Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Future Dystopia: The Cull

As a child I once read this horrible science-fiction short story involving desperate measures to enforce population control. Although the title and author’s name now elude me, the story revolved around raising a child to a certain age and then subjecting them to an exam of sorts. If they passed, they kept living, if not, well, let’s just say that the child of the couple in the story didn’t pass, and they weren’t very happy about it. Reading a story like this, in a science-fiction anthology for children no less, was a rather disturbing experience for me as a youngster, and probably responsible for my lingering fear and distrust of any form of exam or assessment…

I was reminded of this story today as I finished Robert Twigger’s The Extinction Club. For an extinction-themed work, things predictably get rather dark towards the end of the book. Firstly, we kick off with a vision of the ever-encroaching monoculture of man:

Conservation is an attempt to fix Eden, but in life things keep on developing. That which looks fixed is an optical illusion.

The moment conservation becomes thinkable, Eden slips from our grasp, since wild animals are no longer wild if they can be conserved, corralled, looked after. They are tame animals in danger. Wild plants and animals do exist, but they are hardly exotic – rodents, feral pigeons, certain snakes, undersoil fungi, woodlice, cockroaches. Animals that often accompany man in his dwelling places but are not controlled by man. Survivors.

Eden after the fall is defined by these survivors: its pests and parasites, its weeds and scavengers, its unwanted population and its mountains of garbage.

Just as a petri dish full of multiplying bacteria will eventually poison itself with its own excreta, so the human race races up to the limit of self-poisoning before maintaining an uneasy symbiosis with its waste products. The animals closest to us now are the ones that eat our prodigious filth. Our friends the rats, the roaches, the seagulls on the landfill outside of town. (Twigger, 2001, pp. 174-175)

Twigger then witnesses the culling of several Père David’s Deer (Elaphurus davidianus), specifically “spikers”, or in other words, young males of around eighteen months. At this point, and based on his previous musings, we arrive at the central theme for the dystopian scenario of this post:

I allowed my mind to explore the idea of human culling. After all, we all live in controlled environments now. Overpopulation is imminent everywhere. In some countries there is not enough food, in others not enough land or natural resources. Countries that have imposed strict birth control, like China, have ended up with skewed populations of more boys than girls, because girls are often aborted after a scan. Everywhere people complain about how there isn’t enough land anymore, how the world is being used up too quickly.

The simple answer, I darkly fantasized, would be a human cull. Teams of trained marksmen would go out and search for herds of humans – probably young males and females, the human equivalent of spikers. Once they’d staked out a herd, say a queue for a nightclub or a football match, they could wait for a clear shot against a safe background. Couples leaving late at night might be safest to pick off, especially with infrared night vision.

“Do you ever use night-vision equipment?” I asked Callum.

“We looked into it,” he said. “But too many weirdos walk through the park at night. We might have ended up killing someone we couldn’t properly see. At least in daylight you can judge the background properly.”

Maybe the human cull would have to be a daylight job too. It would be a terrible job to do – very stressful. The cullers would have to be men [or women!] of the highest moral fiber. Imagine if parents bribed them not to cull their offspring? Disaster. Culling would have to be seen to be fair.

The first few culls would have to be very heavy, to make any dent in the population at all. There would have to be a whole subsidiary industry to get rid of the bodies.

My fantasizing ground to a halt when I started to invent reasons why I alone should not be culled…

Dark thoughts for a dark night, but dawn was almost upon us. (Twigger, 2001, pp. 190-191)

Like I said, it’s a good book but it does get rather bleak there towards the end! As a future dystopian yarn though, it may make for a ripping gamebook. The obvious idea would be for you to play the victim, desperately attempting to avoid being gunned down by the marksmen as they fulfill their quotas for the night (or day). The alternative, where you play a marksman, will probably play out like a text version of Quake III, but might skirt the edges of bad taste (always assuming we haven’t fallen screaming off the edge already!). A better option would be the classic dystopian story arc where you start out as a government marksman, but, during the course of your duty, uncover a conspiracy that forces you to renounce your position and re-align yourself with the victims instead. That idea’s got Hollywood written all over it…

Not a happy book in places,
but definitely a
thought-provoking read

Possibly the best idea though, taking full advantage of the gamebook format, would be a two-player gamebook, where you and a friend choose between who will be the culler and who will be the cullee. One of you has to flee across the crowded, polluted dystopian wastes, while being stalked with utter professional disdain by the other, sniper rifle in hand. What a nerve-wracking gamebook read that could be!

