DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.

Darius Muniz

Professor  Urda

English 14  1880

May 20, 2010


                                                                  Dark Dystopia


            A dystopia is a fictional society, usually portrayed as existing in a future time, when the conditions of life are extremely bad due to deprivation, oppression, or terror. Science fiction, particularly post-apocalyptic science fiction, often depict dystopias as a corrupt government creating  or sustaining the poor quality of life, often conditioning the masses to believe that the society is proper, just, and even perfect. Most dystopian fiction takes place in the future but often purposely incorporates contemporary social trends taken to extremes. Dystopias are frequently written as warnings, or as satires, showing current trends and spiraling to a nightmarish conclusion. 

            In the novel “In the country of last things” the story takes the form of letter from a young woman named Anna Blume to a childhood friend. Anna has ventured into an unnamed city that has collapsed into chaos and disorder. In this bleak environment, no industry takes place and most of the population collects garbage or scavenges for objects to resell. The city governments are unstable and are concerned only with collecting human waste and corpses for fuel. Anna has entered the city to search for her brother William, a journalist, and it is suggested that the Blumes come from a world to the East which has not collapsed.

            Anna arrives in the city with William's address, and an address and photo for Samuel Farr, whom William's editor sent to the city after failing to receive word from William. However, in a turn of events she later understands to be typical of life in the city, she finds that not only has William's house been demolished, but the entire street where he lived has been reduced to rubble. Anna lives on the streets of the city as an 'object hunter', a job which involves scavenging for specific objects rather than collecting general waste.

            One day, Anna saves the life of Isabel, an older woman. Isabel is, like Anna, an object hunter, despite her advanced age, and has an uncanny knowledge of where and when to find the objects they require. She lives with her husband, Ferdinand, a rude man who does not work, but makes ships in bottles from small waste materials he finds. Ferdinand tries to rape Anna, but she, trying to scare him away, accidentally starts to strangle him and gives up before he dies, while Isabel is supposedly asleep. Anna and Isabel discover that Ferdinand had died in the morning, hinting that Isabel had finished the job later that evening.

            Isabel and Anna, not wanting to simply leave his body in the street or carry it to a crematorium, throw it from the roof of their apartment building, making it seem as if Ferdinand had committed suicide. Soon after, Isabel becomes ill, and can no longer work. She dies, and after Anna has taken her body to be cremated, housebreakers arrive at her apartment and overpower her, making her homeless once again.

            After having been homeless for a period, Anna is forced to run from a police officer, and goes through the first open door she sees, which turns out to be the city's national library. Parts of the library have been allocated by the government for academics and religious groups. She meets a rabbi, leading a small group of Jewish inhabitants of the city. Anna reveals that she too is a Jew, but no longer believes in God. The group cannot help Anna on her mission to find William, but one of the rabbi's followers directs her to Samuel Farr, who it transpires is also living in the library.

            Despite initial hostility, Sam accepts Anna into his life, and the two live together and become lovers. Sam is working on a book about the city, but is swiftly running out of money. Anna remedies the couple's financial situation with the money she has obtained from selling Isabel and Ferdinand's possessions, and the two are able to live in relative comfort and afford luxury items such as cigarettes. This period is described as one of Anna's happiest. However, the Jewish groups are forced to leave the library when the government decides to exert its authority, and are replaced by a man named Dujardin, of whom Anna is suspicious.

            Anna's shoes start to wear out, and Sam refuses to let Anna leave their apartment until he has found her a new pair, especially because Anna is now pregnant. This takes time, however, and Anna is tempted by an offer from Dujardin to buy her a pair from his cousin, and, despite her initial dislike of him, she accepts his offer. She follows him to his cousin's house, but realizes she has been tricked, and that the house is a human slaughterhouse. Anna jumps from a window and escapes, and is taken in by the patrons of Woburn House, a homeless shelter.

            When she awakes, she lives in luxury, but is deeply distressed to hear that a fire has broken out at the library, Sam's whereabouts are unknown, and she has had a miscarriage. Anna takes a position at Woburn House, and becomes close to her colleagues; Victoria, the daughter of the House's founder, Dr. Woburn; Frick, an older man who serves as a driver and has a strange way of speaking; Willie, Frick's fifteen-year-old grandson; and Boris Stepanovich, a character responsible for procuring food and supplies for the House.

