Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Dystopia and the Occupy Movement

Hama Al-Assy Square 2011-07-22, © Syriana2011

The winds of change are blowing.  The world is changing.  As early as the Arab Spring, which began in late 2010, a cry of protest rose, the effects of which I think we have only begun to see.  Similar sentiment rushed through the Middle East, with speed and intensity only matched by a wildfire.

Large anti-Mubarak protest in Egypt's Alexandria, © Al Jazeera English

Well over a dozen countries there have seen protests, from minor rallies in places like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, to complete chaos, fighting, and the overthrow of governments in Egypt and Libya.

Where the Smoke Clouds Came From, © Al Jazeera English

In an earlier post, I wrote about the dystopian reality we can find around us, with images of stark decay, squalor, and crumbled infrastructure, pictures of places time has seemingly abandoned.  This time, let's take a look at the societal aspect of dystopia, and how it can be seen in the world events unfolding around us.

Occupy Wall Street Day 14, © David Shankbone

Whether triggered by the protests in the Middle East, or only coincidentally related, the Occupy Wall Street movement has become a key discussion point in today's discourse.  Not since the 1970's have we seen this level of widespread and volatile dissension in the United States.

Occupy Wall Street Day 14, © David Shankbone

This is neither a pro- nor an anti-OWS post, so if you're here for that, you'll be sorely disappointed.  I am not here to make a statement, whether ideologically, politically, or morally, regarding the pros or cons of the movement.  I see it as portraying a number of key social discussion points that appear in many works of science fiction.  There are discussion points from both ends of the spectrum, many with no clear-cut answers.

Occupy Wall Street Day 60, © David Shankbone

Sociology and science fiction are linked, perhaps far more closely than the average reader imagines.  It's not hard to draw parallels and see examples of these discussion points whenever there is a significant social movement.

Occupy Wall Street Day 28, © David Shankbone

Whether art imitates life, or it's the other way around, we find subcultures, factions, and cliques emerge whenever there is a large group of people put together for any significant amount of time.  It's who we are as social animals.  It's inherent in our makeup as humans.

Occupy Wall Street Protests, © Caroline Schiff Photography

No two people think or act alike, and as such, even while we see blatant examples of Orwell's doublethink at work, we see factions and differing opinions presenting themselves as well.

Occupy Wall Street Day 17, © David Shankbone

Seaking of Orwell, we indeed see examples of his dystopian 1984 world alive and well on both sides of the Occupy movement.  Not only do we see protesters echoing a singular voice, often without fully understanding what they're supporting, we see a similar solidarity and unity of action with the police forces reacting to these protests.  An individual supporting either side would probably react less strongly one way or the other outside the context of collectivism within their like-minded group.  I'm hardly the first to recognize links to 1984, and I won't be the last.

Occupy Rome 1984 Orwell, © Remo Cassella

There are countless pictures of the movement, which isn't hard to imagine with a crowd whose every member wields a camera.  Some are iconic, viral examples of the passionate nature of the movement.  Most are obviously taken to express a singular point of view, either for or against these protests, but when viewed as a whole they provide a mosaic from which we can study the sociological issues at play here.

Occupy Wall Street Day 14, © David Shankbone

From the absurd to the ironic, one can see almost anything whenever a large group of people amass.  And each singular view is necessary to view the mosaic as a whole.  Each picture tells its own story, or even conflicting stories.

Occupy Wall Street Day 60, © David Shankbone

No matter what your position regarding this movement, or what "percent" you claim to be a part of, these images present a number of key social issues and questions that apply to both reality and fiction.

Occupy Wall Street Day 14, © David Shankbone

What does a government owe its citizens, if anything?  What does a citizen owe society, if anything?  Should personal responsibility be graded on a sliding scale?  Where does one draw lines in the gray area between universal human rights offered to all and benefits offered to some?  Is what is good for an individual the same as what is good for society as a whole?  How about the other way around?  Do the rights of the many merit sacrificing the rights of the few, or are the human rights of each individual sacrosanct, even to the detriment of others?  We generally agree that one person's rights end where another's begin, but the main bone of contention seems to be exactly where that imaginary line is drawn.

Occupy Portland, © Kit Seeborg

Sometimes these questions are not only difficult to answer, but may not be immediately apparent.  For example, most people would probably agree everyone should be given equal treatment and opportunity.  But on what basis do we form this equality?  Some argue we should create a higher standard of equality for the many by enforcing unequal treatment to the few.  Some argue we should enforce strict equal treatment to all, regardless of success or need.

Occupy Rome, 15 October, © Remo Cassella

Again, this circles back to the question of who owes what to whom, a question impossible to answer.  For every ten people asked, you'd probably get eleven impassioned answers.  One could make the argument that different societies would answer these questions in very different manners, producing very different societies, much as we see in various countries around the world.

Occupy Sevilla, © Tom Raftery

These are vital questions not only to actual society, but to authors of science fiction.  For as a creator of a society, no matter how fictional, the structures which hold that society in place have to make sense to the reader.  If the society you describe is not a viable, realistic society, it compromises belief in your entire story, not just those elements.

Occupy Berlin, © Adam Groffman

If you create utopia, the checks and balances must be there to maintain it as such, while at the same time exposing issues which may ride just under the surface as they did a year ago.  Because the word utopia resembles both the Greek words for "no place", outopos, and for "good place", eutopos, utopian fiction usually portrays a society which seems perfect on the outside, while leaving several critical sociological issues unresolved.  This allows the author to weave plot into the tapestry of the environment of the story and create the possibility for conflict and climax.

Occupy Wall Street, © Mat McDermott

If you create dystopia, on the other hand, the basic elements for strong conflict should be in the forefront, with no easy resolution in sight.  I like to think of a dystopian society as one slightly older than a utopian one.  Once the basic tenets of the utopian society have crumbled, dystopia emerges as the main framework of scene.

Oakland Police Ready for Violence, by Soozarti1

I don't think anyone could accurately tell whether or not what we're seeing with these movements reflects this change.  I don't think anyone wants it to.  But regardless of what happens in the future, what is happening is a great opportunity to look at elements of a dystopian society.  For a science fiction author like me, that is an additional facet to it, and one that makes it more fascinating than it might otherwise be.


  1. Every utopia is a dystopia due to the "ends justify the means" mentality that always seeps in.

    Excellent post, keep 'em coming.

  2. Makes sense to me. The two are more similar than one would think at first glance. Almost two sides of the same coin. Glad you liked it.