How To Power A Fictional Dystopia

Danger: Radiation, and also doom. How does one write a moving dystopia?

As lovers of all manner of dark fiction, we’re big fans of dystopias.  We’d like to offer a thought:

We sometimes see dystopias as being the products of individual evil beings, or sometimes evil corporations (we’d argue that much of 1980s Cyberpunk was based on the latter).

But in our minds, there’s one thing that really powers a dystopia: The people themselves.  That is, not one single individual, or a bunch of oligarchs, or some other organized group.  The people themselves – the general mass of humanity.

It’s quite possible to create a brilliant, broken future which stars good people controlled by a bad ruler.  It also runs the danger that you’ll simply make even the best villains seem corny.  (We’re looking at you, 1970s cartoon Legion of Doom.)  It’s very attractive to see humans as basically good, but capable of being helpless before the overwhelming might of some kind of archfiend.

But it misses one of the strengths of a dystopia: the fear that it could happen here and now.

Because yes, it moves us when we see a malignant entity taking things over.  But it’s damn scary to think that we’re only a few steps (or fumbles) away from our actual reality become a horror.

Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here”, for example, was written in a time of rising fascism in the world.  Its depiction of a fascist America isn’t disturbing because of the politician whose rule changes America; it’s disturbing because we see how the human beings in the story become convinced that fascism is the right thing because it suits their self-interests and prejudices.  Sure, some people are imprisoned, and some people are intimidated.  But many people just go along with it, or even help it.

And that’s what really powers a fictional dystopia.  It isn’t because the people are victims; it’s because they are accomplices.

In general, this is a blog about writing fictional villains.  But in this case, we’d like to advocate for a more insidious and (in some ways) more horrifying villainy: the potential for the despicable inside of everyone.

Walt Kelley put it best: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

-Dark Lord Journal

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2 thoughts on “How To Power A Fictional Dystopia

  1. It doesn’t even have to be the “despicable inside everyone.” All it really takes is such human traits as passivity, the ability to adapt to slow changes (frog in the boiling water meme), or the ease with which people are distracted from the important issues.

    1. That’s a really excellent point. I think the frog in boiling water concept is highly applicable here – very much like “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Thank you – that’s perceptive and adds some more dimension.

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