestingly enough, all of these companies suffered heavy losses after the movie’s release. The phenomena came to be known as the “Blade Runner Curse”. Strange, one would think audiences began associating them with dark imagery or something
But personally, I think one of the most effective aspects of the movie’s look and feel came through in the construction of the streets. Here, Scott’s design team made sure that every shot was crammed full of people who whore plastic jumpers, dark glasses, cool headgear, and carried what looked like umbrellas with neon handles. Then came the street vendors who peddled food or exotic pets in the same neighborhoods, facades that were ashen grey in color, and all kinds of neon signs written in various languages. It painted quite the scene, one which can only be described by the words “Future Noire”.
Brazil: Directed by Terry Gilliam, an old-time member of the comedy troupe Monty Python and director of such movies as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, Brazil was a rather humorous take on the classic 1984. In it, we are presented with a dystopian society that is ruled by a totalitarian regime, but which is buffoonish and incompetent rather than exacting and brutal.
In addition, the people in this world are also overly-dependent on machinery which is rather unreliable and poorly maintained. And last of all, there is the main character of Sam Lowry, a low-level government employee who works in a mind-numbing government job, lives in a small apartment, and is having prescient dreams about a woman and a man in mask who is torturing him.
The movie shared many plot and thematic elements with 1984, but much of its genius comes through in the set design and direction. Given that the aim of the movie was to present a world in which the machinery is as undependable as the bureaucracy, Gilliam decided to go with a look that would call to mind the kind of over-the-top aesthetics of past sci-fi films. While everything was admittedly grey, dark, and shot in wide and tilted angles, there was also a sort of comic, retro feel to the whole thing. This helped to establish the central premise of the movie, in which incompetence and mind-drudging inefficiency were what was destroying humanity, not a specific agenda.
In addition, Gillian had much to say about artifice and vanity in this film. Lowry’s mother, who plays an important role in the plot, is obsessed with plastic surgery which she hopes will make her look younger. Towards the end of the movie, Lowry dreams that his mother is attending the funeral of a friend who died as a result of too many invasive procedures. And in what can only be described as an moment of oedipal confusion, his mother even looks like Jill, the much younger woman he has fallen in love with!
An interesting take on 1984 isn’t it? Rather than following a philosophy like the one espoused by O’Brien, where the Party wields absolute control over reality and people’s minds, want to eliminate all emotion except hatred, and has destroyed any activities that do not serve their interests, the totalitarian regime in Brazil is instead motivated by laziness and a desire to cover its own ass. Not being wrong literally means more to them than the lives of their citizens. What better commentary is there on a bureaucratized society?
Judge Dredd: Yes, the movie didn’t so well, and the script and plot were so simplistic that Stallone himself called it a “no-brainer”. But that doesn’t change the fact that the source material is actually one of the better graphic novels in existence, especially when it comes to depth and irony. Set in a post-apocalyptic world of the not-too-distant future, the comics take place for the most part inside “Mega City One”, one of several megalopolis’s that have sprung up in the US after a nuclear war which left it and Soviet Union utterly devastated.
Within this city, just about everything is automated and unemployment is almost universal. Every city block contains over fifty-thousand people, amounting to a population of about 400 million people per city. Due to overcrowding, massive unemployment and uncontrollable violence, the leaders of this future society created a quasi-fascist justice system whereby individual “Street Judges” (policemen) were charged with dispensing judgement and punishment on site. This had a stabilizing effect on society, but the problems remain…
Automatically, one can see a few things at work here. For starters, there’s the Hobbesian idea of man in the state of nature; how because of nuclear war, life became “nasty, brutish and short” and a tyrannical system was needed to put things back in order. In addition, there’s the whole “who polices the police?” side of things, where audiences naturally fear that the judges will abuse their power or fight to the death to hang onto it.
And last, there is the very real sociological concept of the “megalopolis”, the Northeastern mega city running from Virginia to Maine which was originally coined by French geographer Jean Gottmann. In the course of the comic’s history, it is made clear that Mega City One was not actually designed, but grew out of natural urban sprawl that predated the nuclear war. It was only after the war that it became a self-contained place where automation, unemployment and chaos become so rampant.
Now one might also get the impression that this was all meant to illustrate some preachy, “we made a mistake” kind of message (which is in fact what happened in the movie). But in truth, these issues are presented with a fair degree of subtly and irony in the graphic novel.
Knowing full well how his audience would react to fascist symbols and ideology, John Wager (creator) presented readers with a story that is loaded with both. For starters, the Judge’s symbol is an eagle, which bears a striking resemblance to the Nazi black eagle. The Judge’s uniform is also highly ornate and calls to mind the classical imperial motifs of Centurions and Gladiators. And the fact that Dredd’s face is never seen can only be seen as highly indicative. He’s a faceless law-giver, much like Stormtroopers or the SS.
