January 20, 2017 by brettdgale
No candidate for President of the United States has ever painted as dark a vision for the present state of the United States as Donald Trump did with his “our cities are aflame speech” at the Republican national convention. And very few Presidential candidates in the home of democratic checks and balances have so brazenly stated that the answer to those problems lies in one man – in one strong leader. It sounds like the beginnings of a dystopian nightmare and most likely is. Thus, in order to understand what Trump’s America may become we need look no further than the genre of dystopian fiction. Thus, I’ve pulled together 12 of my favourite dystopian reads to ascertain some sort of signpost to the future of our times.
A good dystopian novel will reflect the preoccupations and fears of its own era yet remain timeless in its lessons and beatitudes. And at the heart of most good dystopian fiction is the battle between freedom of thought and freedom of action pitted against the controlling desires to create a new utopia and therefore the eradication of any “deviant” thought.
Because of the nature of this project, in the novels below I’ve gone for those I’ve read that are both entertaining as well as prescient. But I’ve also tried to limit my selections to the creepily plausible and plausibly recognisable as possibilities. I’ve looked for parables to modern society. But don’t let that daunt you from reading each of the books below is simply a wonderful story in its own right. Every list is a choice and I’ve also chosen to leave out those dystopian tracts of a deliberately overly apocalyptic nature or that contain too much sci-fi. Thus the list below does not contain the truly brilliant Neuromancer by William Gibson, the equally fantastic Snowcrash by Neil Stephenson, the exciting Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card or the moving Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel. All are worth reading as well as the one’s outlined below.
As the Trump Kakistocracy begins, these novels may all come to seem like happy optimistic escapism.
“The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.”
While the rest of this list is by no means in any ranking order, one must start with the best of the best. This is the McDaddy of all dystopian fiction. One of the greatest English language books ever written. Probably one of the greatest books ever written in any language (including Newspeak).
I can’t believe that there is anyone who hasn’t actually read it, but it is always worth reading again and again; for the sheer inventiveness of the story and the brilliance of the writing as much as for the urgent warnings it imparts.
You all know the drill. The world is divided into three warring continents. Oceania where the action is set is ruled over by a one party state under the omnipresent gaze of its leader “Big Brother”. The novel follows the petty rebellions against the state undertaken by low-level party functionary Winston Smith. Ultimately the Party triumphs.
The tropes of 1984 have entered our consciousness and our popular culture. Indeed so omnipresent is the book in our imagination that it is often easier to explain the context for some modern occurrence by using the words and analogies of Orwell’s masterpiece as it is to invent our own explanations.
As with many dystopian novels, 1984 is a rage against abusive authority everywhere but it is also a warning about how easily humans can be manipulated by utilising the psychological tools of fear and influence, and how easily we can be controlled and led astray by the power of manipulating language.
Winston Smith’s ultimately futile struggle against the surveillance state has strong echoes in a world where governments of all stripes and persuasions (left, right, democratic, authoritarian) are happy to constantly monitor our every move.
However, the saddest thing about the predictions of 1984 may well be how readily we have accepted the complete bastardization of our language. With noble exceptions like Don Watson we are all willing to succumb to management speak, bureaucratic mumbo jumbo and the linguistic distortions and evasions of our political class.
As Orwell wrote in his polemic essay on the language politicians’ use, “Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
It is interesting that Frank Luntz the Republican pollster and writer of the language manipulation textbook “Words that Work” was one of the few to predict Donald Trump could win the Presidency right from the start. And one need look no further than the recent reinvention of the term “fake news” by Trump and Co to see Orwell’s greatest fears at work.
Orwell wouldn’t have been surprised at all, just as he wouldn’t have been surprised at the creation of the world’s most inane reality TV show eponymously named after his greatest creation.
“You do not need to accept everything as true, you only have to accept it as necessary.”
“Somebody must have made a false accusation against Josef K., for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong”. Thus in the opening sentence of this intense and moving novel is the dilemma of Kafka’s nightmare vision explained. In K’s continual fight against a system in which he will never be allowed to win, nor even to understand the rules of the game we find a parable for every incomprehensible struggle against the odds.
We probably live in a more Kafkaesque world today than ever before. Faceless officials making arbitrary decisions, labyrinthine rules and regulations to get simple things done – and I’m not just talking about the state (as per Kafka’s analysis) but our wider interactions with all levels of society. These are the methods and mores of our largest corporations and service providers not just government departments.
It seems that as more and more automation and mechanisation has replaced formerly straight forward tasks, the desire to create more and more elaborate rules and procedures to somehow show that humans are dominant – “let’s see a machine do this!”. As Exhibit A, I present the HR department of any large organisation – the ultimate Kafkaesque entity.
Despite all the advances in modern technology in every sense of the word there is a belief that living is harder, that having to navigate the maze of everyday life gets harder all the time – i.e. let’s take but one example, Apple arbitrarily removing songs from your library with each new upgrade. No wonder that below the surface most people are angry. Of course angry people turn to simplistic solutions to solve their problems – Make America Great Again?
