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
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
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
No Real Life Examples, Please!
A dystopia is a fictional creation, and putting real life examples here is just calling for Flame War
. We can
say, however, that a lot of authoritarian governments weren't exactly... well-run.
open/close all folders
- 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.
- 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 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 even just seven years after its founding, it seems like 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 Novelization of Star Wars: A New Hope outright stated that rebellion was getting massive support because of Palpatine's inability to actually rule: he can run a masterful plan to depose somebody without seeming involved, sure, but how about actually deciding which projects should be greenlit, aside from the Death Star? In fact, Corrupt Corporate Executives were running things in Empire long before its fall.
- In general, Star Wars villains tend to have a problem with this. It's virtually one of the main Jedi arguments against the Sith philosophy - the Sith are so concerned with jockeying and positioning for power, as per their code, that it is practically impossible for them to govern effectively.
- Heck, it was even a Sith argument against Sith philosophy, though of course the people making it wouldn't admit they were breaking tradition. Eventually Darth Bane wiped out this heresy very thoroughly by killing every other Sith in one go and establishing the Rule of Two. Even the Rule of Two was a way of dealing with this, deriving from Darth Revan, who was very strict that there should only be two Sith Lords, the master and one apprentice, because multiple apprentices could kill the master too easily by joining forces. Of course, real Sith like Bane and Revan still believed that the insane competition and mistrust the Sith philosophy encouraged would make the Sith stronger by weeding out the weak, rather than weaker because they couldn't really co-operate.
- Keep in mind, however, that the A New Hope novelization was written in 1976, at a time when Emperor Palpatine hadn't been fully fleshed out as a character. In fact, he was originally portrayed as a helpless puppet of his governors, not the Magnificent Bastard master of Gambit Roulette we know him as today. Today, it's probably fairer to say that the Empire was poorly run less due to Palpatine's incompetence and more due to the fact that he was such a fan of being an evil prick.
- In other words, he isn't incompetent by any stretch of imagination, its just that his priorities as Emperor and the priorities of the citizens, corporations, livestock, force ghosts, and droids that compose the Empire are not in any way related. Like many real-life dictators, he's 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.
- 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.
- Atlas Shrugged: In the name of the greater good, the combined weight of the Dystopian Edicts, looters, moochers, job deserters, and the strike end the industrialized world.
- 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", 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 Cant 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.
- 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 40000 The Imperium of man not only has to fight off external threats against its worlds, it also has to govern them. With the Imperium so huge and bloated, this requires thousands of administrators and governors to deal with the day-to-day tasks of each planet, but they also need to put down constant rebellions, internal threats, and look out for possible invasions. The Imperium also has a hard time communicating with worlds that are thousands of light years away from each other, meaning that they have no idea that they might be investing money in worlds that are already dead, or that their reinforcements are too late to arrive.
- Indeed, it seems that the Imperium manages to survive mostly because it's so large that its exponential growth surpasses its exponential decay. Barely. Or maybe its just so large that it's going to take a few centuries to get all the way to dead.
- However, the hardness comes from losing constantly to various xenos races and Chaos.
- And not just those either... there have been plenty of rebellions where Chaos isn't involved. Although most of the time one can add a "at first" to that sentence...
- Generally, however, it varies. Some places are real shitholes, being heavily polluted, or just plain unpleasant. Others, not so much. The planet Merosa, for instance, is described as a planet where billions of serfs mine every day, while despots rule through might in arms, while Macgragge is described as being a generally pleasant place to live, not unlike England, or France. This is because the Imperium knows it cannot run its billions of worlds, so it just leaves them to get on with it. As long an you venerate the God Emperor, pay your taxes, turn over your psykers, and don't trade or deal with Xenos, they don't really give a shit.
- It also has been revealed that many of the harshest shitholes keep their populations constantly drugged to keep them from committing mass suicide or rebellion.
- People mistake Macragge for pleasant. Macragge is a proud warrior culture that practices eugenics, mass conscription and is essentially a cross between the Empire of Augustus, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. It is only presented as pleasant because it at least is run efficiently and the citizens are so militaristic that they don't mind. Really though, the fact that any modern citizen of England or France would hate to live there is an indication of just how Crapsack the 40 K world is. Not to mention the fact that it gets invaded by Chaos-worshipping nutjobs and hungry aliens every other decade...
- Some of the novels, notably those by Dan Abnett and Sandy Mitchell, present worlds that are superficially more pleasant—but these always still have huge inequalities, with the "have-nots" terrified at any meaningful displeasure from the "haves", who are in turn plotting against each other. It's just more subdued in some places than others.
- The Tau have actually tried to exploit this fact, and have managed to sway some of the more miserable worlds (or worlds that secretly been trading with) to their empire. While the Tau empire itself is close to a Orwellian communist state, it at least is socially and economically functioning one.
- Several of the other major empires of the galaxy are not in a much better state than the Imperium, or only are surviving because of an outside factor that keeps the beings together. Chaos only functions because of how many people are constantly being swayed with the promises of "a huge chance of being mind raped for all eternity and a tiny chance that you will get the honor of demonic possession". Da Orks don't have a functioning government above war tribes which are constantly fighting each other. The Eldar and Dark Eldar are facing extinction for their past and current actions respectably. Tryanids are a hive mind, and so our ideas of Dystopia and government don't apply. Necrons are souless machines, and so like the Tryanids don't really need a government.
- 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 is still probably far better than, say, being a beggar on "Calcutta or Lagos or the South Bronx" (people are 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 the 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.
- Soundscape has a very depressing aversion. To put it mildly, imagine that there was a system of governance that was designed to be corrupt. Its very purpose, by design and default, is to screw over the poor and middle working classes, while benefiting the rich. The blame is often set upon the practitioners (which they deserve), but how can you defeat a system that's supposed to screw you over, unless you're part of the top 1%?
- Meanwhile, the Syndicracy is in the same boat as North Korea; their collapse is a threat that's become a fear, because of consequences that could lead to an even worse state than it already is in. As horrific as they are and beyond, they provide the means for most of the superpowers to remain as superpowers, and if they fall, so too shall the rest of the verse. Note that these guys are also the ones that came up with the aforementioned "pro-top 1%" system above.
- The problem is that things are so fucked up you would find anarchists and the like who would still revolt
- People looking to take a swing at either Andrew Ryan or Sophia Lamb often forget or are unaware that this is pretty much the primary point of the first two Bioshock games.
- Cleverly used in Sid Meyer'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 surveilance-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 AI's, 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 think 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.
- 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.
- In Fallout New Vegas, many characters think that Caesar's Legion (who reject advanced technology, economy is extremely simple, and do nothing but rape and pillage all that stands before them) would fall apart if they ran out of places to conquer, and most of the reason why it hangs together is that Caesar makes his land extremely safe from raiders or other threats.
- In The Order of the Stick, 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.
- 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.
- This trope is invoked, in all places, in an episode of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. The Turtles are teleported to a Crapsack Alternate Reality 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 when actually trying to conquer things and he's completely inept at doing such and is thoroughly miserable in his new position; that's why everything is so crappy on this side, not any malice on the part of Shredder. In the end he overhears the Turtles mentioning going back to the past where he doesn't rule and 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.
- In the Justice League episode "Kid Stuff", after Mordred expels all adults from Earth and sets himself up as king, the miserably bored look on his face as he magically fulfills the various requests of his populace is priceless.
- Hand Wave in episode "War World". Mongul is largely aware that his planet is in bad shape, but he is able to distract people from the problems with gladitorial fights.