I think I had something specific in mind when I got this idea for the first time, but it escapes me now. It may have been a general feeling about any setting where a gloomy dystopia is imposed to avoid a situation which may not actually be that much worse.
Remember that time in the Hunger Games where the dystopian overlords didn’t even make any excuses for oppressing the masses? Like, the outside world wasn’t dangerous, they weren’t protecting them from other nations or marauding bandits or whatever. They were just dicks and made no apologies.
That was a tangent.
Deep down below in the greasy, stuffy darkness of the pit, the citizens toiled. Clad in whatever stained, tattered rags hadn’t yet fallen from their emaciated bodies they scratched at the Sufferium veins with their bare hands, tears running down their hollow cheeks. Sufferium by its very nature could only be mined by hand – it required a certain level of suffering to extract.
An Overseer passed and whipped a citizen to death mostly because they hadn’t filled their quota for the day. The body was removed to the reclamation vats, where lunch was being prepared. Far above it all the grey clouds opened for a moment and a single ray of sunlight weakly reached down to caress the faces of the oppressed before a separate Overseer noticed this and flipped the switch that slammed close the cast-iron shutters. Being able to see the clear skies gave the citizens unhealthy ideas.
Above all this in the observation blister, the Chairman was explaining to a visitor just how well things were going. While still relatively Spartan the interior of the blister was a considerable step up over the pit below. It even had seats, and the Chairman was obligingly pouring the visitor a glass of medium-quality wood grain alcohol with barely a thought to the rationing. The visitor took more of politeness than anything else and immediately avoided drinking it.
“I’ll be the first to admit that things have been pretty tough ever since the giants took over the surface world, but I like to think we’re doing quite well here,” the Chairman said, pouring themselves a small drink while the visitor shifted in their uncomfortable seat. The Chairman turned, swilling the incredibly pungent liquid around their glass. It moved slower than it should have done.
“We’ve made it certain they don’t come this way. All that Sufferium we dig up goes straight into the Agony Engines, keeps a big bubble up over this whole area, keeps those giants away. It does make all the food taste like ash and gives everyone horrifying, soul-destroying nightmares every night but we knew that would happen.”
He took a swig, flinching as the alcohol made its searing way down his throat.
“And are people happy? Not really. But we knew that would happen too – if they were happy the Sufferium would dry up, and then things would get really bad! Can you imagine?” This was rhetorical, and the visitor didn’t feel like answering anyway.
“Are we having to shoot people who try to run away? Yes. Are we having to torture the families of suspected dissident ringleaders to root out subversive groups? Yes. Are we having to employ painful compliance-collars to get our citizens to work? Yes. But, you know, things could be worse. Could be up there with the giants! How much worse that would be.”
“How much worse would it be?” The visitor asked. They weren’t local. The Chairman looked at them as though they had slapped him across the face.
“Slavery and death! Giants are well-known for mistreating their charges. They put collars on them and force them to work in the most brutal of conditions! They execute those that attempts to escape! They’re ruthless and callous barbarians. Surely you cannot be advocating for that?”
The visitor shrugged.
“Not really. But excuse this thought experiment: do any of those guys down there want to be down there?”
Down below the citizens continued to toil, wailing in despair and agony up to an uncaring and unseen sky. As they watched one citizens broke away from the seething masses and fell to their knees, clutching and pulling at their compliance-collar in a futile effort to remove it. As the shocks racked their body and reduced them to a dribbling, weeping heap a brace of overseers dragged them back to work. The Chairman frowned.
“Probably not, I’ll admit. But it’s necessary, as I say! It has to be done! It’d be much worse if we didn’t!”
“Oh, no doubt. And how many people have died today?”
“While we were talking there has been another,” the Chairman consulted his pocket oracle “ninety-five fatalities. Oh. Wait. Ninety-six.”
The last one apparently being the citizen who had tried to remove their collar mere seconds ago. The collar had belatedly realised someone was attempting to tamper with it and detonated. There was some level of consternation among the former citizens’ erstwhile compatriots, now splattered and distressed.
“So to avoid slavery and death you have compelled those under your care to work in horrible conditions doing something they don’t want to do – on pain of death – and many die anyway due to the dire conditions and harsh measures designed to ensure they don’t step out of line? That’s how it’s coming across to me right now.”
“If you’re trying to pick holes you’ll always accentuate the negative…” the Chairman mumbled, feeling picked on.
“I’m not really trying to accentuate anything, I’m just trying to grasp how I see it from what you’ve told me. If I’ve got it wrong than correct me, but this is the impression I’m getting. You have to admit it comes across as not much better than what you’re trying to avoid.”
“We need that Sufferium! If we don’t get it then we’ll be helpless! The giants would just march right in here and enslave us all! Rip off our compliance-collars and replace them with uncomfortable, giant-made collars! Or worse, murder us all right good. You have to admit all of us dying is bad.”
“Oh, obviously. Who’d want to miss out on all this?” the visitor asked, casting another glance down below. The Chairman narrowed his eyes.
“I sense sarcasm,” he said.
“There might be a reason for that.”
The Chairman was outright frowning now. He stomped over and snatched away the visitor’s still-full glass.
“And after I broke out the reasonable wood-grain alcohol for you, too,” he said downing the contents and immediately regretting it. He swayed back, back of his hand pressed to his forehead.
“I – oh boy – you can see yourself out because – oh, oh no – just…I need a lie down. You clearly don’t understand our ways. I – ugh…”
Hurriedly putting the glasses on the sideboard the Chairman keeled over and curled up, screwing his eyes closed and trying to ignore the way the room was suddenly spinning. The visitor stepped over him on their way out.
“It’s been a learning experience,” they said, heading for the exit. The Chairman mustered enough indignation to wave a finger after them as they left.
“You’ll see! In a hundred years when we’re still stuck in this dark, dank hole crying ourselves to sleep at night in perfect, miserable security you’ll see! Oh dear I shouldn’t have drunk that so fast…” they groaned.
Down below, citizens continued to toil.