Dystopian Fiction: What to Read after The Hunger Games
The Hunger Games, a trilogy of novels written by Suzanne Collins, has recently exploded in popularity in a similar style to Harry Potter and Twilight. The books’ unforgiving settings, intense characters and risky situations have kept readers on tenterhooks from the first page to the final chapter by immersing them in a dark alternate universe of life and death intensity. Living in a post-apocalyptic North America called Panem, narrator Katniss Everdeen is a young resident of District 12, one of twelve poor areas controlled by The Capitol, a powerful city full of rich, flamboyant individuals who live in wasteful luxury. Two 12-18 year old ‘tributes’ from each District, one female and one male, must participate in the yearly Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death. Katniss, in place of her younger sister, volunteers as tribute and is catapulted into the dangerous game. Her subsequent actions and discoveries threaten to tear apart the fabric of the Capitol’s regime at the sparkly seams.
The Hunger Games has many aspects found in dystopian literature, most prominently Collins’s decision to follow an oppressed protagonist, Katniss, who attempts to understand why the Districts are kept under control. She lacks important knowledge, particularly about Panem’s history, and the means to obtain it. Dystopian novels usually focus on an undesirable possible state of society and follow a character who attempts to fight it but doesn’t understand how to. If you have been gripped by The Hunger Games, or if you haven’t but are interested in its themes, here is a short, introductory list of dystopian works to explore…
6. Nineteen Eighty-Four
Perhaps the most famous dystopian novel of our time, Nineteen Eighty-Four was written by the English author George Orwell and published in 1949. The novel details the daily life of Winston Smith, a mild-mannered clerk who lives in a totalitarian state during the year 1984. By using the mysterious figurehead Big Brother, a simple image of a man, the governmental Party whose ideology is called IngSoc rules by causing ignorance and fear. For example one of their slogans reads, ‘War is Peace; Slavery is Freedom; Ignorance is Strength’. Winston, like Katniss, hardly knows what is true, even simple things like the date. Citizens are encouraged to routinely forget what they understand as real and adapt to a new truth; the reader learns about this with Winston’s job as a member of the Outer Party, which includes erasing pieces of history. The principal of ‘doublethink’, the ability to think of two contradictory ideas as true simultaneously, means that citizens are expected to believe whatever Big Brother wants them to. Disagreeing with the Party causes terrible consequences: as well as actions to the contrary, citizens are punished for ‘thoughtcrime’, which deems independent thinking as illegal. ‘Telescreens’, televisions that are constantly switched on, watch people and attempt to weed out thoughtcrime – The Hunger Games similarly uses media as a control. Winston, who experiences dissenting thoughts, desperately attempts to break out from this totalitarian state.
The legacy of Orwell’s novel is long-reaching and fascinating: many words from his sinister jargon language ‘Newspeak’ have been absorbed into the English language, for example ‘doublespeak’, ‘thoughtcrime’ and ‘unperson’ (a person who has been erased from existence). The novel has had many TV and film adaptations – notably one film that was released in the year 1984, featuring John Hurt as Winston – and has inspired musicians such as David Bowie, Radiohead, Rage Against the Machine, Nine Inch Nails and Muse. The recent film V for Vendetta (2005) includes similar themes and the TV shows Room 101, a comedy programme featuring celebrities arguing for what should be banned from real life and put into the fictional room, and Big Brother, a reality show filming people living in a house together, have been directly influenced by the novel. Still shocking and provocative, and alarmingly relevant to a society with increased levels of surveillance and technological advancement, Nineteen Eighty-Four is a must read.
