The Ten Sexiest Dystopias!
By Jeremy Adam Smith
8 August 2005
"The lesson to be drawn from the more imaginative science-fiction hells . . . is not only that a society could be devised that would frustrate the active virtues . . . but that there is in all sorts of people something that longs for this to happen."
—Kingsley Amis, New Maps of Hell (1960)
My desktop dictionary defines dystopia as "an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it possibly can be," and yet there is something in many such places that remains intrinsically seductive and even cool. Like the traitor Cypher in The Matrix, many of us—perhaps most of us—would gladly swap freedom for drugged, infantile bliss. "I know what you're thinking," Cypher says to Neo, " 'cause . . . I've been thinking it ever since I got here: Why oh why didn't I take the blue pill?"
In the sexy dystopia, we watch television not because it can't be turned off (as in Orwell's 1984) but because TV is fun. In the classic dystopia a totalitarian government controls the population by severing human beings from their emotions and desires, and therefore from each other; the sexy dystopia, on the other hand, achieves the same end by indulging those desires and fulfilling our fantasies. All the dictator, marketing executive, or evil supercomputer asks in return is for you to stop thinking and start masturbating.
The sexy dystopia is a nightmare of gratification, where the wild child of the Id is freed from the domination of the Superego—that part of the personality where Freud located conscience. Unlike utopia—that "no place"—dystopia is always close at hand, lurking in the shadows of the mind of every human being. Here are ten of the sexiest dystopias, listed in no particular order, where a part of me would very much like to live. . . .
The Christian Hell
There's an episode of The Simpsons ("Homer vs. Lisa and the 8th Commandment") in which the Sunday school teacher announces that today the children are going to learn about Hell. "I've sat through mercy and I've sat through forgiveness," exclaims Bart. "Finally, we get to the good stuff! Oh-hoo, baby!" Even for Christians—especially for Christians—Hell is a liberated zone, a repository of repressed pagan fantasy. From Hieronymus Bosch's painting "The Garden of Earthly Delights" to Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost to contemporary cartoon Chick tracts, Hell has always doubled as a heavy-metal heaven of leather daddies and biker babes, where the bars are open all night and there's an ashtray at every table. Lucifer—"the light-bearer"—appears as a much more attractive master than that stern white-bearded Stalin who rules over Heaven. "Hell is a terrible place," retorts the Sunday school teacher. "There's a lake of fire burning with sulfur." Yes, replies Bart, but "wouldn't you eventually get used to it, like in a hot tub?"
"Outside it is winter," says the malevolent Emcee in Cabaret, a musical that tries to capture the moment in Berlin just before the rise of Nazism. "But in here it's so hot. Every night we have to battle with the girls to keep them from taking off all their clothings. So don't go away. Who knows? Tonight we may lose the battle!" In 1919, an elected national assembly met in Weimar to draw up a new constitution for a defeated and bankrupt Germany. The Weimar government—pressed on one side by Communism and on the other by fascism—passed some of the world's most progressive social welfare legislation while also presiding over a milieu of unprecedented cultural experimentation.
Just as Nazi Germany is fixed in our historical imagination as the ultimate in Western barbarity, so its progenitor Weimar Germany—specifically, the city of Berlin—will forever be our velvet dictatorship of the proletarian queer. Gay men walked the Berlin streets hand in hand and new artistic movements—later denounced by the Nazis as "decadent," which indeed they were—flourished. Underneath it all, of course, Hitler toiled on Mein Kampf and the Nazi Party organized. Does the social freedom we attribute to Weimar Germany conceal, cause, or defy the undercurrent of racialist, genocidal utopianism that later swept Nazi Germany? The historical facts are irrelevant; it's the moral drama that draws us to this dystopian myth of pleasure, politics, and responsibility.
