Ask anime fans about Darling In The Franxx and you’re bound to hear a whole lot of groaning and gnashing of teeth. It had such a promising, strong start, but ultimately, it was like watching a star athlete begin a 400 meter dash with nearly superhuman speed and grace, stumble badly at the 200 meter mark, and ultimately come in dead last, skidding on their face over the finish line. However, while it still could tell a coherent story, it managed to show one of the most disturbing and vile dystopias in science fiction today, making it a perfect jump off point for talking about the horrible futures humanity might bring on itself. Obviously, there will be spoilers, so skip the next four paragraphs if you’d rather avoid them.
Ostensibly, the show is billed as a love story in a future where Earth is under attack from huge, dinosaur-like machines roaming the seemingly endless wasteland the planet has become. From an outsider’s point of view, it’s less of a love story and more of a stalker’s murder spree, the end result of child abuse and medical experiments you’d usually see described in delicate, technical terms under the War Crimes And Atrocities section of the relevant Wikipedia article. The world has been split between immortal adults and very mortal children used as little more than cannon fodder piloting dangerous, jury-rigged giant robots after growing up as rab rats. That is, if they’re even allowed to grow up based on their aptitude scores, as laggards are “pruned.”
While the adults are ensconced in large, high tech apartments of mobile cities, living eternal lives of luxury and pleasure, rarely seeing the outside world by choice, children created in test tubes fight building-sized monsters in huge machines that accelerate aging and endure medical interventions that compromise their immune systems. They’re restricted to their own sections of the cities, treated with little more than disdain outside of formal ceremonies where adults read a stilted motivational speech, and are prohibited from finding out anything about sex and human reproduction while undergoing puberty. So, you might think that the children grow up loathing the adults and plotting escapes to freedom, right?
Nope. Not at all. If anything, the children are thrilled to fight and risk their lives so the adults can indulge in their favorite activity: doing nothing at all. It’s a point of pride for the kids to be surviving lab rats or to die in battle. And this is what makes this dystopia so particularly egregious. It’s not that an apocalyptic event forced humans to form a totalitarian society to rebuild. As we find out, this horrifying arrangement was the result of very deliberate choices made by entire societies across the world. They destroyed the planet for their own comfort, and when they couldn’t fight the giant monsters that came, they created an entire class of disposable soldiers to throw at the beasts until enough monsters were killed to let them keep lazing around.
If those with final creative control of the show actually followed up on the threads they started rather than trying to clumsily semi-plagiarize Evangelion and Guren Lagann — the classic giant mecha anime titles also credited to founding members of Studio Trigger, the show’s makers — into a coherent and new narrative instead of a rushed, insane shitshow so pithily seethed over by YouTuber Geoff Thew, this could have become a decent allegory for climate change. And it could have ended by urging the adults to be kind to their descendants and know when to hand over the reins to the future to the generations that will actually have to live in it. (Incidentally, this is the way the story ends in the manga version.)
Setting the question of whether it would come across as hamfisted and preachy or not aside, it would’ve been a much more compelling narrative, hitting on very real and frustrating issues that deeply affect our world, which is ultimately what makes any sci-fi story more relatable. And this is especially true with dystopias. Much has been said about science fiction as a source for new ideas and inspiration — including by yours truly — but there’s also a lot of merit in diving deeply into dark versions of it to look for warnings and game out worst case scenarios so we can avoid them in the immediate future. In fact, we could argue that we currently live in a dystopia created by a catastrophic trifecta of boredom, incompetence, and greed.
That’s right. None of us get immortality. No giant fighting robots. No spaceships taking us to the edge of known space. No emergent superpowers. No seemingly idyllic, green, tidy cities hiding deep, dark secrets. No sprawling hives built on the ruins of generation ships that reached exotic, distant planets millenia ago, full of bizarre artifacts to discover and master. We get cubicles, both real and virtual, jobs nearly nine in ten of us find tedious wastes of time, debilitating inequality, and endless torrents of pointless outrage, moral panics, and directionless ennui and hate. No, our dystopia is about as exciting as the color beige, as stimulating as saltines, and the plans of our Big Bads are only as complicated as “keep getting more money forever at any cost.”
But all that is what actually makes our boring dystopia so infuriating and dangerous. Rather than presenting us with legitimate villains and monsters with grand plans that explain everything that we’ve seen unfold, it leaves us in a dark room with our own imaginations so we can slowly and quietly go insane, imagining monsters in the shadows, and lashing out at each as our paranoia keeps getting worse and worse. We’ve built vast, complex, parasitic machines that despoil and drain us and the world around us, installed ourselves as cogs, and then, when we predictably found this existence to be miserable, ruled that it must be some sort of mental illness or social treason when we can no longer put up with this order of things.
