Katniss: It must be very fragile, if a handful of berries can bring it down.
Snow: It is fragile, but not in the way you suppose.
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 whom 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.
- This is why Frieza's troops risked bringing him back to life in Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F. Without Frieza to hold his army together with sheer power and fear, the whole thing was on the verge of collapse. Judging from the fact Frieza immediately abandoned his empire for the sake of vengeance against Goku, it didn't work. However, by the time of Dragon Ball Super: Broly Frieza has returned to ruling his empire and conquering planets.
- 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.
- Following the All Hail Megatron miniseries in The Transformers (IDW), Megatron is left comatose and on life support, allowing Starscream to take command of the Decepticons. Three years later, and what's left of the Decepticons are holed up on a barren asteroid, resorting to cannibalising each other for spare parts and Energon. Many Decepticons straight up just left, and the ones who stick with Starscream only do so because they have no way off the asteroid. When Megatron is restored, he quickly revitalises them.
- The IDW-published miniseries Transformers 1984: Secrets and Lies (meant to act as a prequel to the Marvel Transformers comics of the '80s) demonstrates that Megatron's planned Decepticon Empire had little chance of actually getting off the ground, as Megatron was so completely obsessed with killing Optimus Prime that he couldn't be bothered to think of any infrastructure that wasn't geared towards warfare. For example, when informed that a potential energy shortage was imminent at the current expenditure, he ordered Ratbat (chief fuel auditor) to squeeze every last drop of fuel from their available resources. When Ratbat instead suggests investing in developing and harnessing new sources of energy in order to achieve greater gains later, Megatron violently reacts and threatens to kill him.
- 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 Night's 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 HeelFace 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.
- The Emirate of Mecca is basically a totalitarian Muslim theocracy Recycled IN SPACE! — as Word of God put it, its "if ISIS and al-Qaeda got together and made their own version of the Imperium of Man.'' However, though it's the youngest Angel nation, it's already starting to crumble under its barbaric religious cruelty, devotion to martyrdom, internal contradictions, extreme corruption, and ethnic conflicts.
- 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.
- In Inquisitor Carrow and the Phoenix Fiasco, Minister Fudge learns too late some... okay, most people are perfectly okay with Carrow's anticorruption measures, and that people aren't exactly tripping themselves trying to pay bribes every time they go to drop off their taxes, or letting that pureblood get a job without qualifications or any sort of entrance test, or allowing their employers to sack them for no reason.
- With This Ring: When Paul visits Earth -14 and has a chat with the local version of Alan Scott, he learns that at some point in the past, an alliance of supervillains briefly took over New York City and found that it wasn't everything they'd hoped for.
Al: Trash collection, electricity, water, sewage Law enforcement. I managed a bit better than Whizzer and Olympia. He couldn't really be bothered to do the actual work and she just shouted orders and threats and expected terrified people to respond intelligently. We didn't even last a month before we gave it up.
- In The Lion King (1994), Big Bad Scar succeeds in his plan to kill Mufasa and Simba, and becomes the King of Pride Rock. Or so he believes; the former is unquestionably dead, but reappears as a Spirit Advisor later. The hyenas simply told Scar that Simba was dead since they weren't interested in following him any longer. Scar's reign is far from stable, even after he takes power. By the time Simba returns to Pride Rock, the majority of the pride has departed, there's scarcely anything left to hunt due to Scar and his hyena Mooks hoarding everything, and the hyenas are openly talking mutiny, indirectly admitting how much better things were when Mufasa was still alive. Scar has become so paranoid that he reacts angrily to the mere mention of the name "Mufasa," and the only reason he keeps his throne is because he whines petulantly about how "I'm the king! I can do whatever I want!" The homecoming Simba also sees Scar admit to killing Mufasa, which ignites an open revolt against him. Scar's desperate attempt to throw the hyenas under the bus results in Mistreatment-Induced Betrayal, and he's Eaten Alive when Simba tosses him off Pride Rock.
- Brazil is a deconstruction of an Orwellian society, where the government tries to exercise absolute rule over all aspects of society, but far overreaches its ability. It relies on a bloated and byzantine bureaucracy that can't possibly hope to keep up with the nation's needs, using infrastructure that is far more ambitious than its technology will support, causing endless problems with breakdowns, confusion and mistakes. Nothing ever gets fixed because everyone is looking out for themselves, so every problem is someone else's.
- 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 and plunder its resources.
