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. See also Fascist, but Inefficient
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 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.
- 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", 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.
- 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.
- StarTrek: The Mirror Universe's evil Terran Empire was nearly defeated by a slave uprising early in its creation, as the aliens it had conquered banded together to throw off their human oppressors. The empire was simply overextended after a too-fast expansion, and was 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 hundred years backwards in time by the Tholians, provided the Terran Empire with the means to put down the rebellion.
- 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 Bajorians 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 Bajorians 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.
- 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.
- The upside of this is that the Imperium isn't always able to make its citizens' lives a living hell. While some hyperindustrialized 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 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.
- It is stated Da Orks could easily conquer the entire galaxy through sheer numbers alone, if they didn't love killing each other as much as killing everything else.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.