Tuesday, July 26, 2005


Hell's Bells: the biography of Dystopia

In 1868, in a speech to the House of Commons, political philosopher John Stuart Mill coined the term 'dystopia' - from the Greek for 'bad place'. He also used the phrase 'cacotopia', or 'evil place'. But they essentially mean the same thing: a nightmare future world, a vision of society gone wrong.

Since Mill's speech, this frightening concept has gone on to fascinate us all, through dystopic novels and dystopic movies, even dystopic rock albums. But this in turn begs a question. Why is the genre so popular? Why do we like spooking ourselves with these depressing premonitions? A good place to start looking for an answer is one of the greatest fictional dystopias - the film Metropolis (which is released this summer in a new DVD edition).

The silent German movie was directed by Fritz Lang in 1927. It cost millions of Reichsmarks and employed 36,000 extras - which made it, at the time, a landmark in epic cinema. But that doesn't mean its ancient virtues are instantly apparent to the modern eye. They aren't. The acting in Metropolis is arch. The hero wears knickerbockers. And the story-line is saccharine and absurd.

Then you come to the moments of sheer visionary cinema. Eighty years old they may be, but the special effects in Metropolis are still eye-popping. Huge aerial motorways sweep between giddying skyscrapers; biplanes buzz amongst the hi-tech Gothic towers. Meanwhile, droves of identical workers toil in vast underground turbine halls, keeping the elite in their poncy satin pantaloons. It is presumably these remarkable scenes of unflinching state power, as well as the mighty nature of the filmic ambition, that appealed to the film's most notorious fans: Hitler and Goebbels.

But the admiration of the Nazis was deeply ironic. Lang's intention in Metropolis was not to write a paean to industrial might and Hitlerite authoritarianism, but to warn us against it. Metropolis is a dystopia of mechanisation, a nightmarish idea of what the future might be like, if scientific progress is allowed to run riot. Metropolis therefore explores one of the four main themes that can be found, in various combinations, in all artistic dystopias. The other themes are genetic manipulation, 'post-apocalypse', and totalitarianism.

Where and when did these themes emerge? The first dystopic visions were probably religious. St John, in his Book of Revelations (the last book of the Bible), imagines The End of Days, when terrible dragons menace mankind, amidst a landscape thick with brimstone. This dystopic theme of divine judgement was refined by medieval painters, such as Hieronymous Bosch, who liked to imagine his sinners being crucified on giant harps, or having their testicles gnawed at by toads. Such works might seem repellently morbid to us, but they were as popular as Planet of the Apes in their time. Arguably, they were the precise equivalent.

But the world had to wait until the 19th century, and the time of John Stuart Mill, for the birth of the true dystopia - in the sense of man-made nightmare worlds. The rise of the doom-laden dystopia at this time, amidst the political progress and social reform of Victorian Europe, appears on the face of it paradoxical. Yet a quick analysis of the intellectual climate shows why it happened.

The slow death of literal faith through the 19th century meant there was a Hell-shaped hole in the human mind, ready to be filled with horror-shows of scientific negativity. Meanwhile, the advent of genetics, mechanised warfare, and radicalism - an awareness that political oppression was man's common lot - added to the sense of impending doom. And so were born the four principal themes of the 'evil place'.

Once the concept was up and running, the artists got to work. French writer Jules Verne conjured a vile, Stalinist steel-city in The Begum's Fortune of 1880. English author Walter Besant produced a chauvinist dystopia in The Revolt of Man (1882), in which, catastrophically, there's no one left to make the tea - as the women are now ineptly ruling the world. H.G.Wells published a whole series of dystopias in the 1890s.

By this stage, it could be argued that the dystopias were feeding off each other. The fantasies were getting more lurid, the concepts more daring and desolate - almost an arms race of pessimism. Whatever the truth of this thesis, there are provable links between the significant literary dystopias of the 20th century.

In 1925 Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin's published We (My in the original). The key aspect of this dystopia is that it is post-apocalyptic. The novel is set in the 26th Century, after a Two Hundred Year War that turns society into a blank slate. Other writers, notably H.G.Wells in The Time Machine, had used the idea before. But We was innovative in making the backstory integral to the dystopia's structure. In Zamyatin's gruesomely logical dystopia, everybody eats the same thing at the same time with the same kind of spoon; the regimentation is a bulwark against man's disastrous irrationality.

One of the greatest fans of We - and it had many - was British writer Aldous Huxley. In 1936 he built on his reading of Zamyatin's dystopic work by conceiving a society that is rigidly stratified into five castes by eugenics. At the top are the genetic celebrities, the Alphas, at the bottom are the mulish chavs, the Epsilons. The fact that Huxley's imagined world is also playful, sexualised, and consumerist, somehow adds to its sinister quality. This is a world that, to a modern Western mind, seems horribly believable.

Amongst the many admirers of Brave New World was George Orwell. He was such a fan, he sent Huxley a copy of his own dystopia, 1984, on its publication in 1949. Huxley immediately realised that Orwell had outbid him, just as he had once outbid Zamyatin. When Huxley replied to Orwell, thanking him for the copy of the book, he wrote, "in 1984 the philosophy of the ruling minority is a sadism, which has been carried to its logical conclusion by going beyond sex and denying it."

In this judgement, Huxley was indubitably right. Orwell's genius was to take the theme of a totalitarian dystopia to the max. Previous to 1984, every other fictional dystopia was based on the idea that man might strive, Icarus-like, for social or technical betterment - and fail, with terrible consequences. In 1984 the opposite is the case. The horrifying vision in 1984 is of a society founded, from the outset, on Satanic principles, on the deliberate thwarting of all human passions.