- The totalitarian society in THX 1138 is on the verge of total collapse, mostly kept going by sheer inertia. The infrastructure and technology is falling apart, most of the population is drugged senseless, the economy is barely extant (the only products are disposable tetrahedrons that serve no purpose other than being something to buy), and the Mecha-Mooks regularly malfunction due to lack of maintenance. Things have decayed so much that the dystopia is barely even able to enforce its tyranny anymore; once the protagonist manages to work around the narcotics used to keep him imprisoned, he escapes with hardly any effort. He can easily shove over the glitchy robots sent after him, and once the cost of stopping his escape exceeds a small budgetary limit, his pursuers literally just give up and let him get away.
- While 1984 inverts this for horror, a short-story parody by Alan Coren named "Owing To Circumstances Beyond Our Control, 1984 Has Been Unavoidably Detained" plays this straight: the story shows Ingsoc's barren misery has completely gotten out of control in all levels of society and when Winston Smith is arrested and sent to Room 101, the Ministry of Love turns out to be out of budget and lacking supplies to torture Smith with — no, not even rats (winter in Airstrip One wipes them out). The story ends with O'Brien giving a figurative (and barely holding back doing a literal) Face Palm.
"If it's any help, I can't stand moths," said Winston.
"Moths?!" Esmond screamed. "What do you think we are, ruddy Harrods? We can't get moths for love nor money!"
"Comes in here asking for moths," muttered Esmond's assistant.
- 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 waged on dissident Christians. It's implied that the end of the novel proper may even be the opening shots of the rebellion that destroyed the regime.
- 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.
- Atlas Shrugged: Literally the whole point of the book is to show that governing is hard, the more you try to govern the worse things are, and that government should try to do nothing at all. In the book every bureaucrat is incompetent, every government plan goes either horribly right or horribly wrong, and when finally the whole world is turned into "people's republics" (the US too in all but the name), the leaders of the country have a massive My God, What Have I Done? moment, but still fail to rectify things because that would mean losing all their power.
- Invoked in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to explain Voldemort's style of ruling: He knows he doesn't know how to govern, and that if he tries, then the whole magical world will try to subvert his power, so instead he leaves a puppet government made up of the same people who ran things before he took over, while he remains in the shadows eliminating those who oppose him.
Lupin: Yes, Voldemort is playing a very clever game. Declaring himself might have provoked open rebellion; remaining masked has created confusion, uncertainty, and fear.
- Mistborn: The Original Trilogy:
- The Final Empire is a subdued example. The Lord Ruler, despite claiming to be a Physical God ( and to some extent actually being one, just not as much of one as he claims - it's complicated), has to worry about such things as trade balances, infrastructure, rebellions and maintaining the support of the noble houses. The plot of the first book revolves around bringing him down through the Boring, but Practical means of stealing the stores of precious metals he needs to pay his troops.
- Ironically, the sequel books go on to show that building a better society after the dystopia falls is pretty darn complicated too. The people are so used to the idea of living in a dystopia that they have no idea what to do in a more equal society. The Good King ends up getting voted out of power so that the people can surrender to a new dictator. Said king becomes emperor after his wife personally curbstomps three armies. He feels bad about that, but feels they don't have a choice.
- The sequel series, set several hundred years later, portrays a functioning democratic society with a fairly normal level of corruption. Unfortunately, the bad guys are fanning the flames of rebellion and convincing the people that everything is bad as when the Lord Ruler is in charge. In theory, they have their own society that they plan to use to replace the current one, but it's clear that their emphasis on backstabbing and exploitation is crippling them even before they finish their revolution. The only reason that they are as successful as they are is because they have supernatural help from an alien god.
- The Syndicate Worlds in The Lost Fleet series is a dysfunctional dictatorship based on a megacorp that runs everything, but when the war with the Alliance finally ends the empire begins falling apart due to its internal stresses. The sequel series The Lost Stars, told from the point of view of rebels against the Syndicate, provides evidence of how crappy the system was from the inside, not only for the common people but even from the point of view of some of its leadership as they struggled with surviving a system based on Klingon Promotion, chronic backstabbing, inefficient industry, an oppressive and fanatical secret police, and workers who actively sabotaged the system if they could get away with it. A telling indication of how bad it was is that one of the rebellion's leaders, a former CEO herself, takes some time before she can even grasp the concept of subordinates being genuinely loyal and reporting information factually and not merely trying to suck up by not telling the truth or shading it to make themselves look good.
