Webster describes the concept as “a place where people live dehumanized and often fearful lives.” In literature, it is the anti-utopia. The darkest hour. A descent into a hell of our own making.
And this month, we go there. This is not a tippy-toe walk into angst-ridden monologues. The books, films, comics and visual art (!) featured here pull no punches and leave no one unbattered or unchanged along the barren roads we travel – that includes you. BUT, if you can stand the acid rain, you might just gain a new perspective on the world we live in now and a new appreciation for what your place can be in it.
All Indie. All Awesome.
Written and Directed by Andrei Tarkovsky
Dystopian films from the late-20th Century are a specific love of mine, detailing the terrors of impending nuclear destruction occurring in years left faintly behind in our rearview mirror. Such was the case with filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, which depicted a surveilled Soviet badlands in the unspecified future, enigmatically warped and filled with anomalous dangers. This hostile environment is yet penetrated by rubberneckers who hear tales of a mysterious room at the center that grants entrants their deepest desires (think less genie’s lamp, more monkey’s paw). While it’s true that Stalker has been firmly established and understood as an all-time classic, I would insist that it remains a valuable recommendation because (a) a surprising number of filmgoers and sci-fi fans have never seen it, and (b) it’s an incredible achievement for its budget, which was an eventually negotiated total of 1,000,000 rubles (approximately $65,000 in 1979 US dollars). Like other Tarkovsky films, it’s laboriously slow and grim, yet poetically composed, with imagery that will stick to you and never shake off. It’s regularly available online for free as it’s considered to be in the realm of public domain, so you can check out this link for a fine YouTube copy with subtitles.[/vc_column_text]
A Boy and His Dog
Written and Directed by Harlan Ellison and LQ Jones
Let’s stay in the public domain for a moment, and discuss another post-apocalyptic, relatively low-budget example with 1975’s A Boy and His Dog. Diehard Harlan Ellison fans should be familiar with this harsh, experimental, darkly comic (and comically dark) adaptation of his beloved novella of the same name. In the far-off future of 2024, packs of scavengers rove the unforgiving Southwestern wastelands, looking for food, sex, and basic survival. Vic is a young, uneducated, but scrappy nomadic loner (played by Don Johnson, ten years before appearing in Miami Vice), whose only companion is his dog, Blood (played by Tiger, the dog from The Brady Bunch. No, really), who communicates with him telepathically and has a special knack for sniffing out women among the rubble. A Boy and His Dog did poorly when it first hit theaters, though it had a remarkably successful theatrical re-release, a distinct rarity among any films which aren’t Disney-related. Maybe this was due to its nuclear theme, a topic which cast a shadow of insecurity on world politics during this time, making the cheeky approach to it here uniquely post-modern and glib. Other distinct treasures in the film including music contributions by Ray Manzarek of The Doors, continuously inventive use of a modest $400,000 budget, and one of the most unexpectedly, viciously messed up sci-fi film endings of all time. Again, you can watch it online for free, but there is a terrific transfer on DVD which also includes interviews with Harlan Ellison and filmmaker LQ Jones.
Written and Directed by Dan Bush and David Bruckner
Okay, let’s move on from the 70s into something more recent, though no less brave and bizarre than A Boy and His Dog. 2007 gave us a film called The Signal — which, by the way, has no relation to 2014’s The Signal starring Laurence Fishburne, but it definitely makes it hard to Google. The film in question is a triptych, which takes place in modern-day America after a mysterious static television signal is broadcast throughout the country, turning the majority of those who experience it into irrational bloodthirsty psychopaths. Each of the three stories takes a different genre approach to the plot concept, with an overarching narrative that remains consistent all the way through to the unnerving finale. Four independent filmmakers collaborated on the film with a scant budget of $50,000 — an amazing achievement considering the grisly violence demonstrated throughout — and while it released to middling reviews, I found it immersive, disturbing, and even hauntingly beautiful at times. Fans of George A. Romero’s classic The Crazies especially will find a lot to love, here. You can stream it on Amazon, but DVD purchases give you a plethora of extras, including bonus shorts that take place in the same world.
Emmy Jackson writes post-apocalyptic Dystopia the way Tolkien approached Lord of the Rings: as fully realized, intricately detailed odysseys.
There are 3 in the series: Empty Cradle: The Untimely Death of Corey Sanderson; Shiloh in the Circle; The Return of Holly Aniram. Not one of them is your standard Mad Max sand-n-guts extravaganza. These are perfectly-written, well thought out visions of life during crashed times, featuring elements that surprise the reader as well as make them think. By the time you get to the third installment, you’re ready for this blurb from the author himself: “Empty Cradle’s third installment is about a year longer in the writing than expected and we apologize for that! It’s a really long story about figuring out who you are and finding and protecting your family and being an idiot along the way. The world of Empty Cradle gets a lot bigger as the story heads out onto the ocean and beyond, and there are dinner parties and shapeshifters and academic conventions and car chases and pirate attacks and a dude gets ripped in half by a truck but don’t worry, he totally deserved it. Oh, and there’s a magical snowstorm in a city, and a bear fighting riot cops in an elevator, and post-apocalyptic Mercedes racing across the desert…it’s hard to believe what one little piece of history revealed will set in motion.”
by Ryan Oakley
I’ve always said that marketing will kill us all, and author Ryan Oakley takes this notion to a violent, insane, yet wholly-for-our-convenience conclusion: a nation of Mall-states, which might sound far-fetched…until you realize how little of what we, as a populace of individuals, actually produce for what we need, and how openly we’ve allowed advertising & marketing to inconvenience us for our convenience.
