I have never been one of those readers who prefers a particular genre. I’ve read such a variety of works since I was young, and to be honest I can’t think of one that I could call my absolute favourite. However, in recent years I would have to say that dystopian fiction has stolen my heart.
I first read Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, followed very quickly after by George Orwell’s 1984, and both evoked in me a profound excitement simply because they offered a view of worlds I found both horrifying and intriguing. Reading about disaster can be cathartic for many human beings, in much the same way as Aristotle claimed that watching tragedies did. We all enjoy the thrill, while knowing that our world is still safe, what we witnessed or read isn’t real.
I’ve personally always liked to think of the dystopian genre as a very effective vehicle to provide society with a warning now and again. This is the way things could be if we continue down a certain path. The genre basically provides authors with a chance to critique the world around them and say, if we don’t watch out, if we don’t think about how we are building our society, things could go horribly wrong.
And with the US election about to take place just one week from today, the dystopian genre may begin to appeal to even more readers than before. Without getting too political, it is likely clear to most people that if one particular candidate wins, we could be in for a rude awakening. Trump’s outright claims that free speech and the media are preventing not only a fair election, but a U.S. success in the war on terror, leaves many feeling as if 1984 is going to be knocking on their door. And with his viewpoints on women’s rights, including the legalization of abortion, even the Handmaids Tale starts to ring some alarm bells.
So even though I don’t live in the United States, I figured I should leave people armed with some dystopian fiction to make it through this nail biter of a week before the final election results come through. Here is my top 10 list of dystopian novels for you to peruse through, and hopefully READ!
By far one of my favourite books even beyond the dystopian genre, Emily St. John Mandel does a superb job of combining the notion of a very real threat, with a post-apocalyptic world order from a Canadian perspective. The story begins in present day Toronto and follows a multitude of characters who are caught in the midst of a terrible flu epidemic, a respiratory virus unlike anything we have seen before, and one that kills any one infected within 40 minutes. Those that survive are left to rebuild a world, and the one thing that seems to survive above all else, is literature and strangely Shakespearean theatre. A must read.
Atwood is definitely one of my favourite dystopian authors, and in her most recent novel, she considers what the world would be like once machines eradicate the majority of our jobs before our governments decide how to prevent economic collapse as a result of this. One of the solutions explored in the book is centred around the prison system, how would we feel if we all had to be in a prison every other week of our lives, working and being productive but only while a prisoner? Explorations of marital relationships, and relationships in general are also explored, with the classic feminist twist that many Atwood fans know and love.
Now if there ever was a book that foreshadowed a Trump win, it is this one. Readers are first introduced to the main character of Kelsey, in a world very similar to a Game of Thrones medieval society. However as the story progresses we learn that Kelsey is living in a world parallel to one we are much more familiar with. This world has recently elected a man who wanted the world to be as it once was in the 50’s and 60’s. Women are no longer able have bank accounts or own property, birth control is a thing of the past, and the poor live basically on the streets. Activist groups seek out a parallel world to escape from this madness, but it looks like the one they ended up in, Kelsey’s is in trouble all on its own.
Really and truly fabulous references to current pop culture and books! Like “The seven volumes of Rowling.” Wonder what that one’s about 🙂
Another great Trump esque story, where a dominant Christian theocracy has become the ruling party of the United States now known as the Republic of Gilead. Women of child bearing age are reared to be hand maidens, basically producers of children since the birth rate dropped so low, thanks to you know the education of women, and feminism, and birth control. So these hand maidens are required to serve a master if you will that is obviously male and sometimes his infertile wife. Perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the novel is that the main character Offred has not forgotten what life used to be like before this new republic, where she had a job and a daughter and a husband. If it can happen to Offred, it can happen to anyone. The Handmaid’s Tale is going to be a CBC series starting soon, dystopian fiction in the flesh!
I recently came across this book after hunting for some new dystopian reads and even selected it for my book club, which was fitting since in this world that Bradbury has created, books are the enemy and because of this they are burned. Following the story of firefighter Guy Montag, we learn of an American society that has come to despise the written word, books in particular are banned, and firefighters like Guy are meant to destroy them in favour of holographic television like images that appear routinely on the walls of Guy’s home. Books we learn are sometimes hidden, but if found there is no mercy, for house or life inside the home. Guy is different though, he is starting to see that this numbness, this emptiness he feels is wrong and maybe books are the way out.
This book almost reads like a factual non-fiction book due to the many field reports and testimonials that are used to tell the story. This at first leaves the reader thinking they have stumbled onto some new medical phenomenon where children in the United States are being born silent. Not deaf, but silent. At first the characters in the book think it is a one off, some mutation of a gene, but soon there is an epidemic and more and more children are born this way, some in fact turning mute with no warning even though they had once spoke. No one knows why, but the Silents begin to live on the fringe of society, and some think they have reason for being this way, either to teach us that communication can mean multiple things, or that they have evolved beyond the need for language. This book was specifically designed for reading on an e reader or Ipad, with the testimonial and report like structure.
This is a classic, and I’m sure many of you have already read it. But it is definitely a book that every generation needs to explore. It is this book that first introduced me to the concept of Big Brother, the very real fact that you are being watched 24/7 and cannot behave in any manner that might upset the balance of society. Humans in this world are believed to require such order for civilization to be maintained and for the power of one party to be the sole power. Many of the issues discussed in this book, from knowing that you are being watched the moment you open your eyes, to the job that our main protagonist Winston must undertake, reminds the reader of the very fragile state of privacy as a right we think we are owed. Very much written to attest to communist fears at the time, 1984 continues to remind us that, power in the wrong hands can lead to a very dark time.
In the world of this novel, we are first introduced to three children Kathy, Ruth and Tommy who live at an orphanage run very much like a boarding school in the English country side. They along with many other children are raised to eventually become carers once they leave at the age of 16. The role of carer is to care for donors, who we eventually realize are people who are cloned. Organ donation in this society has become a planned system, where individuals are cloned, these children then reared to be healthy, while they spend the remainder of their short lives, having various organs harvested from them. An interesting account of how the human mind might seek to find solutions using our very real flaw of othering.
9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Although a YA trilogy, the concept behind these books is so very intelligent and thrilling. After a very serious failure of society, what was once known as the United States is divided into a series of districts where individuals are isolated and kept under control according to either their economic status or occupation. Katniss Everdeen from the coal mining district 12 is thrust into the barbaric hunger games, created by the Capitol city, to keep the rest of the districts under control. The children of these districts are required to fight to the death in a very publicized and horrific manner. If there ever was a book to comment on the capacity for evil and torture that lives in us, than this is definitely it.
To wrap up this list I chose The Giver, a novel that again is geared towards young adults though in my opinion it has an even darker edge than the blatant horror of The Hunger Games. In the society that Lowry has created children given roles that promote “Sameness” a perspective that is believed to prevent all of the atrocities that human have inflicted before. Therefore there is no colour or memory, every person sees and feels the same thing. Except for the Receiver who is meant to be the bearer of memories that keep the society alive. The darkest part of the novel is that the elderly or those that do not exhibit sameness are “released” but in effect they are euthanized. Talk about a dark take on individuality!
So there you have it, I hope you choose a few from the list to give them a try, you never know you may need them. Happy Reading!