Modern culture, from literature to television to cinema, has become obsessed with the contemplation of our doom. More specifically, we are infatuated with the conceived idea that a monumental change is coming. And not just coming, but imminent. Whether it comes from shifting climate, the unstoppable forward march of science, or the power seizures of our governments, something feels bound to give way and plunge society into the chaos of radical change. The entertainment industry, the largest purveyors of exotic theories with an unabashed license to do so, has cooked up for our enjoyment a myriad of ways for this drastic shift to occur. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic films and literature are nothing new, easily dating to the early twentieth century, but their propensity and perceived veracity has increased in recent years. Novels like 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, written well over half a century ago, are not entirely devoid of truth but also have not come to fruition. So then why have dystopian and post-apocalyptic works so noticeably become the jewel of the public’s eye, and what do these works say about our society? The following will seek to answer those questions, breaking down the most poignant and popular works as well as the fears and societal factors they play upon. The examination will uncover their purpose as collective warnings and ultimately point to society’s belief in the fundamental malevolence of humankind as well as confirm its aversion to change and fear of the unknown.
What are these stories that have taken our bookshelves and movie screens by storm? Harley Ferris in his essay “A Study in Dystopian Fiction” defines dystopia as a society ruled by an authoritative power that presents itself as beneficial while masking a negative agenda. Post-apocalyptic works are based around a global catastrophic scenario or apocalyptic event. Because the two genres are so closely related and have blurred together in many recent popular works, we will consider them interchangeable for much of this essay. Dystopian works such as The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, The Maze Runner, and V for Vendetta have all become wildly popular while portraying an undesirable and frightening near future. Coincidentally, each of these works takes place after an apocalyptic event and showcases an authoritarian government.
It doesn’t seem logical that books, television shows, and movies that prophesy humankind’s doom would become so popular. But they are, with The Hunger Games films netting $2.9 billion and the first two films of The Maze Runner series making $660 million. That’s not even taking into account book sales (There are over 50 million copies of The Hunger Games series in print). Put mildly, in the past decade people worldwide have become entranced by dystopian imaginings. But to get into the driving factors behind these works, we first have to understand why they have become so popular.
First the disaster, then the fascism
Several characteristics espoused by dystopian works make them highly entertaining to readers and moviegoers. The first is the horror aspect. The contemplation of our doom is riveting, even if most people don’t realize why. Each work portrays a doom scenario that could actually happen in the near future. By taking them seriously from an entertainment standpoint the public is lending these potential scenarios credibility. For example, the events of V for Vendetta are jumpstarted by a massive nuclear war. That closely parallels past hostilities with the now defunct Soviet Union and current tensions with North Korea. The events preceding these stories are pertinent to our current reality, and that makes their fear factor and entertainment value skyrocket.
The second factor that compounds that horror aspect is our natural fear of change. Humans desire stability, wishing for things to remain how they are or even how they used to be. That nostalgic phenomenon is known as rosy retrospection and is an ingrained human deterrent to change. Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes in the Harvard Business Review that two significant reasons people resist change are loss of control and excess uncertainty. As it applies to the business world so does it to dystopian works. Society reads about a drastically different future and subconsciously visualizes a world where their sense of self-determination is greatly diminished. On top of that, there’s our natural fear of the unknown. According to Kanter, society would prefer stability, even if that stability is encompassed in misery, than to be headed towards any kind of unknown. Death is the ultimate unknown, and these works present death as something that massive portions of the global population have already succumbed to and puts all survivors in constant danger.
Dystopian works point to our fears and trends in current society, but to be successful from the standpoint of storytelling they need conflict. Ferris indicates that that conflict arrives in the form of dissension. Whether it’s Katniss rebelling against Panem in The Hunger Games, or the factions of Chicago escaping its walls in the Divergent series, dissension is vital to each story. It is brought about by an enlightenment that purports the spirit of individualism against the collectivism which dystopias need to experience sustained success. Ferris describes it as a rift growing between the way things are and the way they might be better.
But while everything above points to reasons for their popularity, what themes do these works espouse about society and the direction humankind is headed? What can be inferred by studying what we create and what achieves widespread commercial success?
First and foremost, the genre as a whole suggests an impending radical change to the planet and humankind. To say they foretell our coming extinction might be going too far, but each dystopian work predicts a negative coming of events that will force humans to adapt or be wiped out. There is no shortage of causes: climate change, manmade harm to the planet, or the misappropriation of science and technology. These works are telling in examining how our society thinks. Are they a juxtaposition of civilization, where good is shrinking and becoming engulfed by evil? Or is the reverse true and the creators are suggesting our society as a whole will face an outside evil? Are these works actually a testament to determination and fortitude of humankind?
There is a third option. Post-apocalyptic entertainment could be serving as a warning about where society is headed and what will happen if we continue. This is a strong possibility; current events like climate change and the relentless push of science all make these works seem conceivable or even, in some instances, probable. There is much to support this. In The Dystopian Imagination, Theodore Dalrymple claims the purpose of dystopian works is moral and political. They are not crystal gazing but anxiously – despairingly – commenting on the present. Ferris calls them morality tales: meant to point out flaws in the present and extrapolate them into the future.