Short-listed for two of Canada’s major book awards (the Aurora and the Sunburst), this is a Dystopia that doesn’t gently point out the pitfalls our current systems are heading toward, it rubs our faces in it, shouts at us to get off the furniture, and keeps a spray bottle filled with anger and Mountain Dew ready to remind us that there’s loads of work to do to train ourselves to un-train ourselves.
The Sunburst jury stated: “This ultra-sharp, darkly satiric, hyper-speed novel is set in a world where multi-level mega malls serve as city-states and everything on the outside lies in ruin. On the lower red levels, gang violence and media saturation and bio-tech designer drugs rule. During the weekend, slummers from the green levels leave their safe lives of jobs and families to partake in risky, sometimes deadly fun on the red levels. And, on every level, TV and advertisements literally penetrate the mind. Death is easy and life is cheap, until that life is your own or your beloveds.”
Euphoria/Dysphoria by Michelle Browne & Nicolas Wilson is a tag-team biopunk dystopia where engineering, both personal and structural, has warped reality into one of the haves, the used, and the preyed upon.
Dystopias tend to focus on the huge power struggles, and this one has no lack of that, but it’s the smaller, personal struggles that stay with us and warn us. This one tackles head-on one of the most elemental: a pregnant woman fearing for the life of her child from powers far above her. This is a book of dynamics: sexual, personal, power, and ultimately spiritual.
It follows Ilsa, pregnant and on the run, and Christine, unlikely savior and companion, as they are forced to contend with a power system that will stop at nothing to preserve the lies it feeds on after the Earth has been irreparably sickened.
“Humanity built the Foundation to elevate themselves from the poisoned earth, but Christine and the new mother must choose whether to descend to hell below, or remain in hell above.”
A harrowing book that leaves the reader with a choice: if you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t, do you choose euphoria…or dysphoria?
“An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.”
I hesitated to include this one since it isn’t really indie, although small press Subterranean Press issued a special edition of it for fifty bucks… but that blurb kept coming back to me. “A nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.” Isn’t that the fundamental mission all creative and compassionate people take on whether we know it or not, and whether we’re risking everything or just a little bit?
This is a fabulously inventive, original Dystopia. It’s peopled by people, not stock characters on a stock miserable stage. It’s a dystopia that says every day is a dystopia; what are you gonna do about it? That’s bold, and that’s what the most unsettling dystopias do best: challenge us not only to overthrow the dystopia but avert it in the first damn place by not accepting it as the everyday.
So this one stays. If you want to support the indie vibe, splurge on Subterranean’s, pick it up at a library, buy it at one of the big outlets but make sure to pass it on to a friend when you’re done. Fight the power however you need. Just remember we’re all human.
A terrible bacteria has turned a huge portion of the population into flower-zombie hybrids. What’s left of humanity live in sanctuaries, barely scraping by. In order to thrive, the sanctuaries (or Compounds) use highly skilled drivers (Runners, as they’re referred to in the book) to transport/exchange goods in this horrific new world. And as this month’s theme states, this isn’t for the young ones. With the graphic violence and sex, creators Ayala and Pearson don’t mess around hitting us with high tension and drama for this cast of diverse people who have their own agendas for thriving and surviving in the wilds of their botanical horror. Published by Black Mask Studios this series is out now, look for it at your local comic book shop or online.
Creator/Plot/Penciler – TJ Sterling
Dialog – Eugene Argent
Inker – Jaxen De Nobriga
Colorist – Francisco Perez
Letterer – Taylor Esposito
Okemus, a book I found at this year’s Black Comic Book Fest, is about a catastrophic event that has wiped out most of humanity, leaving barren landscapes with few reminders of society. Cale, our main character, is searching for the mythical city of Okemus, hoping that he will find answers to why he’s been transported to this devastated future (and the powers he now possesses) while avoiding the individuals who want to steal his powers. A good-looking book that makes the most of the hero’s journey. This is a book that you won’t find in stores but is definitely worth checking the cons for; if you’re a digital reader, you can find it at the RAE Comics website.
by Neil Gibson
I’ve recommended this series before, but it’s worth bringing up again in this issue for one simple reason, Neil Gibson and his team at TPub know that the ills of any dystopian reality start and end with the people who make up that society. It’s an awful truth and something that Gibson explores with irreverent abandon in his Twisted Dark Graphic Novel Series. At its least, the series is a shocking psychological deep dive into the worst of our nature and at its best, it’s a post-mortem blueprint of how dystopian societies are created in the first place – one wayward, twisted soul at a time. The truth will haunt you long after the last page is turned.