Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Seven Lesser-Known Dystopian Novels

I've been a big fan of dystopian fiction since high school, when I read Nineteen Eighty-four and Brave New World back-to-back (and then searched for and found Brave New World Revisited). Discussions of dystopian fiction always start with these two novels and Fahrenheit 451 before moving to the more recent A Handmaid's Tale, The Giver, and now the Hunger Games trilogy. But there are certainly more dystopian societies out there to discover.

Here are seven lesser known dystopian novels that I have read and what I think of them. They aren't all good. I rank them on a scale of one to five boots stamping on my face forever — five being "You must read this book" and one being "meh."

Instead of summarizing the plot of each novel, I outline the characteristics of the setting that make it a dystopian novel.

We by Yevgeny Zamiatin

Image via Wikipedia

I put this one first because it is historically important as well as an absolute must-read for anyone who enjoys dystopian fiction. Written in the new Soviet Union in 1919 or 1920, We was the first book banned by the Soviet censorship bureau. It had to be smuggled out of the country, and was first published in English translation in New York City in 1924. It wasn't legally published in the USSR until 1988.

We is the godfather of the modern dystopian novel. In it, you'll find the seeds (and some saplings) of many of the ideas that we now consider "standard" in a dystopian world. Nineteen Eighty-four especially owes a lot to We — and it's no accident. Orwell began writing that novel about six months after he read and reviewed We.

So, the book. In the story, Zamiatin creates a world where the One State, led by the Benefactor, maintains "happines" through strict control of every aspect (and I do mean every aspect) of its citizens' lives and by the abolition of individuality. The One State believes that free will is the cause of unhappiness, and so its citizens have no free will, including all forms of privacy, individuality, and choice.

People don't even get names. Each citizen is assigned a designation. Male designations are odd numbers and begin with a consonant; female designations are even numbers and begin with a vowel. The main character, D-503, makes the mistake of falling in love with I-330, someone his indoctrination has taught him to hate. Thus his internal conflict between what he feels and what his society has told him is Right.

I wrote a bit more about it here when I read it back in 2008. It was my first book review.

Anthem by Ayn Rand

Cover of "Anthem (Reissue)"
Cover of Anthem (Reissue)

Most of Ayn Rand's stories revolve around politics and personal liberty, so it's no surprise that she would write something dystopian. Anthem, though, is too straightforward a story. The characters are predictable and sometimes lack motivation, and the plot moves forward just as you might expect. It lacks the "a-ha" moments that better novels contain. (Even the presence of the mysterious "Unspeakable Word" doesn't help. Any reader who's paying attention knows what the word is long before it's stated explicitly.)

In Anthem, citizens exist only to serve the state, and the state has no problem telling everyone what to do. Like those in We, the people in Anthem don't so much get names as designations; the main characters here are Equality 7-2521 and Liberty 5-3000. Also like We, social interactions are controlled, though even more strictly in Anthem: men and women are not allowed to interact except during the Time of Mating, when the Council of Eugenics tells you whom to have sex with.

The Council of Vocations assigns a job to each citizen based on what is needed. Equality 7-2521 is assigned the position of a menial street sweeper, but he is a brilliant thinker. When he dares to experiment outside his given profession, he faces a society that values stability over progress.

(Side note for those of you who have read Anthem: Do you think, as I do, that the arguments by members of the World Council of Scholars are frighteningly similar to some of the arguments people have used against the HPV vaccine?)

The Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick

The Penultimate Truth
Photo credit: Wikipedia

I love Dick. That is, I'm a huge fan of Philip K. Dick. His writing style isn't my favorite (nor his titles, with the exception of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?), but his story lines are always astoundingly imaginative, full of paradoxes and hubris.

In The Penultimate Truth, the civilian population has retreated underground in the face of World War III, fought mainly by robots, or "leadies." The good citizens have worked diligently and patriotically for a decade to pump out new and better fighting robots. Video messages from President Yancy praise them and encourage them and keep them apprised of the war effort, assuring them that their subterranean toils will one day win the war.

The problem, though, is that the war didn't last very long. Now, the only battles being fought above-ground are for personal or political gain, and the president is a programmable, computer-generated simulacrum.

When one man ventures out of the ant tunnels and into the sunlight, illusions start to fall, and those above will finally be forced to tell the truth to those living below. Either that, or they'll have to create an even bigger lie.

