The 10 Dark, Gritty Rules of Dystopian Science Fiction

Everybody loves a good dystopia, where the world of today has turned into a nightmare of decay, hopelessness and gelatinous food cubes. But to do them right, you need to follow these ten rules.

Warning: Sarcasm ahead.

Top image: Doomsday.

1. All the technology of today's world should still be around, but in a decayed state

The wandering apocalypse zombies should carry MP3 players that pipe strangely cheerful R&B music into their ears. Everyone should still be obsessed with cars, even though there is no fuel and nowhere to drive. At some point, there must be a tragic discovery of all the beautiful knowledge we have lost. Wide-eyed, starving street urchins should discover a subterranean room of mainframes covered in dust cloths. Or maybe they'll discover a cache of still-viable junk food and gleaming cans of Pepsi (sponsored by Pepsi!), hidden among huge crates full of the exact medicine they need to cure their mind nits or skin sloughs or bone eroders.

The 10 Dark, Gritty Rules of Dystopian Science Fiction

2. The world must be locked into a rigid class system

It's not enough to call the groups "haves" and "have-nots." They each need peculiar, evocative names like The Aspiring and The Disdained. Or they should only be known by the place they come from, like Quadrant 6 or The Outer Rim. Also, their jobs should be somehow linked to their designations, so people in the Outer Rim do things like clean the outside of the world's decaying walls/hulls/undefined living quarters. And The Aspiring spend all day worshipping at the glowing consoles of computers they no longer understand.

3. There has to be an authoritarian ruler

The ruler should be wearing a shiny uniform, a decadent, sparkly ballgown, or a futuristic suit with no lapels. If the ruler isn't shiny or besuited, then they should be covered in scary body paint and surrounded by people wearing skulls. If there are no skulls, then the leader should be a hive mind whose voice speaks from the bottom of a well or from the mouths of a million drones dressed in gray. If the ruler isn't a hive mind, it should be an alien creature made of sludge inside a glass tank that no weapon could ever penetrate.

The 10 Dark, Gritty Rules of Dystopian Science Fiction


4. A hero will come to lead the resistance

But only after he or she has been tortured by thugs with mind-erasing technology and electric batons. The hero's head should be shaved during this ordeal, or he or she should be made to wear chains that leave lasting, bloody scars. The hero should swear revenge, but realize that revenge is a dark, dystopian goal — instead, they should strive to liberate their people (who will be evoked in a montage of dirty children, crying women, and men with stubble).

The 10 Dark, Gritty Rules of Dystopian Science Fiction

5. There must be a tense chase scene in a decaying city

Bad guys will pursue the resistance through forgotten, half-flooded subway tunnels. Our heroes will swing on zip lines between the frayed tops of dead skyscrapers. Jangling techno music will accompany a harrowing run through slums made of corroded steel, rotting wood, and tangled wire. One member of the resistance must be caught, and torn limb-from-limb by dogs. Either that, or their body should explode from some super-weapon that is only available to that class of people known as The Protectors.

6. The air should be full of floating crap

Fill the air with ash, make it rain constantly, or have your characters do work somewhere that is really dirty. This is the dark future, people. There is no gritty without actual grit. Extra points if the stuff in the air makes it dark, or causes small shafts of golden light to catch on the many particles of crud that remind you that dystopia isn't clean.

7. But the most terrifying inner sanctum of dystopia is always clean

As a corollary to that last rule, remember that dystopia always has an authoritarian ruler and that ruler always lives in a bubble of sumptuous, sanitary wonder. The leader should have access to the last piece of high technology, the last pieces of non-rotted meat, and the last spotless formica countertops. When we meet the leader, they should deliver some kind of speech about how all this is necessary to maintain social order.

The 10 Dark, Gritty Rules of Dystopian Science Fiction

8. There must be a speech about "the time before"

A wise old person will recall the days before there was crap in the air, when there was plenty of food and they watched Laverne and Shirley re-runs on television. Young people will look at faded, wrinkled pictures of the parents they don't remember and talk about "movahs" and "ahpains" instead of movies and airplanes, because those things are so far in the distant past that we pronounce them differently now. Somebody might stage an old Star Wars or Simpsons episode as if it were a morality play. Everyone will look grim in the firelight, or the children will have one moment of levity despite the howling wind and blasted darkness beyond their sentry walls.

The 10 Dark, Gritty Rules of Dystopian Science Fiction

9. There should be a ray of hope

Despite the scarcity and authoritarian class-divided society and climate change and dirty air, there has to be a ray of hope. A battle will be won. Somebody wise will look up at the stars and see the twinkle of an ahpain, signaling that there is civilization somewhere. It will turn out that there is one, last fertile woman. Or one last plant. Or polar bears survived after all, despite everything. Don't worry about how all of humanity will live on one plant, or begin a new civilization on the one remaining piece of dry land in a world of dramatic sea level rise. It's the thought that counts.

10. Everything should be totally fucked

If you really want a seriously badass dystopia, give the audience nothing. Rip away their hope by revealing that the one remaining plant has just been stepped on by a drone, under the orders of His Supreme Holiness. Have the hero murder his best friend for a can of spam. Let every last one of the Stronghold succumb to zombie rot. Have all the children suddenly start chanting in the voice of the hive mind, before their eyes turn glowing red and the credits roll. This is gritty, man.