Columns > Published on January 12th, 2017

It Could Be Worse: Five Nightmare Dystopias

Dystopian fiction always peaks in popularity around an election year. It’s something of tradition to imagine how the opposition will completely ruin the world if they win, one that has only become more popular during the rise of exaggerated partisan journalism. Although it makes for an entertaining narrative, it’s not very likely that the person you didn’t vote for will destroy the world, if only for the fact that they have to live on it, too. We may not be happy with the results, but no matter how bad it might be, it can be comforting to remember that it could always be so very much worse. Here are five nightmarish dystopias from fiction, film and games that will give you some perspective.

The One State ('We' by Yvgeny Zamyatin)

After a war of biblical proportions wipes out all but the tiniest percentage of humanity, the entire world is finally unified under the order of the the One State. Free will is identified as the source of all human suffering, and so the State has an exacting degree of control over all of its citizens’ lives thanks to mass surveillance and literal glass houses. Instead of a name, you have a number. Every moment of your life is dictated by a mathematical efficiency formula, from work to sex. The family unit has been abolished and childbirth is tightly controlled, with only the most fit specimens given pregnancy permissions. Friends are assigned to you. All forms of vice are illegal, and any semblance of creativity or uniqueness is classified as a vice. Just having dreams in considered a sign of mental illness, but don’t worry, because they have developed a surgical procedure for removing that pesky imagination. The government slowly turns its people into machines, all in order to protect them from themselves. If that all sounds cliche to you, that’s because the One State is the grandfather of dystopian fiction—Huxley, Orwell and Bradbury are among the hundreds of writers that have been inspired by Zamyatin’s vision, and even the more recent entries in the genre are still built from his blueprints, whether they know it or not.

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The Ministry of Information ('Brazil' directed by Terry Gilliam)

The Ministry of Information is a bloated and corrupt organization that exercises control over the government and its populace by collecting and processing massive amounts of data on damn near everything. Nothing can be accomplished without completing and filing a number of complex and tedious forms, many of which are merely requests for another, more important form. Everything is so meticulously over-documented that people are issued receipts for their receipts. It’s a disturbing vision of Big Data that predates the internet, dominated by mountains of paperwork sent back and forth through a series of tubes. Despite having so much power and information, the Ministry expends most of its considerable resources maintaining its own supremacy and covering up its mistakes, like when a woman is erroneously charged for the incarceration and execution of her husband. Oh yeah—if you get arrested, tortured and summarily executed without a trial for a crime you never even knew you committed, the government will send your family a bill for services rendered. Terry Gilliam admitted that despite having never read it, his bureaucratic nightmare was inspired by 1984, which Orwell himself confessed was cobbled together from stolen parts of We.

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Mega-City One (Judge Dredd comics)

A convoluted mess of urban sprawl stretching from New York to Georgia, Mega-City One is home to over 800 million people, aliens, mutants and robots, ruled by the Justice Department, which deposed the president after he caused a nuclear holocaust. Order is maintained by their army of street judges, a combination of police and judge empowered to enforce law, deliver sentencing, and even perform summary executions. The populace is mostly unemployed thanks to robots, so bored that they will fuck shit up just for something to do. Visiting museums of murder, riots and gang wars are all popular pastimes in Mega-City One. Nuclear conflict is also distressingly common, and the city’s population is decimated on a regular basis. Mega-City One is the ultimate failed police state—despite their unchallenged authority and unprecedented power, the judges are able to respond to less than 2% of all reported crimes, and thus have to rely on intimidation tactics to maintain their supremacy, like using excessive force and harsh sentences to deal with the criminals they can catch. Judge Dredd, despite his impressive arrest record and entertaining heroics, hasn’t made the city a safer place to live, and no matter how many times they clone him, he never will.

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The Wasteland (Fallout series)

In a weird atompunk alternate future devastated by nuclear war, the remnants of humanity struggle to rebuild some semblance of civilization. People live in rusty shacks and kill each other over bottle caps, the currency of the Wasteland. Everything is radioactive, and the harsh wilds are populated with vicious mutations, killer robots, and extras from a Mad Max movie, all eager to kill you and loot/eat your corpse. Humanity is divided among many different factions with conflicting goals who fight each other to dominate a ruined world. Some people just want to build a safe place to live, others are devoted to restoring the world that was, and a few want to burn it all down and rule the ashes. Although some communities have managed to develop and thrive, the “bustling metropolis” of Diamond City is just a shanty town the size of a baseball stadium. Unless you happen to be the legendary Lone Wanderer, life in the Wasteland is often comically short and intensely brutal, dictated by the base needs of survival in a chaotic place. Part of what makes the world of Fallout so tragic is that its inhabitants can still bitterly remember an age when things were much better.

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The Imperium of Man (Warhammer 40,000 series)

The Emperor of Mankind, the most powerful psychic warrior genius who ever lived, conquered the world with his genetically engineered super soldiers and brought humanity to order under His benevolent fist. Unified, the Imperium of Man spread across the stars, kicking the galaxy's collective asses into submission, beating back everything from alien hordes to demonic armies with the light of civilization. But when the Emperor fell, betrayed by his favored son, the great dream of the Imperium twisted into a nightmare. Now,all progress has stagnated, the Imperium maintained with ancient technologies serviced by an eccentric elite that practice more religion than science. The galaxy burns in the fires of countless wars as the Emperor’s armies of space marines fight each other almost as much as external threats, with entire worlds lost as collateral damage. Instead of expanding to conquer new worlds, they are fighting ever harder to hang on to the ones they have. In the Imperium of Man you are either a member of the fabulously powerful elite, or a peasant toiling in abject misery, living your entire life on a factory planet under a black sky without ever seeing an unpaved patch of dirt. There is no middle ground, and human life is just another commodity traded on an indifferent interstellar market. The Imperium is the broken legacy of a demagogue who never considered the possibility that the world might go on without him.

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Those are just a few of the most dire examples out there, but we are currently living in a halcyon age for dystopian fiction that continues to supply us with new nightmares. Can you think of some that are even more messed up? Be sure to let me know in the comments.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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