“One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.”
Huxley’s bleak vision of a world dominated by “The World State” and its division into five castes where post-natal conditioning has eradicated any desire for social mobility and private allegiances is as powerful today as on publication in 1932. Not for nothing has it been consistently rated as one of the greatest books of all time.
The novel anticipates developments in reproductive technology, sleep-learning, psychological manipulation, and classical conditioning that combine profoundly to change society.
It is also one of the most brilliant warnings on the de-humanising effects of mechanistic repetitive production and mass consumerism. Indeed, on re-reading Brave New World today the sharpest recognition of Huxley’s vision is in much of modern society’s acceptance that the fullest expression of human aspiration is evermore ongoing mindless consumption.
“The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”
Assaults on reason and learning, attacks on the educated and the educators, dismissal of the scientific method and arguments based on factual evidence were often the hallmarks of the worst dictators of the Twentieth Century. From Hitler’s book burnings through to Mao’s forcible removal of intellectuals to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution and Pol Pot’s equally evil attack on the professional classes the pattern has been repeated time and again throughout human history.
The reason is that any dissent or the chance that ideas might inspire questioning of the status quo of the dominant regime must be thoroughly destroyed for the regime to survive.
Thus we have the society at the heart of Ray Bradbury’s finest novel. One in which the fire brigade is set up to burn books in a culture where the need to stamp out dissenting voices leads to laws banning books. Bradbury himself made clear that the lack of tolerance McCarthy Era America had for alternative viewpoints was a motivating factor in his development of the novel.
Of course in our modern world we have no need for Government intervention to outlaw books, for a large percentage of the population they’ve effectively outlawed them themselves. As reading the long form novels continues its inexorable decline and reading becomes more and more a pastime sacrificed to the bonfire of the technologies Bradbury’s vision for a book free world looms ever more present.
Indeed, as Bradbury himself also suggested, it wasn’t just creeping McCarthyist tendencies that he feared but the fact that the growing distractions of the (then) modern world would create an over stimulated populace lacking in the ability to concentrate and a mass media landscape that would reduce interest in reading literature. Like all good dystopian fiction his predictions were ahead of their time.
“Better never means better for everyone, it always means worse for some.”
This novel might be the most relevant of all to the world inhabited by the Republicans’ complete control of Congress. After all the only thing that unites the modern Republican Party is the animating ideal that they must control a woman’s body. Hence the religious right held their nose and voted for Trump because of their singular obsession with controlling the Supreme Court and finally overthrowing Roe v Wade.
Attwood’s novel paints a picture of a completely gender segregated America where women are assigned various roles. One of the most distressing jobs is that of “Handmaid”, one of the increasingly few fertile women who act as surrogate wombs for their de facto owner’s wives.
All this is possible because the future America (renamed Gilead) is ruled by a powerful elite utilising the real tactics of history’s most brutal dictatorial regimes and of course their trusty band of over-zealous true believers.
As Attwood herself as pointed out presciently in relation to The Handmaid’s Tale, “if you wanted to seize power in the US, abolish liberal democracy and set up a dictatorship, how would you go about it? What would be your cover story? It would not resemble any form of communism or socialism: those would be too unpopular. It might use the name of democracy as an excuse for abolishing liberal democracy”.
It is impossible to overpraise this novel. It is perfect on every level.
“Normally the newsfeeds didn’t interrupt everyone’s interactive sitcoms and soap operas unless something really major happened.”
Ready Player One might be a paean to the author’s own 80’s teenagehood (and mine for that matter) but it too imagines a future I’m not sure any of us would like to enter.
So while the novel might be a computer gamers’ wet dream, a love letter to geekdom, a good old fashioned hero’s quest, a well written adventure yarn and a righteous celebration of the TV shows, games, movies and music of the greatest generation; it’s also once again a warning on the dangers of rampant consumerism and unregulated capitalism .
The novel is set in a dystopian future of 2044, a world so bad that most people spend their days locked in a virtual reality world called the OASIS. And then the creator of the aforementioned virtual reality world, James Halliday dies. But not without leaving as his last game, a worldwide competition, the winner of which will inherit his mega fortune and control of the OASIS. That’s where the fun begins. To win the competition Wade and his fellow competitors must solve a series of Eighties pop culture themed brainteasers whilst fending off the obligatory evil corporation.
Playstation “virtual reality” anyone?
“the unfolding of the unforeseen was everything. Turned wrong way round, the relentless unforeseen was what we schoolchildren studied as “History,” harmless history, where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable. The terror of the unforeseen is what the science of history hides, turning a disaster into an epic.”