5. Brave New World
Written by Aldous Huxley and published in 1931, Brave New World is an interesting predecessor to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell sent Huxley a copy of his dystopian novel and in a replying letter Huxley shares his opinion that ‘I feel that the nightmare of Nineteen Eighty-Four is destined to modulate into the nightmare of a world having more resemblance to that which I imagined in Brave New World.’ Huxley’s dystopian vision centres on genetic engineering and psychological conditioning. Brave New World’s society is organized into five castes: Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Gammas and Epsilons. Alphas are the intellectual and physical elite, whereas the lowly Epsilons are artificially made to be mentally deficient and only strong enough to perform jobs such as street sweeping, so that they don’t attempt to rise above their station. Natural sexual reproduction has been done away with – it’s even seen as disgusting, though sex itself is a fun, social activity – and instead everybody is developed in vitro and exposed to conditions that cause desired characteristics. Psychological conditioning also acts as a governmental control: for example the reader sees how young children are made to fear beautiful things like art.
The novel follows multiple characters, including Bernard Marx, an Alpha who is ridiculed for his short stature and social awkwardness. Lenina Crowne is a beautiful female beta who tries to subdue her emotions with soma – a synthetic drug that causes happiness with no side effects. John the Savage is the child of a Beta called Linda who gave birth to him naturally; because natural childbirth is illegal she was shunned from society and lived instead on the Reservation. John is a moral, though naïve, man who quickly becomes dissatisfied with a life of meaninglessness in the city, or the ‘Brave New World’. These characters all struggle with the doctrine of the city, which includes worshipping industrialist Henry Ford as a deity and heartily consuming without moral obligation, but at points they find themselves torn between rejecting the city or sinking into its easy, soma-riddled way of living. The reader is left with the same issue: is moral reasoning and the pain associated worth it when one can live in meaningless bliss?
4. The Handmaid’s Tale
Canadian author Margaret Atwood’s sixth novel, published in 1985, explores a dystopian future where women, more specifically, become completely powerless in Gilead, formerly the United States of America, a country ruled by a government with an extremely fundamental Christian ideology. The novel focuses on the experiences and memories of a young woman called Offred who is a handmaid, in other words a woman who is a concubine to a powerful male. Women have lost all autonomy: their original names have been replaced, they are blamed for widespread infertility problems, they are banned from reading and they are considered intellectually inferior.
Both genders are subject to hierarchy, with male Commanders of the Faithful ruling at the top. Commanders are permitted to have a Wife, Daughters, servants called Marthas and a Handmaid. Offred is trapped in this hierarchal society, forced to have sex with her Commander whilst laying on top of his resentful Wife Serena Joy, and spends most of her time languishing in her room, remembering her real husband and daughter, or going shopping with another handmaid called Ofglen. When she hears about a secret insurrectionist group, Offred is plunged into a tempting danger as she fantasises about gaining her freedom. This novel is sometimes harrowing, but also captivating as a feminist perspective on dystopia, set in a world where women, as well as men, lose the freedom they have gained over centuries in most of the world as we know it.
3. Noughts and Crosses
Malorie Blackman, currently British Children’s Laureate, uses a dystopian setting in her Noughts and Crosses series to explore how racism can infiltrate society. The books are aimed at young adults – and were this reviewer’s first notable experience with dystopian literature – however there is something here for anybody interested in ideas with complex social consequences. The first book follows Persephone ‘Sephy’ Hadley, a dark-skinned Cross, and Callum McGregor, a pale-skinned Nought, who grew up together because Callum’s mother Meggie was employed by the Hadley family. Crosses are seen as superior and Noughts as inferior – Noughts are no longer slaves but the two skin colours are segregated. When Meggie is fired Callum and Sephy stay friends in secret, but find it difficult to remain so in a world striving to keep Crosses and Noughts apart; when Callum becomes one of the first white students at Sephy’s highschool even more tensions arise, though the two do become closer, particularly when Callum’s family experiences hardships.
As the plot unfolds, into a novella and then four subsequent novels, the lives of Sephy, Callum and their families are endangered by the terrorist Nought group Liberation Militia, the Cross-biased government and society’s perceptions about skin colour. There are obvious parallels between racism in the books and in real life, particularly reflecting viewpoints in 1960s America when many events, including the first black students entering certain schools, took place. Even little details, such as dark skin-colour plasters and ‘Crossmas’ instead of Christmas, make the reader think about racism in our world. Blackman’s changes to history, including the idea that the supercontinent Pangaea, calculated to exist 200-300 million years ago, never separated so Africa is put at a geographical advantage – shows how arbitrary it was that white Europeans became advanced in some ways and decided that they were a superior people, and therefore how damaging and distressing racism is in all parts of life.
