Dystopian novels are works of fiction, set in the future or an alternate universe, which imagine what the opposite of a Utopian society would be. These novels are usually inspired by the author’s fear about oppressive governments and the ways in which they could take the power from the people. Dystopian novels are cautionary tales, warning us of the dangers posed by the accumulation of power by the wrong people or institutions.
In America’s current political environment it feels like we’re moving closer to dystopia every day. The predictions made by these novels, that once seemed so far fetched, are now looking depressingly real. It may be painful to read these books and see parallels to our current world, but it is essential to read dystopian novels now so we can heed the warnings they provide.
1. “1984” by George Orwell
George Orwell introduced the world to “Big Brother,” the idea of a totalitarian government having a constant watch over us. In Orwell’s world, the citizens are under video surveillance and even thought surveillance by the government. The government has also created a language called “newspeak” which is absent of words that describe concepts they don’t want the people to discuss. Orwell makes it very clear that language controls thought and the government controls thought by controlling language.
Let’s take a lesson from this prescient work and remember that free thought and free speech are essential to fighting totalitarianism.
2. “Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s “Brave New World” offers a more subtle, insidious view of dystopia: a world where no one cares that they’re not really free. In this “brave new world” there’s a pill for everything, including any feelings you may have. The concept of family has been abolished in favor of lab reproduction. Sex abounds and sexual exploration is encouraged from a young age. Government issued brainwashing happens from birth. A caste system assigns labor. Government schools dictate history and learning. And everyone, well almost everyone, is perfectly happy. They have been drugged and brainwashed in to submission.
The creepiness of “Brave New World” comes from how content people are to accept the world they live in. Other than the main character, no one questions the government’s control. All their pleasures are met and they have been brainwashed to accept their lot in life, so no one bothers to think about freedom or inequality.
Though the full implications of “Brave New World” are still far off, the beginnings are apparent. Our country is slipping in to a drug crisis. An administration took the White House through propaganda. Scientists are already arguing the ethics of “designer babies.”
We should all read “Brave New World” so we don’t get lured in to the world of where we don’t care that we have no freedom because there are so many shiny objects.
3. “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury presents a world where books have become illegal. Firefighters no longer fight fires, they burn books. Television has taken a central role in people’s lives. Their houses have entire walls that are TV screens and the televisions are interactive. Characters on TV are considered real life friends.
Like in Brave New World, most of the citizens seem just fine with the way their world works because they’ve never known anything different. When people don’t learn about history they have no idea that their circumstances are worse than they were before. The oppressive government that took over long ago understood that knowledge gives power and took books away to take away the power of the people.
Today, we have a President who prides himself on not reading and who gets all his information from TV. He is actively trying to shut down the written word by discrediting journalists. Fewer people are reading than ever before. Bradbury imagined a world where the government had to ban books, but our reality is that the people are rejecting them.
Give “Fahrenheit 451” a read as a reminder of the power of learning and the importance of history.
4. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
The “Hunger Games” trilogy takes place in a post war America, which has been divided in to districts. Each district has an industry which serves the central capital, which is occupied by the rich, famous, and politically influential. The people of the districts live in varying levels of hardship and squalor while the people of the capital live in splendor spending their days partying and watching television shows. The people of the capital are so obsessed with physical appearance that gaudy dress and surgical alteration have become the norm.
Each year, as punishment for the war of the past, the districts must sacrifice two of their children to the Hunger Games, a competition where the children are trapped in an arena and forced to battle to the death. The entire thing is televised for the amusement of the residents of the capital.
The author’s scathing critique of modern society can be seen throughout the books. The massive class divide and income inequality of the capital and the districts is not so different from our current economic and class situation, though it’s not as rigidly implemented and enforced as in the books. The obsession of the privileged, and everyone else, with vanity definitely mirrors modern society. Even the government being populated by the rich and famous is reflected in current affairs.
We should all give this series a read so we can see what happens when money and power combine to form a government.
5. “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
“The Handmaid’s Tale” is an example of what could happen when extreme sexism is normalized and built in to governmental structures. In this world, women have been systematically stripped of their rights and become nothing more than servants and breeding machines. What makes this tale most chilling is how the subjugation of women began “legally” and was barely opposed.
First women are fired from their jobs. Men are allowed to keep their bank accounts, but women’s are abruptly closed. Once stripped of their economic power, women become second class citizens. Eventually the religious fundamentalist government rounds up women and forces them in to schools where they are reeducated on their role in society. Soon, women are only allowed to be domestic servants or to serve men who’s wives are barren. Unless, of course, they’re the wife of a higher up in the military or government.
Like in the “Hunger Games,” this all happens after one group wins a widespread conflict. They insist that the oppression of women is essential for the survival of the people.
Many have said that Trump’s sexism and treatment of women is not a big deal and that it doesn’t disqualify him from being an international leader. But “The Handmaid’s Tale” shows what could possibly happen when sexism is allowed to become part of the government
These novels provide the hope that wherever there is dystopia, there is always resistance. People always reject oppression and find ways to undercut or overthrow the government. These novels provide essential examples of not only the evils we are fighting, but how we can fight them. Pick up these five books today and read them ASAP.