If, as our current reality would suggest, we are not, in fact, headed towards a massively dystopian future, the question is raised as to why dystopia fascinates us still. There are many possible answers to this question, and, though I shall perhaps only scratch the surface with this document, though I do hope that it will bring at least some part of the whole answer to light.First, let us move away from these texts we have already examined, and look to other media.
The year 2002 gave us Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, which follows a small part of the lives of the officers of Section 9, an anti-crime unit — officially non-existent, though still very real — whose actions not infrequently go above and beyond the law. Its setting is a world, and especially a Japan, in which “cyberisation” — the replacement of parts of natural bodies with cybernetics, including those that allow direct access of the “Net” by the human brain — has become almost ubiquitous. The two most prominently featured characters, Motoko Kusanagi (most frequently simply called “Major”) and Batou, are both cyborgs with full prosthetic bodies, though, aside from oddities relating to their eyes (especially visible in Batou’s case), they both very strongly resemble ordinary humans. In this world, as the brain interfaces directly with machines, many wondrous things are possible, yet this also leaves them vulnerable to hacking (which can alter actions, sensory experiences, and even emotions and memories), which is shown to happen not infrequently, and most often without the knowledge of those who are hacked. While we are still not very near that level of technological development, there is a certain draw to it, in spite of the risks; it can allow dangerous criminals to be caught, if by rather unethical methods, though it can also result in the total loss of oneself should one’s brain be thoroughly hacked. This society is not as brutal as that of Orwell’s Oceania, and neither is it either as illiterate as Bradbury’s, nor as debauched as Huxley’s, and yet it shares with them an exaggeration of many problems we now face: the wealthy have access to far, far greater standards of medical care than do the general populace, and the Japanese are far better-off than either the many refugees they have taken in as cheap labour, or much of Asia following the fictional third and fourth world wars. Further, official stories, as in Oceania, frequently do not match with factual reality.
Now, to return to the original question, what, here, is the draw? The clearest answer I can give is adventure. This world is corrupt, and dangerous, and so it is in need of heroes, and hero-stories are among the most beloved and enduring cross-culturally. Unlike Winston, who is an everyman, or John the Savage, who cannot cope with the “advanced” society he encounters, or Montag, who, in the end, acts as a preserver of knowledge, Batou and Kusanagi take an active role in attempting to better their world in their own way, and, though they are imperfect people — Kusanagi can appear cold and overly-dedicated, and also appears to have little life outside of work, while Batou not infrequently gives in to the sway of his emotions — we see that they are, though flawed, fundamentally good, and we want them to win, both against the odds, and against individuals who have much greater pull and power, some of whom are a part of the establishment by which they are, themselves, ultimately employed. At the end of the first series, a conspiracy that uses Section 9 as a scapegoat appears to leave most all of its members dead, but, in the end, we see that they have managed to survive, and are happy to find them reunited. We continue to hope that the society in which they live may be changed for the better by their actions, and, though it is never perfect, we are treated to a satisfying second series, in which Japan has a new Prime Minister dedicated to the betterment of her country. While she may keep the reformed Section 9 on a short leash, she supports it, and it, in its turn, supports her when both she, and all of Japan, need it most.
