I suppose it can be attributed to escapism with a sliver of intelligence about it—I mean, you won’t find any sappy, shallow drama in such settings. More often than not you find struggles against insurmountable forces, like Winston Smith against Big Brother in 1984. A latent nihilism permeates these stories, which, for me, adds a dash of reality. It is a sad comment on modern life that it is more believable for a character to be cruel and selfish than one who is noble and selfless.
Again, why romanticize this?
Most dystopian tales take place in an urban setting. It’s the perfect place to illustrate corruption, overcrowding, pollution, and progress eradicating human self-worth. The contrast of people living in the same apartment building, and not knowing one another, while rural residents usually know their neighbors, is telling. Maybe the city destroys the individual and all that entails. No new territory here, just a thought.
On a personal note, when I was a child the city fascinated me. Growing up in the countryside, I loved how streetlights illuminated curbs, windows, sidewalks. Miniature suns where moths fluttered. From a distance, the collective streetlights resembled a galaxy, with traffic lines jetting as glowing blood in translucent veins.
Of course, this was a sensation just from visiting the city. I didn’t want to live there. I still don’t.
Perhaps in dystopian fiction, the city is an allegory for failed structure; an unsuccessful attempt to construct a self-enclosed reality where its citizens live empty lives. On the other hand, the city represents the pinnacle of civilization: knowledge, pluralism, and progress can flourish there. Only when a population is freed from the constant labor of agriculture can this be accomplished (a city’s food is imported from the outside). In other words, the city is similar to a human being, in that its capacity for good or ill is firmly in the gray area. When free to idle, introspection and growth can occur. Or rot. Maybe that is why cities play a prominent part in dystopian fiction.
Now for the grittiness and decay. For me, these elements add a sheen of desperation to the dystopian setting. It’s more believable for characters to want to surmount this, than if they reside in a picturesque forest or castle. Ho-hum. Why bother if everything’s kosher, right? This decay might reflect entropy itself, for we all will eventually die. Every building, every institution, will perish. Others may take their place, but nothing is eternal. Not even the stars themselves. The decay in dystopian stories is a subtle reminder of mortality—and the living, breathing entities who fight for each and every breath until they are no more. Life and struggle then becomes a denial of this decay, even if doomed in the end.
Social issues always take a downturn in these stories, too. The parallels with the real world are easy to make. I won’t go into all the prophetic concepts in 1984, but suffice it to say that dystopian fiction reflects our deepest fears about civilization. Less freedom, less choice, less humanity. In Blade Runner the poorest live in the streets while the richest live in the upper floors of the high rises. Most people by nature chafe under control and authority. Hell, we hate it. Any struggle against a ‘failed’ society and its institutions can win many fans. However, this can also be a cop-out in terms of forgetting our own responsibilities: the society has become twisted and corrupt because we allowed it to. It is made of up its constituent parts, after all—us.
Then we come to the anti-hero. Whether it’s Winston Smith or Rick Deckard, he’s not in power. He’s not wealthy, seeking fame, or even a hit with the ladies. They all try to maintain their humanity in an inhumane world. Sometimes they do questionable things; most of the time they act as we would. Instead of shining paragons of righteousness, we’re given an average guy trying to make a living, survive, or discover who he is. Simple yet profound ambitions. True, this type of character is present in other genres of fiction—but nearly always in dystopian stories.
More than just a product of their environment or made to ‘fit’ the setting, I feel these ‘anti-heroes’ are much like us: people living in a world we are not able to influence. A world we despise, but to overthrow it is to destroy all that we are. A symbiotic relationship develops, much like a leech sucking the blood from a cadaver. It’s rotten and won’t last, but we cannot—or will not—find another host. They don’t want to change the mud hole they’re drowning in. Winston Smith reads about Goldstein and rebels in small ways, but doesn’t share his ideas with anyone but Julia. And they betray each other in the end. Deckard performs his duty and becomes the hunted without telling what he knows to the public. Neither of them really act to change their world. Maybe they can’t, because they’ll be killed—but they don’t try, either. Perhaps the pervasive depression and complacency has infected them on a subconscious level. Prisoners of institutionalized fears compounded by self-loathing.
Having said all this, then, what makes dystopias so interesting? Are they are a mirror for our darker selves, a reflection of our own impotence in the face of inevitability? Or are they nightmares of the modern age, dreamt by materialist masochists to assure us our own society and lives have not degraded to such a degree?
I hope that dystopias will continue to be romanticized. Why? Because they are reminders of what we shouldn’t become. When everything is plentiful, people tend to get lazy. Vigilance is not for the content. I hope we refurbish our cities, our society, and ourselves.
I think back to those streetlights. Each one seemed to hold possibilities; each one shone on a different street. The moths fly closer and closer to what will kill them. Spiders have built webs nearby to snag those who stray from the light. The moths keep flying anyway.
Maybe that’s what we do as people. Are we the moths, or the spiders?
The streetlights continue to shine regardless.