(First published on my old blog, 24th October 2013)
One of my favorite forms of genre fiction is dystopian fiction. The word Dystopia is of greek origin, coming from two words meaning ‘hard land’. It was used in answer to Thomas Moore’s coined term ‘Utopia’ from the book of the same name. While a Utopian world is an idealised version of our own, a dystopian world takes the darker aspects of human nature and examines them. This is what I find endlessly fascinating.
Dystopian societies may be anti-utopian, in other words taking the worst of human behavior and setting, and magnifying them. Or it may be Counter-Utopian – presenting a society which is Utopic on the surface, with one fatal flaw. The latter is the one I find most interesting. Just as a character’s fatal flaw may help drive the plot of a book or film, a society or races fatal flaw may do the same in dystopian fiction. As unsettling as much of it is, I think dystopian fiction allows us to look at ourselves, at our current society and ask ourselves ‘is this where we are heading?’ There are often strong moral conflicts involved, revolutions and uprising against a totalitarian regime or subtler struggles for public hearts and minds or even just a pocket of resistance clawing out some space to think for themselves; all of which is right up my literary alley.
Here are some of my favorites, try not to laugh at the first few;
The Stand by Stephen King – ok so many people would class this as a horror story. For me, despite it’s opposing poles of good and evil, it is a huge tome set in a dystopian future (though technically we’ve gone way past the year it is set in.) A human designed plague has been released killing 99.9% of the worlds population. It has caused society to grind to a halt while those survivors who happened to be immune try to find each other and reestablish some sort of working civilisation. The thing with plague killing off the populous is that it has not destroyed buildings, power plants, supplies, weapons etc. They are all waiting to be picked up and used. Add to that a force for goodness and a force for evil fighting over the scraps of mankind. This is self examination in it’s rawest form in many ways. Not all of the people who followed the dark man were wholly bad, not all of those who went to Mother Abigail were entirely good. Everyone is caught up in something bigger than themselves and not just the plague. It is the choices you make in those situations that make this so interesting.
Watership Down – Richard Adams. – Yes I know it’s about bunnies. I still maintain that there’s a case for it being included in dystopian fiction. Fiver the seer, knows that bad danger is coming to the Sandleford warren, with his brother Hazel and several other rabbits they manage to leave before, what would be to them, a catclymic world altering event occurs, killing all the others. Struggling to find a place in the world they stumble on Cowslip’s warren. This is a false Utopia, as it turns out all the rabbits there, while never hungry or worrying about enemies, are being kept safe and fat for when the farmer wants to catch a couple. The whole area is snared. And yet the rabbits of that warren make believe that they serve the shining wire, that death chooses them. Hazel’s group moves on and eventually finds Watership Down. It’s near perfect except that they have no does, without which their ociety will die out in a generation. Finding the Efrafra warren, a true totalitarian regime, where you are perfectly safe as long as you don’t disobey orders and live in (for rabbits) unnatural conditions, Hazel’s group effects a daring plan to break away a group of does to join them. The final battle for the survival of their own warren is against the dictator General Woundwort – possibly the scariet rabbit ever.
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley – The World State controls almost everything, it is all surprisingly peaceful, a stable society with plentiful goods and supplies. Natural birth has been done away with. Children are instead created and raised in hatcheries where they are conditions and separated into five caste systems. Citizens are conditioned to value consumption above all else. All need for transcendent, spiritual experience is managed by the state with Soma – a hallucinogenic approved for ‘holidays’. Recreational sex is encouraged. So with everything provided for you and everything figured out for you, where is the reward of thinking for yourself? What is there to strive for?
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury – there’s a lot more to it that this but books are outlawed and burned as they promote free-thinking. This is literally my personal hell on earth.
Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell – not so much a favorite as a must read. After a global atomic war (so set in obvious dystopian landscape) we follow the story of Winsten Smith, who is at intellectual war with The Party and has an illicit romance with Julia. His consequent imprisonment, interrogation, torture and reintegration are chilling.
The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Attwood – read this first when I was 16 and was horribly struck by how possible it seemed. A christianity based theocratic regime rules everything after a global disaster. Few women have viable ovaries. Those who do are re-educated and sent out as handmaids to bear children for members of congress. The ritualistic adultary in which the wife takes part, rendering the handmaid merely a womb for hire while the husband inseminates her is truly horrific. The ambiguity at the end is disturbing but right for the story, especially as one of the themes of the book is not knowing.
The Chrysalids – John Wyndham – possibly my absolute favorite. Man is made in a specific image, people are conditioned by a cut off, theocratic state, not to succour the mutant. Something as simple as being born with an extra toe can get you forcibly serilised and sent into the barren lands. But what about mutations that don’t show? A group of children develop a kind of telepathy which is found out and abhorred as a mutation. Their struggle is to find somewhere they can live un-persecuted. It is suggested that this mutation is actually one of nature, rather than nuclear fallout. So the question is how far will society go to control natural gene expression?
Pure – Julianna Baggott – in a post nuclear/ dirty bomb society, there are the pure, who live within the dome – seemingly perfect lives. And the aberrants who have eked out an existence outside the dome. As the politics unfolds it turns out that there is less perfection inside the dome than the imperfect aberrants think. There is also a question on just who set the bombs – surely not their own government on a mission of enthnic cleansing, attempting to set up their own superior race?
The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins – I don’t care what anyone says about this being ripped off from ‘Battle Royale’. I don’t believe it is but even if it was, Collins took an idea and portrayed it a hundred times better. Deal with it. What the series looks at is what war really does to society, in particular, to children. The twelve districts of panem are controlled with a constant mix of fear, oppression, hardship, humiliation and a tiny insidious but of hope. Every year each district is forced to provide a male and female child tribute to compete in the games, where they are expected to fight to the death. A pretty good analogy for the pointlessness of war considering the arbitrariness of the rules and what the games turn the children into.
There are dozens more books that cover various themes in a dystopian world. This is merely a small selection of my favorites. The attraction does not simply relate to reading either, I enjoy writing dystopian fiction. The themes it explores are close to my heart, questions that must be asked over and over in order to avoid such dark futures ourselves.