Dystopia Is Hard

"You can see why Che ducked out right after the revolution. It's a lot easier to blow up the trains than to make them run on time."

Any Dystopia allowed to be more than a Straw Dystopia — allowed contact with human nature as it is — will go wrong (by the founder's standards) in ways that are often spectacular.

The huge majority of Dystopias present in fiction are Fascist, but Inefficient, and would fall to bits the instant you apply anything like actual social dynamics to them. This trope happens when the author tries to puzzle out the kind of Herculean effort required to keep tabs on everything a country of a hundred million people or more do at all times, and then guide it in the desired direction... only to fail miserably because the author forgot to puzzle out how to keep tabs on the people that are supposed to be keeping tabs on a country of a hundred million people and guide them in the desired direction.

This trope is often used to deconstruct the concept of Dystopia. Dystopias are easy to imagine but hard to set up in Real Life. The villains have won the day, and now it looks like humanity is doomed. But then the villains learn a harsh lesson: running an actual country or company or what have you based purely on some flavor of evil is hard. Forget making all the trains run on time, just ensuring all the Black Shirts get a check on payday so they don't rebel is a titanic effort. Plus you're now opposed by those who you are trying to oppress at all turns. Your fellow ruling villains may turn on you or grow lazy and incompetent. Even if you avoid it, you are certain to get a plotting and backstabbing orgy behind you, or a horridly inefficient and ossified bureaucracy, or both.

Worst of all, humanity is resistant to the creation of a society that they believe is against their well-being. Making such a society work without having people act strangely in ways undesired by the state is difficult and requires incredible savvy, incredible PR, or incredible improvement of humanity's actual and/or perceived well-being. (And if you have to resort to increasing the quality of life of the people you're supposed to be oppressing, then it's not really a dystopia, is it?)

In short, Dystopia Is Hard and often falls apart quickly.

A crucial component of Post Cyber Punk, which tends to reject the ideas that a society can't be repaired and that explicitly malevolent organizations can sustain themselves for long, even without "heroic" interference.

Compare Victory Is Boring, when villainy in general isn't as rewarding as Masterminds and Overlords thought it would be. Usually results in the regime being Fascist, but Inefficient. See Despotism Justifies the Means and Dystopia Justifies the Means where dystopic conditions may be allowed to foster just to keep the ruler in power, thereby averting this trope since the crapsack conditions are in themselves a form of governance. See also Bread and Circuses, where a leader consciously avoids dystopia for this very reason.

Typically leads to A World Half Full situation.

No Real Life Examples, Please! A dystopia is a fictional creation, and putting real life examples here is just calling for Flame War and Natter. We can say, however, that a lot of authoritarian governments weren't exactly... well-run.

Examples

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    Comics 
  • In Thunderbolts, a team of supervillains pretend to be superheroes to Take Over the World. However, Moonstone betrays their leader because ruling the world is too much work and she would prefer to use their ruse to continue running smaller scams.

