Mirror, mirror on the wall, what’s the most dystopian image of them all…read to the end for the MOA #blacklivesmatterminneapolis protest for the image and story.
BY DEVON MALONEY Wired.com December 31, 2014
This combination of pictures shows Independence Square in Kiev on April 22, 2009 during a social movement called ‘Smile Ukraine! Smile overcomes a crisis!’ organized by students (left) and the same square pictured on February 20, 2014, three months after a political crisis erupted leaving around 60 dead. SERGEI SUPINSKY,BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images
This year was, to put it as gently as possible, the devil’s playground. Oh sure, every year has its horrors and there are far worse annums behind us (the Crusades, anyone?), but 2014 proved to be a year in which long-festering social, environmental, and political problems were exposed in ways we have not seen in a very long time.
Thank social media, or globalization, or perhaps the recent explosion of hyper-accessible dystopian entertainment (though that is something of a chicken/egg scenario), but no single year in recent memory has so closely resembled the exaggerated conditions employed as metaphorical warnings in dystopian sci-fi. In fact, a lot of dystopian fiction we saw this year is at the very least on par with everyday realities, if not tame by comparison.
Around the world, instances of palpable, immediate environmental catastrophe and brazen, systematic oppression proliferated at a terrifying rate, which underscores a position we and others have taken of late: With such nightmares growing more real each day, where does dystopian fiction end and reality begin?
2014 was pure, hot “garbage,” but let’s assess just which parts of it are scariest in terms of bleak satire coming to life, if only to ask if there is even a point to the fiction if the warnings it offers come too late to save us. If so, where can it go next? Here’s a look at 20 of the more dystopian things that happened in 2014—in both fiction and real life—and just how foreboding they really were.
Sochi Olympics: Stranger Than Fiction
Categories: Government propaganda, authoritarian protest-quashing, homophobia, absurd extravagance at the expense of the working class, über-surveillance
Dystopic Effect: Russia’s got a whole lot of problems that its government pretends don’t exist. Nowhere was this more apparent than the 2014 Winter Olympics, an obscenely lavish affair with billion-dollar stadiums, dancing bears, and creepy“selfie buildings.” Yet, despite the opulence, Russia provided almost comically awful press accommodations, stubbornly denied the existence of gays in the country in defending having banned them from the Games, and euthanized the city’s stray dogs. All of this came after more than two years of exploiting migrant workers and evicting residents to make room for Olympics facilities. If you had pitched this as a fiction series 10 years ago, you’d be Suzanne Collins rich by now.
The Sony Hack
Categories: Propaganda, government suppressed speech
Dystopic Effect: Sony pulls The Interview—Seth Rogen and James Franco’s satirical comedy about assassinating North Korean President Kim Jong-un—following online threats of 9/11-style attacks on theaters that show the film. We’d say that Hollywood kowtowing to a communist dictatorship 6,000 miles away sounds like the plot of a Charlie Chaplin dystopia, except Chaplin himself regretted The Dictator in retrospect. In a less dystopian turn, however, Sony eventually released the film to a handful of theaters as well as online and the movie did fairly well, considering.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1
Category: YA dystopia film adaptation
Dystopic Effect: The latest movie installment of author Suzanne Collins’ YA book series garnered rave reviews for its disturbingly successful take on the effects of violence and systematic oppression. Still, its real-world effects are mixed: whileteenagers as individuals benefit greatly from the horrific imagery Mockingjayportrayed onscreen, mainstream audiences’ success in connecting Katniss’ story to the nearly identical scenario playing out in America—i.e., the oppression of minority groups by an untouchable ruling class and a suppression of any dissent against that oppression—is vastly more questionable.
The Ebola Epidemic
Categories: Extreme class and race disparity, globalization, apathy of the rich
Dystopic Effect: Though West Africa suffered the worst of the Ebola epidemic that’s infected more than 19,000 people and killed more than 7,500, America didn’t worry until there were four cases reported in the US. Four. Until then, there was little thought of so many poor black people suffering and dying while simultaneouslybeing erased by the press. If that’s not a walking, talking Octavia Butler novella, the Pope isn’t Catholic.
