Playmakers (2003)
Pygmalia: Photo Essay

Friday Five: 5 Distinct Dystopias

The-king-in-yellow-coverAleriel is out now - a resurrected Victorian space travel novel, complete with a new sequel from Molly Tanzer. (Molly's had a busy week!) Molly's sequel puts a new spin on the original novel. Lach-Szyrma's titular Venusian traveller was particularly impressed by the theocratic society he finds on Mars. Molly? Less so, and "Civilisation and Its Discontents" shows this presumed utopia from a different perspective. 

So, naturally, we asked Molly for a short list of some of her other favourite dystopias, so, without further ado...


I mean, even considering that BioShock was too scary for me to play, and 1984 and Brave New World seemed too easy, these were some tough choices. In the end, I settled on this list, which I felt were (1) a nice mix of various media, and (2) also contain utopias disguised as dystopias, and vice versa. Enjoy!

“The Repairer of Reputations,” Robert W. Chambers (1895)

Is the aristocratic, decadent 1920 of Robert Chamber’s short story utopia, or dystopia? It… depends, I guess, on your point of view. Given the recent anxieties over immigration, many American governors and citizens would think this remark means utopia is upon poor Hildred and his acquaintance:

“…the exclusion of foreign-born Jews as a measure of national self-preservation, the settlement of the new independent negro state of Suanee, the checking of immigration, the new laws concerning naturalization, and the gradual centralization of power in the executive all contributed to national calm and prosperity.”

Indeed. But, with the fanfare and parades and the strangely quiet peace and prosperity apparently making the United States an ideal society, we also have the introduction of the Government Lethal Parlors in every city, there for the use of anyone whose “existence… may have become intolerable to him, through physical suffering or mental despair.” Huh. Why such a utopia would have such people in it is a good question—as good a question as whether any of the events of the story can be believed, given the unreliability of its narrator.


Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand (1957)

What can I say? I loved Atlas Shrugged as a kid, and spent a year communicating with the Objectivist institute and an Objectivist radio show host in Australia before I went to college and, well, came to appreciate Rand’s magnum opus of crumbling facades, kinky sex, and static electricity engines for its humor value, rather than it’s special cupcake philosophy of being mean to those you consider lesser.

Anyway, the dystopian setting of Atlas Shrugged still is dear to my heart—who knew that collectivism could make restaurant food taste less good? This—this—is the heart of Rand’s dystopia. If you’re going to survive it, better throw back your head, laughing at the idea that anyone could make anyone do anything, and then grab yourself a lean-faced man with piercing blue eyes or a suit-clad woman with elegant legs straight like iron bars but with an unseen, but still evident softness. Kiss ‘em so hard you bruise their lips, and then go found an even more dystopic utopia somewhere in the mountains of Colorado.

Gun, With Occasional Music, Jonathan Lethem (1994)

Beloved by many and despised by many, I completely adore Lethem’s ridiculous hardboiled dystopia. It has everything I like—drugs, talking animals, more drugs, intrigue, sexual anxiety, drugs, noir elements, despair, and more drugs. It’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit meets Brave New World, for goodness’ sake. I was inevitably helpless before it. The less said about it the better, however; if you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it.           

Tank_girl_posterTank Girl (1995)

I know it’s annoying to some when people use post-apocalyptic and dystopic interchangeably, but I wanted to include a movie and I’ve done RoboCop for Pygmalia, and it’s been too long since I’ve seen A Clockwork Orange to talk about it. Anyway, also, frankly it’s hard for me to think of a film that affected my sensibilities more than Tank Girl. I rented it on VHS as a young Tanz, and was bewitched by the sheer jubilant zero-fucks-given ridiculousness of this vision of a post-apocalyptic, dystopic future. It’s 2033 in Tank Girl, it hasn’t rained in 11 years, and all the fresh water that isn’t being siphoned by off-the-grid… grunge… communes is controlled by Water & Power, an evil (you think, with that name?) corporation run by Malcolm McDowell. Also starring Naomi Watts, with cameo appearances by James Hong, Ann Cusack, Iggy Pop, Ice-T, and Donald Harvey, if that isn’t enough to make you watch or re-watch it, maybe alleging that if Mad Max: Fury Road is the Christ child of the water crisis post-apocalyptic dystopian film, then Tank Girl is definitely it’s John the Baptist will.

Avatar: The Last Airbender, S2 (2006)

I agonized for at least 5 minutes between doing Avatar or Aeon Flux for my TV pick, but I’m going to go with Avatar since it’s the less obvious choice.

Perhaps all of A:TLA is dystopic, since the setting is one in which an invading military force is systematically wiping out other ways of life, but I’m going to focus on a plot thread of S2. Team Avatar reaches Ba Sing Se, only to find out that within the safe walls of the city, no one knows what the Fire Nation has been up to. It’s forbidden to speak of the war, forbidden to agitate the population, and anyone who does… well, they end up being taken away by the Dai Li, the secret police, and re-educated underneath the mysterious Lake Laogai. The phrase re-educated always conjures up such a lovely, comforting sensation, doesn’t it? Anyway, yay for this kid’s show that includes brainwashing, people losing their memories but being so certain they have perfect recollection, repressive regimes, and creepy person-substitution!

Runners up: “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, RoboCop, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, V for Vendetta (the movie, and don’t you dare judge me), and anything else I mentioned above.