Reading Dystopias offered an introduction to the genre of dystopian fiction through 4 classic dystopian novels. Here are four more which are also well worth reading.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) [211 pages]
Fahrenheit 451: The temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns.
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.
Guy Montag’s job is to burn books. He lives in a world where the word ‘intellectual’ is an insult and printed books are illegal. People are kept under control in ways which give them a sense of motion without moving, through mindless television programming and an education which promotes unquestioning obedience but leads to violent behaviour. Like everyone else, Montag knows that challenging the status-quo is a dangerous thing to do.
When Montag starts to question the foundations of his world he gradually finds out that memory and literature are still being kept alive by a minority of exiled book-lovers who have memorized entire books in preparation for a time when society is ready to rediscover them. This offers the hope that human inquiry and creativity could rebuild a new civilization.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985) [307 pages]
We slept in what had once been a gymnasium. The floor was of varnished wood, with stripes and circles painted in it, for the games that were formerly played there; the hoops for the basketball nets were still in place, though the nets were gone. A balcony ran round the room, for the spectators, and I thought I could smell, faintly like an afterimage, the pungent scent of sweat, shot through with the sweet taint of chewing gum and perfume from the watching girls, felt-skirted as I knew from pictures, later in mini-skirts, then pants, then in one earring, spiky green-streaked hair.
In March 2017, Margaret Atwood wrote in the New York Times about What The Handmaid’s Tale means in the age of Trump, when “fears and anxieties proliferate and basic civil liberties are seen as endangered, along with many of the rights for women won over the past decades.”
“Having been born in 1939 and come to consciousness during World War II, I knew that established order could vanish overnight. Change could also be as fast as lighting. ‘It can’t happen here’ could not be depended on…One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened…nor any technology not already available.”
“Under totalitarianisms, or indeed in any sharply hierarchical society, the ruling class monopolizes valuable things, so the elite of the regime arrange to have fertile females assigned to them as Handmaids…The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet…Many totalitarianisms have used clothing, both forbidden and enforced, to identify and control people…and many have ruled behind a religious front.”
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962) [249 pages]
For a week Mr R. Childan has been anxiously watching the mail. But the valuable shipment from the Rocky Mountain States had not arrived. As he opened up his store on Friday morning and saw only letters on the floor by the mail slot he thought, I’m going to have an angry customer.
…Then the phone rang. He turned to answer it.
‘Yes’, a familiar voice said to his answer. Childan’s heart sank. This is Mr Tagomi. Did my Civil War recruiting poster arrive yet, sir? Please recall; you promised it sometime last week.’ The fussy, brisk voice, barely polite, barely keeping the code.
The story is set in an alternative 1962, 15 years after the Nazis have defeated the Allies in World War II and the former USA is divided into 3 zones: the Japanese-controlled Pacific States of America (P.S.A.), the Nazi-occupied former Eastern United States and the Rocky Mountain States, a neutral buffer zone between the two.
The Nazis have drained the Mediterranean to make room for farmland, developed and used the Hydrogen bomb, and designed rockets for extremely fast travel across the world as well as space, having colonized the Moon, Venus, and Mars.
Robert Childan owns an antiques shop in San Francisco in the Japanese-occupied P.S.A patronised by the wealthy Japanese upper class prepared to pay high prices for American artifacts. Frank Frink is a Jewish-American former soldier making jewellery for the same market. Frink’s ex-wife, Juliana, is a judo instructor in the neutral Mountain States zone, where she meets a mysterious Italian former soldier, Joe Cinnadella. What political intrigue connects these characters? How are they guided by I Ching divinations? And what is the significance of The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, the banned alternative history of how the Allies won World War II, which nests within this alternative history of how they lost it?
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935) [381 pages]
The handsome dining room of the Hotel Wessex, with its gilded plaster shields and the mural depicting the Green Mountains, had been reserved for the Ladies’ Night Dinner of the Fort Beulah Rotary Club.
…the occasion was essentially serious. All of America was serious now, after the seven years of depression since 1929. It was just long enough after the Great War of 1914-1918 for the young people who had been born in 1917 to be ready to go to college…or to another war, almost any old war that might be handy.
Our hero is newspaper editor Doremus Jessup, who predicts the rise of a ‘real fascist dictatorship’ via the candidacy of the populist Berzelius Windrip for US president. His friends told him: ‘it couldn’t happen here’, but it does.
In It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis imagines what it might look like if fascism came to America. At the time it was written, the fear was of a US version of Hitler. The message of this novel is: ‘actually it could happen here’. Americans have recently experienced some aspects of this scenario: the populist candidate blustering through to the presidency with a set of divisive opinions which call into question many accepted truths and norms as well as the rights of many Americans.
The novel has been described as ‘anticipating Trump’ 80 years before his election. As Beverly Gage says in the New York Times in January 2017, the novel’s president Windrip, like Trump, sells himself as the champion of ‘forgotten men’ determined to bring dignity and prosperity back to America’s white working class. Windrip loves big, passionate rallies and rails against the ‘lies’ of the mainstream press. His supporters embrace this message, lashing out against the ‘highbrow’ editors, professors and policy elites. With Windrip’s encouragement, they also take out their frustrations on vulnerable minorities. Windrip’s team believe in propaganda rather than information, which they feel: ‘is not fair to ordinary folks – it just confuses them.’
The read-across from fiction to truth may not be absolute in this case but, as Gage points out, this novel reminds us that at a time of sudden political change and social disorientation it can be hard to know what to do and to do what is right. In the novel, American values of democracy and pluralism prove unable to resist a descent towards the authoritarianism of labour camps, torture chambers and martial law. We must hope that in the real world, the US system would prove more resilient to any such threat.
In addition to the 5 questions raised in Reading Dystopias, you might want to consider the following:
- What aspects of our own society could be considered as oppressive?
- What are the dangers of ‘strong’ leaders?
- What limits should there be on the power of elected governments and leaders?
- What trends could lead us towards a more authoritarian society?
- What stops us from moving towards a totalitarian system?
You might also want to use the 20 questions to ask about a book you’ve read to get you started.
Some key words to describe dystopian regimes:
Absolutist: Holding to absolute beliefs at all times with no compromise.
Authoritarian: Requiring strict obedience to authority rather than individual freedom.
Autocratic: Promoting absolute power, taking no account of different views.
Oppressive: Perpetrating the excessive and harsh treatment of people.
Totalitarian: A system of centralized, dictatorial power requiring total subservience from people.
More fictional dystopias:
Henry Tam’s ‘Dystopia of the Powerful’ novels