            Anna enters into a love affair with Victoria, which helps her recover from losing Sam. She is appointed to a position in which she interviews prospective residents of the House, which she finds emotionally draining. Sam has lived in an abandoned railway station since the fire in the library, and has become almost unrecognizable. He is taken in immediately, though, and begins to make progress. When he returns to full health, Victoria asks him to contribute to the House by pretending to be a doctor, however, Boris tells Anna that Woburn House is financially unsustainable, as it relies on a limited supply of items taken from Dr. Woburn's collection. She comes to realize that the House cannot continue forever, and cutbacks are made to the provisions granted to residents.

            Frick dies, and is given a burial in the House's garden, against the city's laws. However, the burial is reported to the police by an unknown resident, and they arrive to dig up the body. The police are dissuaded by Boris Stepanovich from taking further measures, but Willie has been deeply affected by the events. He starts to act erratically, and eventually violently, taking a gun and murdering several residents of the House, before turning to Victoria, Sam and Anna. Sam shoots him before he can reach them, but too much damage has been done to the House and its reputation for it to continue.

            The House closes down and, with the last of their money taken from selling the remnants of the Woburn collection and Boris's personal wealth, the four obtain travel permits. The novel ends with Anna considering the best way for them to leave the city, and telling the unknown acquaintance to who she is writing that she will write again. It is unknown whether the letter was sent, and whether Anna, Victoria, Sam and Boris were successful in their attempt to leave the city. The 'last things' in the title of the book refers not only to the disappearance of manufactured objects and technology but also the fading of memories of them and the words used to describe them.

            As the citizens of dystopian societies often live in fear, they become increasingly paranoid and on edge almost like hunted animals. Dystopian citizens experience a profound feeling of being monitored, shadowed, chased, betrayed or manipulated. The factors which trigger this paranoia may be very evident and explicit like in “In the country of last things” or more underlying and unspoken like in Blade Runner.

            The film Blade Runner depicts a dystopian Los Angeles in November 2019 in which genetically engineered beings called replicants, visually indistinguishable from adult humans, are manufactured by the all-powerful Tyrell Corporation. As a result of a violent replicant uprising, their use on Earth is banned, and replicants are exclusively used for dangerous or menial work on Earth's off-world colonies. Replicants who defy the ban and return to Earth are hunted down and "retired" by police assassins known as "blade runners". The plot focuses on a brutal and cunning group of recently escaped replicants hiding in Los Angeles and the semi-retired blade runner Rick Deckard, played by Harrison Ford, who reluctantly agrees to take on one more assignment.

            The message of dystopias has most times been oppression and rebellion. In the film Metropolis, the ruling party’s oppression of the people is obvious, but the multi-national corporation’s oppression of the people in Blade Runner is more subtle. The oppressors are usually more or less obscured as in Blade Runner, or may sometimes be completely evident as in Metopolis. The oppressors are almost always much more powerful than the rebels and consequently, dystopian tales often become studies in survival. 

            In the novel “In the country of last things” it is simply a question of staying alive, where as in Blade Runner, it is a question of being human. The dehumanization of society may also be connected to the benefits and hazards of technological progress. Blade runners hunt artificial, but completely conscious beings like animals. In Dystopia, the borderline of humanity is often blurred and the very concept of humanity distorted.

            Above ground, Metropolis is a utopian city, where the capitalist elite, also known as theThinkers, enjoy themselves in gardens that resemble paradise. Below the ground, Metropolis is a dystopian city, where the proletarian masses alternate between monstrous machine parks and gloomy living quarters. A peaceful preacher from the working class, Maria, takes a group of ragged children to one of the beautiful gardens above the ground to confront the elite. Freder, the idealistic son of Metropolis' Master, Joh Fredersen, is stunned by the experience. Later, when he is confronted with the common man's sufferings, he decides to descend into the depths of the city and take the place of a working man voluntarily.

            Coincidentally, he establishes contact with a secret society among the workers. Their leader is of course Maria and Fredersen falls blindly in love with her. The master of Metropolis is aware of these events and contacts the mad scientist Rotwang. Rotwang has invented a mechanical worker, also known as Futura, and Metropolis' master decides to take advantage of the invention. Maria is kidnapped and the mechanical worker is given her appearance.

