1. The Orgasmatron, Sleeper (1973)
Woody Allen mocks the ponderousness of early-’70s science-fiction—right down to the poetic one-word titles—in Sleeper, a comedy in which Allen plays a modern-day lug who wakes up in a future controlled by a plutocrat. But the rich folks ain’t all bad. Because sex in this society apparently requires a large number of people, the well-to-do have developed a machine called “The Orgasmatron,” a booth that users enter for a few seconds, then leave feeling sexually satisfied. It’s just the thing for a time-traveler who hasn’t had sex in 200 years (or “204 if you count my marriage”).
2. Job security, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
One of the oft-overlooked benefits to forced labor is that you never have to look for a job. So while George Orwell paints a grim portrait of a totalitarian society that robs members of their individuality, at least the unemployment rate is an unbeatable 0 percent. Even better, all those annoying life-changing decisions along the way—what to study, where to study it, whether to take that internship, who to suck up to—are rendered completely moot by a system that decides at birth whether you’re part of the Inner Party, the Outer Party, or the Proles, then sends you on the path you’ll follow until your death, always with the guarantee of a roof over your head and all the Victory gin you can drink. To anyone who’s been laid off, spent hours desperately combing Monster.com, or been forced to come up with the perfect anecdote to describe “a time you had a professional conflict and how you resolved it” for job interviews, being forced to hide your private thoughts in exchange for never having to do any of that again might seem like a fair trade.
3. Easy access to health care, Idiocracy (2006)
The dumbed-down future of Idiocracy suggests a world that was once occupied by people smart enough to create fully automated cities, where products and services could be offered at the push of a button. Now that the stupid people have completely taken over, the convenience is still there, but basic maintenance and functionality have broken down. (It’s akin to the sensors in public restrooms, which have gotten people out of the habit of flushing the toilet.) Granted, there’s little to admire about St. God’s Memorial Hospital in Idiocracy: The lobby is grossly unsanitary, there’s little privacy, there seems to be no coherent system for processing the mouth-breathers going in and out of the place, and the doctor is given to vague, medically dubious proclamations like “your shit may be retarded.” But a fully automated diagnosis machine sounds amazing—if it works, anyway—and shows that humanity evolved past expensive, inexact testing before it started devolving. Now if only the operator could remember which probe goes in the mouth and which one goes in the ass…
4. Luxury cruise forever, WALL-E (2008)
Pixar’s 2008 gem imagines a future where humans have become so wasteful that they’re ushered onto a luxury cruise through space while robots set about cleaning up the planet. When the task proves too daunting for even an entire army of trash-compacting robots to complete, the cruise length is set on “indefinite,” until WALL-E inadvertently sets off a chain of events that sends everyone back to Earth with the promise of a greener future. He needn’t have bothered: Axiom, the cruise ship, is equipped with levitating chairs, a pool, an education center, a hair salon, and an endless supply of virtual entertainment. Never lift a finger again! Chewing: No more! Nap for days/years! When you tire of red uniforms, try blue! Sure, it seems “empty” and “meaningless,” but here in the year 2011, we get overwhelmed by choosing which watery veggies to sprinkle on our Subway sandwich. The Axiom offers a stress-free existence, from birth to death.
5. The Eternal Gardens, Metropolis (1927)
Sure, most residents of the city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis are consigned to a brute existence in its hellish depths, reduced to numbered parts in a monstrous machine. But the lucky few, including fancypants scion Freder Fredersen (Alfred Abel), enjoy access to the Eternal Gardens, where braless women in gossamer tops and peek-a-boo hoop skirts are his for the kissing. Being a somewhat fey chap, Joh instead opts for a game of hide-and-seek amid the roving peacocks and flamingoes, but surely there are upper-caste offspring with healthier libidos.