At this point, considering the distasteful nature of what we’ve looked at, it’s worth pointing out that all of the above represents a future, not the future. If warped speculative visions of dystopia seem to bring out the worst in us, in terms of what we think may happen, it’s only because our human history successfully fuels our imaginations with the horrors and atrocities we have already committed.

There is still yet time to change. :-)


Twigger, R. (2001). The Extinction Club. London: Hamish Hamilton.


  1. Yes, a dark fantasy theme might work for older players. The thing would be to market clearly to them.

    You could get aliens to be the cullers, perhaps trying to control human population for own good, by releasing some virus or something and let the player try to survive and stop the alien conspiracy.

  2. Hi Miguel,

    The aliens idea is a good one - I didn't even think of that! It certainly negates the need for the more distasteful human versus human approach. It could be like a reversed District 9, where the aliens and their DNA-tech weapons have the power over the slum-dwelling and soon-to-be culled humans. Nice one!



  3. Dude, you need to go for a walk and get some fresh air.

  4. Mate, fresh air's a rare commodity in Bangkok. If you find some, let me know! :-)

  5. I remember a friend at uni (a new-age beardy pacifist) suggesting that getting rid of 90% of the human population would be the best thing for the planet. In the interests of fairness he suggested it should be done by lottery, which he himself would have to be in too, just to keep it fair! As for method, he left that unspecified - being a peaceful sort, I don't think he had got that far with his plans...

  6. We've got tons of space on this planet. I'm sure a few inventions will make deserts inhabitable.

    On the gamebook note, there are not enough multiplayer gamebooks or dystopian future books.

  7. @Warren, Stu: The 2011 January National Geographic predicts 9 billion on Earth by 2045! That may be straining sustainability.

    The problem with deserts is that our practices (agriculture, invasive species, deforestation) have created and expanded them in the first place. To restore them to what they used to be is going to take a lot of work.

    Gamebook-wise - yes, more 2 players and dystopia in general would be good. How hard would it be to do a 2 player iPad game you can play via the net versus a friend?



  8. The only problem with culling the young as a solution to population control is that population increases (booms even) in response to hardship and loss.
    Look at the previous world wars for an example of this (or almost any third world country today).

    So harsh culling would almost certainly lead to a much higher birth rate and long term higher population if past trends and human nature are anything to go by.

    One of the few things that seems to naturally lead to a below population replacement level of birth is a high standard of living. Which of course requires a high level of resource consumption...

    However, look at current trends.
    Although the population level is set to reach (peak at) around 9 billion by 2040-2050, what happens then?

    It looks to me like population trends are following a bell curve. Populations are aging and even in China, the country that currently shows the 2nd largest increase in population, the birth rate is currently well below replacement levels.
    This means that the population will reach a point where the aging population will be dying off faster than they are replaced by births.

    I strongly suspect that if nothing breaks the current pattern, that by 2060 at the latest, the global concern will be the population *decrease* at that time, although given this date is still almost 50 years away, any number of things could occur to break the ongoing trend.

    So if, and this is a big if, we can survive the next 30 or so years, and assuming current trends continue, which is also a big assumption, population pressure will ease.

    As population pressure is the driver behind virtually all current global problems, many of todays problems are just going to go away... no doubt to be replaced by a whole heap of other problems we cannot even conceive of at this point in time.

    Oops, got slightly off topic there!

  9. Interesting post Al! The problem is what's going to be left after 30 more years of burgeoning populations. Out age of man, the Anthropocene, is already responsible for a massive wave of extinctions and I'm not sure whether we can reverse that in the next 3 decades. I guess we should hold out some hope, but living here in Thailand and seeing the environmental degradation just within this region doesn't give me too much optimism...

    Nice to see a positive angle on it though from you, and thanks for contributing!



  10. Unfortunately, we have reached the capability to control our population, but not the wisdom.

    We desperately need to learn to work better in a group, and to remember that the Earth is a minute particle of the resources available to a space-going species.