            The mechanical replica of Maria instigates a revolution in order to give Metropolis' Master an excuse to use violence. Finally, the gigantic city explodes in anarchy and violence. Metropolis is a silent movie from 1926 and was evidently meant to be a warning against the dangers of urbanization and industrialization.

            Dystopian stories frequently take place in landscapes which diminish people, like large cities with overwhelming architecture or vast wastelands devastated by war and pollution. Dystopian societies are usually, but far from always, battered and worn-out. They may be colorless like Metropolis or full of visuals like Blade Runner, but always visually unmistakable.

            Generally speaking, the environment plays an active role in dystopian depictions. The environment is not only a fancy background, but emphasizes the message. A prominent example is Blade Runner and its depiction of a future society where there can leave no doubt in the viewer that the U.S. has become completely commercialized and that the world is in a state of terminal decay.

            Metropolis is a classic tale of oppression and rebellion, where miserable workers slave for ruthless masters and the wealth gaps between the classes are astronomical. The work is monotonous and dangerous, the pleasures and joys are few, if any and this mindless world is built on discipline and duty, almost like a gigantic forced labor camp cunningly disguised as a society. Metropolis does not depict a convincing society, because the construction lacks logic.

            The capitalist elite in Metropolis is driven by some vague hunger for profit, but it is never explained how such a society could function economically. The working class is evidently very poor and lack buying power: who would consume the products? The engine of a capitalist society is after all consumption. Furthermore, considering the utterly unbearable living conditions of the proletarian workers, Metropolis should have been in a constant state of violent uprising. The ruling class only seems to have one means of control: employment and wages. They would obviously need an ever present police force and perhaps some form of propaganda apparatus in order to neutralize the workers. 

            Metropolis is not really a powerful dystopia, but rather a dystopian fairytale with visual qualities. As such, it says something about our own era, though: whether we like it or not, our lives are dominated by work and consumption. Metropolis is a capitalist dystopia, but I doubt that even the most soulless corporate leader could see any benefits with such a society today. There are actually more parallels with Stalin's Soviet Union, but such a nightmare society demands external pressure, a strong police force and a standing army and such a capitalistic society would simply not be able to hold together. This depiction resembles the worst stages of the Industrial Revolution which was the second half of the 19th century, before worker movements began to participate in politics.

            Perhaps Metropolis is the place where we all could have ended up if the Industrial Revolution would have escalated in the wrong direction. Even if it never happened, it is a depressive thought that we are still working numerous hours a day, despite the remarkable technological evolution within the fields of robotics and computers. Perhaps Fritz Lang knew what he was talking about after all when he created his vision of society’s future. We who live in the Western world should be careful not to fool ourselves. All non-governmental economic entities, be it small companies or large corporations, are constantly trying to maximize their profits.

            Where Utopia is the land of dreams, Dystopia is the land of nightmares. Today, most science fiction tales are depictions of chilling, dehumanized societies and one explanation might be the forbidden charm of the Dystopia. Although we don't really want to live in the gloomy and violent Los Angeles depicted in Blade Runner, there is something exotic and appealing with the kaleidoscopic neon streets, the assorted street crowds, the flying jet cars, or the monstrous architecture.

            Let's all pray those dark visions of the future are fantasies and not prophecies. Nevertheless, they might be warnings and perhaps we should listen to them. As is depicted by a dystopia, it can take forever to realize a dream, but a nightmare can come true almost immediately as is also visualized by the novel “In the country of last things” and can become as real as actual societal practices as seen in the film Metropolis.










                                                                      Works Cited


Auster, Paul. In The Country of Last Things. New York: Penguin, 1988


Blade Runner. Dir. Ridley Scott. Perf. Harrison Ford, Rutger Hauer. Warner, 1982


Divine, Robert A, T.H. Breen, George M. Fredrickson, R. Hal Williams, Ariela J. Gross, and        H.W. Brands. The American Story. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.


Metropolis. Dir. Fritz Lang. Perf. Alfred Abel, Rudolf Klein-Rogge. Universum Film A.G., 1927

DRAFT: This module has unpublished changes.