Fascination with Dystopian Worlds

In film, literature, and video games, dystopias have continued to be a prevalent theme. Usually following the creating of a utopian gone wrong. But why does this theme remain so popular if it is about the ruins of an ideally perfect society?

These imaginary worlds have many differing kinds of utopias and dystopias but both usually are mirror-images of each other in the opposite light. Most dystopias stem from the failed creation of a utopia and some utopias are already seen as dystopias.  Many of the literary pieces that are written about this topic explore aspects of society pushed to extremes in a perceived perfect world. In other words, dystopias explore the imaginary world of an empire that attempted to create a utopia but failed.

Dystopian literature has been seen to be very popular in the young adult age and for many reasons. One of the prevailing reasons is the idea that teens want to break out the mold that the world has set for them. As with many of the dystopian protagonists, they break free from the established status quo and try to fight back against the system. Teenagers can easily relate to this role as many do feel stifled by society to follow a specific path. It is not so much as society does not understand the teenagers but rather they feel forced to follow a specific path they have no interest in.

Ever since Trump entered the presidency, there has been an increase in sales in dystopian literature. Books like Fahrenheit 451, the Handmaiden’s Tale, and Brave New World. But one that had the greatest increase in sales was George Orwell’s 1984.  Many people who bought the books claimed that they were in an “Era of Alternative Facts”. Ever since that term “Alternative Facts” has been coined, it resonated with people in how those words were very Orwellian. This concept of Orwellian refers to the manipulation of truth that Kellyanne Conway attempted to do much in the same way that the government of 1984 does.

For those that do not know, George Orwell’s 1984 is a dystopian novel that explores the idea of a totalitarian government but everything that the people do, think and speak is monitored by the government’s public figure called Big Brother. The phrase, “Big Brother is Watching you” comes from this book and refers to how the government sees everything and, by extension, controls everything. They control the truths that the people believe and those that step out of line are reconditioned to fit back into society.

Dystopian films roughly follow the same ideas as their literature counterparts but video games have a different feel to it. Because the player is participating in the world, there is a distinct difference in feeling. Literature and films allow the audience to peer into the world of what if and see how the characters in that world experience it. In a video game, the player is part of the world and experience all of it.

Speaking from personal experience, watching/reading a dystopian world is so much more different in comparison to playing in one. Looking through my library of video games, a large section has dystopian themes. There is something about how experiencing the world in all its flaws and the drastic change in the human nature is intriguing. If not the nature of man, then the ruined state of its creations also appeal to me. The reason for me liking dystopian games can be linked to why people like looking at ruins.


Censorship’s Effects

One of our lectures focused on Ranchod’s letter which had an interesting conclusion. Despite the short-lived rebellion and proclamation as King, Ranchod’s message was spread much farther than many expected. This got me thinking about other figures that we had focused on in this quarter. Namely, Gandhi and Savarkar as both their works had been censored by the British Empire. Censorship has had a long history and still exists today. It has taken many different forms in the modern era but it still functions the same as its past counterpart.

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“When you tear out a man’s tongue, you are not proving him a liar, you’re only telling the world that you fear what he might say.” – George R. R. Martin

Savarkar’s Indian War of Independence 1857 and Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj were both banned by the empire but when Gandhi translated his from Gujarati to English, the Empire did not ban it. The interesting thing here is that because of the censorship of the books, many sought to find them. Both people were on the opposite end of the spectrum when it came to how they believed was the best way of dealing with the British Empire occupying India. Savarkar advocated violence whereas Gandhi believed non-violence was the best approach. Many different Empires fell because they began to censor the ideas of their subjects. The starting censorship of these ideas is what led to the eventual freedom from British rule in India. But why is that the case?

 When ideas become stifled and censored, many congregate to rise against the Empire. As YouTuber Philip DeFranco said, “When you cut out a man’s tongue, you make his words matter that much more.” This quote came from one of his videos where he talks about Milo Yiannopoulos‘s potential book sale. Yiannopolos is a well known controversial figure and whether you hate him or love him, people talking about banning the books starts to influences those that are “on the fence” as well as provide publicity. Many companies use the idea that “there is no such thing as bad publicity” to further their message and give free advertisement.


Censorship prevents many from seeing what the message is but because it is no longer visible, many will go great lengths to see what it is about. One of the biggest censorship types is media censorship. So much information is distributed in such a short amount of time that information becomes wide-spread. The problem is that some of the media outlets will censor key points to completely change the original message. A good percentage of the people who view the media will take it as truth and not bother to look further into the subject. Also, many different news stations are inherently biased and will make specific situations look better or worse depending on their stance.

Censorship effectively destroys the original message or gets rid of it altogether. Through its usage, the altered idea is then spread to the entirety of the empire and ideas become ruined. It carves out specific portions to consume and molds us to think a specific way. Those that are capable of challenging those ideas are in the minority as many in the majority will be none the wiser. Censorship may bring about the ruin of empire but it will always bring ruin to its subjects.


Language and the Ruins it Brings

In Professor Lewis’s lecture, she expresses how language, both written and spoken, is a partner of empire. How it supports its goals and how no empire fails to leave its own language behind. But that same language can be used against the empire, as a tool to critique, dislodge and appropriate power. Language is what binds but, at the same time, dismantles every empire. “Sans Lingua Franca, the world will be torn asunder. And then, it shall be free.” This quote is from the popular Metal Gear Solid game franchise. Specifically from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain‘s main antagonist Skull Face. Skull Face expresses his hatred towards language and the ruins it brings. In the trailer, it is hinted that he plans to destroy the major languages to free the world from the shackles that language places on humanity.

