Why Distopia?

By OBS Staff Member Erin

Why have dystopian and apocalyptic stories been having such a hayday the past few years? A dystopia is the opposite of utopia; a world where governments have collapsed or been replaced by oppressive states, or apocalyptic scenarios.  

There’s always the “it could be worse” theory. One theory is that seeing how much worse it could be eases whatever you are going through now. While people may be losing their jobs, when you see a dystopian society you are looking at a different, darker world, at people who have to fight to survive. You can always say “things are bad but at least I don’t have to hunt for my food. I still have coffee. And toilet paper”.

There’s also awareness. With a world changing and terrible things happening (oil spills, continuing war, etc) there is always that lingering fear that fictional dystopias could become real. Dystopias tell us that we are not alone in our fears.

Dystopians in popular culture take what we are most afraid of and magnify them. Even though a zombie apocalypse or totalitarian government seems absurd, dystopia takes the concerns of the day and extend them out to a plausible future (that is, if nothing changes). That’s why dystopian books and movies come in and out of vogue: whenever there is fear or sudden change, there are dystopias. They’re also a great way to use political commentary. Science Fiction has done this since the beginning: in 1895 HG Wells published The Time Machine as a politically commentary on the separation of classes and its adverse effect on the poor. In the novel, the human race has split into two races: a vegetarian, peaceful race called the Eloi, and a cannibalistic, underground race called that feeds on them, called the Morlocks. This extrapolation was a way of showing his audience that such drastic class distinction would be detrimental to everyone and result in “”the ultimate degeneracy” of man”.

In the 1950’s Science Fiction had a boom with monster and alien invasion flicks. Fear of communism and hostile invasion, and upheaval of the way of life was reflected on screen in ridiculous looking swamp men and evil robots. At home people built bomb shelters and schools had “Duck and Cover” drills. That may seem silly to us now, but the threat was very real then—and today we have our own versions of this. The resurgence of zombie films started around the same time as the outbreak of SARS, West Nile, and Swine Flu; who would say that a human-created pathogen couldn’t create something even worse? Other modern dystopias present a world ended by natural disaster and the loss of resources that would follow. Our dystopias are dried up wastelands, where signs of life are nearly non-existent, a reflection of Global Warming fears and very real oil spills. In the months following the earthquake in Japan, the CDC released a “Zombie Preparedness” Guide as a way to inform people about natural disasters; because whether you’re evacuating because of a hurricanes, wildfires, or a wave of undead, you’ll have to take the same supplies with you.  

This is where recognizing your own culture in a dystopia has some positive effects: it breeds desire for change. In this they can also serve as cautionary tales. They let us see the darkest parts of humanity, and our personal ability for destruction. This is the same reason horror movies are so popular: our morbid curiosity is satisfied from the safety of our couches. Volunteerism has been on the rise since 2005, and while odds are this has nothing to do with dystopias directly, it does reinforce the idea that the environment of the times instructs the popular culture, rather than saying dystopian stories are just a randomly reoccurring fad.