MIND MELD: What’s Your Favorite Literary Dystopia?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Jason Sizemore suggested a Mind meld topic on Dystopias. Wikipedia defines Dystopia as “an often futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian” – an idea that if often leveraged in science fiction. So what are some of the best ones to read? We asked Jason and this week’s other panelists:
Here’s what they said…
Feed by M.T. Anderson. Genius, and devastating. It’s classified YA, but that’s only because it’s too smart and too on target to be sold as an adult novel. Most of the other contemporary stuff that gets classed as dystopia doesn’t really pass the sniff test.
Of course, there are always the old standards. Zamiatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, Brave New World. Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale. Can’t go wrong with those. I like LeGuin’s The Disposessed, because of her nuanced view of two societies. It sort of rides the intelligent line between utopia and dystopia.
My favorite dystopias are post-apocalyptic. There’s something uniquely moving about a played-out world that has come to its end. Far more frightening than zombie invasions are stories like John W. Campbell’s scenarios of future exhaustion and depletion – or like M. P. Shiel’s novel The Purple Cloud, which chills not through cheap scares and scenes of battle, but through relentless loneliness, as a man wanders through a landscape empty of the living, drunk on the power of his own princely solitude. (And perhaps most frightening of all is the idea that the final man alive might be as much of a whack-job as M. P. Shiel himself.)
So let me make three suggestions of series about the end of the Earth – all three placed so far in the future that there’s almost no hint of the history we know.
The first and best-known is Gene Wolfe’s four-volume Book of the New Sun, a masterpiece of post-apocalyptica that depicts a dying Earth so alien we often, as readers, can’t make heads or tails of it. The books are narrated by a professional torturer who conceals as much as he reveals as he processes through the cities, forests, and mountains of what may once have been South America. We, squinting forward through time, cannot make out the future with perfect clarity. That age is mediated through this swordsman who hides various secrets from us, and who often doesn’t understand what’s going on around him at first anyway. In the end, the books remain obdurate, hinting at things we can’t ever know.
Very different, but just as beautifully written, are Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books. Like The Book of the New Sun or Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories, they depict a future Earth so changed that it’s essentially the landscape of fantasy, rather than sci-fi. But unlike those stories, there’s a tongue-in-cheek turn to the narration here. Two of the four books involve Cugel, a ne’er-do-well bastard low on morals and out of luck. He wanders through a fascinating countryside of weird rituals and odd customs, trying to screw everybody out of something … and yet somehow usually coming out on the bottom. The formal language is what makes this post-apocalyptic picaresque truly delightful. It’s impossible to flip open to a random page of these books without finding a great sentence. Here we go: “His worms appear sound.” Or: “Most odd! We must bring Weamish down from the roof, and at once.” Or: “At this moment, my wants are simple: an alcove, a couch, a morsel of food for my supper. If I am provided with these, you will find me benevolence personified; indeed I will assist you in your pleasures; together we will contrive stratagems to bait the ghoul.”
And so on.
Finally, I’ll mention Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles, about a ravaged Earth where cities rumble about on giant treads, eating each other – which they call Municipal Darwinism. Reeve’s clever plotting and his willingness to let characters die (upping the stakes) make these books a thrilling read.
For their ingenuity in thinking through unthinkable future societies, these are the books I’d recommend for those who are trying to decide whether it will all end with a bang or a whimper.
This question caused me quite a bit of difficulty at first, because every time I’d think of a literary dystopia that I loved, I’d realize that it wasn’t technically a dystopia, it was just a bummer. But just as I was about to give up and hit Google, my brain finally spat out a genuine dystopia that wasn’t either 1984 or Brave New World. No, my favorite literary dystopia is the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut.