What’s more, the people who sport these symbols and preach these values are presented as heroes. Judge Dredd, for all intents and purposes, is a social fascist who is bereft of sentimentality, doubt or remorse over what he does. Unlike the other Judges, there’s no crime he won’t ignore, and he never stops for more than ten minutes at a time to rest in a sleep chamber, then he’s back on the job. He also has little sympathy for people who believe in enlightened reform or who criticize the Street Judges for their abuses of power.
The purpose of this always seemed to be for the sake of ironic social commentary. Rather than condemning the Judges and the system they represent (or endorsing them) we are meant to see how – under the right circumstances – something like this could very well happen!
THX 1138: You know, its movies like this that remind us all that there was a time that George Lucas had talent, when he cared about thing like plots and inspired story-telling, and not special effects and merchandizing. But I’ll leave my riffs about the Star Wars prequels for another day. Right now, I will admit that there is plenty about this directorial debut worth praising, and not the least of which was the faithful dystopian tone it struck.
Set in a dystopian future where the human race is required by law to take drugs that suppress emotion and sexual desires, are controlled by android police, and all inhabitants worship a godlike being known as OMM 0910, the story is clearly a commentary on how rationalization and automation threatened to destroy humanity. In addition, there are clear and obvious parallels to novels like We,Brave New World and 1984.
For example, the people in this future are all given designations instead of names, the state sanctioned religion is reminiscent of Big Brother, and the mandatory use of mind altering drugs calls to mind Soma. And of course, the stark, clinical portrayal of society in the future is very similar to descriptions of the One State and Oceania in We and 1984. And let’s not forget the scene were android police torture and abuse the main character? Tell me that didn’t come directly out of the scenes where Winston was languishing in the Ministry of Love!
And of course the overall moral of the story, that love is precious and will fight the odds against the forces of cold rationality, this too was practically lifted from Orwell’s and Zamyatin ‘s classics! This is not a criticism, mind you. If anything, Lucas demonstrated a keen ability to adopt freely from novels and franchises in a way that really worked. Much as he would do with Star Wars just a few years later, he seemed to know where to borrow from and how to put it all together!
The Watchmen: Now this was one of my favorite graphic novels of all time. Lucky for me, it also falls into the realm of dystopian fiction, hence I can talk about it here! In addition to taking place in an alternate universe, the setting is one which is quite dark and gritty. Set in the 1980′s, which is the same period in which it was written, the story is of an alternate reality where the existence of superheroes has caused history to diverge quite a bit from our own. Technically, superheroes have been in existence for many decades, which helps to give the story a real sense of historicity.
However, it was with the service of superheroes in actual wars and government programs that caused history to shift. Beginning with Doctor Manhattan’s intervention in Vietnam and culminating in the development of cheap, renewable energy by Ozymandias (with Manhattan’s help), the Cold War took an unexpected turn. Russia was systematically beaten back to the point where it was becoming desperate and nuclear war seemed inevitable. Meanwhile, society began to decay as war began to occupy more and more of society’s attention and the inner cities were neglected and left to rot.
Told for the point of view of Rorschach, a borderline social fascist with deep-seated issues, the darkness and impending sense of doom really come through! As he investigates the death of the Comedian, a fellow superhero who’s death incites the whole plot, we learn how both he, the Watchmen, and society came to be the way it is. His own tragic story, and that of the Comedians, serves to illustrate how the American Dream failed and cynicism and fear took over.
But of course, the point with dystopian stories is not just to speculate, but to make a point about the time in which it was written. Looked at from this angle, the Watchmen was really telling us about the real world of the 1980′s, a world which had come very far since the post-war era in terms of technological, social and cultural development. And like many other cultural commentaries, a sense of failure and betrayal is at work. What happened to the post-war dream? What happened to the American Dream? How did poverty, crime, licentiousness and cynicism become so rampant? From Rorschach point of view, the Cold War is largely to blame, but so is human nature. And given that he is such a dark and messed up character, I don’t think his opinions were meant to be taken too seriously!
V forVendetta: Yet another awesome graphic novel, and one which also inspired a hit movie adaptation. A piece of speculative fiction, this series was produced in the 1980′s and was set in a near-future dystopian England. Over the years, this series’ thematic elements and symbolism have been compared to 1984. However, in truth, the story has much more in common with The Iron Heel and It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis (which should have made my list of dystopian literature, dammit!) In these two novels, especially the latter, a fascist regime takes power by appealing to the people’s sense of moral purity and a desire for order, and in the end the people got more than they bargained for!
