Dystopia Is Hard

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"You can see why Che ducked out right after the revolution. It's a lot easier to blow up the trains than to make them run on time."

Any Dystopia 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 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 keep tabs on a country of a hundred million people and guide it in the desired direction.

This trope is often used to deconstruct the concept of Dystopia. 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.

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 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 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.

Examples of Dystopia Is Hard include:


Literature[edit | hide | hide all]

  • 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.
    • Atwood may not be playing this trope entirely straight: the majority of the men in this society are a) armed and b) do not expect to have a chance at a woman—read 'any permitted sexual outlet whatsoever' -- unless they're really, really lucky because those government-run brothels are only for the high-ranking members of the government & foreign officials. And it's lasted seven years?
  • 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 Xanatos Gambit 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 Xanatos 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 is one interpretation of the epilogue of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It's an in-universe treatise on Newspeak, the language with which Big Brother intended to completely supplant English. The treatise itself is written in normal English, and refers to both Newspeak and Big Brother in the past tense, possibly implying that it was written some time after Oceania's totalitarian government fell. Orwell himself Jossed this one, but Death of the Author and all that...
    • The Newspeak is nothing but simply an agglutinative language - just as Finnish, Japanese, Turkish or Hungarian. All of these languages have extremely small corpus (basic vocabulary) and words for new concepts are formed by derivation with various prefixes and suffixes. And in agglutinative languages, that is incredibly easy. Creating a Newspeak is basically giving a loaded gun to the hands of the dissidents: creating new words for new concepts is childishly easy in agglutinative languages, and no state machinery can control that.
    • In any case it seems impossible for the hopelessly corrupt, decaying Stalinist society of 1984 to endure; a fairly popular piece of Fanon for the novel is that everything in the book, even Goldstein's book, is a lie; Oceania is actually a North Korea-esque pariah state contained on the island of Great Britain.
    • League of Extraordinary Gentlemen makes this idea apart of it's panfictional cannon.
    • As well as the fact that North Korea is Oceania (see below) its isn't too hard to see why.
      • Given to the history of all Totalitarian regimes, they are either utterly corrupt or avoiding that, horribly inefficient. The Nazi Germany was bureaucratic to the boot, with all Party units relating each other with suspicion and fear. In 1984 everything works like an oiled machine; in the Real Life all Totalitarian state machineries are slow to react, have horrible bureaucratic overhead and are inefficient to boot. With the Schizo-Tech described in the book, it is very likely that the Totalitarian regime would have collapsed on itself into something like post-Stalinist USSR, which was far less nasty place than that of Lenin and Stalin.
        • Sending war veterans, who were both organized and used to war and violence, to concentration camps was an extremely bad idea. The GULAG system in USSR was about to collapse and become a seed of civil war already in 1951. Only Stalin's death and dismantling of the GULAG archipelago system saved USSR from civil war.
  • 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.

Tabletop Games[edit | hide]

  • 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 millions 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.
    • 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, and don't trade or deal with Xenos, they don't really give a shit.
  • 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).

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • 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 finally confronted, 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.

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • 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 (series) 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.


Real Life[edit | hide]

  • It's rare for a tyrannical regime to outlive its tyrant. The death of the despot usually signals a change of direction, suggesting that dystopias only last as long as some twisted sociopath is putting the pressure on. This could also be an aversion though of the trope, in the sense that said dystopia survived for more than one second intact.
  • Case in point: Francoist Spain. Franco's regime lasted for thirty-six years - perhaps the Longest Runner of all the Fascist governments of the 20th century. When he died, though, Spain quickly returned to democracy. The fact that Franco's successor-to-be had been offed by the ETA two years before, and that the man he had picked to become King of Spain in case of his own death was greatly in favour of democracy, helped a lot.
  • The USSR was a totalitarian nightmare under Stalin (and to a lesser extent before he took over), but underwent a series of reforms following his death. It was still brutal and authoritarian, but there was noticeably more freedom and less institutionalised mass murder.
    • One of the best things Khrushchev did after Stalin died was to ensure that such state-sanctioned mass murder could never happen in the USSR again.
    • Some of the more cynical political commentators are even saying that basic human rights were adhered better in the late stages of the Soviet Union than in the modern Russia, since they were at least trying to believe in their moral superiority over the capitalist nations; dissenters were more often punished with internal exile, rather than assassination or disappearing into gulags.
    • It should be noted that while Stalin died in 1953, the KGB was in fact established in 1954. Its internal directorates ran vast surveillance and informant networks, and routinely tortured and executed suspected dissidents. Although the NKVD and Gulag died with Stalin, the Soviet Union very much remained a police state.
    • Hell, the Soviet union was one from Lenin to Gorbachev. Although Gorbachev did liberalize the USSR, remember his regime was responsible for the suppression of the Chernobyl disaster.
  • The reign of homicidal maniac Caligula was followed by the more moderate and successful reign of Claudius, following the former's assassination when his guard found his rule unbearable, though Claudius was at least initially treated as a puppet emperor.
  • North Korea was able to survive after Kim Il-Sung finally died of heart attack, but it still plays it straight: the country is utterly crippled by its excessive military spending, with the result that its military is thriving while everyone else tries to get by on what remains. The capital Pyongyang is the only city that gets any real help from the government, everywhere else barely has enough of what is needed.
  • The only reason Nazi Germany lasted as long as it did was because Adolf Hitler was very, very good at convincing people to ignore logic and observable evidence, and because the loot from invaded countries all went to Germany. By the end of World War II, the economy and government was in shambles. Even if Germany had won, the regime probably would not have lasted very long, especially once there was no longer a war to distract people's attention.
    • Nazi Germany only really functioned in two modes: preparing for a war and fighting a war. Repeat. End result; the "thousand-year Reich" lasted 13 years.
    • East Germany was in fact much more adept at mass internal suppression. The Nazis employed approximately one Gestapo per 2,000 citizens, but the GDR retained one Stasi per 166 citizens. The Stasi dealt brutally with any hint of opposition, using methods as diverse as child informants in schools and hidden video cameras in private apartments to root it out. Factoring in the estimated 500,000 regular and 1,500,000 part-time informants in a country of 14 million people, as many as 1 in 7 people were government spies.
  • Modern China is a very strange aversion. During Mao's rule, the country was an authoritarian and unstable hellhole against which North Korea actually compared favourably. After Mao died, those left in the system figured that if they don't keep the populace fed and happy and focus on development rather than knocking around for a global revolution, they would not last long. Deng Xiaoping ensured that those with a stake in the old system had a stake in the new system too. The result? The authoritarian system Mao placed survived, but evolved into become something less dystopian, significantly more stable and infinitely more pragmatic (keeping in mind that some problems persist). One could say that China is a Police State that tries make an authoritarian dystopia work by trimming the harder bits out, to the point where some people might wonder if it is even a dystopia.
    • China exists by being too large and making enough money to fund things so it can survive along with actually encouraging tourism unlike many dictatorships. There are massive problems but China is even larger