Want to know more about the disparities in the response to—and treatment of—Ebola in the US and West Africa? Here’s the cast of The Hunger Games to tell you about it.
Category: YA book series turns mega-blockbuster
Dystopic Effect: While the first Divergent film adaptation is a blunt, even crude take on the dystopian genre, it was notable for marking the peak of the YA dystopia bubble. It premiered right around the same time publishers started refusing new young adult dystopia manuscripts, but at the same time also signified the growing contingent of young (mostly white) women dominating a genre previously led primarily by white men (Butler’s Earthseed books notwithstanding).
Study Finds the United States Has Become a Plutocracy
Categories: Domination of the working class and poor, propaganda, hypercapitalism
Dystopic Effect: A Princeton/Northwestern study released this year found that it’s not just a figure of speech—Congress doesn’t listen to constituents unless they are rich, and the interests of the top 10 percent are about 15 times as important to lawmakers as those held by the rest of us.
Small Town Police Getting Tanks
Categories: Police-state authoritarianism, institutionalized racism
Dystopic Effect: The American Civil Liberties Union released a report this summershowing that American police forces have become excessively militarized, possessing literal arsenals of explosives, tanks, and assault rifles. The report also found the arsenals, often bought for cheap from the US military’s surplus, were routinely being used in poor communities of color, employing full-on SWAT teams to deal with minor drug busts, or even simply the suspicion of drugs. “Militarization of policing,” the report states, “encourages officers to adopt a ‘warrior’ mentality and think of the people they are supposed to serve as enemies.”
Category: South Korean English film adaptation of French dystopian graphic novel
Dystopic Effect: By far the year’s most harrowing dystopia came in the form of Bong Joon-ho’s terrifying vision of a post-apocalyptic Earth where the only human survivors are the passengers on a self-contained train that resembles the global class divide to an alarming T. We won’t spoil the end (you’re still not excused from seeing it) but the horrors herein are probably the only instances on this list that are a more chillingly accurate metaphor than reality (for now, anyway).
Russian Annexation of Ukraine
Categories: Governmental domination, statewide corruption
Dystopic Effect: Vladimir Putin’s decision to annex Ukraine’s majority-Russian Crimean Peninsula didn’t come until February, but Ukrainian protesters were from the first day of this year resisting Russia and those who support its rule over the country. The protests left more than 100 people dead and nearly 2,000 injured, and Russia’s takeover of Crimea breached multiple international laws while producing these astonishingly Hunger Games-esque photos of Kiev’s Independence Square.
Category: YA book turns mega-blockbuster
Dystopic Effect: After 21 years of Hollywood struggle, Jeff Bridges finally gets to put out his adaptation of Lois Lowry’s novel The Giver. The movie does its best to mimic its epic dystopian YA thriller contemporaries by infusing the once-gentle story with breakneck adventure and raised stakes, but ultimately falls short by doing so, garnering merciless reviews and an embarrassing $12.8 million debut for its efforts. (Remember what we mentioned earlier about Divergent and peak dystopia?) In its defense, however, this year in general was not particularly amenable to social criticism about feelings, especially when such tangibly dystopian conditions keep rolling out in real life.
Qatar Working Migrant Laborers to Death Building Soccer Stadiums
Category: Absurd extravagance at the expense of the exploited working class
Dystopic Effect: In what seems like an attempt to update Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Qatar, according to a report released by the International Trade Union Confederation this spring, has been working hundreds of its 1.4 million migrant laborers literally to death building stadiums and facilities for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. If the death toll—from work-related accidents and “heart failure” (believed to be a blanket ruling for any number of on-the-job fatalities)—continues at this rate, construction is projected to kill 4,000 people by its end in 2022.
Categories: Police brutality, racism
Dystopic Effect: A grand jury reviews evidence and does not indict Ferguson, Mo. police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed teen Michael Brown. The black community and its allies erupt, reinvigorating a protest movement against unchecked police brutality. Initially peaceful protestors are met by militarized local police (see above) who promptly begin tear-gassing the lot. This is all caught on camera in a live feed directly juxtaposed by a statement from President Barack Obama in which he urges police restraint, making for an eerie, now-iconic split screen image.