2. The Day of the Triffids
Not all dystopian novels are about humans ruining their own world – sometimes extra-terrestrials like to get in on the action too. There are many novels about alien species putting the human race in peril, a different famous example being War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells, but The Day of the Triffids, written by John Wyndham and published in 1951, really stands out as a brilliant example of this dystopian subgenre. Disaster strikes the world as those who watch a dazzling green meteor shower all become completely blind… and easy prey to the giant, violent plants called triffids that begin to take over as a superior race of predators. A pre-meteor accident involving triffid venom, that causes his head to be bandaged, turns out to be lucky for protagonist Bill Mason, one of the few people who can still see. Mason steps out of a mostly abandoned hospital into a London rapidly changed, normal society having collapsed due to the collective blindness and growing threat of large, walking plants with venomous stingers. He, alongside a sighted woman he finds called Josella, must navigate his way through the dangerous city, avoiding triffids and the desperate blind inhabitants alike.
The plot is fairly simple in nature, but Wyndham’s style of writing builds up the triffids from vaguely laughable giant plants into terrifying, monstrous entities capable of intelligence and seemingly telepathic communication – they have distinct advantages over the suffering human population. The Day of the Triffids has been popular over the years, inspiring radio dramas, films, TV series (including a hilarious 1981 BBC production), a Marvel comic and even a sequel novel, set 25 years after the original, called Night of the Triffids. The novel perhaps doesn’t ask as many questions about the state of human society as say Brave New World or The Handmaid’s Tale, but the human reactions to the triffids and one another in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event certainly make for an interesting read.
1. A Clockwork Orange
This stylish, chilling, kick-in-the-face of a novel, written by Anthony Burgess and published in 1962, follows an alternate state of society where youth culture, crime and violence rule over a struggling justice system. The anti-hero narrator, Alex, is a teenager who likes nothing better than stealing, raping and murdering with his gang of mates or ‘droogs.’ One of the most enjoyable, and occasionally confusing, parts of the novel is the anti-language used, called ‘Nadsat’, which takes elements of Russian, cockney rhyming slang, baby talk, English vernacular and Biblical speech and mixes them together into a bizarre reading experience. ‘Nadsat’ reflects a spoken vernacular specifically to do with a sub-culture of teenagers; at first the words, such as ‘chelloveck’ meaning fellow, ‘horrorshow’ meaning cool and ‘viddy’ meaning to look, appear strange but soon the reader begins to understand the anti-language, at least syntactically, as they become immersed into Alex’s perspective.
The novel focuses on Alex’s horrendous criminal exploits – he rapes a disabled man’s wife and beats an old woman to death with a ceramic phallus, and also shows an inherent lack of remorse. Once imprisoned, he is selected to be conditioned so that his violent tendencies will stop. Scientists inject him with a substance that makes him feel nauseous and then force him to watch violent videos, forging the connection between violence and nausea in an example of classical conditioning, similar to the practices on children in Brave New World. Alex re-enters the world rehabilitated, but completely unable to protect himself from vengeful enemies and ex-droogs. The novel prompts questions about society, and the criminal justice system in particular: are those who go to prison in need of punishment, or treatment? Is conditioning an immoral process, or is taking away aspects of freewill always countable as immoral if we are already helplessly conditioned genetically and environmentally? As with many dystopian novels, despite being set in a different possible world, A Clockwork Orange appeals to readers because it covers issues that are arising, or may arise, in the real world.
This article has only carved a small dent into the extensive genre of dystopia, but hopefully these recommended novels will help those wondering where to start with dystopia, or as a nostalgia trip for those who have already turned the pages and discovered the intriguing worlds within.
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