I think I was maybe 10 years old when I read it for the first time, and just beginning my multi-year love affair with Vonnegut’s work (accompanied by the traditional experimentation with atheism, which in my case, became a way of life). As both a feminist and an American, I’d had the notion of equality preached to me on a near-constant basis from birth, but it was this story that clarified for me that “equal rights” and “equal” were two entirely different concepts that should never be confused. Mind you, there were plenty of junior high bullies who I would have loved to see weighed down with chains, but probably not at the expense of having loud noise blasted in my ear on a semi-regular basis while I was trying to read Childhood’s End.
I have no idea if the story would have been so powerful to me if I’d read it for the first time in high school, or in college, or yesterday, but it sure as hell blew the lid off of my 10-year-old head. I don’t think any other dystopia that I’ve encountered since has been quite so profoundly educational. And yes, I’m looking at you, 1984 and Brave New World.
There are so many phenomenal dystopias but one of my favorites has to be George Orwell’s 1984. It’s just such an iconic world that’s seeped into so many aspects of our everyday life — there’s even a reality show based off of it! I think one of the aspects so compelling about 1984 is how smooth the slippery slope to that world seems and how easy it is to imagine going down that path. Already we have the technology (I can’t be the only one who stares sideways at the xBox Kinect as I scuttle through the room in PJ’s).
This is a tricky one. You don’t want to mention a famous title that someone else will mention (Fahrenheit 451)–then you’ll just seem unoriginal. But if you get really obscure and trot out something less well known (The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy), you’ll just seem pretentious. You could tackle the question by demonstrating the depth of your reading experience by listing all the great dystopian novels you’ve read, from the dystopian-flavored literary novels of Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22 to more recent novels like Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl. You could go populist and pick one from film–say, Gattaca. Plenty of movies made about dystopias–possibly more of that type of science fiction makes the screen than any other. And that’s not even thinking about comics, which are chock-full of dystopian ideas (V for Vendetta).
So my options are unoriginal, pretentious, show-off, populist, or comic fanboy? I don’t think I will stoop so low as to associate myself with any of that, thank you very much. I’m a zigger, not a zagger, you follow? No, my example’s going to be a video game!
The world of City 17 in Valve’s Half-Life 2 is one of the most vivid dystopias for me. The game begins with you taking control of the franchise protagonist, Gordon Freeman. You are on a train arriving in a strange European-looking place called City 17. When you arrive at the station, a run-down, grimy building full of litter, you see strange guards wearing creepy gas masks everywhere. Strange robots fly through the air and take pictures of you for unknown purposes. As you walk around and talk to people, you hear disturbing hints that this is not a nice place to live. A strange man in a doctor’s white coat talks from screens mounted on walls drones on and on about something also ominous. It builds this oppressive atmosphere slowly. Rather than sending you in guns blazing, you start the game as an immigrant to the city with no weapons.
There is a moment early in the game when you come to a gate where a guard throws a pop can on the ground and instructs you to pick it up. This serves as a way to teach you a bit about the interface, but it also sets the atmosphere even further. You may be tempted to throw the can at the guard as a weapon, or refuse. If you do, he ignites his stun baton and proceeds to beat the crap out of you. As you recover, he laughs and tells you to get lost. You have no weapon with which to strike him. You’re left feeling hopeless.
This moment is so memorable for gamers that YouTube is full of cathartic videos of gamers modifying the game so that they can kill the guard instead of obeying. Hundreds of them! One of the ones I just looked at was set to scat music.
The internet is a weird place.
So, random beatings, armed checkpoints, Dear Leader’s voice echoing all around you? This is heavy stuff. So, I’d say that City 17 is my favorite dystopia–because I felt like I lived it. Of course, none of that could ever happen here.
Now if you’ll excuse me, my flight is boarding soon and the lines for the nude-ray machines aren’t getting any shorter.
I have two: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (the new edition from Haikasoru is very pretty). I like Zamyatin’s book because it is such a wonderful blueprint for a dystopian novel: from numbers as names to love as a liberating force; it is however a true dystopia in that the protagonist does not survive the experience, even though the order of the totalitarian state is threatened at the end (although not overturned.) Moreover, Zamyatin wrote from the point of view of someone who had lived under an oppressive regime, unlike many Western writers who imagine how outrageous it would’ve been to do so.
