BEYOND THE DOME WALLS
The project I have been working on for the longest is a science fiction story. I want to talk about the setting, why I chose it, and what influenced me in this choice. Many writers start with a character and build their fictional world around him / her. For me, the choice of setting was the first piece of the puzzle to fall into place, and bizarrely this happened while watching an old episode of EastEnders. It was the episode where Phil and Grant Mitchell are fighting each other. There is a car chase, and they end up on some waste ground on an industrial estate opposite The Millennium Dome. This setting struck me immediately as very dramatic in a visual sense – the big dome on the horizon with its protruding, crane-like appendages. It took me a few weeks to go back over the trope of domes in the science fiction I had read / watched, and look at their use as symbols and settings. First, I looked at information on the Dome itself. At the time, there was a lot of fuss in the press about the money spent on the project, and its apparent lack of functionality / usefulness. The Dome is now used as a concert arena by mobile phone company 02, but at the time it was being used as an exhibition about modern Britain, with exhibits describing in nebulous, conceptually dubious terms ‘Who We Are’, ‘What We Do’ and ‘Where We Live’.
The idea of using this in a satirical fashion provided the germ of the story, but it wasn’t until I went back into the science fiction featuring domes / hermetic societies that I began to get inspired. The first dome story most people will think of is Logan’s Run, currently in pre-production for a big-budget remake under the director James McTeigue. Without spoiling the plot for those who haven’t seen the film, the story is set inside a huge domed city, after the event of a nuclear catastrophe of some kind. As a method of population control, those over the age of 30 are killed in an elaborate ceremony, disguised as a lottery.
The main thrust of the narrative involves the escape from the dome city. There are two things I like about Logan’s Run. First, because the dome city is a closed society, in order to escape the Runners have to get through several layers of city, which become increasingly industrial and disturbing. The same happens in George Lucas’ incredible sophomore film THX 1138: when the protagonist reaches the edge of the closed city-state, he encounters mutated creatures, and endless, mazelike industrial spaces.
With both Logan’s Run and THX, the theme is escape from the controlled environment. I didn’t want my narrative to become a simple chase story, no matter how allusive and symbolic that chase was. The temptation for me in using a closed, dome-type society was to enable me to cloister not just my central characters, but their whole world, in a controlled cultural environment. Therefore their struggle against the dome is not an escape for the self only – their aim is the destruction of the environment, and the end of the society contained therein. The end of THX 1138 is ambiguous (which works in the context) – the meaning of the final shot is discussed briefly in the Wikipedia entry I linked to earlier on. Regardless, at the end of the narrative, the protagonist in THX has changed nothing except his own knowledge.
In contrast, the end of Logan’s is celebratory – Logan and his bird return to the dome city and get the inhabitants to come outside. I like the ending of Logan’s better, despite its mawkish sentimentality – for me the scene where all of the domers emerge into fresh air for the first time is very powerful, once removed from its context of a heroic ending.
Other movies with similar themes are inferior Arnie vehicle The Running Man, which is pretty dire apart from some classically awful Schwarzenegger one-liners. The concept of murderous population control being used as reality TV is appealing, but on the whole this is a missed opportunity (both the movie and the King / Bachman novel of the same name) The ‘reality TV’ aspect is in fact better handled in Brian K. Vaughan’s Mojo storyline for Ultimate X-Men.
To return to THX for a moment, this is the film that I think best explores the nature of a controlled, limited city-state. Although Lucas has placed his story in a future so dystopian that it forbids emotion, the setting and movement of the story is fantastically engaging. Anyone who has experienced New York, Tokyo or London at rush hour can connect with the protagonist’s emotions as he stumbles from an empty, endless space into a crowded commuter tunnel. Lucas’ camera and effects work emphasises the claustrophobia of the closed society, and its effects on the psyche are clearly illustrated by the story. However, thematically this was not how I wanted my story to come across. I wanted to put recognisably current social groups into an environment like that shown in THX. In a way what I was aiming for was something with the griminess of the best scenes in Spielberg’s flawed (but excellent) version of Minority Report.
Another fantastic ‘closed society’ story is part of 200AD’s Alan Moore-created comic, The Ballad of Halo Jones. In Moore’s story, the protagonist starts out life in a city-state known as the Hoop. The Hoop is made up of concentric tunnels / loops which intersect at different times of day. As a citizen crossing the Hoop, you need to know what time Hoopflex occurs at, so you don’t get stuck in the wrong zone. Although this bit of cleverness allows Moore a lot of interesting plot twists, I originally wanted to portray the subdivisions of my dome society as more rigidly stratified.
Originally I split the dome into levels – the bottom level was an engineering / industrial area with working class residents. MidLevel held the middle classes and white collar workers, while Upstairs was a glamorous trail of expensive fashion bars inhabited by celebrities and aristocrats. The central character was granted access to all levels, because initially he was a drug dealer. As I have begun to attack the social strata of my own Dome in my re-writes, it has become apparent that I don’t actually need Levels or Hoops to depict the social strata of the Dome. My Dome now features a central column of expensive real estate, and several airborne monorail / cable car lines to connect the different districts, but the geography is not as specifically allegorical as I had previously depicted it.