"Vermilion Sands is my guess at what the future will actually be like," writes British author J.G. Ballard, "a place where I would be happy to live." In a series of stories written from 1956 to 1967, Ballard describes a shimmering, windswept resort town "somewhere between Arizona and Ipanema Beach," littered with disfigured movie stars, aria-singing flowers, abandoned sand-yachts, cloud sculptures, sonic statues, bejewelled scorpions, and psychotropic mansions that visually reflect occupants' emotional states back to them. Vermilion Sands—an inspiration for Burning Man?—is Ballard's end-point vision for European civilization, a postapocalyptic, postscarcity exurb in which nothing is true and everything is permitted. Ballard's mad divas and dissipated sculptors, released from necessity and drained of purpose, can find meaning only in the private obsessions and solipsistic fantasies that fill the blank canvas of the desert. Vermilion Sands is the most democratic of hells, where imagination can turn each and every denizen into Satan.
When the gangster Bugsy Siegel opened the Flamingo Hotel in 1946, he kicked off a bottom-of-the-barrel Shangri-la where, by the dawn of the 21st century, 36 million visitors a year would pump up the fortunes of those who own the crap tables, buffets, and hotels. In a sense, Las Vegas is the ultimate science-fiction city, where technology is put to use in creating ersatz and totalizing environments like Treasure Island, Mandalay Bay, the Venetian, and the Aladdin. (Oh, and don't miss Star Trek: The Experience.) But on a deeper level, Las Vegas is also built on speculation about the future, whose outcomes rest on the roll of the die. "Luck is very much fate's last hope," writes Brian Sutton-Smith in The Ambiguity of Play. "It is the play of the last chance. It is the play of everyman. In this sense it is useful to think of games of chance not only as models of the irrevocability of fate but also as fate fantasized." Everyone comes to Vegas hoping to win, but it is the money of countless working-class losers that built those futuristic casinos and the private palaces of their owners.
"The face of total 'evil' is always the face of total need," writes William S. Burroughs in his introduction to his 1959 novel Naked Lunch. Living as a heroin junkie in Spanish-occupied Morocco in the mid '50s, Burroughs conceived of divided Tangier as a metaphor for the globalized modern world: "The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market." The Interzone in Naked Lunch is a point of convergence for "the blood and substance of many races," lithe male prostitutes, exotic diseases, bizarre political factions, and criminals of all types. In the Interzone "everyone looks like a drug addict," and addiction is the organizing principle of life. Those who control the flow of drugs rule the Interzone, which emerges as the 20th century's Rosetta stone of social control.
Noir Los Angeles
Roll down your window: see the metaphors go by. There's Zhora the replicant, smashing through plate glass windows; there's Jake lost in Chinatown, and Tod Hackett running through Hollywood, bloody faced, chased by a mob. "Los Angeles is probably the most mediated town in America," writes Michael Sorkin, "nearly unviewable save through the fictive scrim of its mythologizers." Noir surfaced during the Depression as a critique of the L.A. built by the land-speculating, white supremacist, road-building, union-smashing civic boosters that still run the city. Writers like Raymond Chandler, Chester Himes, and James M. Cain (all at one time or another under contract with the studios) created a countermyth of Lotusland that fused Hemingway's tough-guy romanticism, Weimar expressionism, Greek tragedy, and gutter Marxism into a vision of Los Angeles as the ultimate capitalist dystopia, where Midwestern refugees are free to rot in air-conditioned peace.
Like Las Vegas, there is something in Los Angeles that is intrinsically science fictional. J.G. Ballard once listed the Los Angeles Yellow Pages as one of his favorite books, describing it as "a fund of extraordinary material" for a science fiction writer. With the 1982 film Blade Runner, noir Los Angeles was quite naturally annexed by science fiction, where it has remained ever since in the work of the cyberpunks and in futuristic thrillers like The Thirteenth Floor (1999).
