Why Dystopias are Cliché

Posted by : E.v.R. | On : October 3, 2005

I really enjoy Dystopias in fiction. Dark fascist futures are interesting, in the same way the Nazis in WWII were interesting.

In science-fiction though, Dystopias come with certain hallmarks that I find ridiculous only because they’ve become so common.

Wall screens or surveillance that monitors everything you do. Big Brother. It’s not just Orwell’s 1984. George Lucas’s THX 1138 did this as well. So did Terry Gilliam in Brazil. So do some of Philip K. Dick’s stories.

The other clichés are having government organizations like the Ministry of Truth or Justice, which are always some futurist version of the Spanish Inquisition.

I would like to see a defiance of this cliché. For one, if you look at Hitler and the Nazis, or Stalin , or any regime of that nature and examine the personal stories an obvious fact rises to the top; These are people.

Dystopias tend to abstract the fascism, to pull it back to The System. It’s The System that does it. You have Re-Education, and centers for various processing. It’s all bureaucratic elements that have allowed to be built up or evolved into something totally crazy that’s destroying what it means to be human.

What I dislike about that perspective is it paints a very de-humanizing view of fascist regimes and ideologies themselves. We start thinking of these people as ‘monsters’ and nothing more. We think of the system as a big machine, just bulldozing everyone, grinding up and spitting out.

I don’t think that’s nearly as horrifying, or nearly as personal as realizing it requires people to set the wheels in motion. A person has to hold the ideology, they have to propagate it. They install their own authoritarian or totalitarian control. It’s about people. Not things, or places, or systems, or government. Just people.

Another disappointing element of Dystopias is the way the protagonists deal with them, and the way hopelessness is presented.

In 1984 the protagonist ends up being re-educated and the end is quite dark.

In THX-1138 the protagonist escapes, but escapes to what? There is still a society crushing people under the boot heel. He hasn’t actually changed anything.

Brazil’s protagonist ends up much like 1984. Being tortured/re-educated.

In Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle, Hitler won and the Nazis, Mussolini’s fascist Italy, and imperial Japan have divided up the world. The protagonists never do anything to stop it or change things. They can’t even escape for themselves. There is a realization at the end that “Somewhere exists a parallel universe where Hitler lost.”

Hmm. Ok. Great. Next?

I was watching a documentary on the 1960s, and after JFK, Dr. Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy were shot, a great many people thought the U.S. was going down the toilet. There was despair, a bleak hopelessness. The country was more divided than it had ever been to the point of violence, with maybe exception of the Civil War. One historian commented “That’s when the generation of baby-boomers became could-have-beens”

Wasn’t that time representative as a Dystopia to some? Yet, heroes were still born, problems were still solved, and life went on.

Even Hitler’s reich came to an end. Stalin eventually died. The Berlin Wall fell. Hardline communism–probably the closest thing I can imagine to one of these sci-fi Dystopias, failed.

Where are the heroes in these stories? Where are the people who made a difference?

It seems more often than not that Dystopias are a thesis which says “Everything sucks.” While there’s an appreciable style and attitude to that,in current forms it hasn’t lended itself well to heroes and change, or resolution.

The villains are barely human, the heroes are non-existent, give up, or are defeated by the antagonists or society itself. Where are the people? Where is the humanity in these stories?

Are Dystopias and the concept of humanity mutually exclusive? Where is the face of good and evil in the world? Is the point of a dystopia that evil doesn’t have a face? Is that what lends its theme, or makes it frightening?

Watch Downfall – story of the last few weeks of the reich, Hitler in his bunker. The madness, sheer insanity builds to a climax until Hitler and Eva Braun kill themselves. The horror is very human. It’s about time somebody told the other side of the story, so we can gain some perspective and learn about the madness of men.

I’m afraid dystopias lack perspective.

Dystopias are cliché.

Comments (4)

  1. Jack Monahan said on 30-09-2005

    Excellent post–I’d like to hear your thoughts on how HL2 handled their Dystopia. Clearly there are many of the stock elements of Dystopias that you mentioned, but there’s a lot of really unnerving humanity there too–Breen is not a monster, but a man, with a very possibly sympathetic position. Even though the player’s cause is diametrically opposed to Breen… you get that feeling that with a slightly different set-up, a different series of events, Gordon Freeman could have ended up as Breen’s right hand man.

    I caught snippets of that same documentary last night; the quote of thinking of that whole generation as “might-have-beens” was pretty crushing, and so much more real. Reminds me of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which in its own way is an exceedingly dark, unsettling depiction of America “in this foul year of our Lord, 1971”.

  2. redchurch said on 30-09-2005

    I didn’t have too many problems with Half-Life 2’s dystopia, although it did share a few elements of the others. The police-state. Things being monitored.

    If anything bothered me though, it’s more that the villains have this Big Evil Plan to kill everyone or destroy all good. I see that tendency in real life–the tendency to paint the opposition as plotting and scheming.

    It’s the same thing with pres Bush. I’m not sympathetic towards him at all, but I often see people going way over the line trying to establish a motive on his part to “take over the world” Instead of putting words in peoples mouths, so to speak, they’re putting motives in another person’s mind.

    They think that individual or group is intentionally out to destroy/rape/pillage when really, that’s just a byproduct.

    So when we see these things represented in entertainment, the medium often portrays it as a product rather than a byproduct.

    That does get closer to your comment about Breen, and the fact that these people are just otherwise ordinary individuals with their own beliefs, values, and goals.

    It’s just when they institute their beliefs or gather like-minded people around them that the negative byproducts reach a critical mass that grabs the wary eye of others.

    Back to the point of the post… dystopias don’t seem to capture that often, instead presenting those things as a horrifying impersonal abstract.

  3. Anonymous said on 26-02-2006

    While emphasis on individual responsibility for The System’s continued existence would be refreshing, and indeed, as you say, more realistic … dystopic scenarios for the future, are, regretably – if you follow the cause & effect logic of our present day situation – *also* very realistic. The likelyhood for such a dystopic outcome is highly likely, whether we like it or not.

    It would be refreshing for sci fi authors to construct a Different reality to this, however, as many of them are simply following up their personal view of Truth and how they truly believe things to pan out – to ask them to write differently, would be like asking them to lie. Or change what they find enjoyable to write, simply for You.

    Great article though :) Cheers x

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