Dystopian societies – Early warning systems for a decaying future

I’ve been wanting to write about my experiences translating sci-fi, a genre that I find myself very drawn to. But, as always, I have digressed, and now, I think this is turning to be a brief series on various sci-fi sub-genres and their fictional visions of the world we live. I can’t really help it, sorry, (I’ll get to the translation part of it),  I’ve always loved sci-fi, since little. It started with Logan’s Run. I remember being mystified at the age of 8 or 9 by fugitive law enforcer Logan 5 and the incredibly beautiful escapee Jessica 6 running for their lives in this 1976 adaptation of the  novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. Yes, New York Times critics didn’t seem to get “why and for what particular purpose Logan makes his run” and felt “two hours of this stuff” was quite enough for them, but for little me watching the fluoro corridors, the turtle-neck uniforms, the futuristic vehicles, the compulsory vaporisation at the age of 30 in the carousel, the colour-changing crystals implanted in the palm of everyone’s hands to remind them of their impending disappearance from this nearly perfect environment –  was totally mind-boggling and it cemented my love for sci-fi and my interest in future dystopian civilisations.

1 frame from Logan's Run

What are dystopian societies?

To put it simply, dystopian societies, also known as counter-topian or anti-topian societies, are those that force their citizens to live under typically miserable conditions of violence, disease, poverty and oppression or impose a systematic discrimation based on a number of factors such as gender, race or species, age, genetic factors, etc. Most of you are probably familiar with a few examples of dystopic repression. For instance, in Logan’s run, the extermination of the population above the age of 30 is shown to be necessary by the dominant group in order to maintain the pretense of a hedonistic lifestyle, unsustainable if a large number of elderly citizens is allowed to exist.

Noir City

In the biopunk flick Gattaca a geneticist, deterministic authoritarian regime dictates the genetic traits humans should possess to ensure a flawless race as well as the duration of their life, to exterminate the costly dilema of medical care for those with diseases or “genetic malfunctions”.

In the 1985 dystopian satire Brazil a dystopic future is dominated by a controlling, technocratic bureaucracy that has invaded all aspects of daily life, where societal welfare overrides individuality and human rights. Humans survive in this world by keeping their “real” selves bottled up inside as a cocoon, while they serve their role as a specific cog in the system. Main character Sam Lowry, is trapped in this bureaucratic nightmare and dreams he is a fantasy warrior who fights the denizens of the deep to rescue the love of his life. In reality though, every aspect of his life is a nightmare. When Lowry’s discovers his soulmate in real life he can no longer remain obscure and risks everything in a failed attempt to transform his dream into reality.

And then there is dystopian film par excellence, Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner. Oddly combining a Manhatten-esque skyline with huge corporate advertisements reminiscent of today’s Tokyo, Scott’s vision of 2019 Los Angeles, is one that has succumbed to complete decay and degradation due to pollution, overpopulation and overconstruction, but most of all, due to corporate gluttony. Interestingly, capitalistic forces have thrived and continue to dominate and exploit both humans and the replicant robots they ealier designed.

Are we heading towards a dystopic future? 

The gloomy picture of the corporate totalitarian cityscape in Blade Runner reflects some of the anxieties felt by the cold-war ridden world of the eighties, including a fear of the growing economic power of Japan and Asia, a fear of excessive immigration and threats to the Western way of life and a general aversion towards the possibility that governments will lose control over the urban sprawl of emerging mega-cities like LA or Tokyo and there will be no sense of centrality, planning, borders nor a guaranteed security for their citizens.

The Guardian discussed recently that the fascination for sci-fi continues and that this genre is, in fact, increasingly being used to voice concerns about the “relentless pace of social change” and the negative effects capitalism is having on the people and the environment of this planet.  So, I believe sci-fi, and specifically dystopian portrayals of our future can be helpful (and entertaining, of course) reminders of what may come, and could serve to highlight some of the evils that are preventing humanity from creating a sustainable future.  And although I agree with fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin  in that “the role of science fiction writing is not to predict the future” I think it’s really interesting to try to understand some of the anxieties and concerns dystopian films reflect and to determine whether some of the components they envisioned have played out as predicted and use them as a warning system for what’s to come:

Control by capitalist machinery

The capitalist machinery today includes multi-national corporations, banks, etc, and are now as powerful as they have ever been (albeit also more questioned than ever). The line between corporations and national government is also becoming thinner – these large corporations legally receive favourable legislation and social guidelines by camouflaging demands as campaign contributions to key politicians and prominent social entities.  The foremost problem with this system is its lack of morality, respect, and balanced righteous intellect within its own controlling components toward the very people that maintain and finance it. It doesn’t care how the commerce is conducted, as long as it continues to financially grow without being subjected to unwanted changes. In other words, the prominent political and financial leaders are in control of what everyone else can and cannot do by means of social and legislative guidelines. A lot of these decisions are made with the persuasive insistence of large corporations. We all know this, but it has become such an accepted situation that there are no checks and balances to restrict these leaders’ influenced decisions and actions. Well, not until something practically apocalyptic happens, and then only a band aid is applied to the system to temporarily satisfy the problem. Like what’s happening in Europe, particularly Spain, right now.

Globalisation

This phenomenon makes capital and jobs flow from richer nations into developing countries. Employees in the richer nations suffer as their jobs are outsourced to low wage economies. And capitalist corporations increase exploitation by paying less to workers in developing countries for the same work that was done by workers at home. The capital flow into low wage locations, however, will eventually  slow down. Pay in developing countries will increase under the pressure of workers’ wage demands. Also, local corporations in the developing nations will grow and compete with those from the Western capitalist nations. Already, some regions within the developing nations are now better off, with better paid employees, than some regions in the richer capitalist nations. Again, look at Spain.

Eventually, the balance will tilt and developing nations will overtake many of the nations that are now richer than them. In the long term this will undermine capitalism. Those affected by the imbalance will rise against the system and capitalist society will collapse to be replaced by the next model.

Overpopulation

The world population is expected to reach over 10 billion by 2050. This means that there will not be sufficient employment available for everyone; not enough housing and food; sanitation will not be adequate for a vast majority of people; more waste will be produced (including sewerage) and it will contribute to air pollution (CFC’s, fumes produced by cars, etc), land and water pollution. A growing population means that more resources are being exploited to satisfy demands for food, clothes, housing, industrial use, etc. Crime will be exacerbated.

Fear of population movements (migration)

With overpopulation and heightened conflicts, people will move to get a better life elsewhere. Those seeking to retain the status quo will fight to ensure no unwanted arrivals disrupt their lifestyle.

Biological threats

The potential for plagues derives from a number of sources, including:  the widespread use of antibiotics in animal feeds makes a perfect breeding ground for growing bacteria that are resistant to modern antibiotics; the ability of viruses to mutate into new forms that make the jump from animal to human species; the unknown side effects of GMO’s (Genetically Modified Foods) that are in 90 percent of our food supply could lead to unexpected viral and bacterial mutation in generations to come; a bio attack that could infect the population with deadly bacteria or viruses to spread before it can even be detected via air travel.

Terrorism

Already a widespread means of warfare to which we are getting more and more used as to the security measures that result from its effects and various shapes.

Genetic engineering

Germ line manipulation opens up, for the first time in human history, the possibility of consciously designing human beings, in a myriad of different ways. Human genetics alert warns us that the basic technologies for human genetic engineering (HGE) have been available for quite some time and are currently being refined and improved in a number of ways. This could open the door to discrimination in many areas.

This is rather depressing, I’m sorry. Often, the most valuable thing we can get from dystopian fiction is not a view of what’s going to happen, but of what we fear will happen, fears we don’t always express clearly or examine as much as we should.  These stories can make us think about why we fear certain aspects of our own culture and others, and whether those fears are valid or are in themselves destructive and dangerous.

It’s time to sit down, watch Blade Runner again, think about what’s happening in the world around us that we can change to ensure we don’t end up in a world like the one Deckard, or Logan or Sam Lowry live in.

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2 thoughts on “Dystopian societies – Early warning systems for a decaying future

  1. Enjoyed reading that (or rather having my computer read it to me). Fortunately my computer is not a cyborg yet, no one has killed me off for being old, and the smog is still breathable – even here in Taipei. Happy days 🙂

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