Sci-fi films where some arbitrary "rules" creates horrific dystopian conditions (usually as social commentary)

One of the central plot devices of The Handmaid’s Tale is the idea that the population is scarce and fertility is reduced, and so the services of a “handmaid” are necessary to bear more children. Except that only a handful of high-ranking men get a handmaid, and each of them only gets one. If they really wanted to increase the population, I think they could go about it more efficiently than that.

Hal Clement’s 1999 novel Half-Life postulated a future society where the population of all living things was declining at a rate where 50% was lost every, IIRC, 69.2 years.

The theme of the book is about the rigidity of thinking systems, even those that are designed to bring out creativity. And so the opening of the book is a set of rules this society created, and follows, which states… again, IIRC… for every solution offered, an alternative solution must be provided UNLESS the first solution can demonstrably be proven true.

Oh, good news, it’s excerpted by Google. Here’s the relevant passages which set up the central problem in the book:


Long story, short: when faced with a crisis, both for the planet and the people who went to Titan, it was difficult for them to find solutions because of the need to suggest alternatives to even well-reasoned lines of thinking, and the novel is as much about them struggling to change the way they approach the problem as it is the solution to the half-life reduction problem itself (which, to be honest, is rather basic and seemingly wouldn’t require a space flight out to Titan to figure out.)

Re: Dune, the big issue for me is the spacing guild. You’re the spacing guild. You control space. You can drop rocks on these stupid planets. Take Arrakis and don’t give the Sardaukar the transport they need to, you know, attack you. Oh, you’re a bunch of spice worms? Uh, no problem, plenty of venal Minor Houses willing to be your planetary muscle. Hell, maybe a Major House as well. Worried about nukes? Don’t supply the boycotted House with spaceships to target, what the hell are they going to do about it?

The Guild apparently isn’t concerned with ruling, just being train engineers and conductors.

Which is actually a pretty significant plot point - Leto I’s terraforming program, which he initiates to make life more comfortable for the Fremen, is slowly killing off the worms, which leads to Leto II choosing the Golden Path.

I think that it’s a set of rules used not by the society at large, but rather by the team of scientists investigating Titan (and presumably other teams in other places) (that’s why the rule refers to ranks and commanders). For a whole society, it was be a ridiculous rule - but for a team of scientists, it’s not a completely unreasonable guideline (it’s even got a loophole (1.b))

If not for society, then it was promulgated for the science classes. In the novel, this rule had been in effect for quite a while and it wasn’t merely this group.

There is an expository section at the front which states…


(The other screenshot is cropped so that I didn’t carry the ‘general order 6’ title line.)

because until the “jihad” the machines took over for 3 or 4k years and suppressed the remaining humans to the point the world was almost back in the stone age with religion and history being a bunch of half-remembered myths with no context …

somewhere in the first 15 pages, there’s a couple of paragraphs where paul is trying to decide if the 6 million-plus the ancient warlord hitler killed was admirable or shameful simply because no one knows how or why they were killed
all they had were his name and the numbered killed…

In the Expanded Universe, yes, but Frank Herbert himself is pretty vague in the core books about what "the Butlerian Jihad’ was.

That bit’s in Dune Messiah, and it’s more of Paul reflecting on how by an objective standard, he’s become a bigger monster than Hitler ever was.

in the last book by frank herbert, it’s a few thousand years after the god-emperor atridies was assassinated, and the current emperor and the witches decide after computers come back into use (via the sentient tech planet ix) the spice and just obliterates Arrakis once and for all …

It’s made clear that because of prescience and addiction, when it comes to the stability of spice production, the Guild are risk-averse to a paralyzing degree. Yes, the Guild have a monopoly, but one assumes they also need things from other people. Ruling is always a riskier proposition than being an éminence grise. Or even an éminence orange.

