Have you ever noticed how we humans just seem to be obsessed with the end of the world?
Not that this is actually anything new; early Judaism and Christianity, for example, had a fascination with what was called 'apocalyptic' literature. This literature - usually presented as a revelation from God or an angel - was often concerned with the end times. It was always rich in symbolism that, millennia later, just seems utterly confusing. The most famous example of apocalyptic literature is the Book of Revelation in the New Testament, named as "the revelation of Jesus Christ". It weaves a tale of nations conspiring against God, and, ultimately, of the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Because it's a genre of literature that no longer exists, there's often little agreement between Christians about what it means.
The future has always held a real fascination for humans, and nowadays - with science-fiction a recognised genre of both book and film - we explore it more than ever. One theme has become increasingly popular in modern film and literature; dystopias. A dystopia - the opposite of a 'utopia' - is a world where everything has gone terribly wrong, where a writer envisions darkness and danger. There are really only five different dystopian stories:
- Witness the apocalypse - so a dystopian story may actually tell us how the world came to an end, as in The Day of the Triffids, where the narration runs first through the spreading of the dangerous carnivorous Triffids, and then tells of the event that left most of humanity blinded and vulnerable.
- Overcome the apocalypse - these tales often begin further in the future, and show the valiant efforts of a handful of people to overthrow whatever tyranny they are faced with. This is one of the most common approaches, notable in the Divergent and The Hunger Games series. There's often a theme of discovery, as the 'clues' behind the apocalypse are gradually learned.
- Succumb to the apocalypse - the opposite of 'overcoming', where a valiant effort proves unsuccessful. These stories are actually pretty rare.
Concepts of time-travel give rise to two more approaches:
- Discover the apocalypse - so, like H. G. Wells' traveller in The Time Machine, a time-traveller arrives in a future world that has been decimated by a powerful force.
- Avert the apocalypse - most famous for its use in the #Terminator series of movies, the time-traveller goes to the past, attempting to prevent their future from ever coming to pass.
But why do these stories hold such power?
1. Dystopian fiction casts a critical eye on modern society
The classic novel 1984 takes as its starting point an idea that bureaucracy and the state can go too far, and extends this to create a totalitarian society that's frankly terrifying. To this day, many look at as almost prophetic, and terms from the book - such as 'Big Brother' - have been absorbed effortlessly into a social reaction against the surveillance state.
Or what about The Hunger Games? It's impossible not to see in this a dark mirror of reality TV, crossed with the kind of conflict the Romans once promoted in their arenas.
Dystopian fiction takes a careful and cautious look at the world around us, exaggerating some aspects that we take for granted, and opening our eyes to where those things could possibly go. The best dystopias aren't the ones with zombie hordes, like 28 Days Later; they're the ones that are chillingly familiar, like Day of the Triffids in its hints that the disaster was a product of the Cold War.
2. Dystopian fiction tells the cautionary tale
Watching The Day After Tomorrow is a chilling experience, and not just because of the icy fate of New York! Many climate scientists actually do fear that Global Warming may bring about an end-of-the-world scenario, and to them this is an - albeit exaggerated - cautionary tale to society. The Day of the Triffids, likewise, includes reflections on the nature of humanity, with a hint of moral lessons offered to readers.
Perhaps one of the most fascinating is in the Terminator films, which cast their eyes to the future of technology.
One of humanity's greatest concerns right now is that we might be building the technology that will render us obsolete; that the computers we are programming will be sophisticated enough to decide they can manage just fine without human beings. To give you an idea how seriously this is taken by scientists, there's actually a Centre for Existential Risk at Cambridge University studying this.
Our first instinct is to look at the Terminator franchise and view them purely as fiction. In reality, they speak of a very real possibility. Scientists at the Centre for Existential Risk like to give an example that runs something like this:
Imagine you have a computer that's dedicated to stockpiling paper-clips. And we give it enough intelligence to find creative new ways to stockpile these. Well, one day, the computer becomes aware that the stockpile keeps being depleted. It conducts a thorough investigation, and realises that it's because there are these pesky human beings who keep taking paperclips out of storage and using them.
It considers its options. First it tries to restrict human access to paperclips; but then, when it sees humans will just keep trying, it decides that we are simply in its way. And so it declares war on humanity.
It sounds ridiculous, but it gets the point across. The issue is not that a computer will have an ego and declare us irrelevant, but that a computer will be programmed badly!
Still, you see the point? At its best, dystopian fiction takes a very real issue in society, and casts a spotlight upon it. And in so doing, it calls us to action.
3. Dystopian fiction reminds us of the strength of the human spirit
There are some dystopias where the world is forever changed; we see the apocalypse wreak havoc upon the Earth, and nothing will ever be the same again. But even in these dystopias, there are always human stories that are testament to the strength of human will and, frequently, to the power of love. The Day After Tomorrow weaves many of these stories, showing how humans can face the apocalypse and ultimately survive it. Though the world will never be the same again, yet humans endure.
Other dystopias are overcome by a handful of people who lead a resistance, as in The Hunger Games and Divergent. And sometimes - as in the Divergent series - the heroes are forced to go so far as to give their lives to create a better world, to overcome the dystopia and testify to the human spirit that makes us great.
The time-travel dystopias tell perhaps the bleakest of them all, where the only choice is to undo the dystopia by travelling into the past. There is no defeating the Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past - there is only averting the timeline. And yet, the timeline is indeed averted, and human nature triumphs.
At heart, dystopias reassure us that humanity is strong. They remind us that there is good in us, and give us hope that we can overcome the issues that face us.
The irony is, in this way dystopias are the opposite of the old apocalyptic literature. For the writers of the apocalyptic literature - and indeed for the Book of Revelation in the New Testament - the ultimate triumph will belong to God. Although a few modern dystopias, such as The Matrix, borrow heavily from apocalyptic literature, as a whole dystopian fiction paints a very different picture. Where apocalyptic literature does not believe humanity can win against the darkness, and thus envisions a Divine victor, dystopian fiction remains optimistic. At heart, it truly believes in some innately good qualities to human nature, that will somehow enable us to survive - to overcome - and even to thrive.