Now, a boring dystopia may not sound so bad. No giant kaiju monsters like in an anime mecha post-apocalypse. No secret agents reading your mind or experimenting with your hapless body like in a cyberpunk universe. No radioactive mutants, killer robots, or zombies of more traditional doomsdays. No roving bands of heavily armed bandits of nuclear wastelands. On average, it’s safe and tidy in many places, with some of the lowest per capita crime statistics in recorded history. You don’t even need to worry where your next meal is coming from. In fact, you can just have it come to you with a few taps on your phone. And you don’t need to fret about how to make it through another night. It’s effectively a guarantee that you will.
Yet, that’s not to say that a boring dystopia doesn’t have some serious threats and dangers just because they’re not obvious, or don’t arrive packaged in an external antagonistic force. They’re far more insidious, slowly making their way through societies with very real impact. Falling birth rates as people feel forced to choose jobs over families. A brewing climate crisis already killing millions, and set to kill millions more, triggering global political turmoil through wars and refugee crises. Spikes of loneliness and depression engulfing entire nations. Basic human empathy just wasting away under non-stop stress. Governments descending into performative trolldom, and refusing to solve real problems in favor of whipping up imaginary ones. The list goes on.
It feels like the world around you is collapsing and all your dreams are dying from thousands of cuts inflicted every day, but you still have to get up, brush your teeth, shower, get coffee, deal with your job no matter how you feel about it, pay bills, and do a bunch of silly little chores as if none of those horrible things are happening. And that’s what makes this dystopia real. Unlike a sci-fi or horror plot, real dystopias are results of systemic failures that either go unaddressed, or are exploited for power and profit. There isn’t going to be just one thing that breaks us, it’s going to be a perfect storm, and it won’t last forever because eventually, populations and moods would change enough to reverse course. It’s all just a matter of when and how quickly.
This is also not the first time it feels like the world is imploding. It’s not even the worst iteration, according to historians and scientists. That dubious honor falls to the years between 536 and 640 AD thanks to devastating volcanic eruptions, plagues, famines, and political instability. Life back then also had to continue, and countless farmers, serfs, and tradespeople had to get up and do their daily tasks as if their friends and families weren’t dropping dead of starvation and disease around them. If they had mass media, they would’ve known the true scale of how bad things have gotten and how many economic, logistical, and epidemiological problems they truly faced while going about their day, knowing there really was no alternative.
It seems absurd to look at the lives we lead today by comparison and say there’s anything even remotely dystopian about them, but that’s only true if we consider our world at a surface level, where macroeconomic indicators and our scope of technology are all that matter. On a far more personal level, more and more of us feel like all the gains of modernity are slipping away while we own less and less, and as our software writes poetry and creates art, we toil for a mass of faceless corporations that are quite literally parasitizing the planet, and whose heads refuse to adjust their business models regardless of how much damage they cause all to keep cramming shit we don’t need down our gullets in enough varieties to give us panic attacks.
Of course, this is unsustainable. There are only so many resources on one planet. There is only so much money in people’s bank accounts and pockets. There is only so much we could put in our homes. There are only so many shows we can watch. There is only so much pollution in our water and air that we can tolerate without devastating health consequences and damage to the future of our species. But like an abused goose, more and more is crammed down our gullets to the orgasmic screams of greedy sociopaths with dollar signs in their eyes, for whom there is no such thing as enough and never will be, and whose plan for when society collapses is to bury themselves in bunkers so they can pretend to die wealthy.
That is the true nature of our boring dystopia. Today, we hold the keys to almost unimaginable and revolutionary advances that could make us orders of magnitude richer, increase our quality of life, and give us nearly unprecedented freedom to create and invent instead of begrudgingly toil in the service of mindless, supply-side consumerism. We could clean up our planet and set foot among the stars in the foreseeable future. But because a small clutch of people who are already wealthier than most of humanity would make a little less money for a few quarters as we figure out the new direction we want to take as a civilization, we’re not allowed to do any of it. If that sounds utterly absurd and infuriating, that’s because it is.
Here’s a new gizmo. Here’s a new show. Here’s a new UI for a social media app that’s designed to make you angry, waste your time scrolling through ads, and make you hate your neighbors by elevating gossip, conspiracies, lies, paranoia, and propaganda to the same level as legitimate, fact checked news and journalism. Here, distract yourself, lose yourself in conspiracies and fear as the world around you burns. Now, stop daydreaming and rise and grind. Help humanity’s new robber barons extract even more from you and the world while they prepare to become immortal digital minds ruling over quintillions of future disembodied souls toiling under them until the heat death of the universe. This is your only choice. So it is declared by the Centrist Punditocracy.