    Fanfiction 
  • Many My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic fanfics explore the implications if Nightmare Moon hadn't been defeated. Her eternal night, cutting off the world from the sun, would have caused all of Equestria to either starve or freeze to death.
    • In the fanfic Nights Favored Child, Nightmare Moon realized this and created a second moon that provides enough heat to grow crops. She also realized that society could not run under her iron hoof and created an aristocratic bureaucracy.
    • In the fanfic Divided Rainbow, while she is defeated before implementing it, Nightmare Moon is shown experimenting on creating an ecosystem that can survive eternal night — which is the origin of the Bat ponies.
    • Nightmare Moon's Heel–Face Turn in The Wizard And The Lonely Princess is at least partly motivated by her belatedly realizing what would have happened if she'd won.
  • The new Solar Empire of Equestria in The Conversion Bureau: The Other Side of the Spectrum is commonly referred to by its defectors as a "despotic, fascist hellhole." It's cracking under its own weight, as their global campaign to subjugate billions while undertaking a massive increase in population growth has not done them any favors. There are food shortages, overpopulation of urban centers and pollution, a total logistic breakdown, mass poverty, deranged newfoals just barely hidden under the veneer... it's doomed even if Queen Celestia wins.
  • Used several times in Sonic X: Dark Chaos. Although the Demon Empire seems to be stable on the surface, the endless warfare and the insane logistical and economic nightmare of running such a gigantic empire is slowly weakening it. Indeed, it is strongly implied that Maledict's will and leadership is one of the only things still keeping it together.
  • In Wish Carefully, Harry Potter deliberately surrendered to the Death Eaters, allowing them to control all of Wizarding England and no longer have to deal with Muggles, muggle-borns and squibs anymore. After the Light's exodus, the Death Eaters' pureblood ideology is thoroughly deconstructed, their population is slowly dying out (forcing them to resort to especially drastic measures to keep their populations up), their economy is in shambles and Voldemort becomes a complete Control Freak and The Caligula.
  • Averted in many Pinky and the Brain fanfics. Whenever the Brain succeeds in taking over the world, he usually proves to be very good at running it.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • The Orwellian society in Brazil is highly dysfunctional and error-prone.
  • Libria in Equilibrium is literally one missed Prozium dose away from revolution, as Cleric John Preston spends the entire film ably demonstrating. Within minutes of government broadcasts being cut off, municipal buildings are blowing up and the Sweepers are being overrun by hundreds of armed insurgents. We also learn the Librian government specifically groomed Preston to bring the Resistance down from the inside by manipulating events to make him emotionally unstable, which makes things even worse: it means Libria is so unstable, it can't even withstand an agent provocateur that it created itself.
  • In the Super Mario Bros. movie, this is seen as Koopa's motivation. His dictatorship mismanaged Dinohattan so terribly that the world is running out of resources, so he plans to merge it with Earth.

