I’ve recently realised I read a lot of classic dystopia. I’ve never bothered with YA dystopia and I suspect that’s because I’m more interested in the dystopian world itself, its psychological effects on the characters and the underlying social/political commentary than how to carry on as normal a teenage life as possible within a challenging environment.
Uncle Wikipedia had this to say about dystopia: Dystopia is defined as a society characterized[sic] by a focus on negative societies such as mass poverty, public mistrust, police state, squalor, suffering, or oppression, that society has most often brought upon itself. Most authors of dystopian fiction explore at least one reason why things are that way, often as an analogy for similar issues in the real world. In the words of Keith M. Booker, dystopian literature is used to “provide fresh perspectives on problematic social and political practices that might otherwise be taken for granted or considered natural and inevitable”.
So I thought I’d make a little list of a few of the dystopian worlds I’ve read (and one utopia) with a mini-overview of each. And, as I always find it handy, I’m trying to get into the habit of also suggesting (non-algorithmic, subjectively handpicked by a human) related books or films to check out but the suggestions aren’t always dystopian (the similarity might be in the style or main themes rather than the genre).
They are listed in the order I read them.
Animal Farm (1945): This is the only dystopia I had to read in school. An allegorical novella about the Russian Revolution. The symbolism here is pretty thinly veiled: each character (all of whom are animals except the four humans) represent someone or some force in the Russian Revolution. I didn’t think I’d be into it because it’s a book of talking animals, but the anthropomorphising of characters really does help your understanding of the events that took place during and after the revolution by giving a very visual overview of what happened as well as different groups’ feelings about what was happening. Turns out I really enjoyed it. It also has some great maxims. Favourite character: Benjamin the donkey. He’s smart but pessimistic (I seem to be drawn to these types of characters even when they’re animals). ★★★★☆
Brave New World (1932): People wilfully enslaved by their society, eugenics, genetic caste system, rampant sex (with contraception!). My favourite book. It resonated with me on a personal level in terms of both style and content. The following might be biased, but should not be dismissed. This book has so much foresight and has often been called prophetic considering when it was written and how true it rings. It does a brilliant job of showing how a state can control people by making them willing victims. People in this dystopia give up their freedoms for pleasure and consumerism. I have a special connection to Bernard. Personally, I wasn’t crazy about the bits with John or the part in the ‘savage retreat’. I have noticed that most people will tend to massively favour either Brave New World or 1984. I don’t think this is to do with the books themselves or their worlds’ believability so much as it is primarily a stylistic preference perhaps… If you enjoyed this book, you might enjoy the film Gattaca which was also brilliant. FYI: Inspiration for The Strokes’ song Soma is taken from Brave New World. ★★★★★
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968): The Earth is seriously f*cked. Everybody with money flew off to Mars or somethin’ to escape the radiation but some poor saps are still there for various reasons (some are too radiated, some have jobs to do, some are too poor, some aren’t smart enough…). Androids are labourers on other planets but the new model is too human. They must be exterminated. But the public can’t know about it. I read this after watching Blade Runner (the film based loosely on this book) which is a favourite – and a highly recommended one, might I add. Here is an instance where I much preferred the film. The story builds beautifully but the climactic showdown is unsatisfying and the characters feel stiff. Mercerism feels…oddly placed, but I’ll accept it. Many dystopias touch on religion and this was one of the most interesting accounts of that for me. I wish the film had been able to cover the elevator scene and the second police station scene. An unforgettable moment of dark humour: an ailing cat. ★★☆☆☆
Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949): Heavily surveilled society deceived and enslaved by its own hardline government. I audiobooked this one and I had trouble with it. The full first half I rolled my eyes so much I thought they might fall out of my head (this is probably pretty subjective). Warning: manic pixie dream girl. But it made up for it in the second half for me. The characters felt flat and the world seemed ridiculous. However, it is worth noting that this world basically is North Korea! You can’t get more real than that so it gets bonus points for being so ridiculous, but also so true. That makes it scary in a very real way. People sometimes talk about the ‘romance’ aspect of this book which I would say is pretty misguided and misinterprets Julia’s role in this book. I really appreciated the end, even with the info/explanation dump speech (which also happens in Brave New World) but, for me, if comparing Orwell’s dystopian works it comes second to Animal Farm. If you liked 1984, you might enjoy We (discussed further down in this post). ★★★☆☆
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985): Oppressive (modern day, Earth, our universe) society forces some women to be wombs-on-loan to certain wealthy couples so as to repopulate the Earth after killing loads of dissenters to this bizarre, largely unexplained regime…I had a complicated relationship with this book so take this with a grain of salt (or a glass of salt). I wanted so badly(!!!) to love it, but we just didn’t have any chemistry. A lot of people thought this world felt like a very real possibility, it just didn’t feel so to me. I though it felt sillily oppressive rather than shockingly so. Eye rolls for Nick (who was one of my biggest issues with the book) and an out of place outing which suddenly broke the crawl-speed pacing (which I was just getting used to!). If you read my GR review, you’ll see that I did make peace with and eventually sort of appreciate Nick’s character even though I thought it would have felt less like an eye roll had Ofglen or the maid (cook assistant lady??) fulfilled that purpose in a different way. HOWEVER, I think my “meh”-ness about this book is largely subjective and if you enjoy more flowery, lightly experimental writing style and slow pacing and ‘quiet’ atmospheres, this might be for you! If you liked this, you might also like Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (which is not at all dystopian, but feminist fairytale retellings). ★★☆☆☆