6. Soma, Brave New World (1932)
In a world without religion, the people require a new opiate. The inhabitants of Aldous Huxley’s World State are conditioned to value consumption above all else, so as to keep the economic wheels turning; any other desires are satisfied by soma, a drug that has “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.” Gone are thoughts of the past and future that might lead citizens to envision a better life. They live in an eternal “now” where imminent hungers are the only ones that need satisfying: “Was and will make me ill,” goes the mantra. “I take a gram and only am.” It’s a happy existence, at least until residents run into sorrows that drugs can’t mask.
7. Low crime rates and advanced toilets, Demolition Man (1993)
True, the price of creating the pacifist utopia that is San Angeles 2032 is fairly steep: Even the slightest whispered profanity is considered a ticketable offense, kissing and sexual intercourse are considered illegal transfers of bodily fluid, and perhaps most egregiously, all restaurants are Taco Bell. But in spite of the oppressive “joy-joy feelings” that have reduced grown men to kittens swanning around in kimonos, humming along to 20th-century ad jingles, the upside is never getting hurt, robbed, killed—not even spoken to harshly. In this future, violence is such an antiquated notion that guns exist only in museums, while every criminal in existence is just a block of ice in a cryogenic lab, their once-sinister brains now tasked with therapeutic knitting. If you can get past all the oppressive forced happiness and discouragement of free will, it’s a blissful, progressive paradise—one so sophisticated, it’s even figured out how to improve taking a shit by using three seashells.
8. Max Headroom, Max Headroom
The world of the short-lived cyberpunk series Max Headroom is dominated by television: The ashen landscape is littered with flickering sets, while the massive headquarters of all-powerful networks tower above the rest of the skyline. In order to maintain control of a populace it views only in terms of ratings and demographics, network executives must maintain control over the airwaves—which is why Max Headroom poses such a threat to the established order. The chattering, glitchy computerized id of star reporter Edison Carter (played by Matt Frewer, who also voices Max), Max is free to broadcast without the permission or interference of Carter’s bosses at Network 23. This makes Max a helpful ally in Carter’s increasingly dangerous investigations, but he’s also a consistent source of leavening humor in a soulless environment. In a world where TV is everything, Max Headroom might be the only thing worth watching.
9. Watchable primetime game shows, The Running Man (1987)
In the wake of a global economic collapse, the U.S. government usurps control of the American media and finds its true calling: producing game shows. Sure, the ICS network’s Running Man—in which prisoners of the state try to win their freedom by evading the heavily armed assassins known as Stalkers—has its flaws: The sets are too dark and sterile, and the game moves too slowly. (Of course, you could level those criticisms against most network primetime games in the post-Who Wants To Be A Millionaire era, so the film was prescient in that respect.) Running Man gets everything else right, combining a simple, exciting format with high stakes and American Gladiators-style flair. Best of all, instead of plucking some B-list comic off the standup circuit, the feds put their show in the hands of a full-blooded emcee—played by Family Feud’s Richard Dawson, in a shrewd casting choice. The whole thing is rigged, but a little suspension of disbelief makes Running Man a perfectly enjoyable way for the post-apocalyptic bourgeois to kill a couple hours, not to mention an enemy of the state or two.
10. Virtual-reality bliss, Mindwarp (1992)
In the 1992 Bruce Campbell vehicle Mindwarp, the distant future of the year 2037 has been ruined by an ecological negligence that’s brought humans to the brink of extinction. Humanity’s reaction? Circle the virtual wagons. Those lucky enough to have survived live in a biosphere called Inworld, although they don’t know it: Chained to a virtual-reality generator called Infinisynth, the tenants of Inworld lay around and enjoy fantasy after fantasy while their physical needs are met by medicines and machines. Outside this Eden, though, is the real world—a scorched earth where Campbell fights to stay alive and avoid roving bands of subterranean, cannibalistic scavengers. Campbell’s love interest, Marta Martin, rebels against Infinisynth and winds up ejected from the sphere, stuck on the outside looking in; there’s no indication that her fellow blissful dreamers have any reason to want to join her.
