Totalitarianism in Literature
By Marshall Tankersley
Modern storytelling has an odd fascination with totalitarianism. Almost every dystopian novel, movie, or television show from 1984 to The Hunger Games features some kind of governing body that wants absolute control over its population, providing their an easily identifiable ‘bad guy’ for the audience to hate. But - let’s be honest - not all of them actually work. The trope of the all-powerful evil empire tends to be run-of-the-mill, more of a get-out-excuse for an author to avoid having to create a nuanced and well-explored world. There’s a lot of explanations for that, ranging from America’s inherent dislike of any imperial control over their free will, to bad feelings still floating around from the Cold War with the Soviet Union - but let’s not get bogged down in details. We’re not about understanding the origins of totalitarian literature, but rather how to do it well.
So - Totalitarianism. Let’s talk.
Blake’s 7 was a groundbreaking British science-fiction television series produced by the British Broadcasting Corporation from the late seventies into the early eighties. Surrounded by pop culture sci-fi like Tom Baker’s era of Doctor Who and Star Wars, Blake’s 7 stood out from the crowd with its darker, more realistic take on the future. Instead of being light and fluffy, Terry Nation’s sci-fi epic delved deeply into the realms of the human psyche and how individuals were shaped after living their entire lives under the thumb of an oppressive government that could alter their memories at will. This was a show that said man’s greatest enemy wasn’t bug-eyed monsters from outer space - but was, in fact, itself.
Blake’s 7 opens with the story of Roj Blake, a former rebel leader who had taken a stand against the corrupt Earth-based Federation. As you might have guessed, the Federation didn’t take kindly to this, and wiped Blake’s memory after forcing him to record a recantation of his ideology in a bid to end the rebellion. Blake lives his life for years without knowing of this past, only coming to terms with it after the rebels make contact with him again. Blake is hunted down by the Federation and its lackeys, barely managing to escape their grasp in time to return to his old life as a freedom fighter, striking out against the Federation in a stolen ship.
There are four major aspects of a successful and convinging totalitarian dictatorship that we can learn from Blake’s 7. First, and kinda obviously, is that the government has to be oppressive. It can’t be your run-of-the-mill corrupt democracy or even a benevolent autocracy, but instead has to concern itself with details of its citizens’ lives that governments generally don’t care about. The ubiquitous use of cameras and other recording devices serves as a quick visual cue to remind the audience that the government is always watching. Similarly, offhand mentions of things that the audience would find terrifying but which the characters think of as normal add a layer of matter-of-fact reality. For example: the government putting drugs in people’s food and water to make them docile? Chilling.
Secondly, a well constructed totalitarian dictatorship should be natural. It’s all too easy to create a caricature as your main villain, but a believably oppressive government will offer its people a carrot as well as a stick. It won’t all be doom and gloom - there has to be a sense of safe normalcy that the oppressed populace has in order to stay in line. After all, they’ll think, it could be worse. An effective dystopia is shown to have citizens enjoying themselves - within the confines placed on them, of course. Blake’s 7 does this fairly well, showing people living their lives outside of Blake’s struggle. Obviously, you’re going to want to show the problems this dictatorship creates more, but you have to round that out with a naturally realistic world of normalcy that gives the characters incentive to stay under their tyrannical overlords.
Thirdly - if you want to make your antagonist tyranny really scary, you have to make them powerful. A good dystopia is one that actually wins more often than it loses, at least until our heroes manage to build their strength up to challenge their enemies effectively. This isn’t a story about how these evildoers got into power, it’s about what people do when all options are exhausted and the bad guys have already won. As cool as the Empire from Star Wars is, they do seem to lose quite a bit - apart from the Battle of Hoth, they don’t actually do much damage to the galaxy at large, which makes them a bit less imposing as a realistic oppressive force. The Federation of Blake’s 7 is far more impressive in that regard, tramping in and gunning down rebel sympathizers without a second thought.
Their fascination with altering facts is also frighteningly compelling. This is a government that alters whatever they don’t like, crafting a new reality that fits their purposes better than whatever actually has happened. For Blake, they initially covered over his memories and the parts of his mind that led him to a life of rebellion. After his recapture, they turn instead to discrediting him with criminal accusations they produced out of thin air. Even when one of the officials in charge of his investigation discovers that there’s something fishy with the story and sets out to prove Blake’s innocence, he and his lover end up gunned down in the mud while Blake is shipped off to a prison colony. The first episode of the series ends on a very bleak note, as it should, making sure that its audience understands the enveloping power and evil of the Federation.
Fourthly and finally, a believable dystopian tyranny should be relatable. Just as it ought to be natural-feeling, so too must it be based in something that the audience is familiar with. It’s much harder for a Western audience to empathize with a dictatorship that came to power because of food shortages or mass epidemics, for example, because those are problems that much of the Western world hasn’t experienced by and large for a very long time. On the other hand, telling your audience that the government began its reign of terror by promising to keep them safe from external threats only to end up with a system that invades their privacy in the vain hope of rooting out any form of dissent… that’s a bit more understandable. Blakes’ Federation is very much based on late Twentieth Century fears of government overreach and the quest for a unified societal mind. The Federation won’t tolerate dissent. It’s always watching, and keeping its populace in line by using drugs. In essence, it is the ultimate end form of Stalin-era Soviet Russia combined with a more relatable Western aesthetic. The Federation is terrifying because it wears the face of common enemy and says that, in fact, it is really us.
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