Takami’s book is also refreshing because it is brutal and written simply, and, unlike its imitators, it is rather matter of fact about children fighting each other to the death. With dystopias, it is a common tendency to descend into tedious moralizing, when the author seems to constantly nudge the reader with “Isn’t it AWFUL?” In that sense, Battle Royale succeeds; it also does the minimum of set up for the battle itself, and the alternate history is barely sketched — again, neatly bypassing any political treatises.
Because ultimately, dystopias are about people maintaining (or trying to maintain, or regaining) their humanity under inhumane conditions, and they succeed when we care enough about the outcomes of these personal struggles. On the other hand, unsuccessful dystopias are the hand-wringing cautionary tales about what happens when [insert author's least favorite political entity] gains control and will someone please think of the children.
I hate to go old school and obvious on you here, but I’m going to have to go with either Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury or 1984 by George Orwell. Although both books are more than five decades old, they hold up remarkably well and are gripping reads. I think the greatest disservice one can do these books, however, is to assign them in English class; I don’t know about you, but every book that I was ever forced to read-and thus was considered Good For You-automatically became a drag. That actually happened to me with Fahrenheit 451, and when I read it in school (probably 8th or 9thgrade), I didn’t like it, probably because the teacher had me hunting around for trivia in each chapter to answer the stupid study questions. (How’s that for a dystopia: a world where oppressive rulers take all the joy out of reading!) Luckily, I later decided to give F451 another shot and devoured it in a single sitting.
In a cage match between F451 and 1984, I’d have to give the edge to 1984, mainly, I’d say because it’s a more complete dystopia, and also the ending is both astonishing and yet somehow also inevitable. Both are amazing works, though, and easily in the top ten of my favorite works of fiction of all time.
Normally, I’d also mention some short stories when asked a question like this, but since I just edited an anthology of dystopian fiction – Brave New Worlds – I think that can answer the question for me. The book contains 33 of the finest examples of dystopian short fiction, and also has a “for further reading” appendix where you can find other examples of dystopian literature.
Asking for a single favorite dystopian novel is a tricky thing. But if I have to choose only one, I would have to say A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It is a story that froze my blood both as a reader and as a woman. I heard Atwood say on “Bill Moyers’ on Faith and Reason” that there is nothing in this book that has not actually happened somewhere in the world. And it does feel real, from the hypocrisy of the religious fundamentalist society to the control of women for their fertility, or lack thereof. It is must reading for any young woman.
I suppose I choose A Handmaid’s Tale over many others because it is one of the first speculative books that I’ve read where I felt forever changed after reading it. It made me think about the future in a different way. It is a book of ideas and politics, a book of warnings. This is how quickly your freedoms can go: someone somewhere reads that ‘F’ for female on your financial accounts (or whatever letter that the shameful society decides to discriminate against), flips a switch, and there goes your money-there goes your ability to make choices about what you buy, where you live, whether you stay or go. It is that dangerous to be unaware of what is going on around you. It can happen that quick in a state that has been pushed over the edge. Bam! You are a non-person. It’s that easy.
The story is about a woman whose world slowly closes in on her as a Bible reading religious group takes over America. Atwood never calls them the religious right but it is very easy to jump to that conclusion. One day the protagonist is a educated middle class woman with a job and family and the next she is running to get out of the country to Canada. She is caught and sent to a re-education center where she is trained to be a Handmaid, a woman who breeds children for childless wives.
And about half way through the book-to my horror-I began to recognize the setting of the book. It was my hometown of Cambridge, MA! The area where the main character shops is Harvard Square, the re-education center is Memorial Hall, the yard where the executions occur is Harvard Yard, and the wall where traitors are hung is right outside Harvard Yard where I used to wait for the bus to go home after school almost everyday.