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut

Player Piano
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Kurt Vonnegut's first full-length novel was the dystopian Player Piano. This dystopia is different from most because it isn't based on control or the surrender of self, and there's nothing malicious behind it. This is a technological dystopia in which automation has run amok; people have been displaced by the labor-saving devices they created.

This has created a great gulf between the rich — those who own and manage the automated factories — and the poor, whose skills are no longer needed and whose purpose in life is a big fat question mark.

Player Piano isn't one of Vonnegut's best novels (though it's damn good for a first novel), but it does illustrate an interesting and underused type of non-malicious de facto dystopia, almost an accidental dystopia.

(Note: This novel was also marketed in the United States as Utopia 14, in an attempt to appeal to the sci-fi crowd. If you know of a copy of Utopia 14, I might be interested in buying it.)

Feed by M.T. Anderson

Feed is part Catcher in the Rye and part Fahrenheit 451, painted Clockwork Orange, and thrown into a cyberpunk future. The titular feed is a cerebral implant that connects those who have it (which is about three-fourths of the population, many getting them as infants) directly to the internet. With that constant connection, everyone can instantly keep up with changes in trends and fashion and quickly, sometimes hourly, adjust themselves to fit.

This was an interesting idea that, in my opinion, wasn't played out well. The story was supposed to show the dangers of consumerism and of shifting power from the people (via an elected government) to corporations. But for me, the writing kept getting in the way of the story. I wrote a bit about it back in the summer of 2010.

Logan's Run by William F. Nolan and George C. Johnson

Cover of the 1969 Dell paperback version of Lo...
Cover art by William Hofmann.
Photo credit: Wikipedia

Yes, the 1976 film starring Michael York and the television spin-off with Gregory Harrison both began as a dystopian sci-fi novel. The dystopian setup is pretty simple: People's maximum age has been legislated at 21 years. Everyone has a crystal embedded in their hand that changes color every seven years; when the crystal goes black on their 21st birthday, people are expected to report to a Sleepshop to be willingly executed.

Logan, whose job is to track down those elderly 21-year-olds who run instead of reporting for execution, himself runs when his crystal goes black. The story details his life as an old fugitive, trying to escape the people who were once his coworkers.

Logan's Run is a fun little romp, but it has no discernible grand ideas behind the story. It's great entertainment, but not a great work of literature.

The Diamond Age, or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer by Neal Stephenson

This is borderline dystopia, and you could make a good argument that it doesn't qualify. But Neal Stephenson, who never writes a short book, is one of my favorite living writers. Not only are his stories complex and imaginative, but the amount of research he must put into these is astounding, to the point that it's difficult to know where science fact stops and science fiction begins. (Even more so in his The Baroque Cycle trilogy.)

The Diamond Age
Photo credit: Wikipedia
The Diamond Age takes place in a future in which nanotechnology — computers that are just a few atoms in size — has become as ubiquitous as wireless technology is today. The different uses people have found for this technology make this world come alive, from programmable drugs, to moving tattoos that can turn an arm into a television, to a communal "immune system" where windblown nanobots detect new viruses and poisons (both natural and synthetic) in the air and adapt themselves into vaccines and antidotes that are inhaled by the people.

And of course, with such technology, there are no shortages of creative ways to take someone's life.

I think what makes this a dystopian world for me is that its people are so recognizable. We like to think that once man discovers how to manipulate matter and technology to such great extents, we might finally find a way to make everyone happy and healthy.

But no. The Diamond Age is populated with the same types of sad, fallible people we know today. In spite of this so-called progress, there is still a huge gap between the upper and lower classes. There are tech geeks hacking in back rooms, and Luddites who do everything by hand, the old-fashioned way. There are casual drug users, hard-core drug addicts, religious nuts, mafioso, child beaters, corrupt politicians, and children losing their innocence too soon.

In short, it is a complete, believable, and relatable world.

After you read this book, you'll find yourself at odd times wondering what sorts of things you would do with nanotechnology in such a world. And it's fun to consider.

To Be Read

Here's my personal to-be-read list of dystopian fiction. Please let me know what I should add to it!

  • It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • Neuromancer by William Gibson (this one is already loaded into my Nook)
  • The Children of Men by PD James
  • When the Sleeper Wakes by HG Wells
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