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Dystopia, Mon Amour

Who would have guessed that an idea of John Stuart Mill’s would one day become a basis for contemporary entertainment across the media spectrum?

The concept of dystopia has been around now for over 150 years, arising with the intensification of the Industrial Revolution and the ascendance of the postcolonial nation-state to become a contingent genre of literature, then film, and finally video and computer games.

Starting as a critical jeremiad, dystopian stories have now become the background for everything from powerful SF novels to escapist media to, yep, children’s books. I want to know how it happened; how did a critical sociological/literary construction evolve into an entertainment zeitgeist? At what point did dystopias stop becoming cautionary tales and philosophical debates and become a setting for a first-person shooter game? And why is such desolation so popular and diverting?

What began in the 19th-century as dire warnings of social entropy amidst technological excess became treatises on the excesses of ideology and authoritarianism in the first half of the 20th century. Dystopian works pointed out that the future could be a horrific landscape of technological monstrosities and powerful political and social forces that maximized inequality and engendered suffering for most people. They decried progress that increased the gulf between haves and have-nots and elaborate systems of government and economics that ceded too much power to elites who invariably became tyrants or manipulators and micromanagers of the citizenry. Dystopias both commented on current trends and predicted dire consequences for the future.
And what happened?

Well, a lot of things, but mostly, the future did not turn out as many of the writers had anticipated it would. I mean, the world today is not a place of panoptic surveillance technologies, huge disparities between rich elites and everyone else, and technology developing at a rate so fast that it threatens to overwhelm us. Right?

Why dystopia endures, and proliferates as a trope, a genre, and an aesthetic, is because of the ambivalent results of progress that we experience every day. Some of those authors may have known what forces were at work, but what they wrought was far less predictable, and they certainly did not take into account how people would adapt to those conditions. Authors now make big deals to write YA trilogies and movies about dystopia because it is simultaneously edgy and palatable, so long as it does not hit too close to home. The truly powerful dystopic tales, such as the movie version of Children of Men, get some kudos and sober looks but are submerged in the flood of fluff dystopias such as the ones in AEon Flux and Ultraviolet.
Dystopia is more outlandish and metaphorical than ever, and has less to do with politics and the problems of progress. It is a fantasia we enter into so that we can disengage from our own rather dystopic existence. In the 19th century they were afraid of it happening. In the 21st we’re used to living in it, and we apparently don’t find it too problematic. In fact, we sometimes get our kicks pretending we are in exaggerated, far worse situations than the ones we face in the real world. I say this as someone who played Warhammer 40,000 for a few years, a miniatures wargame that takes place in a universe that I would never want to live in under any circumstances. It makes me wonder what sort of dystopic settings we will have to concoct in the future to satisfy ourselves.
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