Another thing that I noticed in the novel was that the men seemed so isolated. Even though the world of this book was clearly established for their benefit, the men seemed lonely and in deep need of female companionship. They have lulled themselves into believing that sex and food is all that women can provide. But in this situation, they find that it is a woman’s mind that they miss the most. It is not surprising that “the commander” calls the main character down to meet him secretly, not for sex-he is already getting that-but to play scrabble with her.
Margaret Atwood is so astute to remind us that men need women for our intellect as well as our bodies. Without women this is a very cold uncertain world. It is hard for some men to admit that it is these intangibles that they desire from women. It is a crass society that reduces women to mere flesh.
I have three that may not make anybody else’s list. Partially because I haven’t read some of the most popular options (I probably watched the movie instead — heresy, I know), and partially because others will likely have the popular options on their own lists.
At the root of the dystopian setting, nestled deep in the rotting soil, a diseased paranoia waits – an uneasy feeling that something lurks below the surface. The writer’s imagination becomes an isolationist’s nightmare and the characters get tossed in with no remorse. All three of my selections deal with that in one way or another.
First, I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson (I actually read the book this time around). The thing I loved about I Am Legend was how it portrayed a man surrounded by a world that had been turned upside down. As the walls of loneliness close in around him, he searches desperately for answers. But the more he searches, the less he seems to understand his new reality. Then, in the end, it’s not the world around him that’s strange and dangerous, it’s him. He’s the anomaly. He’s the demon. The supposed “dystopian environment” is turned on its head. Now, it’s not the world that’s dangerous, it’s the main character.
Second, The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. More than anything, this book showcases what’s it’s like to be yanked from everyday society and then replanted hundreds of years in the future. Discombobulated and removed from an ever-changing world, the main character struggles to retain some semblance of normalcy. The power of this book lies in Haldeman’s ability to take his own experience in Vietnam and interpret that in a science fiction context. It’s a powerful novel in that regards, and feels very real.
Finally, I’d put Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (haven’t even seen the movie, and honestly have no desire to) on the list as well. A dangerous, environmentally ravaged world, a powerful connection between father and son, and safety found only in a relationship that is bound to end, The Road puts the reader on path that will end with only memories. And those memories are what tie the “used to be” world with the new reality. A longing for what was utopia as the dystopian environment closes in.
All these novels follow characters struggling to deal with a changing world where masked and unmasked dangers abound. They’re not all traditional sci-fi, but they flirt with it, and all of them have strong characters. And all of them seem to hint that the world as we know it, despite all its flaws, is still better than it could be. And I guess that’s the question the writers and readers are asking: “what would we do if…” All these books have compelling answers.
One man’s dystopia is another man’s paradise. One of the clearest examples of this is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed although the subtitle is “An Ambiguous Utopia.” What is striking about the novel is that she shows two contrasting societies, Anarres and Urras, which could both lay claim to being a Utopia or a Dystopia. They have deeply contrasting values.
Anarres is an anarchic society with no central government and is run by cooperative effort. It’s also on a resource-poor world so there are constant privations. The political philosophy of the planet is that everyone shares equally.
Urras is more like our own world, with many different governments although the one we spend the most time in is capitalist, like the United States. It’s a resource-rich world but the wealth is split very unevenly. Depending on where you are in the class structure, it can either be a world of leisure or one of toil.
The thing that strikes me when reading the book is that in both worlds, bureaucracy evolves to maintain the power structure. Even on Anarres, inertia develops so that the supposedly anarchic governing structure is more concerned with maintaining things as they are than in following the ideals which created the structure. As a result it winds up doing things which are directly counter to the utopian ideals which founded the society.