11. Astral projection, On Wings Of Song (1979)
By the time Thomas M. Disch committed suicide in 2008, he had produced a body of literary horror and science fiction that challenged the genres with which he’d forever be associated. His masterpiece, 1979’s On Wings Of Song, took on one of science-fiction’s most threadbare tropes: the near-future dystopia. But in Disch’s grim imagining of an economically depressed, Christian Right-ruled America, a strange new technology has emerged: the ability to use song to enhance one’s astral form and send it flying around the world. In spite of the inherent angelic implications of the new trend of “flying,” the government condemns the practice—which is already restricted by the fact that only those who can afford to have their dormant bodies cared for can even attempt to fly. With a resigned, philosophic melancholy, Disch makes a bittersweet point: Sometimes humanity has to hit rock bottom in order to rise.
12. Perfect social harmony, “The Intensive Care Unit” (1977)
J.G. Ballard was never known for his cheery outlook. That said, the author of such dystopian masterpieces as High Rise and Crash loved to blur the line between the present and the future, dwelling more in that chilling twilight zone where contemporary reality and the paranoia of progress overlap. But in his 1977 short story “The Intensive Care Unit,” Ballard channeled his hero George Orwell by crafting a solidly science-fictional scenario in which people are forbidden by law—and by taboo—to touch. Instead, all human interaction, sex included, takes place via closed-circuit television. In true Orwellian fashion, that hermetic order breaks down nightmarishly in “The Intensive Care Unit,” specifically after a successful doctor decides to meet illicitly with his wife and children in the flesh. The result is one of Ballard’s perfect demonstrations of how we oppress ourselves more than authority ever could—but after the blood clots and the screams die away, his tableau of social harmony remains intact, completely undisturbed by the doctor’s isolated, self-correcting act of rebellion. Unlike Orwell, Ballard embraces the ultimate horror: Totalitarianism, if molded to fit our recreational technophilia, may actually work.
13. Wall-sized TVs, Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Sometimes details meant to suggest a hellish dystopian future aren’t as hellish-sounding as their author intended. The wall-sized TVs that placate the masses in Fahrenheit 451 exist in contrast to the illegal books that are rounded up and burned by “firemen.” Ray Bradbury sets the two in opposition, with people replacing their “fourth wall” with giant televisions, which have the effect of affirming state power and destroying all interest in literature. Point taken, but it’s likely many readers in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s fantasized about the day when they could replace their puny sets with the immersive screens of the future. Those same people, feeling guilty, probably made a promise to themselves that they’d keep reading books if Bradbury’s wall-TV future ever came to pass. Now that it has, they’ve totally been meaning to get around to it.
14. Casual sex, We (1921)
The One State of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We isn’t the only totalitarian hell with a creepily enticing twist on sex. But Zamyatin was ahead of his time in imagining a mathematically rigorous controlled society while writing in the 1920s. As narrator D-503 describes it early in the book, sex is yet another function that the One State has entirely, flawlessly subjugated to reason. (Keep in mind that D-503, one of the State’s top scientists, also considers railroad schedules to be the height of by-then-ancient literature.) Under One State law, “Each cipher [citizen] has the right to any other cipher as a sexual product,” and “Sex Days” are parceled out by way of hormonal calculations and permission slips. One State sex hardly bears the recreational camp of Brave New World—no casual talk of how “pneumatic” this or that woman is. The system instead aims for a scientifically perfect cross between rationing and promiscuity. D’s frequently “assigned” partner O-90 does give him some shit about eventually having a baby, but, hey, he has the perfect dodge: In the One State, unsanctioned pregnancy is a capital crime.
