Dystopias and Satire

Bad ideas deserve dire scenarios. And even good ideas deserve the Worst Case Scenario Test, and maybe a bit of good-natured ribbing to keep ideologues from getting too earnest, or even fanatical. (Recall that the core theme of Holistic Politics is get out of echo-chamber thinking mode and take into account the impact on multiple values for any policy.)

As with utopias I'll divide the recommendations by positions on the Nolan Chart (a legacy of these reviews being originally written for my quiz site). In the interest of fairness, I'll order the categories the same as I did for utopias.

(Do note that some of the images are from my personal collection. Actual covers and formats may differ.)

Libertarian Satire and Dystopias

Suppose we take libertarian logic to its logical conclusion and legalize murder between consenting adults. World peace breaks out as the inherently violent compete in The Hunt. “Why have birth control when you can have death control?” The Tenth Victim is a very groovy Italian movie from 1965. It is one of the inspirations for the Austin Powers franchise. (The band Ming Tea is a reference to The Tenth Victim.)

The United States has broken up into burbclaves, each with its own security and constitution. The Mafia provides secure neighborhoods and pizzas. And the closest thing to a true government is the cable company. Such is the bizarre backdrop of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, a truly wild idea-dense ride.

And if you like Snow Crash you might like his earlier work The Big U, where he spoofs University life. Not quite as polished, but similar energy.

For a heavy-handed takedown of libertarian ideas, we turn to Hollywood, which finds the idea of corporations more powerful than government to be quite scary. The original Rollerball is a good example of the genre. The short lived TV series Max Headroom is another example of the genre. I list more in the conservative dystopias further down.

Social Liberal Dystopias and Satire

Civil liberties, free love, feminism, legal drugs…what could go wrong?

A fair amount, actually. And sometimes the results are really funny.

Let’s start with hallucinogenic drugs. What happens if corporations get really good at making hallucinogens – so good that you can buy a pill to hallucinate specific experiences? Answer: you get a hilarious dystopia that’s easily as funny as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The number of puns that survive Polish to English translation is truly stunning.

What are the long term consequences of hedonism and a welfare safety net? Darwin’s theory says there could be problems. C.M. Kornbluth broached the problem in his story “The Marching Morons.” I link to the complete set of his short stories in the pic, as they contain quite a few other utopias and dystopias. It's hard to believe they all came from the same author. Kornbluth was more into playing with ideas than advocacy.

For a delightfully crude take on the problem see the movie Idiocracy. When you are done laughing, have a look at some of the recent presidential debates. We may be almost there...

Sexual hedonists like legal abortion to clean up certain inconvenient results. But what happens when we combine advanced biotechnology with lack of legal status for the not-yet-human? Frank Herbert explores the grim consequences in the backdrop of Destination Void. (Whether he meant this to be an anti-abortion novel is unknown to me.)

Imagine a society where free love and drugs are mandatory and “mother” is an unspeakable cuss word? Such is the scenario in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Some consider this a classic.

For a more entertaining take on the same theme, watch the movie Logan’s Run. Do note the elegant alternative to Social Security. We might end up resorting to something similar if we don't get the federal budget deficit under control soon.

Conservative Dystopias

Since Hollywood is full of liberals, my go-to source of conservative dystopias is movies over books. Some of these movies are good enough that you might enjoy them even if you are a conservative.

For a gentle warm-up, how about a conservative dystopia starring conservative icon Charlton Heston: Soylent Green. It’s a well-done wakeup call for those in denial over global warming or the need for birth control. (Yes, global warming is featured and the movie came out in 1973, well before Al Gore took the national stage.)

Mix corporate domination with heavy-handed police and you get movies like Robocop, The Running Man, and Total Recall. For a sustained hatefest of all things Republican, try James Cameron’s Dark Angel series. The first season is well done; the second gets kind of goofy.

For written literature, try Fredrick Pohl’s Gateway [18+] for a well done dystopia on inequality and environmental destruction. John Brunner’s The Shockwave Rider [18+] is perhaps the first cyberpunk novel – written well before the term was coined – and features runaway corporatism and intelligence agencies.

For a dystopia featuring an out of control religious government, try If This Goes On, a novella in Robert Heinlein’s future history. (This book also features a utopian short story, “Coventry” based on the City of Refuge provision in the Bible. Heinlein had a love-hate relationship with the Bible; Biblical references are scattered throughout his works, both positive and critical.)

Economic Leftist Dystopias and Satires

I have a short collection of comedies for you below. For grim views of full-on state enforced communism, see the authoritarian dystopias further down the page.

“Don’t walk! Do it in a gym!” Let us start with Keynesian Economics run amok. Sydney’s Comet is the story of Earth threatened by a giant comet made of garbage generated by a society bent on preventing Hoovervilles through mandatory consumption. Even walking is forbidden; one must wear moto-shoes to get around. The story is rather silly, and the science is terrible. But it is a good lesson on the contradiction between Keynesian stimulus and environmentalism.

Back in my days living in Hippyland East (Asheville, NC), I was repeatedly informed that the Soviet Union was state capitalism, not true communism. Fair enough. Jack Vance wrote a spoof of the real thing in Wyst, the third short novel in the Alastor [17+] trilogy. It’s a very funny dark comedy taking place in an almost believable Egalistic society in the far future. Vance does to true communism what Neal Stephenson does to pure libertarianism in Snowcrash. Give a copy to your Che T-shirt wearing friends and relatives.

Finally, we have a Kafkaesque nightmarish comedy with Stanislaw Lem’s Memoirs Found in a Bathtub . The story takes place in an underground U.S. security complex plagued with out of control bureaucratic back stabbing and paranoia. You can read it as a take on an intelligence service gone out of control – an appropriate subject these days. Or it can be read as a metaphor for the downside of Marxist socialism (Lem wrote from communist Poland). I see it as a metaphor for the U.S. tax code, and so I place this one here.

Authoritarian Dystopias

The classic totalitarian dystopia is George Orwell’s 1984. With the fall of the Soviet Empire this bleak work may seem a bit dated. But note how the history rewrites resembles mainstream news coverage today and how the cable news networks resemble extended versions of the Ten Minute Hate. Maybe not so dated after all.

Now imagine a Monty Pythonesque take on 1984. That’s what you get in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Instead of a fully socialist police state, you have something a bit more rightwing, which has resorted to extreme police state tactics to deal with terrorists. This movie has turned out to be rather prophetic…

For a truly surreal experience, try The Prisoner. A British spy resigns over a matter of conscience. He is drugged and wakes up in The Village, a resort/prison inspired by Jeremy Bentham’s Panoptikon (using electronic surveillance instead of geometry to carry out the surveillance). Most episodes involve ever more bizarre schemes to get the hero, Number 6, to reveal why he quit.

For some of us, the thought of a totalitarian state is truly horrifying. So how about a dystopian novel by horror writer Ira Levin, This Perfect Day [17+]? With computerized communism enforced with regular drug regimens, how do you get free?

If effective communism isn’t horrifying enough, how about a “human” society modeled after insects, complete with radical specialization induced through biotechnology. Frank Herbert’s Hellstrom’s Hive [18+] is about as creepy as it gets without resorting to a full-on gorefest.

Finally, for some much lighter fare, try the Stallone action movie Demolition Man. A policeman is sentenced to suspended animation for inflicting too much collateral damage. He wakes up in a squeaky clean New Agey authoritarian society which maybe should be considered a utopia. But it’s an action movie, so lots of things get broken…

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There is far more in the book than what is here on this site. Read to rule!