Dystopian fiction is often superficially interpreted as antithetical to ‘Utopian’ grade of perfection, however it consists of multiple facets. It involves depiction of suffering, injustice, unbalanced power dynamics, oppression and sparks of rebellion to overthrow the authoritarian power and may also fuse in with other genres such as the incorporation of sci-fi or thriller crossovers. The world today is seeing a great spike of interest towards dystopian themes in terms of literature and multimedia.
The recently released South Korean Netflix series ‘Hellbound’ has taken over the internet with a storm. This drama is based on a unique plotline in a dark fantasy genre that revolves around other-worldly beings who appear out of thin air to issue a decree and condemn individuals to hell. These supernatural events lead to a huge mayhem in modern-day Korea; eventually enabling a cult-religious group ‘The New Truth’ who claim to know the secret behind these occurrences to establish their influence and dominance in dictating the course of life in Korea. ‘Hellbound’ is only the latest in the wave of dystopian fictional TV shows from South Korea that is being enjoyed globally.
People are strangely drawn to plotlines that stir the equilibrium in society, contrary to what man-made institutions have tried to establish over the years in an attempt to make better sense of our world. The popular Korean show, ‘Squid Game’ challenges the status quo of the pro-utopian world wherein people from the lower strata of society are literally provided an egalitarian level playing ground of games to avail their chance to rise up. Hypocrisies of today’s class conflicted society wherein the rich view the struggling class of people as puppets of entertainment or utility has been remarkably portrayed in the series. ‘Train to Busan’, ‘Kingdom’ and ‘Sweet Home’ are also worth a mention with their adventurous riveting plots which also involve zombies and mystic creatures.
The Dystopian Timeline in a Global Perspective
While the acquired taste for appreciating alternate or multiverse fiction traces back to old time classics like, Star Wars and ET, an unforeseen upsurge of public interest spiked with the release of James Cameron’s masterpiece Avatar. Though Avatar falls under science fiction, the spirit of rebellion of the Na’vi Clan against oppression portrays a dystopian flavour which has widened the horizons for several storytellers to explore a world beyond reality that still mimics and empathises with the grassroot struggles of the masses. ‘The Hunger Games’ trilogy for instance as beautifully penned by Suzanne Collins brings sentiments of distrust in authority, class discrimination and struggle, stiff competition and scarcity to life as a mockery of the ideologies our “so-called pro-utopian world” is set in. Though we live in a democratic world, promising human rights, liberty and free-will, the oppression and struggles as beautifully crafted in this series; hit-back home for the audience on a deeper emotional level. In the year 2011, ‘Game of Thrones’ took the world by a storm despite its graphic portrayal of violence and debauchery. People developed a frenzy obsession with the franchise with each growing season. What is intriguing about the series is that, one does not find ideals of justice, human dignity or chivalry, which we consider form the basic cusp of peaceful human cohabitation; yet people are mysteriously drawn to what the show has to offer. Sandra Bullock’s adventure thriller ‘Bird Box’ or Emily Blunt starrer, ‘A Quiet Place’, delves into depicting the downfall of the world by supernatural forces, eventually culminating in judgement day. This essentially leaves the audience in shudders and remorse over environmental concerns that we are fighting against in today’s world.
Psychologists opine that TV shows are a mere reflection of our hidden desires that cannot be fulfilled in one’s mundane life. According to Sigmund Freud our subconsciousness has several impulses which are suppressed by our super-ego; the ethical component of our personality that is shaped by the culture and society we live in. Dystopian fiction becomes a small escape into gratifying some of those under-lying desires by merely visualizing them on show media which is far more acceptable in society than actually indulging in those behaviours. We rationalise and justify ourselves that ‘watching violence or debauchery’ may not be quite as objectionable as committing them.
However, Dystopian fiction could also prove to be an escape from the nightmares of one’s own harsh social reality. When World War II ended, Francis Fukuyama published his popular work by the name of ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ claiming that “the West has won” the entire world with ideologies of Liberalism, free markets and Capitalism. He believed that no other ideology could supersede in enabling people to live a fulfilled life of peace, dignity and freedom.
Yet, 2021 has witnessed the greatest number of civil unrest and public revolt in this century. The most eminent of them was the struggle to obtain democracy from a military dictatorship which we have seen in Myanmar and Sudan. Surprisingly, even purely democratic countries which promise liberty and freedom of expression witnessed numerous public agitations in attempts to overthrow the government. India witnessed numerous protests against ‘Farm Bills’ imposed, while the USA had prolonged protests over racism & police brutality especially during Trump’s term. We continue to live in dystopian torrid conditions of poverty, hunger, abuse and even gruesome wars. Recently, more than 90,000 Russian military troops gathered near the Ukrainian Border sending jitters across Europe & USA of possibilities of an imminent war and invasion. India has had impending border issues with its neighbours Pakistan & China. Tension in the border areas continue as both Indo-Chinese and Pakistani military troops display fatally long standoffs killing soldiers on both ends. The Syrian War, the Afghan Crisis and the Iran-Israel proxy war blaze all over the middle-east. Not to mention, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is probably one of our world’s most enduring conflicts lasting over 54 years.
Thus, while Fukuyama feels rest assured in the powers of democracy, capitalism and liberalism; we witness people’s agony telling us that probably this ought not to be the be-all-end-all solution. Dystopian fictions enable people’s intuition to imagine possibilities of a world beyond the boundaries of this quest of perfection. Perhaps it is a reflection of our angst in being subjugated to a reality of deception that promises utopia but delivers anguish. Conversely a dystopian setting in media proves to be more honest, wherein one is aware of what exactly to expect, thereby imparting some condolence and empathy to its audience from this authentic portrayal.
Imperfect Perfect World
The premises of our present world lie in the fundamental philosophies coined by eminent thinkers like Plato, Kant, Machiavelli, Rousseau and Aristotle from the medieval era. Even today, the twenty first century systems and processes are laid out by tweaking the foundation of those ideas from centuries ago. While we all can acknowledge that brilliant minds back in those times have culminated to the renaissance of art, literature and sciences; the emergent dystopian fictions could be a stimulating sign beckoning us to reconsider if our subject matters need an upgrade like our smartphones do. Wouldn’t this world need new forms of systems and ideologies? Perhaps New-“isms’ ‘ formulated beyond the stale categorizations of the pre-existing capitalism, communism, totalitarianism or fascism and so on?
The world today needs a Renaissance 2.0 with new thinkers, new ideologies and fresh thought that can revolutionise how we see the world. Even though they may or may not necessarily be as perfect as “utopia” pledges to be; yet it could provide some solace to longing eyes that have been enduring a dystopian level of suffering in the midst of today’s “pro-utopian world”.