While dystopias have most often been associated with young adult literature and film as of late, the worlds characterized by societal decline have proliferated in science fiction since at least the early 1900s.
Strictly speaking Oxford Dictionaries defines a dystopia is “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.” Books like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984 explored dystopian worlds and built the genre that many science fiction movies and TV shows dabble in today.
But a dystopia isn’t always an imaginary place, and we may need to know how to survive in one sooner than we realize. Will we be able to use what dystopian science fiction has taught us when our world falls apart?
Step 1 to Surviving a Dystopia: Recognize
In the first season of Wayward Pines, Ethan Burke finds himself in a town that doesn’t make sense. Everyone appears to be happy, but there are cracks around the edges, warning signs that not all is as it seems. One of the big ones for Wayward Pines is that citizens are not allowed to leave the town.
So, step one for making it through a dystopia: recognize. Trust your gut. If you think something going on around you is wrong or doesn’t make sense, you’re probably right.
If Ethan hadn’t questioned what was going on, he never would have figured out the secret of Wayward Pines. He would have lived out his days in the bizarre little town, pretending everything was A-OK, and he never would have seen his family again.
Step 2 to Surviving a Dystopia: Educate
Searching for the truth is one of the first things Thomas Anderson – a.k.a. Neo – tries when he realizes his world isn’t quite right. The Matrix’s main character eventually finds Morpheus, who offers him a choice: blue pill or red pill.
To survive a dystopia, you must choose the red pill. Education or simply understanding what is going on around you is absolutely vital in a world gone wrong.
Take a look at The Hunger Games: understanding was the key to Katniss’s survival. She was the one who figured out the Gamemakers would allow both her and Peeta to win, if she threatened to leave them with no winner.
Possessing all the facts is what frees you to take action and ensure your survival. Taking the red pill is the only way out.
Step 3 to Surviving a Dystopia: Mobilize
Though many dystopian films offer an example of mobilization, perhaps one of the best cases to point to is that of Luke Skywalker. In the original Star Wars movie, Luke goes on a journey, leaving behind his uncomplicated life as a moisture farmer to fight with the Rebel Alliance against Darth Vader and the Death Star.
Though not all Star Wars fans like Luke, it’s hard to dispute the fact that he turns into a hero. After all, that’s literally the point of the movie. One of the ways Luke becomes a hero is joining the Alliance, unlike the initially aloof Han Solo, who maintains a reputation as a free agent.
One of the key aspects of surviving a dystopia is making sure you bond with other people, so they can help you as much as you help them. No one can go it alone, especially in a broken world.
Step 4 to Surviving a Dystopia: Act
As a writer, “actions speak louder than words” is not typically a position I advocate for, but then again, a dystopia is not your typical world.
Most dystopian science fiction films and shows have a rebellious faction, but we don’t often get to see how those groups become radicalized. More often than not, we take the position of the new person just joining the group.
However, this is not the case in Serenity where we get to see the horrors of Miranda alongside Captain Mal and his spaceship’s crew. After running most of the movie, Mal stands up and delivers an ultimatum: “Somebody has to speak for these people.”
So, they do. Even though it’s hard and it’s painful, Mal and his crew take action against the Alliance, trying to make sure they can never destroy another planet again.
Step 5 to Surviving a Dystopia: Hope
The scene in Children of Men that has stuck with me to this day exemplifies the final key to surviving a dystopia: you have to have hope.
Refugees and soldiers alike stop and stare as Theo escorts Kee and her baby out of the building and across the battlefield. For one breathless sequence, the world falls away for everyone, as they witness the miracle that is a baby in this godforsaken wasteland.
The ceasefire doesn’t last for long, but it’s enough to suggest that somehow, some way even this world can repair itself, can heal. Even in the midst of despair, you have to find that hope. It’s the only way to survive a dystopian nightmare.
Overcoming the Dystopia
Many dystopian films end on a bittersweet note. Typically, not everything goes as planned, but the characters’ efforts have succeeded at weakening those in power. In our future dystopia, we may not get that far – not everything is a movie. But by focusing on these keys, you can live to fight another day.
While a dystopian world may seem hopeless when you’re in the midst of it, you can survive. Surviving is enough. It’s more than enough.
Feature Image via cpmacdonald.