Sci-Fi Dystopias No Longer Warnings but an Inspiration toSilicon Valley Billionaires
Jon Bailes looks at the social stratification in the TV remake of Snowpiercer and the new Final Fantasy video game and sees an instruction manual for the Uber-rich
“Resistance is never futile”, says Ivan, one of the starving passengers living in the tail of a huge, perpetually mobile train that houses the last survivors of a manmade ice age.
The new TV adaptation of Snowpiercer again explores the class struggle between the wealthy citizens dwelling in luxury in the train’s front carriages and these oppressed stowaways plotting rebellion. Its depiction of an authoritarian regime and violent security forces feels pertinent right now. But then it did in 2013 when Bong Joon-ho filmed his take on the story, and when it was first published as a graphic novel in 1982.
Dystopian sci-fi has a long history of creating neat metaphors for social division by imagining worlds that physically segregate lived space. HG Wells’ The Time Machine split a distant future post-civilisation between surface-dwelling Eloi and underground Morlocks. The opulent industrialists in Fritz Lang’s silent movie Metropolis were served from beneath the earth by impoverished workers operating the machine. Similar images have been reworked in many ways since, especially in recent years.
Their backers are prophets of a secular Rapture, where the chosen ascend to a higher paradise, and the rest are left to burn and scrap in a hostile environment.
But these days the stark sci-fi allegories are starting to feel less like flights of fancy. The structural and technological organisation of existing societies, and some well-funded projects that aim to create new future forms of living, resemble the fictions all too closely. The reflective relationship between sci-fi and reality, in which sci-fi expands real or potential technologies to extreme conclusions is reversed.
For a global elite, the extreme visions appear not to function as warnings, but as inspiration to actively pursue dystopian outcomes.
The wealthiest class has been trying to socially distance itself in remote locations for years. Social geographer Stephen Graham’s 2017 book, Vertical, details exactly how, showing how societies are becoming increasingly stratified internally, by growing upwards. States and private companies own space and the skies, through satellites, drones and luxury helicopter travel. Impractical, super-tall skyscrapers in the Arab Emirates house fully air-conditioned ecosystems of work, leisure and residence, while the migrant workers who construct these monoliths live in ground-level squalor if they survive at all.
There’s a resemblance in what Graham describes to the social structure in The Hunger Games. The series of novels and films offer a condensed reflection of global trade, where a centre of consumerist excess sucks resources from various hard-bordered worker districts. But some nations themselves are increasingly developing the same dominant and tributary relations.
The verticality of this division meanwhile is reproduced in the video game Final Fantasy VII, which, like Snowpiercer, has also been remade this year. Its iconic setting is a corporate-owned city made up of giant raised metal plates, forming a circle around a phallic pillar that hosts the company’s headquarters. Beneath the plates and invisible to residents above, slum dwellers eke out an existence from the castoff materials and waste that trickle down. It’s a magically formed microcosm of inequality that no longer seems so far-fetched.
‘A Lot of Jobs on Mars’
Longer-term elite plans seek even more pronounced forms of separation. Elon Musk’s SpaceX project has just linked astronauts with the International Space Station, but this is the first step in an eventual bid to colonise Mars. No matter how feasible the plan is, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the only appeal of Mars over most parts of Earth is that there aren’t any other people there to share or compete with. Those left behind become irrelevant, stuck on an exhausted planet polluted in part by the manufacturing and launching of SpaceX’s many starships.
It’s not a huge leap here to recall Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 film Elysium, in which a privileged minority lives in a massive space station orbiting an environmentally devastated Earth. The downtrodden majority on the surface work to supply their oppressors and maintain the superior technology that’s kept out of their reach. Likewise, it seems that a Mars colony would need continuous supplies from Earth, further draining our finite resources. As for the colony, Musk has mentioned on Twitter that the Mars mission should be open to anyone, “with loans available for those who don’t have money.” He added in another reply that”There will be a lot of jobs on Mars!” The possibility of arriving on a new planet in a state of indentured servitude isn’t exactly enticing.
Other elite-backed projects stick closer to home. The Seasteading Institute, for example, set up by Patri Friedman (grandson of neoliberal economist Milton Friedman) and initially funded by PayPal billionaire Peter Thiel, aims to support the building of floating communities in international waters.
The promotion for this project explains that it will ‘enrich the poor, cure the sick, feed the hungry, clean the atmosphere, live in balance with nature, power the world, and live in peace.’ Yet its main selling point remains a libertarian notion of ‘political autonomy’, or escaping mass democracy and taxation. It rests on the notion that brave entrepreneurs will solve global problems when not weighed down by states and non-visionary people.
By coincidence, the Seasteading Institute was founded soon after the release of the video game Bioshock in 2007. Here, entrepreneur Andrew Ryan, a character who embodies the objectivist philosophies of Ayn Rand, builds an exclusive underwater city called Rapture, where a man is ‘entitled to the sweat of his brow’ without government interference. In the game, we enter the city some years later, finding it in ruins. We learn that a combination of extreme individualism, private property laws and inequality helped tear the place apart, leading eventually to a civil war within the complex.
These futuristic projects all seem to be preparing not to prevent social and environmental catastrophes but to escape them, withdrawing funds from society to build new untouched living spaces for a fortunate few. Their backers are, as Ryan’s project suggests, prophets of a secular Rapture, where the chosen ascend to a higher paradise, and the rest are left to burn and scrap in a hostile environment. It’s hard to imagine how relying on individuals who are so desperate to take their ‘self-made’ fortunes away to invest in vanity projects will end well.
Top Down Fantasies
Stories such as The Hunger Games, Elysium and Final Fantasy VII perhaps miss something here by depicting elites as sadistic, maniacal villains, or exaggerated versions of our own dictators, far-right populists, and plutocrats.
The reality is often less overtly sinister, as corporations build mega-structures to further a brand, tech entrepreneurs tease us with aspirational futures, or skyscrapers and spacecraft are celebrated for their marvellous feats of engineering. It takes a little digging to see within all this the hubristic abandonment of overall social projects, and the likelihood of harder, more distant segregation.
Snowpiercer at least remains metaphorical. It magnifies the class divisions found on any passenger train to surreal proportions. It takes the vertical world of stratified towers and slums and tips it on its side. It signifies the need for a political movement to rise up from the bottom of society.
Still, don’t be too surprised if some Silicon Valley billionaire suddenly announces the design of a permanently running luxury mega-train, with exciting job opportunities for those who can’t afford a first-class ticket.