“It is no nation that we inhabit, but a language. Make no mistake; our native tongue is our true fatherland.” –Emil Cicoran


The quote mentioned earlier with the words Sans Lingua Franca can be translated as without a bridge language. This is in reference to the English language as it is a bridge language for many other countries that allow people to converse despite the difference in nationalities. As mentioned in the trailer, Skull Face talks about how America is a country of immigrants that do not assimilate but rather live side by side. The bridge language that allows all immigrants to converse in a common tongue is English. It is the ultimate tool that binds all people together but at the same time, separate them. Almost every person that was born in America of a nationality that was other than Caucasian most likely started with the language of their parents. After learning the language of your parents, you would have to forget it, or shelf it in order to learn how to read, write, and speak English as it is the common form of communication for all people in America.

Skull Face critiques the idea of imperialism through the usage of the English language. He expresses later in the game that he lost his mother tongue at a very early age and the language he used constantly changed as those in charge changed as well.  Every change causes part of him to become ruined which he expresses by saying, With each new post, my masters changed, along with the words they made me speak. With each change, I changed too. My thoughts, personality, how I saw right and wrong… words… can kill.” This situation does not only apply to Skull Face as this problem is visible in the world as well. Many of the imperialized countries still feature some problem and influence that originated from the imperialist country.

To Skull Face language is, “…the greatest symbiotic parasite the world’s ever known…” Language has a way of surviving and integrating into other languages. Even the English language uses many other aspects of other languages. Languages that stopped being used for thousands of years still exists in a modern bridge language. As Professor Lewis said, no empire fails to leave behind its language.


Percentage of the English Language derived from Other Languages

Though it does not only refer to just language integrating with other languages. It also refers to the integration of language into communities. Language, both written and spoken, can be easily be taught to someone who has no prior knowledge about it. After teaching, the language seamlessly integrates itself into society and leaves its mark for generations to come. Language that is forced upon the indigenous people ends up become mixed after many years. The English spoken in Britain is a far cry from what it is in America, just like how the French spoken in Canada and France are not entirely similar.

Ruin Lust

In Steintrager’s lecture, he talked about Joseph Gandy and John Soane. Soane created the Bank of England and Gaudy was the one who created a painting based off of it but it was a picture of the Bank of England in ruins. Soane’s Bank of England was considered his masterpiece. So much so that there are competitions being held to recreate Soane’s bank in virtual space. Soane commissioned Gandy to make a painting of what the Bank of England would look like after one hundred years. This picture shows what Gandy thought would happen.

Imagined view of the Bank of England as a ruin.

Soane saw the picture and agreed to it. Much like many other artists during his time, Gandy’s work was criticized and not accepted. But two of his works shown to us depict ruins. So the question remains, what is with our fascination with ruins?

57ede8a24967d51ea33e83b1d02fe958Hadrian’s Villa. Watercolor. Joseph Gandy.

As it turns out, there is a word for having an aesthetic pleasure of ruins is ruinenlust. A German word which means the pleasure that ruins evoke. The most direct English use of this German word is ruin lust. Despite the connotation that lust has, the word ruinenlust has more of an appreciation for ruins. This phenomenon, known as ruins photography or ruin porn has been gaining more and more popularity in the recent year. There are many blogs, Ruin Porn, Abandoned America and Architecture of Doom, that exist that cover this but has been mainly been focused on urban decay that is seen in cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Berlin.

Yet, despite this popularity, it is not considered a new fad. If anything, this would be considered a resurgence. Many artists in the past would have gone to decaying architecture for inspiration. Artists such as Piranesi and Hubert.

louvre-peinture-francaise-p1020324Imaginary View of the Grand Gallery of the Louvre in Ruins. Hubert Robert

giovanni_battista_piranesi2c_the_colosseumThe Colosseum. Giovanni Battista Piranesi

piranesiarchtrajanbeneventoVedvta dell’ arco di Benevento nel regno di Napoli. Giovanni Battista Piranesi

One example to prove that this is a resurgence is the exhibition that was held in Tate Britain called Ruin Lust. In this exhibition, art from the seventeenth century to present-day was showcased. A full review of Ruin Lust can be seen here but I will mention some key ideas that Yoanna (Yoli) Terziyska goes over. Ruin Lust proposes that one of the sources of inspiration is derived from the ruins of Greece and Rome. For many artists, ruins evoked the past and stood as a relic of culture while others depicted it as a symbol of commemoration or mourning.

paolozzi_michelangelos_davidSir Eduardo Paolozzi, Michelangelo’s ‘David’, 1987, Ruin Lust: 4 March – 18 May 2014. Image courtesy of Tate Britain. Tate © DACS 2013.

As Brian Dillon, the curator of Ruin Lust, says, “Why are we fascinated by ruins? They recall the glory of dead civilizations and the certain end of our own. They stand as monuments to historic disasters, but also provoke dreams about futures born from destruction and decay. Ruins are bleak but alluring reminders of our vulnerable place in time and space.”

p80083_gvJane and Louise Wilson, Azeville, 2006, Ruin Lust: 4 March – 18 May 2014. Image courtesy of Tate Britain. Tate © Jane and Louise Wilson.

This ruin lust appeals to the imagination of times long gone. Ruins that are created by decay evoke many emotions of tragedy and a strange joy when something beautiful can be seen. It cannot be simply dismissed as a morbid fascination with decay as it is far too intricate for that. Professor Tim Edensor, In Industrial Ruins: Space, Aesthetics, and Materiality, best puts it when he says, “… ruins still contain the promise of the unexpected. Since the original uses of ruined buildings has passed, there are limitless possibilities for encounters with the weird, with inscrutable legends inscribed on notice boards and signs, and with peculiar things and curious spaces which allow wide scope for imaginative interpretation, unencumbered by the assumptions …”