You’re probably thinking by now that this is a plea to abandon capitalism in favor of what’s been called “degrowth” and is actually an unnecessary and simplistic regression in the name of short term environmental gains. But no, the closest path to the one we should take has been mocked by its own advocates as “automated luxury communism” and is actually a case for responsible, sustainable capitalism which begins with acknowledging that Dickensian England with wi-fi and smartphones is not the one and only true economic system, and not the only way capitalism could, or should survive. That alternative path has been espoused since the dawn of the 20th century in countless works of science fiction seen as downright utopian today.
Imagine a world where you don’t have to “rise and grind” anymore, and no one cares about your weekly report. Instead of toiling away factory style, you oversee armies of machines that do the tedious boilerplate grunt work for you while you focus on dreaming up new, useful ideas, or set off to explore new moons and planets. A world where housing and food are cheap and plentiful. A world where “working for a living” is considered an archaic, sadistic phrase from a bygone age when economic growth was defined by consumption rather than innovation and satisfaction. A world where we mine asteroids and grow food in vertical farms to preserve the land and water, and lab grown meat will help put more, better, healthier proteins on tables.
Unlike you’ll hear from histrionic right wing klaxons, very few people actually think our future is being crammed in tiny urban precincts and eating bugs. It’s just that most experts don’t think it lies in sprawling suburbs, twelve lane superhighways, and bullpen offices. The simple fact of the matter is that the world is changing and we have to change with it. What worked a century ago may no longer work today, and no amount of screaming, conspiracy theories, or even calls for a fascist counter-revolution are going to help stop time. Because we’ve tried to deny the inevitable massive shifts in everything from how we consume news, to how we’ll live with the rapid rise of AI, climate change, and over-exerted global supply chains, we’ll need to rethink everything.
With what we see on social media no longer reliable, or even meant for human consumption in the near future, we need to re-invest in legitimate news sources and fact checking with humans who actually travel to research and report first-hand rather than rely on web searches and vapid punditry to fill the information void. With rampant automation that’s making millions of jobs we need to feed and house ourselves obsolete faster than ever in history, we need to understand how people can contribute to society outside of conventional jobs. With landfills filling up and our cities burning to a crisp, we need to prioritize sustainability, zero waste industrial processes, and how to clean up our mess for a future with less stuff and stress, and more opportunity.
What for some people is a utopian fantasy, for others, is just a simple matter of doing the work to make it real. It was always envisioned that robots and AI would let post-industrial societies free us from the shackles of the then dominant Dickensian philosophy of labor for the sake of labor, and allow us to spend our lives not “earning a living” but applying ourselves to advancing humanity even further. The fact that we haven’t done this, and that the world still worships the Dickensian model, is an indictment of our leaders’ failure of imagination. It’s not a given that we must toil forever and a day to sell an infinity plus one widget in infinitely growing quantities. It’s a policy choice and nothing more, fueled by rent-seeking, avarice, and malicious obstinacy.
Perhaps this is one of the most difficult things to accept about our current dystopian model. We can grow enough food for everyone. We have enough stuff for everyone. We could house and educate everyone. We have the resources, the technology, and the money. We simply choose not to do any of it, and a not insignificant numbers of us are horrified at the idea because people they don’t like for whatever reason may benefit, and those in charge actively preach against a post-scarcity society because they won’t be in a position to dole out favors and steer the lives of others for political and financial gain. They don’t want to figure out new ways to make money or become influential. They’re very happy with the status quo.
Much like the immortal adults of Darling in the Franxx, why should they compromise their roomy apartments and weeks in pleasure chambers, doing absolutely nothing in their vast, gleaming, but silent mobile cities when the disposable brats from quarantine are fighting the monsters? In their minds, their lives are just fine. Perfect, in fact. That others must struggle to make it so, well, that sounds like a problem for those others. This is very much in line with the worldview usually lamented in Dickensian works, that each person has a station, and few will ever exceed what is assumed to be their natural capacity. In the minds of far too many, others’ suffering is nothing more than a necessary evil, and there’s nothing to be done because they’re “in their place.”
We could start to ignore social media as a good source of authority and stories. We could revive local journalism. We could do our best to fact check politicians and hold them to account. But we don’t, and we won’t as long as enough of us desperately want to look down on or exploit others to feel powerful or superior without doing anything to justify these condescending views despite the fact that regressive policies actively cost us trillions and shave years off our lives. Thanks to the unwillingness of millions to make lives better for themselves and others, we spend our days watching the world burn on our phones and do our silly little chores between jobs we couldn’t care less about. And that’s how we’ll continue until we choose empathy and progress.
[ feature illustration by 에프루 ]