    Literature 
  • In one example of Older Than They Think, the para-text of The Handmaid's Tale practically spells this out: the Republic of Gilead, theocratic dystopia that it was, didn't take all that long to completely implode under the weight of its own contradictions and ineptitude. This gets pretty obvious even during the course of the novel, however, as a mere seven years after its founding, Gilead is coming apart at the seams: the "wives" of the theocratic strongmen who founded the Republic are not at all pleased with the results, it's clear that the same strongmen don't believe what they preach at all (a government-run brothel in a Christian theocracy?), and it gets more and more obvious as the novel goes on that the complete ineptitude of those in charge is fomenting a massive counter-rebellion against Gilead; actually, sporadic warfare has already broken out in backwaters of the former USA, mostly incited by dissident Christians. It's implied that the end of the novel proper may even be the opening shots of the civil war that destroyed the theocracy.
  • In the Culture novel The Player of Games, The Empire of Azad is initially presented as extremely cruel and decadent, but also strong and competent. However, given the propensity of their leadership for backstabbing each other, it only takes the slightest nudge from the Culture for them to completely implode. It also fits, as the lower classes of Azad and minority groups were brutally oppressed, and the novel concludes that a society with that much inequality cannot remain stable for long.
    • This trope is discussed in the novel. It's stated that it's very rare for a civilization as brutal and oppressive to become as advanced as it has before collapsing, and it's entirely due to the game of Azad that it's still together. Once Gurgeh wins, (and the Empire has been disingenuously told that he represents the spearhead of a Culture invasion), the Emperor goes berserk and the top leadership falls apart.
  • The original novelization of Star Wars: A New Hope stated that the Rebellion was gaining support because of Emperor Palpatine's inability to rule, and trying to rectify this helpless puppet with The Chessmaster seen later is a bit tricky. The Sith in general are so concerned with jockeying and positioning for power, as per their code, that it is practically impossible for them to govern effectively, something even the Sith noticed, back when Darth Bane cut down on the infighting to establish the Rule of Two. Perhaps Palpatine wasn't incompetent by any stretch of imagination, just too busy with building up and maintaining the military, protecting himself and ensuring his continued rule, and ensuring corrupt bureaucrats liked him, to care much about economic stability, competition maintaining the integrity of industries and product safety and quality, prosperity of the citizens, or well-being and quality of life in general.
    • Later Expanded Universe books indicate this was the case-in fact, it seems Palpatine was the only thing actually holding the Empire together (in some cases literally, through the Force), as it almost immediately started to fall apart with his death.
  • This happens a lot in the Sten novels, and it eventually happens to the galactic empire itself. At the series' beginning, it's a benevolent oligarchy, but then the Emperor dies and comes back a little crazy (and gets progressively crazier) and, to quote Star Wars, the more he tightens his grip, the more things slip out of his control.
  • The short story "Sam Hall" by Poul Anderson is about a dystopian government that collapses because of all the resources they expend trying to track down the titular malcontent who managed to get cross-referenced with a police report. The effort they expend to track him down increases as every effort they expend to find him fails. And the reason they can't find him is because he doesn't actually exist. A data entry clerk created a file for a fictitious person named after a drinking song as a joke and entered it into the system — and then proceeded to alter records to attribute crimes to Sam Hall whenever he's feeling rebellious.
  • In "A World Called Maanerek" by Poul Anderson, the pressures to conform to the Hegemony's loyalty requirements cause serious problems within the society and still more on shipboard. When a ship gets too bad, they take over part of a planet and let the men rape and torture the inhabitants at will to release pressure. Torrek, having lived for five years after being mind blanked among another people, reverts to that people in spite of having no memories of them — their more natural way of living had affected him in a way no loss of memory could eradicate.
  • Brave New World: Sure, dystopia is a lot easier with lots and lots of drugs... but the guy in charge still finds running it to be a very hard job and would gladly migrate to one of the islands where malcontents are sent if he didn't believe he was truly making a Heroic Sacrifice for the greater good.
  • At the start of Matched, the Society is running low on the manpower necessary to maintain its constant 1984-style surveillance; the Citizens have noticed there are only about a third of the Officials on patrol as there used to be.
  • In It Can't Happen Here, the U.S. elects a populist president, Buzz Windrip, who promptly turns the country into a fascist, totalitarian state. Poverty and economic downturns are the fruits of Windrip's regime, much to Windrip's dismay.
  • Fatherland uses this to deconstruct the "Hitler wins" sub-genre of Alternate History. Nazi Germany in 1964 is not a nice place by any means, but rather than a fascist juggernaut steamrolling the entire world into a thousand years of Nazi-dominated horror, it's more of a shitty place to live where everything's beginning to fray at the edges anyway because it turns out living in a Nazi state isn't actually that much fun. Having all the "lebenstraum" in the east sounds a lot better when there aren't Soviet and Polish terrorists constantly waging a war of attrition against you, the Cold War against the United States isn't going so well because America is a lot less of a shitty place to live, and everyone's just kind of going through the motions because they'll get shot otherwise.
  • Hell in The Salvation War is a feudal, bronze age society, where backstabbing is actively encouraged by Satan, Demon lords are constantly fighting each other, and technological growth is actively discouraged. This system works fine, until the humans break in, bringing with them more modern weapons and social values. Then the entire society starts to implode, with every (living) demon either forming plans to overthrow Satan (so they can surrender to the humans) or just switching sides outright. The second part shows Heaven... a Crapsaccharine World which is only cosmetically different, and while Klingon Promotion is less common, plots to overthrow God have apparently started much earlier and without human intervention.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Revolution: The Monroe Republic demonstrates this in the episode "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia". It may have military power, but not much else. It hasn't harnessed the power of steam. It doesn't have any commerce or trade. It doesn't have any international connections. President Foster of the Georgia Federation outright compares Monroe's territory to a third-world country. Not only that, but Monroe ends up cracking under the pressure of controlling things as time goes on.
  • Star Trek:
    • The Mirror Universe's evil Terran Empire is nearly defeated by a slave uprising early in its creation, as the aliens it had conquered band together to throw off their human oppressors. The Empire is simply overextended after a too-fast expansion, and is undermined by officers constantly backstabbing one another for power. Only the discovery of a Constitution-class Federation starship, Defiant, sucked into their universe and pulled over a century backwards in time by the Tholians, provides the Terran Empire with the means to put down the rebellion. And even with this hundred-year reprieve, by the time they catch up with the year Defiant came from, the best starships the Empire can make are still mere copies of it, and the collapse of the whole system is considered inevitable by mirror-Spock.
    • The Cardassian Union, as shown in DS9 has similar issues. Their totalitarian government appears to only work because Cardassians are all but genetically loyal to the state. Just about any other species (the Bajorans or the Federation citizens on the Cardassian side of the border of the neutral zone) that falls under their rule are driven to a constant state of rebellion (the Bajorans kept on fighting for 50 years). We see several regime changes over the course of the show, with statements from Gul Dukat implying that this isn't a rare occurrence.
  • Battlestar Galactica: The entire humanoid-Cylon culture was created as "John Cavil"'s idea of the perfect society, and it started falling apart almost as soon as they started having contact with humans that wasn't at the end of a nuclear missile.

