What is dystopia? The most succinct definition one could give is that of a nightmarish society where evil has triumphed. Civilization is regulated by a malign entity and citizens are enslaved or prevented to live a decent life. This may seem straight forward, but from a narrative point of view it requires a whole lot of assumptions to work: for one there should be an agreement between the author and the public on what a desirable society actually is. This should be the zero point on which the dystopia is measured, and the desire for “the natural order of things” by at least one of the figures should be the central conflict of the plot. Variations on these parameters exist: Starship Troopers subverts the dystopian struggle by being essentially a propaganda movie where the militaristic social order is portrayed in a positive light, while The Hunger Games uses totalitarianism as a backdrop for a coming-of-age story (questionably) paralleling teenage angst with social oppression. These departures from the classics like 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 have all their merits, but they also shift the attention away from the social commentary, the core of dystopian fiction. What distinguishes dystopian settings from the dystopian genre is that in the second case the central conflict opposes the to a social order which prevents him of living a fulfilling life. The obstacles laying on her path may partially come from the character herself, but they truly work because of a conflict between the individual and the collective. At the most basic level, dystopia is the exaggeration of a trait of the author’s contemporary society: it embodies the fear that a particular (negative) attribute could evolve to the point of becoming the leading characteristic, and ideally makes the public question its relationship with that particular aspect and their role in the larger community.
Advanced technology is a very helpful tool for storytellers to enable the exaggeration they’re looking for. Unlike the evergreen justification of “magic did this”, sci-fi scenarios are more often than not the result of human actions, posing questions on the nature of collective actions. Regardless of the technology’s source, be it alien or mystical, deciding its use parallels real-life political decisions on the exploitation of public goods: like atomic energy, which can be used for both energy production and weapon manufacturing, biomechanical implants could be used to substitute missing limbs or to create supersoldiers. Where there’s a disruptive decision to be taken dystopia can and has flourished: the evolutionary ambitions of Communism and Nazism, despite their supposedly naturalistic roots, have inspired much of the dystopian genre up until 1950s, like digital disruption is doing with Black Mirror.
One would thus think that we live in the perfect times for the genre to prosper: political and social distress, partially caused by how we decided to alter our behaviors based on global connectivity, should fuel the minds of scriptwriters and novelists everywhere. Yet the dystopian genre remains somewhat of a niche overshadowed by its more mainstream cousin, introverted sci-fi, which tackles similar topics but frames them more as the relationship between mankind and its existential nature. Her, Ex Machina, Interstellar are the movies channeling our fears and doubts. Remarkably, dystopia seems to be morphing more and more into depictions of social collapse rather than of the individual’s demise under the heel of systemic oppression. If it’s true that the genre used to be “a story of resistance“, it also has always been a story of a hopeless fight in which it’s the certainty of demise which gives the protagonist value. The wave of teen movies à la Hunger Games, sci-fi action movies like Elysium and In Time all follow a much more optimistic story arc: the individual effort of their protagonists, often consisting in the killing of the society’s leader, are enough to bring a significant change and tear down the dictatorship. This is a significant departure from the original gloomy formula of 1984, since there are very few “classic” dystopias where the good guys survive, let alone make it to a happy ending. If we were to look for a genre which has emerged to substitute this pessimistic narrative strain, a fitting candidate could be postapocalyptic stories. Zombie movies and games are arguably the closest product to dystopia we have today. With the collapse of communism and the alarming advance of global warming the most significant threat to media consumers has become the ecological disaster looming on the horizon and which may be too late to prevent. At first, the two themes may seem completely opposed to one another: on one hand society is overbearing and all-embracing, on the other its collapse leads humanity to the brink of extinction. Nevertheless, they both play with the public’s fear of the end of the democratic-liberal order: where horror, romance and comedy all play with primal emotions shared by any member of the public, the apocalypse and the Big Brother sting a highly ideological emotion of ours, the love for civil freedom. They question how we would react in a hopeless situation and ask us how far we’re willing to go to restore the dignity to something which can breathe and exist only if the environment allows for it. They appeal to all those who have had personal political struggles like romantic movies do with lovers.
The victory of post-apocalyptic stories over classic dystopias also implies a worrying narrative shift. Although dystopia never lied on the bitter end idealists meet when opposing social repression, it nevertheless left a glimpse of hope in the public: if nothing the proof that somebody was still willing to oppose and organize against oppression was an uncontroversial proof that the system had bred the germs of its own destruction. Because dystopian classics masterfully depict the weakness of the individual, they suggest that only family and friends can save the outcast from the tyranny. The irreversible quality of the apocalypse doesn’t allow this: the stoic resistance of the individual over the environment is a futile task. Because humans are the real monsters, an overwhelming tide can never be reversed because the protagonist will always be alone. alternatively, if change is possible, then it’s because the protagonist’s own will and the help of a colorful gang of sidekicks has allowed him to solve a free the world, given the right amount of bullets. In any case the resolution of a systemic problem has become the feat of a lone hero in an era where even the most simplistic superhero movies pose questions on the feasibility of lone crusaders. The needed deconstruction of family, friendship and interpersonal relations has left dystopian heroes – already flawed, weak and hopeless – without any chance of redemption if lacking inhuman powers.
It’s not a coincidence this trend has peaked at a point of maximum nihilism in pop culture, and it’s not a coincidence that some works going against the flow have been praised by public and critics. Snowpiercer and Blade Runner 2049 all require an immense toll of sacrifice from their protagonists, but in both cases, hope timidly emerges despite the heavy price paid for it. In both cases, this is achieved only through painful, messy collective action. The rebooted Wolfenstein saga is also an interesting reversal: the no-nonsense, individualistic and cold-blooded murderer from the classic games has left room for a deeply flawed human being who manages to ram through the Nazi global order only thanks to the family he has put together after the end. These stories all give value to change not because they stylized the individualistic struggle, but because they still manage to preserve hope despite the despair and cruelty of the New Orders they depict. Maybe there’s something there worth exploring when the next crisis hits.