Pasts, Presents and Futures – The Message of Dystopias

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V for Vendetta

Pasts, Presents and Futures – The Message of Dystopias

Dystopias are one of my favourite political genres of stories; whether they are in videogames, books or films, dystopian stories are fascinating. Perhaps the best way to describe a dystopia is to say that it is the exact opposites of a utopia: A Utopia basically means perfection, the perfect world where everything is perfect and essentially heaven on Earth. A dystopia therefore is the complete opposite of that: a world where things are terrible and bleak.

The reason why writers give us depictions of dystopian futures is subject to debate: are they there as a satire of our world as it is now, a fun and exciting alternative history story or are they there for an even darker purpose – a warning? Through looking at a number of examples I will argue that they are not just one of these things.

The popular videogame Bioshock depicts an underwater world where the inhabitants have escaped from the world to live a perfect life away from outside interference. But when they discover this magical sea slug can give them special powers (bear with me) they become addicted, make a huge consumer market based around it and makes the inhabitants drug crazed lunatics looking for their next hit and in some cases – dead. This to me appears to be having a go at our consumer lifestyle, that we will kill and attack those to get what we want. This satire on consumerism is obviously taken to the extreme to provide an interesting videogame experience but could subtlety be showing us how we can be (the stampedes at Macey’s during a sale) when there is something we want when its fresh on the market.

Other dystopias however such as 1984 and V for Vendetta are perhaps more haunting and chilling than most as they predict worlds that in some cases are happening right now (although granted not as extreme). For example the Big Brother state from 1984 and the “Ears of the nation” in V for Vendetta both rely on cameras, listening devices, trackers and other forms of surveillance. Now this is definitely a satire or even a warning to British people in particular. We have as a nation the most CCTV cameras compared to any other European nation and with the added issue of the whole phone hacking scandal of recent years, these books published quite a while ago have predicted to a degree  the level of state and media interference with our lives which some have already dubbed the Big Brother state. These kinds of dystopias are certainly there I think as a warning as well as a satire on how our lives are now, and where they can be headed if we go down a certain path.  For example, in V for Vendetta a far right party gained popular support then declared martial law after an attack by them on the country scared the nation into following them. It sounds implausible but that exact same scenario happened in Weimar Germany under the Nazi party, and the links between Norsefire in V for Vendetta and the Nazis only 70 years ago are incredibly clear.

However not all dystopias are there I think as a warning or a satire, but just giving us an alternative history that mirrors our own in some ways that we can find chilling by imagining if this was actually the case. The most common dystopia of this type is “what if the Nazis won”. This has been seen in numerous forms of media such as the videogame Wolfenstein: The New Order, many published books and even in adult comedy Misfits. I think as this is alternative history it is intended more as an entertaining and intriguing story, not something we should take as seriously as perhaps 1984, but there could still be an element of satire within, for example in the aforementioned episode of Misfits it involved Nazis rounding up people with powers who are different and arresting and imprisoning them. Not much of a far cry from the very recent time in British history where we arrested people who were sexually active homosexuals. Therefore this means that not all dystopias are meant to be perceived as warnings but can also serve as a sobering reminder of what kind of people we used to be.

Therefore dystopian futures, presents and pasts can all serve a number of different purposes: humour, entertainment, a warning and can also make us take a look at ourselves in a way we may not have thought about before. They are interesting, thought provoking and one of the most profound political genres of fiction.

Written by Sam Toombs, Head of Radio