     Tabletop Games 
  • Misspent Youth by Robert Bohl attempts to deal with this trope by making the Dystopia local and relevant to the lives of teenagers. During Dystopia creation, the group creates Systems of Control that are technological ways The Authority has to mess with your lives.
  • Warhammer 40,000's Imperium of Man can be one of the most brutal examples of The Empire in fiction, a theocratic police state combining the worst elements of Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia... when it can get its act together. Unfortunately an empire of a million worlds requires billions of administrators just to function, much less deal with the constant threat of rebellion and heresy and alien attack, but the problems of Warp travel and Astropathic communication ensure that even making contact with a given world can prove difficult. As a result, the Administratum spends most of its time processing data hundreds of years out of date, sending reinforcements to wars that are long since over or demanding tithes from planets that no longer exist. This is a galactic government that loses worlds to filing errors, and by the setting's present the general impression is that the Imperium is in its final decline. The only reason it's lasted this long is the sheer size of it, and the fact that as awful as it is, the other factions are worse.
    • Just some numbers. It took Imperium 200 years to gather a response force to stop Angron's Dominion of Fire campaign. 70 sectors were burnt to the ground which might include hundreds to thousands of worlds. The Sabbat worlds were falling to Chaos influence for three thousand years before the Imperium took action. The Imperium has a ridiculously powerful military and it really seems at times that it should have no trouble stomping all its foes if only it could finally learn to deploy in strength.
    • The upside of all this is that the Imperium isn't always able to make its citizens' lives a living hell. While some hyper-industrialized factory worlds use Government Drug Enforcement to keep workers from killing themselves, other places like Ultramar are pretty nice places to live, assuming a highly militarized if efficient mini-Roman Empire is your thing. Judging from the worlds described by Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell, most planets have huge inequalities, with the "have-nots" terrified at any meaningful displeasure from the "haves," but are at least superficially pleasant.
      The fact of the matter is that Holy Terra figured out pretty quickly that the galaxy is too big to control every planet directly, and have adopted a form of the "The Federation" trope to mitigate the worst effects of governmental bloat. As long as the planet's governor sends its tithes of Imperial Guardsmen and resources, sends its psykers to the Black Ships, promotes an acceptable variant of the Imperial Cult, and stamps out heresy and alien influence, Holy Terra doesn't particularly care how the world is run.
    • The Tau Empire loves to exploit this trope, and have managed to lure away some of the Imperium's more miserable worlds (and those they've been secretly trading with) to become clients of their empire. The Tau themselves live under an Orwellian regime of racial castes and an all-powerful elite, but at least it's functional and socially and economically stable. Or at least that's what their propaganda videos say. It is implied that Ethereals use mind control to keep the population in check (and forced sterilization of "alien" converts, like humans) and one famous commander went renegade after all the Ethereals in his detachment were killed.
  • Paranoia attempts to avert this trope by saying that it is not a setting but a place of mind. The XP rulebook also claims that the horrific conditions in Alpha Complex are still probably far better than, say, being a beggar in "Calcutta or Lagos or the South Bronx" - people are (mostly) happy, everyone is employed, and there is mandatory leisure time. Still, the Alpha complex has tons of mutants, spies, communists (even if their knowledge of actual communism is way off), and all sorts of secret societies wishing to overthrow, control, or destroy Friend Computer. The only thing stopping them is constant fighting between and within all the secret societies.
  • The Seers of the Throne in Mage: The Awakening have run into this problem before even getting their dystopia off the ground. When your organization is split into five or so separate factions, trying to get them around the table to plan how you're going to subjugate and control the masses is like herding cats without any form of tools.
  • In BattleTech the Terran Hegemony and the Star League had tough time in its late rule, it not only had to govern thousands of worlds, they had to stamp out rebellion in the Periphery regions, and stave off constant pirate attacks. Later the Inner Sphere houses are always on constant threat with each other as their own enemies live right next door to them, and their technology has stagnated and interspace travel and communications have been limited due in part that they have spent several decades nuking each other in the first two Succession wars.