Predictions for Job Automation
Categories: Over-reliance on AI, disenfranchisement of working class, domination of upper class
Dystopic Effect: Early this year The Economist reported on a late-2013 Oxford University study that found technological advances will create new forms of employment while simultaneously putting nearly half of the workforce out of a job in the next two decades. Those people overwhelmingly will be low-wage workers in service industries and blue-collar jobs. Meanwhile, all these new tech gigs will be to the benefit of the educated, rich, and usually white. And to think Elysium and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? were considered fiction.
Category: Doomed, meta-dystopian reality show
Dystopic Effect: Like so many attempts at utopian fiction and reality that have come before, this tragically hopeful social project engineered by former Survivorproducers was doomed by its very nature from the start. Of course, the producers knew that the concept of utopia was flawed and subjective and counted on that fact to provide the Fox reality show its drama. What they didn’t account for, however, was the fact that when you knowingly set your paradise-builders up to fail, you essentially are producing a farm-themed Real World. And as the ratings and criticism of the project showed, that tired formula is cancellation-worthy.
The Zero Theorem
Categories: Bureaucracy, capitalism, overreliance on technology, existential misery
Dystopic Effect: Terry Gilliam’s third Orwellian flick (after Brazil and the not-technically-dystopian 12 Monkeys) about humanity’s obsession with the meaning of life, made a rather confusing and disappointingly small splash in the US this year after premiering abroad in 2013. Gilliam himself still had lots of fascinating things to discuss with WIRED about the film, however.
Texas Shuts Down 13 Abortion Clinics
Categories: Sexism, denial of health care
Dystopic Effect: Following the passing of a punitive bill that requires Texas abortion clinics to be tricked out with the same highly advanced setup as large hospitals (“building, equipment and staffing standards“), every single clinic not in a major metropolitan area (Houston, Austin, and a couple others) was forced to close its doors, leaving massive swathes of the state—more specifically the less-wealthy parts—without reliable access health care for women. Paging Margaret Atwood.
Ursula K. LeGuin Lays Waste to National Book Awards
Category: Dystopian and science fiction master gets her due
Dystopic Effect: The genius behind such classic dystopian stories as The Lathe of Heaven and such rare successful utopias as the Earthsea series receives the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and delivers one hell of a speech (below).
United Nations Panel Continues to Predict Environmental Apocalypse
Categories: Global warming, apocalypse, bureaucracy, oligarchy
Dystopic Effect: The International Panel on Climate Change reminds us once againthat, thanks to capitalism, we as a planet are more deeply screwed than ever.
Eric Garner and More Police Brutality Protests
Categories: Authoritarianism, racism, surveillance
Dystopic Effect: Despite video evidence, a Staten Island grand jury did not indict New York police officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of unarmed man Eric Garner. (The guy who filmed the death, of course, was promptly indicted.) The incident immediately reinvigorated and exacerbated the already in-progress Ferguson protests and riots nationwide, from NYC and Chicago to the Bay Area and Minnesota’s Mall of America. That Mall of America demonstration produced both a lawsuit and the below image, one of the most dystopian symbols of 2014 (very Ukrainian of you, Bloomington).
The spaces we now think of as ‘public’ spaces are revealed as no such thing, when we do something other than consume pic.twitter.com/L4JlggubLA [Editor’s Note: this link does not work. Here is the image. Just so you get the picture, that is a ginormous screen in a three-story rotunda with balconies that, along with the main floor, were full of protesters. Normally the screen runs ads about the MOA and about consumer products.]
Wealth Gap Now the Worst in Recorded History
Category: Class and race disparities
Dystopic Effect: A recent Pew study has now confirmed the rich are richer than ever and the poor are poorer than ever. Like, really poor. Like, Elysium poor. Here’s hoping for a slightly better 2015.
CORRECTION (01/01/15, 11:15 a.m. PT): A previous version of this story referred to the Mall of America as being located in St. Louis. It is located in Bloomington, Minnesota.