Repair and Dystopia

It’s a dreary Sunday afternoon, the kind that begs for introspection or escape. I stand at the window, watching the drizzle, feeling a similar unrest churn inside me. The choice is simple yet strangely pivotal—accompany Harriet on a hopeful, damp walk or seek solace in another world through a film. I choose the latter, whispering an apology to Harriet as she settles back on her bed. I scroll through the streaming service, pausing as 'Vesper' catches my eye—a dystopian science fiction movie set in a world I feel oddly drawn to today. Vesper is a 14-year-old survivor of an ecological disaster where humanity accidentally unleashes viruses, devastating populations and ecosystems. In Vesper’s world, the air is thick with the must of decay and rebirth as grotesque creatures—akin to Lovecraft's dark fantasies—slither and flutter, their new forms both terrifying and mesmerising. In the resulting post-apocalyptic society, biohacking is the main technology. It is a confronting watch as the many human-made things I take for granted - such as electricity and digital technology — no longer exist. This world has been plunged back into an analogue age.

Vesper as she engineers seeds.

Eroding Environments

In one scene, Vesper intricately weaves organic circuits to nurture seeds for food. Her backdrop vividly reminds me of Phillip Beasley’s 'Sibyl,' installed at the 18th Biennale of Sydney. Sibyl presented a sprawling network of synthetic fronds that responded to human presence. The echo of life emerging from artifice in both works fascinates me, blurring the lines between organic life and engineered existence. Similar to Cockatoo Islands’s post-industrial decay, the film is set in post-environmental disaster, where building maintenance comes second to scavenging for resources. The result is an eroded environment, where you are desperate for the characters to bust out the spray and wipe, or fix a door. In another similar scene, Vesper repairs a drone that connects to her paralysed dad’s consciousness. The drone is organic and somewhat mystical as it does not defy any physical logic, but I know it is not digital. As Vesper repairs the drone, she wields strange tools and apparatus, their origins obscure—are they relics salvaged from before the disaster, or innovations born from necessity afterward? Science fiction often serve future visions where shiny electronic digital devices augment our existence; I find the sight of analogue tubes and flasks confronting, eerily mirroring the body’s inner workings providing a stark, unsettling reminder of how technology mimics life.

Vesper accompanied by her organic 'dad' drone

The key to Vespa’s narrative is organic technology. From the previously mentioned drone that resembles Tom Hank’s castaway companion Wilson, to the genetically transformed and menacing flowers and insects, the organic environment has no trace of generated electricity. The portrayal of a dystopian dark age future as one of decay interestingly aligns architecture with the environment. As nature slowly tries to kill humanity, the built environment follows suit, abandoning its purpose of shelter as it succumbs to entropy. In the scenes depicting everyday victims of organic pollution, the pervasive use of rotten wood, eroded concrete, and tattered fabrics not only portrays their poverty but also deepens our empathy for their desperation and fight for survival. These materials provide meaning to their plight, but is this decay a logical conclusion of dystopia?

Vesper's house, full of decaying materials

It is interesting to think about what repair requires. What stops humans from repairing and maintaining buildings. I can think of a few;


Access to materials is a major factor. If glass, or concrete or wood decays, how do you replace or rejuvenate if there are no more materials? The reality is that two of the previous materials are man made, and all three are industrially produced. If societal collapse was as drastic as in Vesper, then the materials we take for granted would be unavailable unless stockpiled for future use. The alternative would be to use the materials at hand, but you are soon faced with the problem of processing trees and mud into forms that perform and look similar. Without access to the production and supply logistics we rely on, it is reasonable that maintenance would become ad hoc and resemble a patchwork of recycled materials.

Knowledge and Skill

The second issue would be the availability of material and construction information. The film does not suggest all books disappeared, but there is a subtext that the population reduced due to the pollution. Consequently, fewer people would know how to repair and maintain, as often this is passed on through an oral tradition (and YouTube). Take away the the key people, and the lineage of hand craft knowledge breaks down, leaving structures to slowly break down. In this particular dystopian future, organic drones such as Wilson could plug that gap, but we are never convinced that this is a priority, they have bigger fish to fry, if fish were available and not now hideously mutated.


Another key aspect of repair are tools. Humans rely on their dexterity to achieve tasks, but the majority of fixing, joining, attaching, shaping, cutting, smoothing and covering require tools. In the chaos of escaping the initial disaster, if survivors fail to secure essential tools, they find themselves severely handicapped. The ability to create new tools from scratch, especially without existing metallurgical skills, is a daunting, if not impossible, task. Again, you could foreseeably create new tools in a McGeiver style, but without black smith skills you will not fashion the metal instruments that we use in our everyday DIY.


The last consideration is time. It takes a conscious effort to stop and make an effort to repair. If you have other pressing needs, like trying to stay alive, maintenance takes a back seat. Thus, in such dire circumstances, the luxury of time for repairs is reserved for those few who have managed to secure their immediate survival needs—making maintenance a privilege rather than a routine aspect of life. Materials and structures will always break down as molecules and atoms tend to disorder — the second law of thermodynamics — but it is the time difference between entropy and re-order through repair that results in the derelict aesthetic.

One of many buildings patched up with recycled materials.

The pervasive decay in 'Vesper' might suggest a rapid deterioration of both the built and natural environments, yet this comparison is slightly misleading. Buildings do not 'die'; they simply break down without maintenance. The film's dystopian aesthetic powerfully symbolises a deeper societal collapse: the loss of production processes, material knowledge, craft skills, and the tools we often take for granted. After my initial frustration with the crumbling staircases in the movie—yes, I too wondered why no one would just fix that step—I came to understand the profound connection between societal health and the ability to maintain our infrastructure. Our buildings depend heavily on industrially produced materials and parts, resources that would likely vanish following a drastic population decline. Vesper made me consider our current environmental strategies; perhaps we should prioritise locally produced and easily repairable materials. Such foresight could be crucial if we are to prevent, or at least mitigate, a potential genetic catastrophe.