So, the Republican Party chooses a complete outsider as its Presidential Candidate based mainly on the candidate’s celebrity and fame across the land. In his campaign he invokes the darkest imaginings and latent fears of his fellow Americans – demonising individual races and threatening his enemies with calumny of all sorts. He promises an isolationist foreign policy and despite all predictions to the contrary wins the Presidency against an establishment Democrat.
Of course such a story as conjured from the feverish and funny imagination of Phillip Roth could never happen in real life….could it?
In this entertaining (as always) story, Roth conjures Charles Lindbergh (aviator and noted fan of Hitler) as the winner of the 1940 election over FDR. Lindbergh soon establishes a quasi-Fascist and anti-semitic regime in the land. The novel follows the story of the Jewish Roth family (with a younger son unsurprisingly named Phillip) during the Lindbergh presidency. As the story explores young Phillip’s trials and tribulations like much of Roth it is as much an examination of growing up in America as it is an examination of the dystopian limits of political power. Indeed, the strength of Roth’s novel lies in the invocations of real life 1940’s America and the normalcy of the challenges of youth to create a “what might have been story” that is not entirely without plausibility.
On the other hand, even Roth’s title could account for Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
“Let’s not pretend these are the first people to die in the interests of commerce.”
An Australian addition to the list. Max Barry is both an Australian author and his dystopian future is set in a near term Australia. An Australia that has become an outpost for a completely corporatized America in which the world is run by giant corporations and employees take the last names of the companies they work for.
Transnational borders mean nothing and even Governments are completely corporatized and privatised, advertising saturates every inch of the planet and Nike’s latest marketing campaign involves a carefully orchestrated series of shootings at stores selling its new line of sneakers in order to create must have cachet.
Nowhere near as dark or serious as most of the other works on this list, Barry’s novel is an hilarious romp of a social satire.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”
Sure it’s didactic (after all it’s a kid’s book, the message only gets through if it’s preachy) but if ever there was a starker warning of the unmitigated disaster of out of control environmental degradation I’m yet to see it. Theodore Geisl’s alter-ego at his genius best.
“Most people would trade everything they know, everyone they know- they’d trade it all to know they’ve been seen, and acknowledged, that they might even be remembered. We all know the world is too big for us to be significant. So all we have is the hope of being seen, or heard, even for a moment.”
Some dystopian novels you read and go – this is not futuristic, this shit is happening now. In The Circle Dave Eggers is proselytizing on the dangers of the internet today. Or more accurately, because I don’t want him to sound like some angry old man railing against the prevailing orthodoxy, or some geezer engaged in an anti-technology rant, what he’s really examining is the balance between the public and private in our connected, always switched–on, world. After all, his main protagonist is the inventor of the slogan, “privacy is theft”.
The Circle tells the story of Mae Holland who lands her “dream job” at the largest tech company around (one that by the looks of it has subsumed Facebook, Twitter, You tube, Google, Microsoft and Apple combined) and is soon working her way up the ranks by voluntary subsuming her entire self to the company’s ideals and the always hungry maw of social media affirmation.
The point of Eggers’ invented world is that it’s not that different to our own. Indeed, one gets the impression that the things The Circle (for that’s the Orwellian name of Mae’s company) are inventing have already been invented in our world, or if not, soon will be.
The novel is surely dystopian, but in a playful way that matches Eggers light and easy style – one I find refreshing and highly readable. And, one that makes The Circle a warning caricature rather than a rampant political manifesto.
“Being happy or unhappy – is that really the most important thing? Knowing the truth would be a different kind of happiness – a more satisfying kind, I think, even if it turned out to be a sad kind.”
Utopia is never as utopian as it seems. And escaping from one negative future to an imagined better place is never as straight forward as it seems. That is the clear message of all good dystopian fiction. All attempts at creation of the perfect society are bound to end in despair and darkness and a distortion of humanness.
This is true of Ira Levin’s bracing look at a future world where humans have created a so-called perfect society – free of disease, free of violence and hate and free of freedom of choice. But freedom is never that easy.
“Maybe there is a beast… maybe it’s only us.”
I’m not sure this qualifies as strictly dystopian in that it doesn’t specifically castigate the whole of society. However, in its vision of how easily we can collapse into anarchy and violence, mob rule and loss of reason it contains an enduring and always relevant message.
The book’s premise of course focuses on a group of British boys stranded on an uninhabited island and their attempt to govern themselves, with disastrous results.
Virtually all of us read this in school as a required text. Virtually all of us remain haunted by it. Virtually all of us have imbued its clear lessons.
Can we be ever sure that the human impulse towards civilisation and order, the rule of law and peaceful society prevail against the human longing to be dominated by a “strong leader”? I guess we are about to be tested again.
Not to leave out other forms of entertainment (hey we’ll need them all to distract us) here’s ten of the best dystopian films to help you through the nightmare ahead
The Mad Max Quadrology
The Planet of the Apes (original 1970’s version)
The Hunger Games Trilogy
Children of Men