Book Reviews

A Short History of Dystopian Fiction in 9 Books

The final film of the Hunger Games series (adapted from the books by Suzanne Collins) is out now, and we’re celebrating dystopian literature and film in the Information Store. A ‘dystopia’ is a setting in which elements such as governmental control, religious fanaticism or ideologies have been imposed on society with the claim of making society better, but in fact they lead to an oppressive regime in which freedom is restricted.

The idea of a ‘utopian’ society has been around as long as literature has, but Thomas Moore coined the term in his sixteenth-century book Utopia, which described his ideal world based on Christian values. Since then, many writers have described utopian societies, but this has also led to a subgenre of science fiction called ‘dystopian fiction’ or dystopia.

Dystopia is a utopian society that has gone wrong: it may have been designed to be the perfect society by the people who founded it, but it has become oppressive, cruel and dangerous. Young adult and science fiction writers have used dystopia to tell stories of rebels and revolutionaries who fight back against a society that is trying to keep them down.

Dystopian societies often use religious or political ideologies to restrain people’s freedom, often pretending that they are keeping people safe or that without their rules, society would crumble. Art, expression, sensation and free speech are often seen as seditious and dangerous, and the society may criminalise people’s bodies, especially women’s, or turn people into property.

The Story of Our Fears

All three of these authors saw their futures as places where books and reading were considered dangerous and outlawed, except for state-approved literature.

Brave New World (1932)

Brave New World (BOOK ZONE 823.91) by Aldous Huxley is my favourite dystopian novel, the story of a society where natural reproduction has been stopped through contraceptives, children are grown in hatcheries and put into a societal role based on their genetics and development, and the population is kept drugged on both cheap entertainment and the soma drug, designed to keep them happy, docile and productive. Anyone who does not take part in this society is considered a ‘savage’ and lives on a reservation in the countryside. It is only when Lenina Crowne and Bernard Marx, two respectable members of this society discover a man called John in one of the Savage Reservations that they start to question their reality. John is obsessed with Shakespeare, whose works are now outlawed. While John is first welcomed as a curiosity to the society of the World State, people eventually turn against him. Huxley, unlike many other writers of dystopia, saw that humanity wouldn’t be restrained by walls and rules but instead would be kept docile through entertainment, drugs and hedonism.

Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)

Nineteen Eighty-Four (BOOK ZONE  823.91) by George Orwell is the classic dystopia. While Orwell wasn’t the first to write about a ‘perfect’ society gone wrong, his vision of a future in which the government (called the Party) even controls how you think frightened people so much that Nineteen Eighty-Four is still cited every time anyone discusses privacy and surveillance. Winston Smith finds that he cannot stand his controlled lifestyle in service to the figurehead ‘Big Brother’ and slowly finds ways to rebel, collecting illicit objects and falling in love with another rebel. He reads a banned book by the leader of the resistance against the Party and it expands his mind where the machine-produced literature from the Party dampens his spirit. However, in the Orwellian future, it is impossible to know who to trust, when neighbour is pitted against neighbour and children against parents.. While 1984 did not turn into the war-torn wasteland Orwell wrote about, his work has been hugely influential and is well worth a read, especially if you think you know what Big Brother, doublethink and thoughtcrime are all about.

Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91)  is named after the supposed temperature at which paper will burst into flames, but in fact that is inaccurate. However, this story of book burning is enough to put fear into any librarian or lover of books. Bradbury tells the story of Guy Montag, a ‘fireman’, one of the people in his futuristic society who confiscates illicit books and burns them. Throughout history, burning books has been a way of suppressing ideas and supporting regimes (see our review of The Book Thief here for more information), and Bradbury’s novel is about the value of books. When a woman would rather die than give up her books, Montag steals one of her books and begins to question what led to this wholesale destruction of knowledge. What he discovers shatters his world.

A Broken World

One of the commonest set-ups for a dystopia (and one that most of these books share) is a large-scale disaster that disrupts what we think of as society. These three authors looked at how people who were leaderless and frightened could be manipulated into forming a society that enforces ideology, even when it’s bad for individuals. This often crosses over with post-apocalyptic fiction.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Margaret Atwood’s novel is still chilling today, as a society devastated by a terrorist attack turns to a twisted version of Christianity based on the Old Testament. In The Handmaid’s Tale (NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91), The majority of women have become infertile and in order to continue the survival of the human race, any woman who can have children is forced into being a ‘handmaid’, who exist to provide children for high-ranking families. The frightening restrictions on freedom dictated by so-called morality are all rooted in belief systems that exist today, albeit in an extreme version of those. Atwood makes statements about the role of women in society and the terrifying implications of an ideology that considers one kind of person to be superior. The handmaids are dehumanised to the point that their names are taken and there are referred to as the property of their male masters (the main character is called Offred). However, while The Handmaid’s Tale is bleak, the one comfort is that the oppressed women always find a way to tell their stories and to share solidarity with one another, even if those avenues for communication are snatched away as soon as they are discovered.

