Thursday, September 18, 2014

Things That I Like: Writing dystopian societies that… actually work

At the risk of accidentally helping the next would-be conqueror and subsequent ruler of the world, I want to talk about dystopias today.
When I read about cultures, past and present, there are some different things that I automatically start looking for or asking myself. When I see an imbalance of power, what comes to mind is “Where are the dangerous elements to the present power structure, and how have the rulers co-opted these elements and/or played them against each other so that they won’t pose a threat?”
There are two very good lines that I should lift from TV Tropes:
  1. 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.
  2. Worst of all, humanity is resistant to the creation of a society that they believe is against their well-being.
Keeping these three ideas in mind, you can avoid most of the problems that make your common dystopia unfeasible. Ultimately, you want to design a power structure and ancillary culture that will not collapse from within. Making it resistant to dangers from the outside is another topic entirely (one that applies to most or all other societies), but if you’re looking to design a dystopia that has lasted for any considerable length of time then it needs to be effective at quashing threats from within. Preferably before they even become threats.
You might be able to divide your dystopian overlords into two categories: those that put some thought into the system that they were creating, and those that didn’t.
The second group is dead now. Their system fell apart one way or another and didn’t last a full generation. So we’re going to talk about the first group from here on out, because if you’re not writing about a very young dystopia that’s collapsing under its own mismanaged weight then the first group is the only one you have any business talking about.
(You may have some wiggle room with supposing that the present rulers are just less competent than their predecessors but this excuse becomes less workable as more time has passed in your world, because for every generation between the original and the present rulers you have to ask yourself what kept those middle generation rulers from being incompetent, and why that mechanism has failed now).
So first of all, you want to create a society that is capable of functioning on a day-to-day basis. If it can’t even manage to feed its soldiers then how are they going to be, well, alive enough to enforce the oppressive might of the ruling class or what have you? The trains have to run on time and the bread and salt has to get from Point A to Point B on a reliable basis.
Also: If your dystopian architects are living in the modern day or the future then they have the benefit of looking back on all the history that you’re shamelessly basing them on. Don’t make them idiots. One of the main points of recording history is to be able to look back on the efforts of other people who tried to do what you want to do, and why they did or didn’t succeed. Do keep that in mind, because your new robot overlords are going to.
Second, you want, if at all possible, for everybody to want to be invested in the current system. For obvious reasons, you don’t want the oppressed masses to think that they’re in trouble. If you can, you want them to actually contribute to their sorry state by thinking that something else entirely is responsible. Look at what’s going presently in the USA for an example (and I’ll be no more specific than that, so just assume I’m talking about Those People and keep the politics out of this). Scapegoating, in a word.
You want them to think that, as bad as things are, the people in charge are certainly not responsible for what’s going on. If less obviously centralized power structures it may be possible to say that somebody else is responsible. Or you can redirect the hatred to outside threats, like North Korea and Iran do. And if you can’t convince the people that things are actually pretty good, or that somebody else is responsible for everything that’s going wrong, then make the people think that things will be even worse if things were different.
Bonus points if it’s true. There’s no better propaganda than the truth, because you don’t have to worry about being caught in a lie, just somebody being convinced that they caught you in a lie (which, since you’re running the country with an iron fist and unblinking eye, you should be able to disprove in short order).
Thirdly, you want a mechanism for neutralizing threats to the status quo. In every society there are dangerous elements, people who could overthrow the current order of things if only they were sufficiently motivated to do so. Obviously, you want them to unmotivated about this. 99% of all dystopian revolutions are led by somebody who doesn’t collect coins or build model airplanes. Coincidence?
This is what the last two points were about when you get down to it. Taking care of problems before they even come up. Famine will screw you over, so take care of the food supply. That sort of thing.
Looking at slave societies throughout history may be a pretty good way of seeing how this problem has been handled in different ways. In slave-owning America, for example, the biggest thing that slave-owners had to worry about was the lower classes uniting against them. This is, in fact, why the British stopped using Amerind slaves pretty quick, because of the risk of collusion between free Amerinds beyond the frontier and enslaved Amerinds (and later, enslaved blacks too). To that end they strengthened the local culture of racism so that poor whites would identify themselves on the basis of skin color rather than their place in the power structure. Up until this was done, however, the system was considerably less stable than anyone up top liked.
Colonial powers would did this often. A common tactic was to treat two or more subject populations in such a way that they blamed each other for their respective problems. Even more effective was to set a minority group in a position of power that they had hitherto never had: most of the hatred for the ruling powers would be displaced onto this group, who would be invested in maintaining the status quo in order to retain their present power and avoid the fallout that would come from no longer having powerful protectors watching their collective back. Many of the present problems in Africa, the Middle East, and between India and Pakistan can be traced back to this and similar practices.
Keeping your enemies divided is great, but don’t stop there. Master the wielding of both carrot and stick. Make social mobility possible, even if you have to make it very rare. Especially if the power that someone might achieve under the current system is greater than what could be achieved if the system were overthrown, you’ll find many of your potential threats neutralized and investing themselves in the system in the hopes that they or their children will rise through the ranks.
While you can make social mobility span your whole society you at least want to make sure that it’s possible for the most dangerous elements. Societies that allowed slaves to buy their freedom are a good example here.
Bonus points if you have reverse mobility to keep at least some of the ruling class in check, too. You don’t want a corrupt, top-heavy system where your administrators can’t be efficiently removed if they start to suck. Active, open oppression of the people will increase their dissatisfaction with the system, and you don’t want that.
This may also be a good place to mention hydraulic empires, which are states that stay in power by having complete control over one or more necessities. The original and most common type of hydraulic empire was one based on control over water supplies. The rulers could exert their power immediately, by denying a vital resource to areas that didn’t accept the status quo, and in the future, by choosing how to distribute a scarce resource between two groups by comparing their loyalty both now and in the past. If you rebel then you may not only hurt yourselves now but also hurt your descendants by making it more likely that when a drought comes and water is scarce, the relief will go to some other area and not your own.
Lastly, as WriteWorld says“Not everything has to be social commentary.”
Your turn: What are some other things to keep in mind when writing a dystopia?
R. Donald James Gauvreau maintains a blog at, where he regularly posts story ideas, free fiction, and other goodies, including a free guide to comparative mythology that was written specifically with worldbuilding in mind.
He is probably not a spider.

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