- As this video by The Templin Institute points out, Panem from The Hunger Games is so incredibly incompetent that their collapse was pretty much unavoidable.
- The Fifth Sacred Thing was conceived as utopia vs dystopia, and the dystopia in question is clearly suffering under this. They funnel their resources into a huge military to crush dissent, institutionalize racism, sexism, and homophobia to divide the people, terrorize their populace with torture and slavery, and plunder others for whatever they don't have, but they're clearly struggling to survive even before they invade the utopia. Their invasion of the North fails apart within months and ends with them routed by their own defecting soldiers, who realized how much better off they'd be in the egalitarian, thriving utopia.
- Limes Inferior is set among the criminal circles of a False Utopia. The protagonist himself makes his living by conning the system in one of the myriad ways it's possible, and eventually notices that the Man not only overlooks, but downright encourages faking tests, all sorts of Black Market trade, fraud, thieft, domestic abuse... Turns out someone is sabotaging the system because it has been set up by aliens of a Mechanistic Alien Culture that want to make the entire universe exactly like them, and humans who know what's going on have decided to preserve humanity for as long as possible, even if it has to be a bunch of bastards about it.
- 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 Star Trek: Deep Space Nine 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.
- In Dungeons & Dragons there is Menzoberranzan, the City of Spiders. It's the capital city of the Underdark and the biggest settlement of the drow. The place is overseen by the Chaotic Evil goddess Lolth, who believes that Might Makes Right and that having Chronic Backstabbing Disorder is not only a good idea, but should be actively encouraged. This means that Menzoberranzan (and drow society as a whole) is barely holding together at the best of times — Klingon Promotions are frequent, slavery and ritual sacrifices are normal, and there's an air of distrust and paranoia that hangs over the drow at all times. It's gotten so bad that Lolth has had to personally step in more than once to get things back on track in the City of Spiders. Pointing out that Lolth is a hypocrite because she has to corral behavior that she actively encourages will get a drow turned into a drider or tortured in the Demonweb Pits.
- Making this dystopia even harder to run is that Lolth's three children — Eilistraee, Vhaeraun, and Vandria, all of whom are also gods — hate Lolth's guts and are actively working against her. Vhaeraun hates the fact that drow society is incredibly sexist towards men, and wants to violently overthrow the whole thing. Vandria became a war goddess for surface elves because of how bad Lolth screwed her over during a war with the elven gods. And Eilistraee — the only Good-aligned drow god who willingly exiled herself — wants to guide the drow to the surface to do good deeds and regain their rightful place among the forests. The only reason Lolth's drow go up to the surface is because they kidnap people from the surface as slaves just to keep things running. When the drow have a slave rebellion — and it's not if they do, it's when they do — the drow have to drop everything to get their slaves back under control. Will all of this working against her, Lolth's drow are barely holding together.
- 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 basically runs on this. Alpha Complex barely functions - the Computer is a paranoid schizophrenic, the High Programmers and IntSec are both thoroughly corrupt, and Troubleshooters tend to be a greater danger to each other than to traitors. In fact, virtually every citizen in Alpha Complex is a member of some illegal secret society. The only things keeping Alpha Complex going are that A, some of the secret societies are more interested in working within the system to benefit their members than overthrowing it, and B, the ones that are interested in overthrowing the system hate each other even more than they hate the Computer.
- 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.
- Zig-zagged in Bioshock Infinite. Comstock establishes a racist, zealous, elitist society in Columbia, garnering the upper classes' admiration, as well as supremacy over the lower classes - all in the span of twenty years. His secret to success was being a really good prophet, which he achieved by building portals to view different Earths, rather than spiritualism and faith. To function as a society, they needed ongoing alternate dimensional study, to the point of torturing their "lamb" Elizabeth for her dimensional abilities. Even so, they had their assets cleaned out when Booker sought to collect Elizabeth from Comstock. The Resistance movement, which was made up of oppressed minorities who had been reduced to slave labor under Comstock, did not help matters; their chances of success were minimal by design, but the constant toying with dimensions provided them the 'luck' they needed to start a real revolt. Comstock also played a role in his own doom by announcing to all of Columbia that Player Character Booker DeWitt, whom Comstock dubbed "the False Shepherd," was on the loose. When Booker is discovered, the entire community turns on him, but they're so terrible at fighting (isolationism = less combat experience) that Booker wipes the floor with them. By the end, Comstock is dead, the city has been destroyed, and it's all been completely erased from existence. At least in this version. So Comstock's city was functioning, but it didn't take much to bring it all down.