Although Le Guin is describing ambiguous utopias, she could as easily be describing proto-dystopias
For me the most frightening Dystopia, in the sense the term is being used here, is that presented in The Sound of His Horn, a wonderful novel by Sarban. The reason this book works so well is firstly because he was a fine, restrained writer and understood as much what not to say as what to say. He doesn’t labor it with unnecessary details, but tells a simple fast-paced tale. The second is that the world he paints is not very far different from our own. It is a world that would have been had the Nazi’s won the Second World War. When the horrible Count von Hackelnberg puts the horn to his mouth and blows, the goose bumps rise on your skin, because the hunt is on, and you are the hunted. Published in 1952, I’d say this novel would hold its own against just about anything being written today.
I’d also like to break a little from the definition being cited, and mention one Dystopia from the ancient past rather than the future. This is from The Creation of the Gods. It’s a long, somewhat rambling Ming Dynasty novel by Xu Zhonglin that most people probably haven’t read. Though loosely based on history, it fully qualifies as a fantasy novel. Emperor Xin of Shang’s greed, lust and utter ruthlessness turn his kingdom into one of the last places you’d ever want to live. He floats about on a lake of wine, eating from a forest of meat, while watching his citizens cooked alive on a giant bronze pillar specially invented by his concubine.
The origins of science fiction Dystopias certainly are rooted in the past, whether it be Nazi Germany, or ancient China. I suspect there is little we could invent that could compete with the horror people have, at one time or another, already lived.
In terms of literary dystopias, I would have to say Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I wasn’t sure if Never Let Me Go would count as dystopian because its world is not terribly different from our own, but Wikipedia assures me that it is. That’s what stands out for me: it’s chillingly close to a mundane world save for the people who are stashed away as spare parts. Dystopian works are usually intended as cautionary tales reflecting current society; with Never Let Me Go you barely have to squint to see the present. The dystopian elements aren’t created by some evil dictator; in fact Ishiguro doesn’t depict any characters who could be seen as the “bad guys”. The evil that creates this dystopia is disturbingly banal.
The other aspect of Never Let Me Go that stood out to me was understated nature of the “donors'” suffering. Because their life is the only one they’ve known, they don’t react the way someone who wasn’t born to be a “donor” would. They don’t understand just how horrible their world is, and especially their place in it, and witnessing that from the outside is unsettling.
NLMG is one of those novels that crept up on me; I didn’t realize how disturbed I was until I thought back on it months after finishing.
My all-time favorite dystopian story is Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” It was an unassigned story in the back of my 12th-grade Literature textbook. God, that class bored me to tears. See, there wasn’t an Honors program for 12th grade English in my high school; your choices were either AP or College-Prep. I already had an AP courseload full enough to exempt my first year of college (which I did), so they stuck me in “regular” English. To add insult to injury, Mrs. Smith assigned me to a seat in the very front row, so I couldn’t spend the entire hour doing my Calculus homework, as I’d planned.
In retaliation, I became an overachiever. Every poem we were assigned to do I turned in at no less than four pages long. Every time she gave the class a pop quiz and then left the room for a smoke break, I happily shared the correct answers with my classmates. I was accused of plagiarism on my Chaucer essay because no 16-year-old had any business knowing the word “microcosm.” I read all the stories and poems in the book not assigned to us, including Eliot and Poe and Dahl…and Bradbury, whose story spoke to me on a myriad of levels. Here I was, a Harrison myself, rising above a sea of “regular” people, bucking the system and introducing chaos to my high school’s imagined utopia of the here-and-now. I was an overachieving smart-ass actress who sat in the front row and gave everybody the answers. But I would not remember these people, and they would not remember me when I left. I would just be a strange memory, changed to another channel.
I still have that textbook. It’s the only thing in my life I ever stole.
My favorite dystopian novel has to be Lord of the Flies by William Golding. It’s a brutal novel that centers around a group of British school children lost on a deserted island. As a youth, it spoke to me via its deconstruction of the harsh class system that kids seem unable to avoid. I couldn’t help but empathize with Piggy and his struggles due to personal bias. During my adult years, I’ve grown to appreciate Golding’s portrayal of the dangers of ‘group think’ and the expectations often placed on culture based on the perception of those with power. It is unfortunate that the book seems to become more accurate with each passing year.
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