Revisiting Mega-City One

Image: 2000AD

It's sobering to realise I left the imaginary world of Judge Dredd and Mega-City One more than 30 years ago when, some time in 1982, I cancelled my subscription to the sci-fi comic 2000AD.

I used to own the first few hundred issues - or 'progs' as they are still called - having been a reader from the Prog 1, published in 1977. I now regret giving away those now valuable first editions a few years later.

I stopped reading because I thought that was the mature, responsible thing to do on turning 12 and leaving primary school. There was more of a stigma associated with reading comics beyond a certain age back then.

Things are rather different now. The graphic novel is recognised as a powerful, flexible narrative medium that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages without embarrassment. And Judge Dredd and many of the superheroes of the Marvel and DC franchises star in multi-million dollar movies with increasingly sophisticated - indeed somewhat portentous - storylines.

I revisited Dredd's dystopian city space last week at the Back to the future event, one of the last of this year's Edinburgh Book Festival, during which 2000AD's lasting imprint on British (and global) culture was discussed in company with some of the many artists and illustrators who have contributed stories and images over the years.

The consensus seemed to be that the comic has endured because of its ongoing commitment to unsentimental 'hard' sci-fi. Its vision of what the future might look like is stark, but not wholly incredible. The stories have a satirical edge, there's plenty of black humour, and, of course, the artwork has always been quite literally fantastic. I have to admit I haven't been able to get the broken cityscapes and wastelands of Judge Dredd out of my mind since the event. I certainly don't want to push the comparison too far, but I've been wondering if its bleak visions signpost certain dangers for our own future.

The world of Judge Dredd is our world, set in the late 21st and early 22nd centuries. Much of the Earth has been devastated by nuclear warfare, the survivors taking refuge in huge conurbations, 'mega-cities', walled off from the radioactive wastelands, the 'Cursed Earth', beyond. Most of the stories take place in Mega-City One, a megalopolis spanning most of the eastern seaboard of what used to be the United States. There is a Mega-City Two on the west coast, and a few similar settlements across parts of Europe and Asia.

Mega-City One is home to 800 million people. It features some of the classic sci-fi tropes: monstrous skyscrapers housing up to 50,000 people; bridges in the sky; flying cars; androids and cyborgs; artificial, engineered weather patterns.

But this is no gleaming city of the future. Think not so much of contemporary Dubai, but rather Mexico City, Cape Town or Cairo 100 years from now. The mega city's metallic architecture rears upwards in fantastic furistic shapes, but is blackened with grime. The overheated technology supporting the precarious lives of millions is choked with dirt. There is mass unemployment, poverty and overcrowding. Order is maintained through the authoritarian rule of the Judges, an elite caste of law enforcers acting as both police and judiciary: there are no courts, punishments being levied on the spot by the apprehending Judge at the scene of the crime.

Image: 2000AD

And yet the millions crammed into the febrile mega-cities are the lucky ones. The other survivors of the atomic wars were infected with radioactive poisoning, spawning an underclass of 'mutants' consigned to the outer darkness of the wastelands. Those still living have formed poor, brutal communities, riven by religious sects led by freakish charismatics.

A rather dark vision of the future, then; a wasted Earth riven by a global apartheid. We surely hope and expect that we will be able to manage the challenges of the coming decades, severe as they are, better than that. But this dystopia resonates because its essential outlines are plausible. It's an extreme vision of the kind of world into which ours might degenerate if managed poorly.

In Judge Dredd, as in much of the sci-fi that emerged during the first 30 years or so after World War Two, the agent of future apocalypse is nuclear war. Since the downfall of the Soviet Union fear of atomic fallout has receded somewhat (though it certainly hasn't gone away). But those clouds of foreboding have been succeeded by others: the serious possibility of accelerating environmental catastrophe triggered by runaway climate change. Indeed global warming is already well and truly underway and the urgent question is now how bad it will be, and what collective action we might be able to muster to mitigate its effects.

An apartheid of climate change 'winners' and 'losers' is already emerging. It is expected that some parts of the world, the British Isles included, will experience somewhat more clement weather (though as we have already seen in the chronic flooding of recent years there will be 'local difficulties'). In contrast to these 'high value' locations other parts of the globe will simply disappear completely or become uninhabitable. Swathes of low lying countries will be submerged by rising sea levels, and the drier, hotter parts of Africa, Australia, Asia and the Americas are already becoming uninhabitable at peak temperatures.

This trend will be exacerbated by the extreme divisions in the distribution of global wealth that have developed in recent decades. The prosperous elite will be able to purchase economic and environmental security through acquisition of properties situated in mild climates. The capacity of the rich to colonise desirable locations has been demonstrated in recent years by the the increasing unaffordability of properties in central New York and London, and the proliferation of gated communities.

A related, intriguing, and much newer phenomenon is the seasteading initiative bankrolled by billionaire libertarians, which envisages the development of self-sustaining floating cities beyond the jurisdiction of nation states, populated by a self-selecting business elite.

It's interesting that all these patterns have informed the plots of a few recent sci-fi films. In Wall-E a polluted, degraded Earth is abandoned to robots, the human population giving up and taking to space. In World War Z the surviving population takes refuge in walled cities from the zombies circling outside. Elysium imagines prosperous space colonies serviced by an underclass struggling for survival on the planet below.

Again, I don't want to overstate these real life comparisons with the Judge Dredd story. We have a very long way to go before things get as bad as that. But it's testament to the enduring power and appeal of this particular comic strip that it discerned, some 36 years ago now, some of the serious issues that now confront us: the prospect of a serious decline in the capacity of the planet to continue to sustain our established ways of life, and the certainty that the burden of meeting that challenge will not be shared equally.