     Video Games 
  • Zig-zagged in Bioshock Infinite: Comstock creates a racist, zealous, classist society in Columbia, and succeeds at earning the respect and worship of the upper classes, as well as control and dominance over the lower-classes (their revolution is rigged from the start). The key was being a really, REALLY good prophet and bad at everything else. This is done by "borrowing" visions of the futures of alternate timelines, using technology and quantum mechanics rather than spiritualism and faith. But by the end, Comstock is dead, the city is wiped out, and is even erased from existence. This version, anyway. Basically, they borrowed heavily from alternate universes to make their dystopia work, and when Booker, from an alternate universe, came to collect for the loss of his daughter to Comstock, they got their assets cleaned out. Comstock also ended up engineering his own demise by telling all of Columbia to be on the lookout for Player Character Booker DeWitt, whom Comstock called "the False Shepherd." When Booker inevitably shows up and gets exposed, the entire town turns on him, but they're so laughably bad at fighting that Booker still wipes the floor with them.
  • Cleverly used in Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. Amongst the forms of governance you can institute in your fledgling human society is an Orwellian Police State, and you're free to make use of it... as long as you're able to keep paying the massive, MASSIVE bill for the necessary level of surveillance technology as well as upkeep on the military units needed to keep the peace in all your cities. Basically, unless you're a highly skilled and clever administrator, trying to run a Dystopian society in Alpha Centauri is liable to just bankrupt you while more pragmatic factions bypass and eventually absorb you.
    • Alternately, you can construct the 'Living Colony' wonder, which turns your cities into self-aware AIs, making it easy to monitor and control everything the downtrodden citizenry are doing, at a manageable cost. Of course, at that point, even The Fundamentalist thinks that you're a monster.
  • The Tropico series: You can make a brutal oppressive police state if you want but if you don't even try to keep the populace somewhat happy, you'll be on a never ending war with rebels seeking to overthrow you. In later games, just angering ONE faction will give all sorts of penalties. And if you somehow piss off either the US or the USSR enough to invade you, it's instant game over.
    • You can prevent the super powers from invading if you create a nuclear program, but it will only keep them away as long as you can keep the system running, which requires you NEVER go in the negative. Which is very difficult, since pissing of either power means you have pissed off at least the capitalist and/or communists, who make up the two largest factions on the islands.
  • In Hearts of Iron and its sequels you can set your country's policies with sliders and by changing ministers. Very realistically, an authoritarian, closed society is not easy to maintain, but it sure is easier than running a democracy that will dump dissent on you at every possible turn (dissent reduces the effectiveness of pretty much everything you try to do and can cause revolts).
  • The evil regime in Dishonored has a very hard time keeping a hold on things once you take away things like their financial backing, the guy who makes their technology, and their control over the state religion. And when the Lord Regent's plan to Kill the Poor backfires on him, it leads to his downfall at Corvo's hands, either by having his schemes exposed or being outright killed. Thanks to that, and the plague in the city going out of control, positions of power change hands so rapidly that it's a wonder they were able to keep order at all.
  • Many characters in Fallout: New Vegas anticipate that Caesar's Legion, an army of Roman-themed raiders who reject advanced technology and have only managed a simple economy in the lands they govern, will fall apart if it ever ran out of places to conquer. The only reason it's held together this long is Caesar and Lanius' leadership, and the best you can say about the Legion is that the threat of crucifixion does wonders on crime rates. You can actually point out to Legate Lanius that the Legion doesn't have either the manpower or the logistics to control a conquered New California Republic while still maintaining any kind of control of their old Eastern lands.