The Time Machine (1895): Strangely engaging. The plot is simple: some smart dude builds a time machine; his friends are skeptical. He ignores those chumps and jettisons himself tens of thousands of years into the future. Everything’s wrecked. There are two main warring species who are markedly different. (I say “warring” but it’s pretty one-sided.) Our protagonist’s time-craft goes missing and he needs to find it to get back to his own time… You get the picture. It was sort of like reading a novelised scientific journal from the 1800s. There is a cute little reluctant friendship that might have been crafted into a creepy romance with no chemistry if written today. You don’t often see (at least I don’t) time travelling to a future so remote that humans have evolved (possibly several times) into a new species altogether that actually feel like a different species and not just like “future humans…who maybe have blue skin!” or something. It drags a bit towards the end. Something about it all was rather charming. If you enjoyed the style of Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne, you might like this. ★★★☆☆
Herland [utopia] (1915): Three men visit a land entirely populated by women. These men are a bit of a Goldilocks’ bears trio: one is too aggressive, one is too admiring/servile, and one – our narrator – is open-minded/just right. I really enjoyed this novella. It is a feminist utopian work that does not blame men at all and makes its points in a very diplomatic way. I was particularly interested in the way Herland proposed punishments (or, rather, the lack thereof), education systems, agriculture/GM food (remember this was written in 1915), and the recurring feminist mini-theme of pockets for women’s clothing. Great and small points are made about how women might behave when the element of sexual competition is taken away. This sort of ignores lesbians but I suppose that might complicate the point which is trying to be explained in a basic way for a wide and already critical audience? But the point is that women (and men) might do less silly things, more similar things and be seen as less separate, more equal. I did not enjoy Herland’s emphasis on womanhood being synonymous with motherhood as it is problematic to those who cannot or do not want to have children. You can be a perfectly functioning woman regardless of whether you propagate. And as far as motherhood in a country of all women cut off from any men goes, there is a supernatural element that the women just sort of gain the ability to will themselves pregnant. If you liked this, you might also enjoy The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by the same author. ★★★★☆
Logan’s Run (1967): There is massive overpopulation and everyone over 21 gets hunted down and killed. 13 year olds think they run things and gangs of adolescents have been known to attack people to prove how tough/adult they are(?) as, I suppose, the definition of children/adults/elderly changed massively. This was an odd one. I don’t know if I can make a proper assessment because, truth be told, I sort of drifted in and out. It felt sort of random and disjointed (but maybe that was because I was drifting in and out!) and the characters were flat. I have seen the movie and remember more or less the same from that as the book…That is to say, not very much. I wouldn’t recommend either one really. But you’re an adult and I ain’t your mama. ★★☆☆☆ (generous)
Fahrenheit 451 (1953): This often gets lumped into the “big three” (dubious title/collection) with Brave New World and 1984. This is massively misleading. Not only do 1984 and Brave New World address different issues in different types of societies and, therefore, I don’t think should really be compared (but I can see why you would..), Fahrenheit 451 is different in its content and tone. Sure, it is chiefly concerned with all information being destroyed and people becoming wilfully ignorant couch potatoes. And, yes; those who disobey by reading books will have their book collection (and, by extension, your entire house) burned to the ground and their might happen to be inside their house while it happens. I know, I know. Wilful ignorance, oppressive system…sounds like it fits right in! But it doesn’t really sit with them for me. The tone definitely sets it apart. My best job at explaining is just to say it feels ‘a bit grey and a little hardboiled’? It’s also not nearly as prophetic coming after BNW & 1984 and offering no real new ideas of its own. Its world just feels very flawed…I hope I don’t get hate for bringing this up, but it’s a little how I feel about Divergent (which I haven’t read!). I have trouble suspending my belief so far and so constantly. I do hate to compare…but it is definitely not on the same level as BNW & 1984 in my book. That said, it’s full of great quotes and mini-ideas. There are some perfect scenes with our protagonist and his wife that show with equal parts hopelessness and comedy the horror of this world. A for effort: some interesting ideas. C for achievement: choppy execution leaves much to be desired. FYI: Apparently 451°F is the temperature book paper burns at…So keep your thermostats in check! Also, I can now spell “fahrenheit” without having to think about it. PS: Did anyone else think of that film Equilibrium when they were reading this? If not, watch that. I felt similarly about it as I do this book. That is to say, conflicted. ★★★☆☆
We [currently reading] (1921): I haven’t finished this one so my thoughts are a little scant. Disjointed. Plotless. Some interesting ideas. A little unintelligible at times. Characters behave strangely. I couldn’t really explain the dynamics of the world in detail as it is very difficult to decipher: what are the rules?? what are the punishments?? But you are given snippets of the whole and I get the impression the world is most like 1984 although the encouraged sex is more like Brave New World. Both Orwell and Huxley have cited We as an inspiration for those works respectively. The text, written in an epistolary (diary/letter) style to a more primitive society (/our current society whenever that may be/the reader) is interesting and works well. The text itself feels a bit coded as it might be if you were writing something in an oppressive society. Truth be told, I’m having trouble feeling like continuing at the moment…but it’s so short I’m going to try to soldier on. I don’t dislike it. Warning: manic pixie dream girl. [rating pending]
So there you have it. I hadn’t actually realised I’d read this many dystopian novels when I started this post and there are many more on my TBR so it doesn’t look like my quiet obsession is showing any signs of letting up.