It is arguable that 1984 is therefore the greatest of all dystopias. But it is not necessarily the most influential. In some respects cinema has provided us with the most vivid, awesome and harrowing visions of the 'evil place'.

Metropolis came first, as we have seen. But since 1927 we have had dozens, maybe hundreds of cinematic dystopias. Indeed a list of these myriad dystopias would be as long as Winston Smith's scream in Room 101. The last thirty years alone have given us Mad Max, Minority Report, AI, Gattaca, Brazil, The Matrix, Blade Runner, Logan’s Run, I Robot, and so on.

In this impressive roster, two films nonetheless stand out. The first is Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott. This vision of a dystopic Los Angeles of the near future, where the dirty work is done by cloned androids (called replicants), is a conscious hommage to its venerable German predecessor. Ridley Scott's LA is a clattering and kinetic place, where huge neon signs float through the Pacific drizzle - much like the biplanes and freeways in Metropolis. Yet Blade Runner goes further than that. Its design incorporates ideas from cyberpunk and film noir; its plot embraces our fears about genetic manipulation and man/machine conflict.

One of the many fascinating aspects of Blade Runner is the ambiguity of the hero, Drecker (played by Harrison Ford). In Blade Runner the dreams of the replicants are fabricated - inserted in the androids' minds so as to make them more human. At one point the question is raised as to whether Drecker's dreams are real or not. Maybe he is therefore himself a replicant: non-human? This terrible possibility darkens the whole dystopia, by introducing the idea that we cannot even trust our own judgement. Perhaps we are all helplessly paranoid? Worse still: maybe we are conditioned by society to accept an immoral world?

This theme was adapted in The Matrix. Directed by the Wachowski brothers, this 1999 movie might have been cheapened by its hugely inferior sequels - but the original remains absorbing. It is also very literate. Through its 136 minutes of violence and despair, it manages to reference cyberpunk (of course) along with Buddhism, Gnosticism, Taoism, Hinduism, Greek mythology - and a little known episode of Doctor Who called The Deadly Assassin.

The Matrix builds on the blurred reality of Blade Runner, as it narrates the strange fate of a boringly normal computer programmer, Thomas Anderson (played by Keanu Reeves). One day Anderson's apparently hum-drum world. of chit-chat, coffee cups and office-work, turns out to be a huge and terrifying delusion. In truth, the fabric of 'reality' is a computer programme, devised by demonic aliens to keep homo sapiens in eternal slumber, so that human body-heat can be sourced for the aliens' technology.

The science of this may seem ludicrous. That’s probably because it is ludicrous - detractors have pointed out that the energy you could derive from a human body is less than that needed to keep a body alive. But this does not mean the central allegory of The Matrix is not gripping, and chilling. What if this world - our world - is already a dystopia? Maybe, without realising, we have already been enslaved: into a dreary world of soul-killing jobs, and confining social norms? Many people must sometimes look around - perhaps on the Northern Line at 8am on a rainy January morning - and wonder if this is one dystopia that has already come true.

With The Matrix it could be argued that the dystopia had reached its endpoint. It is difficult to see how you can imagine anything more hellish than the idea that the world is already a cruel, dystopic nightmare. But history shows that, whenever the genre of dystopia looks like running dry, someone will always come up with fresh perspectives. Right now there is probably a writer, or a moviemaker, imagining something far worse than anything experienced by Thomas Anderson. Or Drecker. Or Winston Smith, for that matter.

And here we return to the original question. Why do we keep conjuring these scary visions? Why is the dystopia so 'popular'? A simple answer is that we just like being frightened - we dig the endorphin rush. But a subtler answer is, perhaps, that we know that dystopias are good for us. As warnings. In this light, when we read and watch dystopias we do it not because we expect that the world will one day be like this, but because we fear it might one day be like this, if we don't watch out. The fact that the western world, in the last 50 years, has stayed relatively free and relatively civilised, could consequently be seen as a vindication of the dystopia's role. That is to say: they've worked.

Put it another way. One of the reasons we have not entered a Brave New World is because of Aldous Huxley. The reason 1984 was not like 1984 was because of 1984. And no one is wearing creepy satin pantaloons - possibly because they look so stupid in Metropolis.

1 comment:

Eric S said...

Very interesting. You touch on what makes Metropolis both tempting and disturbing at the same time...and why film can be such an effective medium for presenting a dystopian vision.

I'd also add "Dark City" as one of the more memorable film dystopias. In a sense, it takes the control exercised in 1984 a step further--the entire city is simply shut down every night and reworked by its creators. It's rather terrifying, actually. In the worlds of 1984 and THX 1138, the possibility for resistance still remains...it's not *likely*, perhaps, but it's possible. In Dark City, you haven't much chance to change the world unless you can formulate, organize, and execute your plan in the span of a single day. Good luck with that...

Another classic dystopia is the society presented in The Trial, the shockingly claustrophobic Orson Welles film (based on Kafka's story). If any film serves as a warning of the dangers of a database state gone mad, it's this one. Will implementing something like national ID cards directly lead to an insane society like the one seen in this film? Of course not...but we should be very wary of slowly inching towards the creation of a society that even vaguely resembles Kafka's nightmare. If we do find ourselves in a 'real-life' dystopia some day, I think it's likely that it will be a result of gradual, subtle changes over time.

As far as finding dystopia "on the Northern Line at 8am on a rainy January morning", well...that's nothing a week on Bondi Beach can't cure.