Change for the worse
If we can establish the warning value as legitimate, we can dig deeper into what that says about modern society. It all comes back to the human aversion to change. Throughout history, change has been coupled with increased danger and the lessened likelihood of survival. Humans fear what they can’t control, and a logical host for that fear has become science and technology. This is confirmed by works such as I am Legend that begins with the spread of a manmade virus. It’s inconceivable to imagine where we’d be without scientific and technological advances, but why is there so much fear and mistrust associated with the field? Why is every significant advance met with hostility and opposition? These works portray science, technology, and medicine as instrumental to our eventual doom because we can’t control it – no one knows where it might lead. If an innovation turns out to have harmful repercussions, it will be too late. Innovations such as the creation of nuclear and biological weapons confirm this. V for Vendetta portrays those very innovations as the beginning of our slip into a dystopian state. These real examples and their fictional extrapolations all play on human fear of change and the unknown. Those two truths are what lie at the core of any post-apocalyptic work.
Likewise, two central themes are shared by the most prevalent dystopian works: the wielding of power over the masses by an authoritarian government; and the use of experiments, games, and mass manipulation. In dystopias, according to Harley Ferris, the ruling group uses conditioning and coercion to maintain rule. Dystopian authoritarian governments thrive on collectivism. The masses are collectively portrayed as mere parts of a whole, and they exist to serve the state. Following this line, individualism is avoided at all costs. In The Hunger Games districts are labeled by number to give them as little individualism as possible. Each faction in the Divergent series has a uniform that they wear at all times.
On top of collectivism, these authoritarian governments partake in mass manipulation to further their power. The government of Panem makes two dozen children fight to the death each year in The Hunger Games. WICKED sends a group of young people through confusing trials in The Maze Runner. The totalitarian government in The Purge institutes a twelve-hour period where all crime is legal, a means of mass population control. The tyrannical nature of government varies in each of these works, but it mirrors real world communism, apartheid, and the Roman Catholic Church and at its root stems from our fear of totalitarianism. This fear is being voiced more and more across democratic nations as we perceive modern government to be subtly shifting power away from the represented public. There is a real, grounded fear in our culture of governmental control represented in dystopian works coming to fruition. Aspects of V for Vendetta are drawn from real events: the closed circuit television network surveying London, examples of modern United States torture practices, and instances (real and assumed) of media manipulation as well as corporate and government corruption.
Modern society has a factual fear of government seizure of power. But why are we so worried when representative governments have appeared to thrive for the last two centuries? It has, in part, to do with the oppressive regimes, from communism to socialism and apartheid, which have come and gone in modern times. But it boils down to society’s mistrust in people holding power (government) which stems from our belief in a governmental need for control, that some people have a need to control others. And this leads us to the very basis of that mistrust: our belief in the fundamental malevolence of the human race.
We hate people
Dystopian works show that society doesn’t trust the people in charge. Not only does it not trust them, it believes they have an innate need to increase control. And that can only be possible if society as a whole believes that people, at their core, are bad. Why have dystopian works that depict despotic governments, public experimentation, and population control gained so much popularity? Because they stem from trends like furthered government control coming to light in our society and, while horrific, are scenarios we could actually conceive as plausible. If the creators as well as the masses don’t have mistrust in people nurtured by a belief in their fundamental wickedness, then how could dystopias captivate us like they do and have such a grip on modern culture? Like their apocalyptic counterparts, these works are very likely a warning about the state of society; that we are going down a negative path with permanent implications and succumbing to our innate malevolence and must do something before it’s too late.
Dystopian and post-apocalyptic works have hinged themselves in the framings of modern culture. They infiltrate our lives through literature and subsequent film adaptations and make billions spelling doom in a scintillating way that society can’t get enough of. Behind the clashes of good and evil and the struggles for survival lie our fears: fear of change and the unknown, fear of being dehumanized, and fear of totalitarian control. Because each post-apocalypse scenario stems from actual factors shaping our planet, it makes the stories believable.
Dystopias focus on the human element of the post-apocalypse world and by doing so shed light on some of humankind’s fundamental beliefs. By entertaining the notion that a cataclysmic event would cause power to shift to a small group, we as a society admit we mistrust the people in power. With mistrust, we acknowledge uncertainty over the intentions of government and can eventually deduce that there is a widespread belief in the malevolence of humankind.
Post-apocalyptic and dystopian works tie together and give a deeper understanding of human nature and modern culture. Their most basic function, besides entertainment value, is to serve as a warning. There wouldn’t be such a mass market for books and movies purporting doom and the end of our kind if society didn’t believe they were possible and didn’t acknowledge the actual factors leading us towards them. The fact that they are deemed credible means we are aware of the road down which we are heading. If civilization is to escape the undesirable endings depicted in these works, it will have to go against human nature and make a change before the future is taken out of its hands.