7 Classic Books For Those New to Dystopia
The dystopia is a setting we find ourselves faced with more and more in 21st century media. Book sagas like The Hunger Games and The Divergent Series are some of the biggest sellers in Young Adult fiction, as well as popular movie franchises. While The Walking Dead is one of the most talked about shows on TV (as well as a popular comic book series with video game spin-off’s), and movies like Word War Z are making a serious amount of money, despite critical bashings. Writers have always pondered what the future will look like, but their imagining have changed over the years depending on the social context. Here are some of the classics of the Utopian/Dystopian genre from the last 150 years, and how they lead to the current iteration of the genre.
Edward Bellamy: Looking Backwards 2000 – 1887 (1888)
A very popular book in its time, but now relatively unheard of. The novel takes place in the year 2000, a far-flung date at the time, which is now feeling long gone. Bellamy writes of an America where money, poverty, and theft are no more. He attempts to imagine a perfect world, and some of his thoughts are not far from what we have today. He essentially invents streaming music, food delivery services on a mass scale, and the credit card. The novel does feel a little dated now, and is essentially a series of conversations between the protagonist, a man who sleeps for just over 100 years, and the man who explains this new and strange world to him. However, it is interesting to see where people of the past thought the future was headed. After its publication there were numerous societies in America that tried to live in the way that Bellamy described, believing this was in fact our eventual outcome. Just over one hundred years ago, we were still very positive about the future but, as we know now, that changes.
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)
This novel maintains a bridge between the Utopian literature of the past, and the Dystopias yet to come. The main question one might ask themselves after reading this book is: where does it fit? The setting is nightmarish to us (babies grown en-masse in test tubes, species-wide mind-control, and brain numbing drugs) but the majority of the inhabitants of this world are happy. Huxley lived in a worrisome time, the rise of Nazi Germany in Europe was underway, and the future was beginning to look not quite as positive. The novel is a scary portrayal of what might happen if human experimentation goes too far, and this is something we might have to think about ourselves soon enough. What are the limits of self-preservation, and when do we say stop. It is a very easy read however, and Huxley’s humour is palpable throughout. The novel can easily be read as a serious one, or as one mocking the genre as a whole. Either way, it still remains relevant to this day.
George Orwell: 1984 (1949)
There is no doubt that Orwell’s most famous novel is dystopian from the moment you begin reading. We are introduced to a bleak London, and a world population constantly at war with itself. It is perhaps one of the most famous and iconic books of the twentieth century. Even leaving a dent even on our language, to describe something as Orwellian is to refer to this book. Orwell and Huxley are often compared to each other, but they couldn’t be anymore different. Huxley portrays a world where the inhabitants do not want to think, and Orwell presents one where its inhabitants are not allowed to think. It continually makes you wonder how deep everything goes. You see behind the layers of Orwell’s world for just a second, but are left wanting to know more. The idea of being constantly watched is also something we have brought into the world today, and has become even more relevant since Orwell wrote this novel. It is not a book for the faint hearted, and ends with a long section of torture, but you always knew it was heading there anyway. A must read for anyone who enjoys a good dystopia, or just the greats of the literary canon in general.
Ursula K. Le Guin: The Dispossessed (1974)
The sci-fi genre, which some consider a blood relative to the dystopian novel, has been mastered by Le Guin. The novel is the first, chronologically, in her Hainish Cycle series, one of the staples of modern sci-fi. Her novel presents the dual planets of Anarres and Urras. But the novel does not tell you which is the dystopia, and which the utopia. While Anarres has complete equality, it is sparse in resources. But while Urras is abundant in resources, it has an extremely prevalent class system, as well as strict gender oppression. The chapters alternate between the two worlds, but focus on the character of Shevek, a native to Anarres but a visitor on Urras. This has the effect of making you eager to return to the previous of the two separate plots lines, even though both are very enjoyable, and learn more about the vastly different worlds. It is a well written piece of sci-fi, and leaves one wondering just where the author is making commentary on our own society, and which world she would choose to live on herself. It is clear that this blurs the line between what is a Utopia and what is a Dystopia. It expands the very concepts to be a lot more objective than what past writers might think, and focuses on how any world can be a Utopia for someone.
Angela Carter: The Passion of New Eve (1977)
Carter is as surreal as it gets. Her novel’s protagonist travels across an America at war with itself. With rats that eat dogs, palaces made of glass, and a four breasted fertility god, it feels like she has crammed a fever dream into a novel. Every ten pages or so you find yourself stopping and wondering if you just read that right. She has a mastery of mythology, and utilises this in conjunction with her surreal writing style to brilliant effect. Carter’s focus on gender – primarily its fluidity – are the key focus of the novel. It questions what will gender become in the immediate future, and the answer is not necessarily a bad one. The world may be turning in on itself, but that is only so something new can take its place. It is clear that what Carter is writing is not an imagination of the future, but how she sees the present, and that the world has become the dystopia that we feared it would. But she leaves us in the heat of this massive upheaval, asking us where it will go from there, and this is probably the most telling thing about the novel.
Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
A Republican’s daydream? Atwood’s novel shows us everything the Feminist, and Civil Rights, movements are fighting against, and how it could all go horribly wrong if we don’t take enough care. The women are either battery farmed for children, live sheltered and hollow lives as wives, made to serve as domestic help, or sent to the desolate colonies to starve to death. It is one of the most argued over novels in modern society, and has been banned in several places for its viewpoint. Perhaps that is what places it as part of this legacy of dystopian novels, as both 1984 and Brave New World were banned for a time. The protagonist Offred is a very unaware pair of eyes in this world, but where the novels of the past spent a long time explaining how their worlds work, Atwood does not. She focuses on how it feels to be a woman in a society that intrinsically oppresses them, not really a far cry from our own world. It is also a very easy book to read, you will start and before you know it be 100 pages in, and you’ll look up, horrified, and a little frightened by what you’ve read.
Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2005)
So we find ourself in the twenty-first century, and now there is no longer a world to describe. McCarthy’s simplistic novel takes us across a desolate North America, in the wake of an unknown apocalyptic disaster. Society is gone, the very surface of the earth is scorched. The only two non-cannibals left around, a farther and son, are desperately trying to a find a means to survive, by walking the roads and searching for food. It is a very gruesome book, and the easy to read style makes the moments of gore hit home even harder. The novel shows us that the real end for humanity as we know will be our own extinction, and that we will turn on ourselves at the point of departure. At its end, it leaves you with a glimmer of hope, but how you choose to look at this may show you how pessimistic the world has become for you personally. There is no future in a world like this, and perhaps that is where the dystopian novel has left us, with nothing more to describe.
These novels show the path that literature, as well as western society, has taken in terms of how it sees the future. It began wholly optimistic that the world was always getting better, and progressed to a world with nothing left in it. We also see that although these novels are set in other worlds, they comment upon the problems and issues of the time they were written. The dystopia/utopia is a much wider literary field than described above, and reaches back as far as literature itself. And there are many more novels or texts that could be entered in. Are there any novels missing from this list that you feel should be essential to it? Leave any ideas in the comments below.
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