    Web Comics 
  • The Order of the Stick:
    • There is this quote from Redcloak:
      Redcloak: I tell you, nobody around here respects my schedule. Do they think crushing an entire civilization beneath our heels "just happens"? It's all fun and games for them, but I'm the one who has to make the magical lightning-powered trains run on time.
    • Also, Tarquin discovered that becoming a king in the politically turbulent Western Continent is far easier than staying a king, with most of the kingdoms/dictatorships being overthrown within a year. Being who he is, he decided to find a way to take advantage of that system instead, allowing various figureheads to be deposed instead of him and his friends, who pose as the old rulers' advisors wanting to ensure a peaceful transition.

    Web Original 
  • The trope is discussed in this article on Rational Wiki which sets out to prove that dictatorships are inherently inferior to functioning democracies and will always collapse in the long run.
  • Discussed in Cassette #3 of Within the Wires, as The Narrator details the effort Big Brother takes in maintaining select freedoms in a civilization that engages in top-down social engineering.
    Narrator: Imagine the work that goes into making Frisbees and adopting dogs and recording music and allowing public dance spaces. Imagine all of the work people with sunglasses and cigarettes standing in cheering smiling crowds must do so that these crowds can cheer and smile.
  • Twilight of the Red Tsar: Joseph Stalin's purges, mass murders, as well the war with China have dealt serious damage to the Soviet economy and living standards due to the loss of so many doctors and other skilled professionals. Suslov and the other hardliners that succeed him are only making the situation worse by refusing any reforms that don't adhere to the Marxist ideology. And the mass incarceration in the Gulag leaves a population of millions of malcontents stranded in Siberia who, stranded and unable to re-enter society, begin revolting against the state.

    Western Animation 
  • This trope is invoked, in all places, in the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon show episode "Shredderville". The Turtles are teleported to a Crapsack Alternate Timeline (or so it seemed) wherein they didn't exist and Shredder and crew managed to take over. Meant as An Aesop for our boys about not wishing you never existed, the episode takes a shocking swerve in its last act: when they finally confront him, we find out that Shredder absolutely hates being the Evil Overlord in practice, because it involves running the day-to-day operations of tons of things he hadn't even vaguely considered back when he was trying to conquer things. His ineptitude at this is why the other world is so Crapsack, and in the end when he overhears the Turtles mentioning going back to the past where he doesn't rule, he begs them to take him along, just to free him from the responsibility of actually having to run the dystopia he had dreamed so long of creating.
  • The Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode where Kang and Kodos take over the world is shown, after the takeover, as a blatant Does This Remind You of Anything? of the Iraq War.
    "You said we'd be greeted as liberators!"

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DystopiaIsHard