15. Gender equality, Starship Troopers (1959, 1997)
Robert Heinlein’s award-winning 1959 science-fiction novel Starship Troopers has been called fascist for its depiction of military service as the highest form of citizenship—a criticism expressly built into Paul Verhoeven’s satirical 1997 movie adaptation. But Verhoeven and screenwriter Edward Neumeier did pick up on and expand an idea advanced by Heinlein in the book: the notion that women are just as fit for soldiering as men. In the novel, the roles for women in the military appear to be limited, but in the movie, men and women train, fight, and even shower alongside each other without batting an eye. So while the Starship Troopers society does encourage young people to follow orders and even give up their lives in a never-ending war against inexplicable alien bugs, at least there’s no glass ceiling. An honorable death knows no gender.
In 1982, writer Alan Moore revived the old British superhero Marvelman (known as Miracleman in the U.S. for a variety of stupid reasons), and re-imagined the character as a middle-aged man who’d forgotten he was ever an adventurer. As Marvelman remembers who he is and regains his powers, Moore contrasts the simplicity of the kid-friendly comics of the ’50s and ’60s with the harsh realities of life in the UK in the early ’80s. In the final book of Moore’s run, Olympus, he has Marvelman triumph over his enemies with the help of enlightened aliens, and then set up a better, more peaceful world, more like the one from his old comics. If the people want superpowers, they can have them; if they want to have weird adventures or converse with the dead or just do nothing all day, that’s okay too. Moore makes the Marvelman version of Earth so alluring that it’s hard not to pine for it—even if, as the hero’s ex-wife notes, a society that can have anything it wants is bound to lose its humanity.
17. Fully automated lifestyles, “There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950)
In Ray Bradbury’s classic short story, robots have taken over all household chores, from making morning toast to warding off unwanted visitors. The intelligent house sets the table for bridge, cues up entertainment for the children, and reads poems to the lady of the house at night. That remains true even after a nuclear holocaust has obliterated the house’s former residents, leaving only a quartet of human-shaped scorch marks on its charred exterior. Apparently humanity has sussed out the secret of perfect indolence but not the enlightenment to keep from destroying itself. Robots are great at cleaning up spills, but they don’t get irony.
18. “Makers,” cool drugs, smoking without cancer, Transmetropolitan (1997-2002)
The dystopia of Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan is one of cultural hedonism, a city so deeply enmeshed in pleasure, vice, and personal freedoms that it can no longer recognize suffering and corruption. But considering all the perks of living in The City, it’s easy to see how society went off the rails. Even the story’s hero, gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem, regularly revels in the perks offered by the culture he rails against: consequence-free smoking, thanks to an anti-cancer trait taken in easy pill form; a nifty “maker” that recycles garbage or rearranges matter blocks into any object imaginable; and pretty much any drug a depraved mind could desire. (“I want something that’ll give me the stamina of a young werewolf, the vision of a shaman, the thoughts of a serial killer and the gentleness of a hungry vampire bat.”) The world of Transmetropolitan also has extremely inclusive views on religion, science, and gender issues, as well as a robust, unionized journalism industry, though Jerusalem soon discovers the perversion and destruction inherent in those freedoms.
19. Hoverboards, Back To The Future Part II (1989)
Life isn’t great for the McFly family in 2015: Marty Jr. (Michael J. Fox) and Marlene (Michael J. Fox) are headed to jail thanks to an impending robbery and attempted jailbreak, while Marty Sr. (Michael J. Fox) gets involved in a shady business deal and is fired by his boss via teleconference and fax. Then there’s bad guy Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson), who travels back to 1985 with a 2105 sports almanac so his younger self can turn 1985 into his own freaky dystopia. But there is one major upside to living in a Biff-controlled future: hoverboards. Hoverboards are superior to skateboards in that they: a) hover above the ground, b) appear to require less skill and effort than actual skateboards, and c) can be used to trail behind flying cars. Real-life demand for fictional hoverboards grew so intense—thanks to director Robert Zemeckis joking that the boards were indeed real, but not available to the public due to safety concerns—that they were often requested at toy stores even though they don’t exist. Yet.