But alas, the story in the comic book version involves nuclear war and the transformation of the UK into “lifeboat Britain”. Given that the movie was made in the early 2000′s, the story had to be updated somewhat. There, the focus shifted to terrorism and the exploitation of fear – echoes of The Handmaids Tale and “Loose Change” there, but I digress. After being passed over by the nuclear holocaust, Britain found itself being flooded with refugees and victims of the war. Bit by bit, authoritarian measures were put into place to deal with the crisis, until eventually, the fascist government of Norsefire took over, and that’s when the real changes happened!
They’re motto: “Strength Through Purity, Purity through Faith” pretty much sums it up! In addition to pushing a religious agenda, they were also very much concerned with purging British society or minorities and “undesirables”. A police state was put into place where a series of departments – the Eyes, Ears, Mouth, and Hands – were tasked with controlling and monitoring all aspects of society. The Eyes handled surveillance, the Ears listened to people’s by tapping their phones and bugging their homes, the Mouth disseminated propaganda, and the Hands investigated criminal activity. And of course all minorities, be they racial minorities, homosexuals, or just political dissidents, were sent to concentration camps where they were exterminated and experimented on.
Into all this enters the character of V, an anarchist revolutionary who is the product of one camp’s twisted experiments. As a result of their invasive procedures, he became an enigmatic genius/amnesiac with a serious chip on his shoulder who is now on a quest to pay the government back for its crimes. His famous disguise, the Guy Fawkes mask and robes of black and red, are as intrinsic to establishing his character as his monologues and affinity for blowing up government buildings!
Judging by the color scheme alone, one immediately can tell that this man is an anarchist by his use of the color black (or anarcho-syndicalist seeing as how he combines it with red). The mask is a further indication of this, given that Guy Fawkes was a radical who tried to blow up parliament because he believes any vestige of government to be anathema to freedom. So in the end, we can see that this a man who wants to bring down the system and is reaching into Britain’s forgotten past to resurrect the idea of civil liberty.
In contrast, Norsefire’s logo was pretty straightforward too. In the comic, Norsefire represented itself on its “motivational posters” with a set of white wings with a space in the middle that was in the shape of a cross, and behind it lay flames. This is obviously meant to conjure up images of religious propriety, or holy war, and of action, all of which are clear allusions to fascist and religious-right iconography. It was also meant, in my opinion, to call to mind Britain’s Action Party, a fascist political group that played a small but influential role in British political life during the 1970′s.
In any case, one can see several staples of dystopia at work in this series, hence why it earned a loyal following and garnered so much critical acclaim. In addition to the idea of a nuclear war breeding totalitarian regime in Britain (right out of 1984), of “Lifeboat Britain” giving rise to a fascist regime (which may have helped to inspire the novel Children of Men) and countless allusions to Nazism and how it really could take root in Britain – which calls to mind Orwell’s essay “England Your England” where he basically asserted that it couldn’t.
Wow, this sort of stuff makes me feel head-heavy and tired! It seems that when you get into a subject as rich as dystopian literature and its various offshoots, there’s no shortage of material! But I think I’ve learned something from all of this and it’s important that I get it right. So bear with me…
As I said in my last post, utopian literature predates dystopian by a couple centuries at least. And I also focused on the differences between the two, how utopian lit shows our failures by using a prefect society as a comparison while dystopian societies show the logical outcome of our most worrisome flaws. However, I’ve now come to think that the issue is far more complicated than all that. For starters, one can find elements of the former in the latter and vice-versa. What’s more, utopian novels and treatises were often loaded with irony, at times truncated themselves to make the point that perfect societies were not so perfect, or perhaps unattainable.
On the other hand, all dystopian novels take as their starting point the idea of a failed utopia. Whether it was a willful lie (as O’Brien revealed in 1984) or an attempt at perfection gone wrong, all dystopians arose out of attempt to create a “perfect society”. In the case of the classics written after the 18th century, the inspiration for this is clear. Beginning with the French Revolution, then the Russian, and countless other revolutions who’s aim was to radically transform society, it seemed that every attempt to create “real equality” and an “earthly paradise” was doomed to result in tyranny and abuse. Sometimes horribly so!
But the earlier utopian writers didn’t have these failed social experiments to point to. In their case, saying that utopias were unattainable would have had to have been purely philosophical. And examples abound! The very word Utopia, for example, is Greek for “no-place”. And the narrator of this book, the man who is an apparent specialist on this fabled society, is named Raphael Hythloday. This last name has a Greek root which loosely translates to “expert in nonsense”. Samuel Butler, another utopian writer, named his fictional society Erewhon, which is simply “Nowhere” written backwards. In addition, in his “perfect” society, people are punished for being sick and treated for criminal behavior, an inversion of the usual procedure!
I guess its like the dividing line between heaven and hell, or revelation and madness. Somehow, the line is fine, and one misstep can take you from one to the other in the blink of an eye! And, as with everything else, we carry these things with us and project them wherever we go. Well… that was deep! Stay tuned, I’m sure to have something more cheerful for next time!