I have a special liking for dystopian and apocalyptic fiction. I always have. I think in part it’s down to the fact that it involves a radical transformation of a whole world, often our world. It’s hard to get grander a scale than the destruction/transformation of the whole planet (unless you want to think universally, like James Blish‘s Cities In Flight). It’s a darker side of science fiction, the complete opposite of the overwhelming hope and optimism of the likes of Star Trek, in which Earth is a utopian paradise.
A dystopia doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom and the aftermath of a global collapse. It can be a depiction of a polluted world, a world where technology and machinery intrude on life as opposed to making it better, or can be a place where civil liberties are massively curtailed in a bleak future. Perhaps the best example of this is George Orwell’s 1984, where the whole of society is controlled down to the individual under the guise that Big Brother is both watching and looking out for you.
Blade Runner is one of the paramount examples. Here, technology highly advanced and everywhere, and yet the world is cramped and massively polluted. People are clearly miserable for the most part, and technology is often something to replace reality (think the artificial animals) rather than to enhance it.
Some of my favourite examples of the genre are Alien and Aliens, for example. Technologically, those universes are far ahead of our own – and yet it’s not quite perfect. That’s not to say the world is necessarily horrible, because we don’t see Earth in either film, but the quarters are cramped and personal liberties are reduced, not least because most things are under the control of a single corporation. In Alien, the ship’s computer is called Mother but it and the android Ash are used by the company to ensure the crew serve the company’s purpose, which isn’t apparent to the human staff at first. Resident Evil would continue this trend with the Umbrella Corporation, which is seemingly all-powerful and has influence in all fields.
Dystopianism goes hand in hand with science fiction, and one of the advantages for it as a genre is that it is endlessly recyclable and adaptable. Has reality caught up in time with the events of the film? Make it an alternate reality. Or the current trend – mix enough of the right now with the future and you have a decent bridge that reflects what modern audiences accept as the slower pace of development. When the original Star Trek was broadcast some were convinced we’d be living on Mars by now – instead we have caught up with and gone beyond the years referenced as ancient history in the programme, such as the Eugenics Wars of the 1990s that caused Khan Noonien Singh to be cast into space in a sleeper ship (this was side-stepped in Star Trek Into Darkness).
I decided to write this post after watching Dredd, the 2012 take on the Judge Dredd universe. I liked the first film, which had Sylvester Stallone in the main role, but the two are very different films. Stallone’s is cramped and overblown, with massively stylised concept cars among other things. The Karl Urban version is post-apocalyptic but much closer to our own world. People drive in petrol and diesel-fueled vehicles, and one guy even wanders buy with a pair of headphones (you might think the people of the future would have some other, more discreet way of listening to music). It’s an example of how the same world can be completely reimagined to suit a particular audience; contemporary audiences seem to respond to grittiness rather than overt sci-fi – think of the Battlestar Galactica reimagining compared with the original series.
The topic is of both personal and professional interest. My doctoral studies are in history but take in theology and eschatology. Eschatology – “last things” such as the end of time and the judgement of souls – looms large in the historical texts I’m studying. That doesn’t make me some sort of religious nut. I’ve always been intrigued by ideas of the end of the world and how people react to it. It’s psychology expressed through, in the case of Bede (the object of my study), the writing of history and religious commentary. Early Christian texts are actually positive about the end of time – don’t worry, it’s only the end of the world. For them it was a good thing, because it meant the sweeping away of the old guard.
I can’t say for certain that my research interests are an extension of my literary interests, but it’s more than likely as if I was pursuing a PhD in English it would be on apocalyptic fiction. Part of me wonders if I’ll do that one day.
Strangely, I’ve never written an apocalyptic piece of fiction, though I have written some stuff set in a dystopian world. I need to do more of that. Cheer up – it’s only the end of the world.