I was at the ripe age of 15 when I read my first dystopian story, Animal Farm by George Orwell. I doubt I fully grasped all the hidden meanings at the time, but I thoroughly enjoyed the book nevertheless. Since then I’ve gone through many of the great classics, and dystopian fiction is one of my all time favourite genres. There’s just something about the way these stories draw me in with their familiarity but the same time terrify me with the unknown, the possible, the could be that I find absolutely fascinating.
But what exactly is dystopian fiction? Part of speculative fiction, dystopia plays on the “what if” of things we know now as normal. It takes place in an undesirable future society, controlled by strict rules based on a new world order, plagued with violence, chaos, brainwashing, and other unpleasant elements. It plays on our fears of what our society might become. Totalitarianism and the fight against the oppressive government is an often used theme.
If you are a fan of classics, or just love a good old fashioned dystopian story, you might want to give these babies a try… or a re-read.
1984 by George Orwell
Because no dystopian reading list could ever be complete without this book. Thought Police, Newspeak, and Doublethink are only a small fraction of all the horrors going on in this masterfully written, frightening story.
Winston Smith wrestles with oppression in Oceania, a place where the Party scrutinizes human actions with ever-watchful Big Brother. Defying a ban on individuality, Winston dares to express his thoughts in a diary — an act punishable by death – and pursues a relationship with Julia.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I’d love to say that the way women are treated in this story is entirely made up and unimaginable, but even now, in the 21st century we can’t just sit back and declare that double standards and gender discrimination doesn’t exist anymore. Written in 1985, this book is still important today.
In the Republic of Gilead, we see a world devastated by toxic chemicals and nuclear fallout and dominated by a repressive Christian fundamentalism. The birthrate has plunged, and most women can no longer bear children. Offred is one of Gilead’s Handmaids, who as official breeders are among the chosen few who can still become pregnant.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
More things, less feels!
Written in the shadow of the rise of fascism during the 1930s, Brave New World likewise speaks to a 21st-century world dominated by mass-entertainment, technology, medicine and pharmaceuticals, the arts of persuasion, and the hidden influence of elites.
Brave New World is a searching vision of an unequal, technologically-advanced future where humans are genetically bred, socially indoctrinated, and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively uphold an authoritarian ruling order–all at the cost of our freedom, full humanity, and perhaps also our souls.
High-Rise by G.J. Ballard
Basically Lord of the Flies with grown-ups.
In his novel, published in 1975, G.J. Ballard explores the ways in which modern social and technological landscapes could alter the human psyche.
Within the walls of a high-tech forty-storey high-rise, the residents are hell-bent on an orgy of sex and destruction, answering to primal urges that their utopian surroundings can’t satisfy. The high-rise is a would-be paradise turned dystopia, ruled by intimidation and violence, and, as the residents organize themselves for war, floor against floor, no one wants it to stop …
Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Can you imagine a future where books are banned? This blog, and other bookish blogs would be non-existent.
Guy Montag is a fireman. In his world, where television rules and literature is on the brink of extinction, firemen start fires rather than put them out. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden.
Montag never questions the destruction and ruin his actions produce, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television ‘family’. But then he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people did not live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Can we say, with absolute certainty, that fascists are a thing of the past and what’s depicted in Philip K. Dick’s classic can never happen to us?
Set in 1962, fifteen years after an alternative ending to World War II, the novel concerns intrigues between the victorious Axis Powers — primarily, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany — as they rule over the former United States, as well as daily life under the resulting totalitarian rule.
It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
Given enough power, even the best of us could turn into assholes.
Mr. Jones of Manor Farm is so lazy and drunken that one day he forgets to feed his livestock. The ensuing rebellion under the leadership of the pigs Napoleon and Snowball leads to the animals taking over the farm. Vowing to eliminate the terrible inequities of the farmyard, the renamed Animal Farm is organized to benefit all who walk on four legs. But as time passes, the ideals of the rebellion are corrupted, then forgotten. And something new and unexpected emerges…
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Technology is good! Or is it?
After a nuclear World War III has destroyed most of the globe, the few remaining survivors in southern Australia await the radioactive cloud that is heading their way and bringing certain death to everyone in its path. Among them is an American submarine captain struggling to resist the knowledge that his wife and children in the United States must be dead. Then a faint Morse code signal is picked up, transmitting from somewhere near Seattle, and Captain Towers must lead his submarine crew on a bleak tour of the ruined world in a desperate search for signs of life. On the Beach is a remarkably convincing portrait of how ordinary people might face the most unimaginable nightmare.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
When being different has dire consequences…
David Storm’s father doesn’t approve of Angus Morton’s unusually large horses, calling them blasphemies against nature. Little does he realise that his own son, and his son’s cousin Rosalind and their friends, have their own secret aberration which would label them as mutants. But as David and Rosalind grow older it becomes more difficult to conceal their differences from the village elders. Soon they face a choice: wait for eventual discovery, or flee to the terrifying and mutable Badlands…..
This is a post-nuclear apocalypse story of genetic mutation in a devastated world and explores the lengths the intolerant will go to to keep themselves pure.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Ultra-violence and objectionable language. Need I say more?
In Anthony Burgess’s nightmare vision of the future, where criminals take over after dark, the story is told by the central character, Alex, who talks in a brutal invented slang that brilliantly renders his and his friends’ social pathology.
A Clockwork Orange is a frightening fable about good and evil, and the meaning of human freedom. When the state undertakes to reform Alex—to “redeem” him—the novel asks, “At what cost?”
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Can you say, we are free? Or are we slaves without even realizing? Pretend lives on social media, consumerism, constant need for validation… Sounds familiar?
WE tells the story of the minutely organized United State, where all citizens are not individuals but only he-Numbers and she-Numbers existing in identical glass apartments with every action regulated by the “Table of Hours.” It is a community dedicated to the proposition that freedom and happiness are incompatible; that most men believe their freedom to be more than a fair exchange for a high level of materialistic happiness.
Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
Overpopulation: stuff of nightmare fiction, or impending reality?
A gangster is murdered during a blistering Manhattan heat wave. City cop Andy Rusch is under pressure solve the crime and captivated by the victim’s beautiful girlfriend. But it is difficult to catch a killer, let alone get the girl, in crazy streets crammed full of people. The planet’s population has exploded. The 35 million inhabitants of New York City run their TVs off pedal power, riot for water, loot and trample for lentil ‘steaks’ and are controlled by sinister barbed wire dropped from the sky.
Written in 1966 and set in 1999, Make Room! Make Room! is a witty and unnerving story about stretching the earth’s resources, and the human spirit, to breaking point.
Have you read any of these? Which one is your favourite?