While the Guild controlled interstellar travel that doesn’t mean they controlled all of space. The houses had their own ships and presumably some of them could prevent the Guild from dropping rocks on them. There was a balance between the Spacing Guild, the Emperor, and the Landsraad (noble houses) and the main plot of the first book is kicked off because the Emperor believes House Atreides threatens that balance with their Weirding Way. The Guild was politically powerful and fabulously wealthy thanks to the status quo and really had no motivation to rock the boat. The Guild did work through black markets in order to secure some of their Spice or gain favors though. They just didn’t have any strong motivation to go to war to control the Spice. For them it was good enough to control interstellar travel.

I binge-watched the first season of Snowpiercer. While I enjoyed it and the original film, I do feel that it takes itself pretty seriously for what is patently an absurd concept. The last of humanity sheltering in a giant locomotive circling the globe. I get the train is some sort of “perpetual motion engine”, but why is that a better option than hunkering down in a bunker built off of a nuclear or geothermal power plant?

And in the time between Snowpiercer’s departure and everyone freezing to death, no one said “fuck them a-holes” and parked a gasoline truck on the tracks or otherwise sabotaged them out of spite?

I couldn’t get past this part. Why must they keep moving? Some rogue moose stands on the track, some avalanche dumps on the track, and all of their world comes crashing to a halt.

It’s a better option because it’s the one that worked. I’m sure lots of people hunkered down in a bunker built off a nuclear or geothermal plant - but in the long run that either didn’t work, or they have no contact with the train.

And do not question the Engine Eternal!

So you’re saying that surely there must be a better way to run society than an “unstoppable” train in which the rich persist off the labor of the poor? And you’re shocked no one has ever stopped it, because the whole setup of a train on tracks plowing through snow and a dying planet actually seems kind of flimsy, and surely someone would have the idea to put its alleged “unstoppability” to the test by now?

Kidding. I’m kidding. I get that you get it’s a metaphor. And I agree. It takes itself too seriously. I didn’t especially care for the movie, but I appreciated that it played up the absurdity at times.

While I don’t expect movie rules and physics to follow the real world, the train metaphor was still too stupid when visualized and should’ve been scrapped. I literally could not stop asking myself who is maintaining the tracks. Or was manufacturing engine part replacements. Or if anyone on this planet who had heard of the laws of thermodynamics thought about the wisdom of placing humanity in a very complex machine. Even The Purge makes more sense from a world-building point of view.

Obviously, I couldn’t finish Snowpiercer. Just couldn’t buy into it.

Surely most of these sci-fi concepts work because its assumed the rules weren’t arbitrary and were created because of the dystopian conditions. But we don’t know if they are still needed (or in some cases if they ever were). Working out if the are or ever were, or if the the dystopian conditions were created so the powers that be could impose the rules, is the main driver for the plot .

A lot of them are created as metaphors to represent extreme versions of some actual social phenomenon. i.e The Handmaids Tale applying an extreme form of rules related to reproductive rights. Or the life clocks in In Time representing the life and death consequences of access to wealth in a way that is more immediate and less abstract than money.

I watched the first film in the “Divergent” series.
The premise is that everyone is divided into factions based on a single personality trait, and must live only with others of that trait.
Those that are found to possess more than one personality trait are labeled as divergent and must be killed.

The film is not terrible, but I simply couldn’t buy into the central conceit. In real life, everyone has multiple aspects of their personality. Why this is considered aberrant is never really explained. And even if we buy that part, what’s the point of segregating everyone based on their single trait? Wouldn’t a healthy society need people of different types working together?

The rules of this world make no sense.

It makes when you realize that much YA fiction (i.e. Divergent, Hunger Games, Maze Runner, The Giver, Harry Potter, Twilight, etc) is “coming of age” stories told in exaggerated versions of the world young people live in and how they experience it. There are always various one-dimensional classes / clans / houses / guilds or whatever, analogous to the various cliques young people form. There is always a love triangle. The protagonist is always a unique and special “chosen one” fighting against the status quo of a system (largely run by adults, if not actual parents) that oppresses his/her free expression of his/her true self.

This SNL skit lays it out pretty well: