Candidates have three minutes to make nine cubes out of a pile of blocks in the centre. Those who complete the puzzle in time will move on to the next test; those who don’t are eliminated and must return to the slums—their one chance at a better life dashed. Among the nine candidates in the room are Rafael (Rodolfo Valente), who steals a cube from another candidate to get his nine. Michele (Bianca Comparato), who initially out of kindness helps Fernando (Michel Gomes), who’s reach to the pile is limited, is in turn helped by him when she is shy one cube: at time-end, he cleverly piles her eight cubes into one large cube—the ninth—and she passes the test.
So begins Netflix’s 3%, a Brazilian dystopian thriller series created by Pedro Aguilera and directed by Cesar Charlone. In a kind of Hunger Games contest, candidates cheat in self-service; others violently impose Darwinian entitlement and survival of the fittest; yet others rely on reciprocal altruism.
3% is set in the near future after the planet has fallen into a divided haves and have-nots through some calamity. Three percent of the population live well on an island in the Atlantic Ocean, called Offshore (Mar Alto). The remaining 97% struggle Inland with poverty and scarcity. A selection process lies between them.
Every year the 97% send their 20-year olds to undergo The Process, a grueling Hunger Games-style contest run by the Offshore elite to replenish their numbers. Only 3% of the candidates will be considered worthy. They must pass psychological, emotional and physical tests to earn a place in Mar Alto.
By the time Season 1 is over, candidates will have committed a full range of desperate and unsavory acts to make the cut—the stakes are high, after all: secure a position in the 3% elite or die in squalor and poverty. After being eliminated during the interview process, one youth throws himself off a balcony of the testing centre.
“It’s not so far from our own world, where the competition to get into a good school and land a good job drives many to self harm,” writes Matthew Gault on Motherboard. “In the 3%, as in our own world, society looks down on those who don’t achieve and there’s a certain kind of person who believes that life’s losers earned their place at the bottom.”
Inland is valued by the elite only for its reserve of youth to recruit Offshore’s strictly controlled population (you only find out how in the last show of Season 1). As for what personality and fitness The Process tests for is also uncertain. “You each create your own merit,” says Ezequiel, who runs The Process, to the candidates. “No matter what happens … you deserve this.” The corollary is that if they don’t have merit—value, as determined by Ezequiel’s Process—they don’t deserve to move Offshore. There is, of course, a resistance to The Process, called The Cause. They cause stirrings of unrest and may even be responsible for the first murder in Offshore in over 100 years—which puts Ezequiel’s Process under question. Ezequiel dism
isses The Cause by suggesting that it operates “in the name of a false or hypocritical equality.”
There is no inherent equality or fair entitlement in a land of scarcity; there is only proof of merit to a limited resource. This meritocratic notion—and the need to prove one’s worth to be accepted—is so ingrained in society that not even the poor question it. It was American writer John Steinbeck who argued that socialism would never take off in America because the poor see themselves as “temporarily embarrassed capitalists.”
We find out in the first show that the first murder in 100 years has occurred Offshore—which puts Ezequiel’s Process under question. And there are stirrings of unrest—some likely instigated by The Cause.
“3% is a brutal commentary on the world’s rising income inequality and the lengths we’re all willing to go to improve our lot,” writes Gault. “It’s a world of extreme income inequality where techno-fascists rule with an iron fist…Brazil has some of the highest income disparity on the planet,” writes Gault. “São Paulo is a megacity where the ultra-rich travel the skies in rented helicopters and cruise the streets in bulletproof cars. It’s a city where the poor live in makeshift favelas that resemble something from William Gibson’s nightmares. It’s a city where plastic surgeons do a brisk trade in reconstructive ear surgery because kidnapping is common and the easiest way to prove you’ve got a mark is to send their ear.”
With each episode, 3% examines the motivations and paradoxes of heroism and villainy, sometimes turning them on their sides until they touch with such intimacy you can’t tell them apart. At its deepest, 3% explores the nature of humanity—from its most glorious to its most heinous—under the stress of scarcity and uncertainty. How we behave under these polarizing challenges ultimately determines who we are.