Next, because it has recently reentered the spotlight owing to the coming remake, let us consider Final Fantasy VII, the game which brought Japanese role-playing games (RPGs) into the mainstream in the West. Though it was not the first to do many of the things for which it caught attention — an important party member dramatically dies in Final Fantasy V, the villain actually succeeds in conquering the world as a deity-like entity in Final Fantasy VI — and, though religion is more thoroughly deconstructed in Xenogears, it was this game that drew in the West; I do not mean to imply that its dystopian setting is the sole cause, for it also provides us — when we are out of grimy Midgar and Junon, and not plumbing the depths of Mako reactors — with an intriguing fantasy setting which also includes many elements of science fiction, and also with a terrifying enemy (though perhaps not quite as horrifying as Xenogears’ Deus in its implications) from another world, which pushes the very world to the brink of destruction after Shinra digs it from its frozen grave. Though Jenova probably could have been released by other means, it is very telling that it was Shinra that dug it out of the ground, and did all manner of experiments on people with its cells, thus creating the monstrosity-in-leather that is Sephiroth. The game presents it both as the “new god” — the word Jenova is an obvious combination of Jehova and Latin nova — and as a destructive alien force that sucks the very life from worlds, who acts through its emanation “Sephiroth” — a term used for ten attributes of God in the Kabbalah. Sephiroth, who merges with Jenova over the course of the plot, is destroyed only just in time, and the Meteor careening towards the planet only barely stopped, both a literal and allegorical representation of how humanity, through the destruction of nature caused by Mako extraction as a source of power, has very nearly been its own undoing. The world is also ruled by a megacorporation which is a law unto itself, and has subjugated the whole of the inhabited planet, a theme frequent in Cyberpunk.
And what, here, is the draw? Again, adventure certainly plays a part, as with Ghost in the Shell, though the philosophical questions raised are different; where Ghost in the Shell deals with the nature of consciousness and reality, and the ethics of altering the perceptions of others to suit one’s own goals, be they good or evil, Final Fantasy VII deals more with the results of human carelessness — the destruction of nature — and with human arrogance — studies performed with Jenova’s cells, a theme also present in Kingdom Hearts in more fantasticalised experiments that caused the human “heart” (in the emotional sense) to collapse, creating eldrich abominations in the forms of living shadows. Here, we find ourselves “pleasurably terrified”, as with works of horror, and also find appeal in the romantic notion of fighting for a return to a more natural way of life, and against the bleak, destructive forces of capitalism and industrialism. We also, perhaps, may feel something for the juxtaposition of new and old “religion” — the cold faith of pipes and machines in which the idol of Jenova is seen enthroned, and the simple church from which Aerith takes her flowers — which lends a sort-of grandiose solemnity to the whole.
We might also remark that these two settings share a common thread, in that the stakes are inherently very high; if Section 9 fail, the consequences for not only Japan, but for the world at large, will certainly be dire, and if Cloud and his companions do not defeat Sephiroth and release the power of Holy to stop Meteor, Midgar will be destroyed by the impact (alongside a large chunk of the human population of the planet), and the wound torn open will allow Jenova-Sephiroth to swallow the whole of the Lifestream and continue on their journey of destruction through the cosmos; and, even if there were no Jenova at all, allowing the use of Mako as a source of energy to continue would spell the eventual end of all life on the planet. Though our heroes may have blemishes, and though they may have human motivations, their struggle is of proportions far greater than they, and we cheer them because they are on the side of “good” against the “evil” of the societies in which they live, and the disastrous consequences of human arrogance and error. Even if, at the end, the worlds are not perfect (and were never as extreme as early examples), we have hope, as we do when Bradbury finishes his tale, and as we probably do not after Huxley and Orwell conclude theirs (though Orwell does provide us some in the indices, which are written as if they were after-the-fact explanations, possibly implying that Ingsoc was eventually overthrown); it is far from certain that things will not eventually worsen — especially in the world of Ghost in the Shell — but, in each case, the possibility for improvement remains.
From this, I conclude, that, though the draw to adventure is high in a dystopian setting, and though the stakes of its final battles will, at least in some cases, be very high, a third draw is also present, and this is the hope that the future will, ultimately, after all the striving is done, be a good one. We wish to imagine the movement from utopia to dystopia may be reversed, or that an original dystopia may become a utiopia, but without much possibility of regression. I shall conclude this examination here, for fear of producing something terribly unwieldy, though the same principles would certainly hold true in many other works, both Western and Eastern, and many more reasons for the attractiveness of dystopian fiction certainly exist, and not all conclusions on the subject will apply to all works entirely or equally. What is important with any such question, however, is not that we come to imagine that we have found the whole of the answer, but that we always continue to search for new parts and new explanations, and that we never think that there is no stone left unturned.