"The black clinics of Chiba were the cutting edge, whole bodies of technique supplanted monthly," writes William Gibson in the vivid opening pages of his 1984 classic Neuromancer. "Synonymous with implants, nerve-splicing, and microbionics, Chiba was a magnet for the Sprawl's techno-criminal subcultures." Gibson's antihero Case comes to the Yakuza-ruled Chiba City to escape the "prison of his own flesh," and this is, ultimately, what all of Gibson's novels—in fact, nearly all science fiction stories—are about. In Neuromancer Chiba City appears as a darkling back-alley Emerald City where flesh may be bent or abandoned to the imagination, through surgery or through the "consensual hallucination" of the Matrix. Where once magic and religion promised transcendence, today this is achieved in science fiction through technology. "Burgeoning technologies require outlaw zones," writes Gibson, and in Chiba City, transcendence comes at the cost of damnation. The fully globalized Chiba City is hell, ruled over by gangsters, yet under its "poisoned silver sky" outlaws like Case can escape into a twilight world of imagination and pleasure.
City of Domes
"Here in an ecologically balanced world, mankind lives only for pleasure, freed by the servo-mechanisms which provide everything," says the introduction to the 1976 film Logan's Run. "There's just one catch. Life must end at thirty unless reborn in the fiery ritual of Carousel." Doesn't sound so bad, does it? Who wants to live past thirty anyway? Logan's Run depicts the future as a giant suburban mall—the City of Domes—crawling with feather-haired, scantily clad young things whose main pastimes are shopping and shagging. When Logan finally reaches Sanctuary, the legendary safe zone for people over thirty, it turns out to be a bummer, with this really old dude and a bunch of boring statues and stuff. In the grand bait-and-switch tradition of sexy dystopias, we are meant to deplore this youth-worshipping future and embrace maturation, but the City of Domes is, of course, a seductive vision of technological Eden. Is it better to burn out than fade away? The Carousel promises not so much death as eternal life, captured at the peak of beauty.
"Did you know that the first Matrix was designed to be a perfect human world?" Agent Smith says in the 1999 film The Matrix. "Where none suffered, where everyone would be happy. It was a disaster. . . . The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum kept trying to wake up from. Which is why the Matrix was redesigned to this: the peak of your civilization." Sure, the Matrix is a simulacrum of our dystopian contemporary world—but it is simultaneously an animistic and magical realm, a Gnostic daydream where each of us may transcend the limits of our bodies. Take a red pill, and hey, you can do physics-bending Kung Fu. You also get, as a special bonus, an unlimited supply of cool weaponry and black leather clothes. You'll look great, and you can wreck sports cars and kill with impunity.
Though the 1999-2003 trilogy of Matrix films ostensibly tells the story of humankind's struggle against evil machines that turn us all into batteries, one can easily imagine the day after the revolution depicted in the final film, The Matrix Revolutions. In the coda that will never be made, I see the mass of humanity waking up from their cocoons, looking around at the ruined world they've inherited, and thinking the same thing that Cypher thought: fuck this. They'll keep the Matrix, of course. The council of Zion will open it as a theme park and charge admission to solve the postrevolution budget crisis. In good time, they'll privatize the whole property and sell it off to themselves and their friends at fire-sale rates. The Matrix will become the Las Vegas of the future.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
You are Tommy Vercetti, a lone drug-dealing thug, with an entire Miami-like city at your feet, in relentless pursuit of cash, guns, and sex. You want a car? You jack one. Drive it at top speed through stop signs, over lawns, into pedestrians, all along blasting the '80s FM radio. The cops come, and that's when the fun really starts: they'll kill you eventually, of course, but that's part of the video-game fantasy. The afterlife is another game, and another, an infinite number, a never-ending catharsis. Under late capitalism, only in simulacra like this one can we find the wild freedom we crave.
Until an actual Matrix is invented (and don't worry, we're getting there), we'll have to settle for video games like Grand Theft Auto. Try to ignore, if you can, the boredom, inequality, and injustice that define our reality and drive you to escape into an electronic World of Forms. By all means, take the blue pill and fire up that PlayStation.