What Is a Dystopian Society?

A dystopian society is usually described with words like unlivable, stark, and dreary. Also, notions often associated with dystopias are widespread privations and lack of personal freedoms, as well as political oppression, or systematic discrimination based on sex, age or IQ.

The proverbial war of all against all is a staple of a dystopian society. Sometimes it entails the most brutal struggle for survival and other times it gives rise to a rampant paranoia.

Everybody is suspicious of everybody else, and everybody is freaked out because they can't tell a friend from foe as the lines between the two are so blurred and fuzzy that virtually everybody and everything poses a potential threat to life and limb.

Though dystopias vary in things like the system of government, level of state control and living standard, to name just a few, they, nonetheless, all have a lot in common, so much so that just as you can easily distinguish one dystopia from another you can also always tell a dystopian society from one that is not.

The characteristics of dystopias

  • Strict social stratification (Handmaid's Tale), or enforced egalitarianism (Ninety Eighty-Four, Harrison Bergeron),
  • ubiquitous technology (The Matrix, Minority Report, Babylon A.D.) especially the technologies of surveillance and control,
  • dehumanized cityscape (Judge Dredd, Equilibrium),
  • widespread pollution (Aoen Flux, Logan's Run),
  • privations (Escape from New York, Demolition Man, Soylent Green),
  • totalitarian regime or police state or any kind of unjust and oppressive political system (all dystopias),
  • all-powerful corporations (Alien Quartet),
  • biological determinism (Gattaca),
  • paranoia (Blade Runner, Screamers),
  • breakdown of social order and man's regression to earlier stages of civilization, to wit, descent into barbarism (far worse than any historical model) and anarchy; at this point dystopia comes very close to post-apocalypse (Mad Max Series: Mad Max, Mad Max 2, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome).

How do dystopias come into being?

Dystopias are invariably set in a terribly bleak future, a future in which things have for some reason taken a turn for the worse and mankind has suffered a major setback, which might take form of a

Dystopia is basically the answer to any of the problems that plague a future world. Faced with a crisis people come up with what they believe to be the perfect solution - a dystopian society.

However, they soon find out that they have made the grave mistake of trading personal freedom for safety, as well as the burden of individual responsibility for a system in which one social group alone, which could be the state/police/party/church/corporation, exerts the absolute control.

The irony of it is that dystopias, nasty and brutish as they are, usually begin with the best intentions.

Is there a dystopian hero?

Dystopian movies often revolve around a personal narrative - usually of a very average and peculiarly unheroic individual (dystopian hero) - which unfolds against a claustrophobic backdrop.

John Preston - Equilibrium

The hero of a dystopian movie is rarely an individualist or outsider, instead, it is somebody who works for the system, usually in a very insignificant capacity, like Sam Lowry in Brazil, though he can also be a very distinguished member of his social group, like Preston in Equilibrium.

He is also somebody who is struggling to cope with the harsh realities of his less-than-perfect world, who strives to keep up the appearances of a law-abiding citizen, and who ultimately fails at this through a flaw of character, or force of circumstance, or the pressure of impersonal and vast political and social mechanisms he has no control of.

Once he finds himself on the other side the dystopian hero inevitably becomes an outcast, a loner, and is forced to fend for himself and pursue his private agenda, which by no means has to be idealistic, or revolutionary, or as a matter of fact entail anything more than mere physical survival, to the utmost consequences - his own physical destruction (more likely) or the downfall of the oppressive system (less likely).

But even in his failure is his victory, the hero's demise is his triumph, oftentimes the only triumph he can hope to get, the ultimate confirmation of individuality and freedom.

Beam Me from Dystopian Society to Science Fiction Themes

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