Big Brother is Reading: On the Subject of Dystopias
Before reading, how familiar are you with dystopias?
Not too long prior to the writing of this article, there was a discussion about the nature of the horror genre. At the conclusion of that piece, a commentator rightly pointed out that dystopian settings have their place in horror as well; if nothing else for the fact that dystopias are by their nature a very frightening world to live in (if they were to really exist). While it can be argued that dystopias have a rightful place among other horror genres, a more respectful approach would be to acknowledge the universal qualities of dystopias as a device rather than a genre. In other words, dystopias need not be confined to just horror to be effectively implemented in storytelling. Let’s explore the nature of when the world turns itself upside down . . .
As a brief etymological understanding of the word, dystopia comes from the word, “utopia.” Utopia is a combination of Greek words for “no/not” and “place.” In essence, utopia literally means no-place or nowhere; or as a more personal interpretation, a utopia is a place that cannot exist. Dystopia is intended to be the opposite of a utopia (which is commonly thought of as a perfect or near perfect community); therefore dystopia (literally “not-good place”) is a setting that is imperfect or fundamentally flawed in some manner as to make it undesirable to reside or live in. There are many ways in which a dystopia can manifest as well as the degree to which the setting is unlikeable; but first . . .
A Very Brief Etymological Tangent
Technically the commonly used definition of utopia as a perfect or near perfect locale is incorrect. As mentioned, it actually means “no-place.” However, the word eutopia, a homophone of utopia, does mean “good place.” Hence, eutopia is actually the correct word (or at least more accurate) to use in regards to desirable communities without or nearly without flaws.
Every dystopia is cast as a dark reflection of our own world. The world is not too far away from ours; only a few key details are changed to push it from our reality into the realm of fear and despair. The change isn’t always big, but it is almost always meaningful in some way. Maybe a specific political party or entity assumes control; perhaps a certain economic power becomes the dominant force in the world. Whatever the change, the world takes a turn for the worse. The reasoning behind a dystopia being crafted in such a grim manner is so that it serves as a negative example for the audience (i.e. us) to avoid such an unfortunate fate; a cautionary tale for us to learn from.
Amid the realm of academics, there are two highly recognized dystopias described in literature: George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. These works portray settings that have since become entrenched in the cultural mindset as being horrific worlds; worlds which we must strive to fight against lest they become reality and not merely pieces of fiction.
This classic socio-political nightmare world of an indeterminate future is perhaps one of the most well-known dystopian settings created to date; it is what we think of when we hear the word “Orwellian.” The iconic and terrifying images of Big Brother ever-watchful for any dissent or even perceived dissention, the idea that people are not killed but erased from history and existence, and the world embroiled in never-ending conflict are the foundations for this horrible world that George Orwell composed as a means of showing the dangers of allowing any political body too much control. Much of the ideology and practices of the Inner and Outer Party along with the concept of Big Brother originate from the communist party in Russia along with Stalin’s brutal regime. Although the political ground has the specific bend towards communism, the nightmares of 1984 could come from any governing power that has become too obsessed with its own dominance and self-interest.
Brave New World
In this well thought-out and imaginative setting, Aldous Huxley paints a world where individual freedoms and identities for larger social and economic stability. Scientific exploration and development are likewise lain to the wayside in favor of utilizing established techniques for population and social control. Religion has fallen in favor of the ubiquitous drug soma; so named after somnambulist or sleepwalker, because of the drug’s effects leaving the subject in a dreamlike and yet wakeful state.
A Personal Tangent
I do not qualify Brave New World as a dystopia. A dystopia should have a strong point to make (which Brave New World does have), be frightening or otherwise disconcerting (Brave New World does not make me uncomfortable, but I do understand others fear in it), and the flaws of the unfortunate world aught be present; coming apart at the seams as it were (while Brave New World has nothing to threaten its stability and shows nothing but strength in the face of human nature). Even Aldous Huxley referred to Brave New World as a “negative utopia” which is not the full definition of a dystopia. Besides, while the trade off of personal freedoms and growth for economic and social stability is itself an inherently terrifying proposition, the portrayal of it, and the consequences therein, in Brave New World make the sacrifices seem almost worthwhile in the end.
Orwell and Huxley are not the only authors to create memorable dystopian settings; although they are easily the most famous considering the subject. More recent works have brought into being some truly disturbing worlds that any of us would feel terrified to live in. Worlds such as . . .
This work by Max Barry weaves a world of corporate intrigue and privatization gone horribly wrong. The United States have taken over the majority of the world and privatized virtually every aspect of life. The government itself must acquire funding from its citizens in order to investigate crime, the only function the government has left; corporations decide the fate of the citizens of the world. One’s identity is tied to the corporation in the form of your surname being that of your employer; if you are unemployed, then you have no surname. For children, their surnames are of the corporation that sponsors their school; which pretty much indoctrinates students with corporate rhetoric. While much of the overall tone of the story is not as dour as other dystopian works, the actual subject matter and setting do depict a truly nightmarish world where you are nothing without money and faceless businesses dominate and control the world.
Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dark comedy is set within a stark Orwellian (see what I mean from earlier) future where the absolute power and authority of the government is not to be feared, but rather its bureaucracy. The unsettling events that unfold in the movie are all caused by a typographical error which causes the wrong man to be incarcerated and then killed. The government’s response is to bury the information so as to not appear incompetent rather than try to fix the problem itself. What makes the dystopia of Brazil as frightening (and comical) as it is, is because the all-powerful government in charge of this unsettling world is not all-powerful and staffed by a power hungry cabal bent on keeping their power; its composed of, essentially, normal people who don’t want to look foolish. The people who are in charge of controlling the world are terrible at their job. So, what is scarier: living in a world where your every action is being monitored and controlled by a select few; or living in a similar world, but run by idiots?
Moving beyond the examples above, a degree away from dystopias are the crapsack worlds. These are settings that embody Murphy’s Law: everything that could possibly go wrong will go wrong. What separates these horrid places from other dystopias is their point, or rather lack thereof. In crapsack worlds, the main point of the setting is for entertainment purposes rather than education via negative example. In the Warhammer 40,000 universe (created by Games-Workshop), humanity is besot on all fronts and from within by all manner of perils: demons, cultists, swarming aliens, barbaric orcs, and even fanatics sworn to defend humanity; all are threats to humankind. In White Wolf’s World of Darkness setting (home to Vampire: the Masquerade, Mage: the Awakening, Changeling: the Lost and many, many more), the modern world is shared by numerous dark and unsettling supernatural creatures that skulk the shadows of humanity. In both settings, the point is for the audience (i.e. players, in both cases actually) to explore and have fun with the living insanity of the world rather than learn from its darkness to avoid a similar fate.