- Cleverly used in Sid Meiers 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.
- 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 off either power means you have pissed off at least the capitalists 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).
- In contrast to a good majority of Alternate-History Nazi Victory works, the Hearts of Iron mod The New Order Last Days Of Europe portrays a victorious Nazi Germany as this. There is constant infighting due to ideological differences between the major National Socialist party members. Some of the more unsavory of these figures (a.k.a. Heinrich Himmler and the SS) had to be given their own country (a.k.a. Belgium and a bit of northern France) since even the Nazis thought they were too batshit crazy to remain in power in Germany. And even then, by the time we get to the 1960s, Germany's economy is crippled to the point they had to resort to slave labor, and student movements are a serious threat to the regime. Another mod for Hearts of Iron, Thousand-Week Reich, portrays Nazi Germany even less favourably. Here, they're already teetering on the brink of collapse in 1952. Less than a full decade after World War 2 ends.
- 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.
- The backstory of the Fallout series takes place in an Alternate History where the Fifties never stopped until they 'exploded'; without exponential advances in miniaturization of technology, resources got scarce and politics devolved into neo-fascism. A group of fascists called the Enclave secretly took over America and turned it into their personal dictatorship, installing as many Mad Scientists as they could and blaming any problems on the Chinese. By 2077, their aggressive expansion and genocide pushed the communist powers to launch a nuclear war, and the public nuclear shelters had been designed from the start as human experimentation labs. America completely fell, and what was left of the Enclave squandered their last chance at coming on top with brutal racist raids on the descendants of America, which ended when the Chosen One and Lone Wanderer demolished their command centres with the backup of the fuctioning liberal democracy the New California Republic and the most humanitarian incarnation of the Brotherhood of Steel respectively.
- 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 (Mr. House calculates the Legion will fall apart due to infighting within a year if you Kill Caesar) within ju, 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.
- Pharaoh: It's possible to run a city as a vast collection of slums constantly patrolled by policemen and tax collectors, taxes set at a quarter of the state-set 2-deben salary while a fraction of the population lives is luxury and idleness. Doing so is an excellent way to promote crime, disease, and mass exodus (and you can't do anything about people leaving, and immigrants stop coming when that happens). It's a lot easier to build small allotments and get them to upgrade just before they become Idle Rich to maximise population density, taxes, and happiness.
- This is basically what Wheatley finds out in Portal 2 after he takes over GLaDOS's body and the Aperture Science facility. By the time you finally confront him at his lair (which happens just a few hours after he's plugged in), the whole place is collapsing and the main reactor is about to go BOOM. GLaDOS fixes everything in five minutes, but that's because she's that good. It also helps that Wheatley was designed from the ground up to be an idiot who constantly generates bad ideas.
- GLaDOS can be considered a lampshade of this trope, since she's designed to be ruthlessly efficient and unbelievably smart and cunning, but she's also mad, meaning that, according to the game, the only way to run a successfull dystopia is if 1) the one runnning it is impossibly smart and capable, and 2) you kill all the humans.
- Half-Life 2 zigzags this trope with City 17. As soon as Gordon Freeman shows up and starts knocking over the Combine's refrigerators, the oppressed people immediately stand up in open rebellion. However, it should be noted that Dr. Breen and the Combine did enjoy roughly 20 years as mostly unopposed rulers of the entire planet, but only because that was literally the best possible choice available to the people of Earth in lieu of total extinction. Also it wasn't difficult for the heads of the Combine, because they are Planet Looters who do not care about Earth at all.
- Starbound: The leaders of Apex society, the Miniknog, seems to spend most of their efforts on either pointlessly For the Evulz science research or inventing ways to monitor and oppress their own people even more (why, exactly, is having a green pet fish grounds for getting disappeared?), in lieu of even trying to raise living standards above the bare minimum. The result is that the oppressed masses keep rebelling (after all, they have nothing to lose), thus necessitating more resources spent on fighting the rebellions. It's heavily implied that they'll eventually go belly-up, even without you destroying Big Ape.