The Hunger Games series (2008-2010)

With the recent marketing of the final film in the Hunger Games adaptations, they’ve become a bit overly familiar, but Suzanne Collins’ series is one of a number of well-written and intelligent young adult series. A disaster of some kind has left North America under a fascist regime run by President Snow, the nation of Panem. The country is divided into fourteen districts, including the Capitol, which rules over them. In retaliation for a rebellion years before, each District is required to send their children into ‘The Hunger Games’, a gladiatorial contest where the winner is given riches, celebrity and enough food to keep their families fed for the rest of their lives. The one small snag is that to win, you must kill every other child taking part in the Games. Katniss Everdeen volunteers for her young sister Prim when she is selected for the Games, but unknown to her and the Capitol viewers, Katniss Everdeen is going to start a revolution. Collins offers commentary on reality TV, wealth inequality and the generational gap, contrasting the decadent Capitol citizens with the starving and dying Districts, and taking the name of the nation from the Latin phrase ‘bread and circuses’, used by the Roman writer Juvenal to describe how the citizens of the Empire were kept happy. Find The Hunger Games and the rest of the series in the BOOK ZONE at 823.92.

The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008)

The Knife of Never Letting Go (EXPRESS FICTION 823.92) by Patrick Ness is the only one on this list set on a planet other than Earth. Todd is brought up in a dying farming colony, made to believe that all the women were killed by the spread of a mysterious plague. A side-effect of this is that all the men of the town can hear one another’s thoughts, the thoughts of animals. However, as you might expect from a dystopian novel, all is not as it seems, and when Todd escapes Prentisstown, he starts to uncover some of the lies he has been told his whole life. When Todd has everything he believed ripped away from him, nothing is certain, and he starts to realise how insidious the ideology is. The Knife of Never Letting Go is not a neat dystopia like The Hunger Games or Nineteen Eighty-Four, but it is full of the same themes and is bleaker and more painful than a lot of other dystopian titles.

Teen Rebellion

A lot of dystopian fiction is coming from the young adult market at the moment, where before it was more associated with the adult science fiction genre. Not only The Hunger Games, but also Divergent by Veronica Roth, The Maze Runner by James Dashner and the Pretties series by Scott Westerfeld are popular with readers both teenage and adult. Why teenagers? Teenagers and young adults are often passionate for change and critical of the world in a way that adults are not. Protests and revolutions led by a young and charismatic figurehead help readers feel like they could make a difference too.

A Clockwork Orange (1962)

You may remember our review of A Clockwork Orange (NORFOLK HOUSE 823.91) by Anthony Burgess during Banned Books Week. It’s one of the most shocking dystopias featuring a kind of teenage rebellion that is destructive rather than ideological. Alex might be a victim of the system, but he isn’t rebelling out of ideology but because he gives in to all his violent impulses. It is society’s attempts to fix him (in scenes reminiscent of the torture methods used by the Party in 1984) that embody Burgess’s criticisms of the criminal justice system and the use of art as a punishment. In fact, the result of Alex’s indoctrination is that he is destined to become part of the society he loathes.

Noughts and Crosses series (2001-2008)

Malorie Blackman’s novels (EXPRESS FICTION 823.91) are YA classics for good reason. Blackman imagines a world in which crosses (people of African descent) are considered superior to noughts (people of European descent), switching the history of prejudice and privilege our world has. Noughts and Crosses is a dystopian Romeo and Juliet that tells us a lot about prejudice and inequality in our society, both racial and classist (and how the two are often linked). Where most of the young adult dystopian novels are about a lone teenager or group of people standing up against a regime and changing it through courage and determination (often at great cost), Noughts and Crosses is more about personal stakes, with the relationships between noughts and crosses, the deaths of friends and family and the dilemmas of growing up in a world that defines you by a binary as the key dramas within the story. The drama here is the impact this dystopian society (so close to our own society) has on those who live in it. Noughts and Crosses isn’t as action-filled as most modern YA dystopian fiction, but it is as dramatic and powerful as The Hunger Games or Divergent.

Little Brother (2008)

Cory Doctorow is known as an outspoken science fiction author to many, campaigning for open access to art, and in Little Brother (EXPRESS FICTION 823.91), he puts a new spin on the debates raised more than 50 years ago in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Little Brother is about our world with a slightly higher level of technology, in which children are tracked to check they’re still in school and the government is monitoring communications to an even greater extent than they currently do. The main character, Marcus, is a teenager who loves hacking reality, working out practical ways to get past his school’s security systems and playing an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) with his friends. However, when he is in the vicinity of a terrorist attack, he finds himself taken in for questioning and under continued surveillance. He has to decide whether he is going to spend the rest of his life in the lense of a camera, or whether he will fight back. The consequences of rebellion, however, are far more serious than he ever imagined. Little Brother is an approachable story about the dangers of surveillance and assuming guilt before evidence. More than any other book on this list, it shows the very real decisions that people who rebel against a system supposedly designed to keep them safe have to make, especially when friends, parents and peers decide that it isn’t worth the fight.

Check out our Dystopian display!

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