I’ve found that the ability to move the characters freely around a more detailed, single-level society lends itself more to the story I’m trying to tell. Perhaps the divisions are more necessary in a story that concerns escape, or travel from place to place – such as The Starlost, a neglected Harlan Ellison series involving space colonists who live in culturally-themed domes, and Aeon Flux, the delightfully perverse MTV animation which tells of a sexy insurgent clone making war on a neighbouring state. The detective novel Only Forward, by Michael Marshall Smith involves the protagonist travelling between different ‘zones’ to solve a mystery – this also appeals, as each area becomes a distinct allegory for a particular bit of society the author wants to describe. Originally, I had a kind of naïve Marxist three-tier society for my characters to overthrow… I eventually decided that if the society I was trying to depict was convincing enough, it would be useful as an allegory without needing to be sectioned up.
Perhaps the closest thing to what I am now trying to achieve is the dome society in A Boy And His Dog, a film based on a Harlan Ellison short story. The dome society here has shut themselves off from mainstream society (a post-nuclear wasteland of rape and food shortage) and has little care to know the outside. They only interact due to a need for fresh sperm – subterranean living has made them infertile. What I like about this Dome society is its’ aspirations – they have separated themselves not because of necessity (apocalypse / population control) but because they wish to preserve their manners and customs. This is what I want to create – a society that becomes hermetic because it wishes to survive as a cultural entity; as an idea. As with Ellison’s dome inhabitants, not all of the inhabitants of my dome would necessarily have to agree with (or even be aware of) the society’s aims, but by their presence they would become part of the plan. The film also depicts the cultural changes that occur in the hermetic culture in a really cool way. I’d recommend this film to anybody – it’s an absolute classic of sci-fi, sorely neglected.
Visually, it’s difficult to escape a few sources when describing dome / hermetic societies. The tendency to Blade Runner it up with a heavy racial mix and sweaty, over-crowded streets is one that most cyberpunk writers don’t even try to avoid – most of William Gibson’s early stuff feels directly lifted from the ‘Runner to me, which is why I prefer the badly-managed corporate chaos that Neal Stephenson depicts in Snow Crash and The Diamond Age. Not only does Stephenson pull off dark and funny at the same time, but his world makes more sense – the motives his background characters (and his heroes, in Snow Crash at least) follow are usually avarice and self-aggrandization, or mere survival. In Gibson’s world, too many characters seem like shills for his invented lifestyles (eg. The Panther Moderns in Neuromancer), which may never actually have a real-life counterpoint – in short, they will eventually seem as dated as many of the invented worlds of 50s and 60s sci-fi feel now, due to technological and social progress. Stephenson seems to agree with me more, perhaps because his starting point for character and setting is that human needs don’t change much with technology. People still want to get high, fuck, and fight. His worlds are accordingly based on places and cultures that serve these needs. Not that I’m trying to sell realism in sci-fi necessarily – hell no. Never! It’s just that Stephenson’s writing more seamlessly flows from the present, even when he’s describing a more distant future than Gibson’s.
Powerfully influential on my own dome-society, perhaps the best ongoing science fiction cityscape ever imagined, Mega-City One from the Judge Dredd series is a towering, techno-organic mess, surrounded by wasteland, and peopled by a seemingly un-ending cast of lunatics and freaks, massively overcrowded into huge towerblocks, themselves the size of cities. I don’t read much Dredd these days, I’m not a huge fan of the character, but my early reading of 2000AD definitely provided me with a better palette to work with than even the best American movies. Mega-City one feels like a living thing, not a re-dressed street scene or a bluescreen effect.
Similarly, V For Vendetta, again by Alan Moore, was a massive influence – his story of fascists sweeping into power on a popular vote in England was chillingly real to me, and if I’m honest, V is one of the main works I feel I am trying to creatively respond to.
A more esoteric use of the hermetic society in comics was Grant Morrison and Chris Bacahalo’s Assault On Weapon Plus arc for New X-Men, which featured a typically brilliant Morrison creation, a dome society called The World, where time-control and accelerated breeding programs had been used to continue the work done on Wolverine and his predecessors in the Weapon X program. Although I saw this use of a dome setting as being different in iteration to what I was trying to achieve, it did give me a thrill to see Wolverine, Cyclops and Fantomex breaking INTO a sealed society… that was a nice touch.
I could go on about the weird hermetic societies in Iain M. Banks’ superlative Feersum Endjinn, the wonderful subterranean weirdness in Richard Paul Russo’s Subterranean Gallery, and the awesome flood theories that drive the competitive post-diluvian society in But’N Ben A-Go-Go by Matthew Fitt.
Ill stay away entirely from The Cube Trilogy, which is more like a certain infuriating 80s toy than a hermetic society, and I definitely don’t have time for the sub-par PKD rip-off that is The Island, and the relatively silly Jurassic Park precursor, Westworld. As for the man PKD himself, well, he gets a full essay all to himself some time soon, so I’ll leave his hermetic-society stories for now.
I would recommend the Manga interpretation of Metropolis as well as the old silent movie of the same name. A double bill of that is pretty awesome on a big enough screen. That’s all on domes for now, I’ll come back to it when I’ve got more to say. For an exact visual match to the type of dome I’m trying to describe, have a look at the wiki on R. Buckminster-Fuller, and geodesic domes.