As you might know, I’m reading Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s dystopian novel, We. And I’m totally not going to finish it for a couple of weeks because I have Other Things going on. So I thought I’d give you a quick rundown on what is possibly my very favorite literary genre. (Read on if you’re wondering what a dystopian novel is. I’ll get to it eventually.)
What happened: In high school, I was assigned quite possibly the best known dystopian novel of all time. Ever. Yep, Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell. It remains one of my favorite novels, though I haven’t read it in several years (*adding it to my to-read list now). Written in 1948, takes place in 1984, this novel is a terrifying vision of what the world can be if the government becomes too powerful. You’ve heard of Big Brother. Here’s where he came from.
Second, for me, was Brave New World. It’s about a society in which people are conditioned from birth to think and behave in a certain way. The theory is that if every thought is conditioned, poverty, hunger, and crime will be wiped out. One of their tactics is to limit reproduction and, when a child is born, take him away from his parents to be conditioned by the government. And so on. Good novel.
There was also The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. Atwood is one of my very favorite authors. (She’s also active on Twitter!) The Handmaid’s Tale was the first book of hers that I read, and I was enthralled. Like Brave New World, this society is dealing with population problems, but on the other end of the spectrum: for some reason, most women have become infertile. Young women who can have children are forced to become handmaids – or, basically, concubines to rich men. Still one of my favorites. Lots of Atwood’s novels are dystopian. If you like The Handmaid’s Tale, check out Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood, both of which I read and reviewed last year. Then read everything else she’s written.
Several years ago, I read Ayn Rand’s Anthem, which is about a society in which even thought is supposed to be collective, and “I,” “me,” and “myself” are Unspeakable Words. I dislike Ayn Rand, so I’m not saying anything else. But Anthem is a dystopian novel that I’ve read.
And don’t forget Fahrenheit 451! A very special book for librarians everywhere. (See? Isn’t this genre exciting?!?) It’s about a society in which books are banned. Owning a book is a crime, and the government conducts regular and very public book burnings. Here’s another one I need to read again. There’s also a good movie version from the 1970s.
Wikipedia’s list of dystopian novels also includes Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which I’ve read and enjoyed, but I don’t think it fits into this category. Dude wakes up turned into a cockroach. His life becomes unpleasant. Things Happen. Not dystopian.
This one’s a short story: “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, in which everyone is supposed to be so equal that “normal” people are required to be handicapped in some way. People with above average intelligence have to wear headphones that make a high-pitched noise ever so often, interrupting any intelligent thought. TV anchormen have to have speech impediments, and so on. If dystopian lit sounds interesting to you, but you don’t want to make the novel commitment, “Harrison Bergeron” might be a good place to start.
And there are so many more! Here are some more that I’ve read and that I recommend. A few are juvenile novels, and I’ll mark them with a J. That shouldn’t keep you from reading them, though. They’re all great books no matter your age.
- A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
- The Children of Men – P.D. James
- The Giver – Lois Lowry (J)
- The City of Ember, The People of Sparks, and The Prophet of Yonwood – Jeanne DuPrau (J)
- Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell, my 2010 Book of the Year
- The Hunger Games trilogy – Suzanne Collins (J)
Do you see a pattern here? A dystopian novel is usually set in the future (sometimes in the very near future) and in a society that has gone horribly wrong. They usually involve totalitarian governments and/or a spent environment. Dystopia is the opposite of utopia, in which society functions perfectly, and everything is pleasant and beautiful and such. If you want to read about those, try Plato’s Republic or Thomas More’s Utopia. I generally find utopian novels a bit, well, boring, so I haven’t read any, I don’t think, except those two. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t!
Bonus: Here’s the iconic Apple Macintosh ad from 1984. It’s worth a watch!