- Played up to comical extremes in Streets of Rogue. The city is under the complete control of the Mayor, to the extent that if some Goon dialogue is believed they are even directly in charge of assigning individual jobs, but in spite of this absolute authority and seemingly infinite army of police it's still a complete disaster everywhere you look. Homelessness is rampant, rival gangs openly wage war in the streets, the penalty for any crime (even "broke a few too many trash cans") is immediate death at the hands of whatever cop saw you, disasters like fatal radiation blasts periodically hitting an entire floor and zombie outbreaks are extremely common even in the wealthiest districts, there is a thriving resistance whose operatives regularly kill hundreds of civilians while causing untold property damage and the list goes on and on. The best example of this being a failed attempt at running a dystopia by far has to be the extremely short life expectancy of whoever takes the reigns, it's practically a daily occurrence for the Mayor to either be murdered for their hat or step down after losing an election (then presumably still dying violently off-screen to any of the previously mentioned horrors of the streets).
- We Happy Few: Wellington Wells is a clear-cut brainwashing dystopia, with drugs pumped into all food and water supplies to institutionalize Getting Smilies Painted on Your Soul. The problem is, nobody is sane enough to do their job; crops are failing, machinery and buildings fall into disrepair, and the bureaucracy is plain stoned out of their minds. The police and secret police are too busy finding dissenters to police actual crimes, 'therapists' react to any drug-rejection problem with more drugs, and the only people who aren't high are too self-absorbed and isolated from society to fix anything. Not even enslaving a race of sapient machines can stop the inevitable collapse.
- Papers, Please shows this on the ground level. You are randomly assigned to be the border inspector for the nation of Arstotzka and your family is relocated to an apartment. The job does not pay enough to cover rent, heating, food, and medicine for your family, but if your family dies you are fired for not providing Arstotzka with strong and healthy subjects, and if you run out of money you are arrested for delinquency. All this does is encourage you to comprimise national security by taking bribes and looking the other way.
- In Transformers: War for Cybertron, despite the glory days long since passed the Autobot capital of Iacon still looks impressive, even as it's being torn apart during a desperate battle between the Decepticons and the Autobots. Meanwhile, Kaon is a ramshackle nightmare. The developers stated that this was deliberate, to show how the Decepticons were so obsessed with Might Makes Right they had neither the ability nor the inclination to actually develop a functional society.
- In ancillary material, Megatron has no use for anything that can't be bent to warlike purposes, and even the Constructicons (master engineers and builders) are more valuable because of their ability to quickly build military strongpoints and to combine into Devastator than their actual construction skills.
- Drowtales: Crown Princess Snadhya'rune staged a False Flag Operation and coup d'etat against her own inheritance so she could turn the feudal Drow city-state into her twisted vision of a demon-worshiping dictatorship. What follows is 28 years of wars, famine, demonic hordes, incurable plagues, and constant infighting, which all comes to a head in the climax as half of Chel stages a one-day revolution against her.
- 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.
- There is this quote from Redcloak:
- The trope is discussed in this article on RationalWiki 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: Insomnia, Feet," of Within the Wires, as the Second-Person Narration 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. The sheer brutality of Stalin's actions turn the nation into a giant pariah, with neutral nations and even other socialist figures turn away from the nation altogether.
- As the Youtuber James Tullos pointed out out, the dystopia settings of many famous Young Adult Literature books series have been analysed and the result is that majority of them would have imploded long before the protagonist, usually a teenage/young adult girl, came along.
- 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!"
- In the She-Ra and the Princesses of Power episode "Signals", Catra discovers the downside to being the number-one minion of the Evil Overlord is that The Empire takes a lot of paperwork to run smoothly. Paperwork that Catra has happily been ignoring because she'd rather spend her time fighting the Rebellion, and now the Horde war machine is beginning to grind to a halt.
- Futurama takes place in a weird combination of every type of Dystopia imaginable and has all the major flaws that come with them (played for humour of course):
- The Vast Bureaucracy is taken to insane degrees where people can (and usually do) die of old age while waiting in line for their birth certificate; the problems with the Bureaucrats are taken to such a degree that the overwhelming majority of files needed for government to function are simply left in a giant mountain of files and simply forgotten about.
- The military and galactic navy are not only ungodly incompetent but also ridiculously understaffed, relying on civilian militias to do most of the fighting whenever Earth is in danger; this means that Earth can and usually does get invaded extremely easily by anyone who feels like it.
- The whole world is privately owned (with the exception of the useless Vast Bureaucracy) mainly by Mega-Corp owner Mom, she is allowed to break the law and even attempt to exterminate all life on earth on a whim, facing no consequences for any of it.