Las Vegas sits smack dab in the middle of a desolate nowhere and is a shining pillar of decadence and human nature where everything has a price and nothing is off limits. Sounds like a good start for a Sci-Fi dystopic city if you ask me. What is missing? You might ask. Well in all honesty, not much. Expand the city both outward and upward like New York, add some flying cars, and you pretty much have every single city in science fiction.
Everything from Blade Runner (the archetype dystopic sci-fi), The Fifth Element, and Coruscant from Star Wars, are based off this combo future city. The real question is why we find these combos so interesting and why we assume that future cities will follow that very specific development path. Before we examine the causes of these assumptions however, we should note several alternate ways a civilization can develop in regard to cities.
First, you could have suburbia, which in modern civilization tends to be associated with mass monetization and capitalism and stable economies. There are, of course, many socio-economic factors that have caused this phenomena but once it has begun who is to say that it will not continue uninterrupted into science fiction times. Thousands of miles of homogeneous suburbia; Stepford Wives style; pretty dystopic if you ask me.
Cities could also turn toward sectors, industrial, residential etc. They could never develop the capacity to build thousand story buildings on top of each other, governments could impose more control or less control. As it turns out, the series of events required for a pseudo anarchist style city with a despotic rule to arise are astronomical. This isn’t to say that Super City Dystopias cannot, nor will not happen; just that it takes a lot of assumptions to get there.
If space is so huge and there are lots of nice habitable planets (as most sci-fi assume) why on earth (pun intended) would you stick around in the squalor of some overpopulated and unhealthy city when you could move out to the frontier and start pioneering yourself a better life? This sort of reaction to the conditions of dystopia is quite fundamentally hardwired into human nature. We can see it in the mass Immigrations to the United States during our boom years, during the mass migrations west, during the potato famine and European wars, it is seen any time there is something better ‘over there’ and not over here. People are driven by the belief that the grass is indeed greener and are willing to tear down whatever fence they need to in order to get that greener grass. Simple I know, but people forget these things.
All this aside. What is it about anarchist super cities that are so appealing in science fiction? Its gritty, it puts the hero in a bootstraps, independent, free thinking situation, its bloody, and you can do it all while fighting the man. The reality of such city archetypes is that they appeal to Americans because we live in the melting pot and these dystopia cities are what happens when a writer throws all of the things that make life hard into one pot and squishes it together without mercy.
We like that. As readers and viewers we like to see the things we deal with personally taken to their logical fruition. This appeals to our own imaginations and fear of where our lives might be going while giving us hope, because the hero succeeds through nothing more than his fists and an acute sense of cynicism. This also explains why dystopia stories are distasteful to certain types of people. People who believe the human race is basically good, people who think everyone should be happy, that the government should take care of people, that ‘everything will be ok.’
When the rubber meats the road Super City Dystopias touch a basic part of our psyches that says ‘no, everything is not going to be ok. Life is going to be rough, it’s going to be dirty, and everyone is out to hurt, rob, extort, and control you; but you’re going to fight and win anyway.’ Depending on who you are this is either inspirational or disturbing. The surprising aspect of all this, however, is that the basic story is not so different from almost all other fiction. The deck is stacked against the hero who succeeds through shier determination and the help of some plucky friends… ok maybe minus the plucky friends.
Super City Dystopias, like all science fiction, are a magnifying glass aimed at experiences that say something about ourselves. We use cities like Las Vegas and New York because those are places we know, we understand, and both love and fear. Even though the future may not unfold in the archetype of Blade Runner or The Fifth Element you can be sure it will be strange and it will be large. The population dynamics and the growth of the human race doesn’t allow anything else. To stop us from growing would require despotic rulers or nuclear war; both of which lend themselves to their own brands of science fiction. What does this all mean? Well maybe all futures are dystopic versions of previous civilization? Which makes you really think about where we are headed, and if we change anything are we simply changing the brand of dystopia we are headed for rather than choosing between dystopia and utopia? Dun dun DUN!!!