3% joins the ranks of several other films and shows about near-future scarcity-driven societies, with two examples below:
- Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer—a stylish post-climate change apocalypse allegory. The train’s self-contained closed ecosystem of scarcity is maintained by an ordered social system, imposed by a stony militia. Those at the front enjoy privileges and luxurious living conditions, though most drown in a debauched drug stupor; those at the back live on next to nothing and must resort to savage means to survive. Minister Mason, an imperious yet simpering figure who serves the ruling class without quite being part of it, reminds the lower class that: “We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position. Would you wear a shoe on your head? Of course you wouldn’t wear a shoe on your head. A shoe doesn’t belong on your head. A shoe belongs on your foot. A hat belongs on your head. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot. Yes? So it is. In the beginning, order was prescribed by your ticket: First Class, Economy, and freeloaders like you…Now, as in the beginning, I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, the sacred line is crossed. Know your place. Keep your place. Be a shoe.”
- Advantageous—Jennifer Phang’s “pre-dystopia”, where jobs have become heavily automated and opportunities for education are cutthroat. Women have been generally forced out of the workplace and onto the streets: the logic being that they will be less violent while living on the street than men. Artificial intelligence has supplanted most people in middle management. “The people you do see are either impoverished and disenfranchised or are hidden in the upper floors, the protected places,” says director Jennifer Phang. Unemployment is close to 50% and there are no public schools. The only options for a young girl—if she is not to end up on the streets, either as a beggar or prostitute—is to attend a highly selective free magnet school or a very expensive private school.
In his book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, author Peter Frase considered effects of climate change and automation in possible outcomes of a post-Trump election America. Frase envisioned four scenarios based on abundance and scarcity and whether a society operated by equality (e.g., communism or socialism) or hierarchy (rentism, exerminism).
With scarce resources, socialism (aka Ecotopia) may arise within an egalitarian society if driven by altruistic notions of self-limitation. Ecologists describe such a self-limiting system as K-selected (see my discussion of K-selection and r-selection in “Water Is…”). A K-selected population is at or near the carrying capacity of the environment, which is usually stable and favors individuals that successfully compete for resources and produce few young. The K-selected strategy runs on a successive gradient of maturity, from initially competitive to ultimately cooperative. Competition is a natural adaptive remnant of uncertainty and insecurity and forms the basis of a capitalist economy that encourages monopolization and hostile takeovers. Competition results from an initial antagonistic reaction to a perception of limited resources. It is a natural reaction based on distrust—of both the environment and of the “other”—both aspects of “self ” separated from “self.” The greed for more than is sustainable reflects a fear of failure and a sense of being separate, which ultimately perpetuates actions dominated by self-interest in a phenomenon known as “the Tragedy of the Commons.” Competition naturally gives way to creative cooperation as trust in both “self ” and the “other” develops and is encouraged through continued interaction.
Exterminism (aka Mad Max) may arise under a hierarchical model, driven by greed and exacerbated by uncertainty in the environment—not unlike what we are currently experiencing with the planet’s system and cyclical changes. In this scenario, in which resources are both limited and uncertain, those with access to them would guard or hide them away with desperate fervor. Frase writes:
“When mass labor has been rendered superfluous [through automation], a final solution* lurks: the genocidal war of the rich against the poor.”
Gault says it best: “3% hits so hard because it seems bizarre and distant, but as the show unwinds and reveals its mysteries, audiences will come to realize that we’re already part of The Process.”
*the Final Solution was originally used by Nazi Germany as “the Final Solution to the Jewish Question”; the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews during World War II, formulated in 1942 by Nazi leadership at the Wannsee Conference near Berlin, culminated in the Holocaust, which murdered 90 percent of Polish Jews.
Frase, Peter. 2016. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism.” Verso. 160pp.
Gault, Matthew. 2016. “Netflix’s ‘3%’ Turns the Google Job Interview into a Dystopian Nightmare.” Motherboard, November 27: https://motherboard.vice.com/en_ca/read/netflix-3-percent-review
Munteanu, Nina. 2016. “Water Is…The Meaning of Water.” Pixl Press. 584pp.
Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s recent book is the bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” (Mincione Edizioni, Rome). Her latest “Water Is…” is currently an Amazon Bestseller and NY Times ‘year in reading’ choice by Margaret Atwood.