A quick look around the pop culture landscape reveals a disturbing trend: We’re obsessed with dystopia.
On television, shows like The Walking Dead, Defiance, and Dominion showcase the struggles of survivors of global catastrophe as they attempt to make their way in a world rendered unfamiliar by one type of disaster or another. In literature, dystopia is an element which has driven such novels as Stephen King’s The Stand to bestseller status, made S.M. Stirling’s Change novels modern hits, and seen Jean DuPrau’s City of Ember make the transition from hit young adult novel to the big screen. In comic books, where I do most of my scholarship, dystopian futures are a staple. This summer’s hit X-Men: Days of Future Past was one of the first examples in modern comic books before becoming a global blockbuster. Both major publishers, Marvel and DC Comics, have featured dystopian storylines in the past year in Age of Ultron and Futures End, respectively.
So, why is our modern pop culture so fixated on visions of the future which show a shattered world?
It’s no great secret that the real world we inhabit has more than it’s fair share of problems.Here in America, this is trumpeted constantly by press outlets, both mainstream and independent. Whether it’s the crumbling state of the nation’s infrastructure, the gridlock of its political system and its inability to address pressing issues such as overpopulation and climate change, or the ever-tumbling optimism of the population, the nation which produces the vast bulk of the popular culture consumed by the rest of the world is increasingly pessimistic about the state of the status quo.
Worlds where the system has been destroyed are attractive to consumers of media because they offer a clean slate. They offer a chance for people to see what sort of systems can be constructed in the absence of the ones they have known for their entire lives.
The story of humanity has been one of unending exploration, of always looking over the horizon and discovering what’s beyond it. That is, until recently. A little over a decade into the twenty-first century, and we have mapped one hundred percent of the land on the planet. With the exception of a few isolated areas in the tropics, nearly all of it has been explored by humankind. We still have the ocean, which makes up over seventy percent of the planet, and there’s always space, famously referred to as “The Final Frontier”. The problem there is that we simply stopped going. Where NASA was once the nation’s top priority after national defense, its share of the annual federal budget has fallen to less than one percent. Without these new horizons, there is nowhere for those who feel disenfranchised by the system to carve out something for themselves. With the loss of the possibility for expansion has come a loss of possibility.
The biggest theme that all of these have in common is a desire for the ability to create something. People today look around them and see a world which doesn’t look like it’s going to change any time soon. Things go on much as they always have, and this discourages people. They want the right to make something of their own, something that they can shape to their own desires. Visions of a dystopian world offer that. When everything familiar is stripped away, then people are presented with an opportunity to start over.
When we look back at the history of pop culture, we can see that, as mobility and possibility increase, so too do visions of the future which feature shining spires, interstellar exploration, and a generally bright future for mankind. Conversely, when the world looks its bleakest, people are drawn to fantasies where everything gets torn down.
Perhaps we will emerge from this in the years to come. If we do, I imagine that we will see this obsession with dystopia fade and give way to brighter visions. Until then, be sure you have your zombie apocalypse survival plan. I know I do.