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George Orwell. Margaret Atwood. Aldous Huxley. Books by these authors and others are flying off the shelves as millions of readers reach for fictional accounts of tyrants, new world orders and dark, futuristic landscapes. We talk about the books and writers many Americans are turning to at a time of uncertainty and change. Is this the literature of our discontent?
- Ron Charles Editor, Book World, The Washington Post
- Dana Williams Professor of African American literature; chair of the English department at Howard University
- Lionel Shriver Journalist and author. Her novels include "The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047," “Big Brother” and the 2005 Orange Prize-winner, “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”
Washington Post Book Critic Ron Charles On '1984' And 2017
Your Favorite Dystopian Works
We took to Twitter to ask about your favorite dystopian works, and you certainly weren’t shy. Here’s a selection of the responses:
@1a my mom read Fahrenheit 451 to me when I was a child. Not sure how it effected me but I remember it well.— Max (@dreamcastmax) February 8, 2017
@1a Neuromancer and Snowcrash are on my list. Both books double as dystopia & highlighting how technology alters our relationship to reality— Sina (@rejectionking) February 8, 2017
@1a my favorite distopian novel is definitely A Brave New World. New technologies like CRISPR makes me think that world isn't far off!— Jacob (@JakeMeister13) February 8, 2017
@1a Watership Down.— ren burke (@patinatrix) February 8, 2017
@1a Let's not forget to mention Black Mirror... those stories are totally dystopian— Dustin Smith (@dhsmith77) February 8, 2017
Hey @1a, if no one has mentioned it, don't forget Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower.— (((Dan Moulthrop))) (@danmoulthrop) February 8, 2017
@1a I find The Handsmaid's Tail the most compelling, esp the steps the govt took to get to where the tale takes place.— Alicia G (@craftyalicaG) February 8, 2017
@1a feed by m.t. anderson is my favorite dystopian novel. Set 100 yrs in our future, the internet is implanted at birth— Brandy Cochran (@bitteridealist) February 8, 2017
@1a Oryx & Crake by Margaret Atwood. The lab grown chicken is horrifying, yet seems possible.— Abby Vandegrift (@abbyvandegrift) February 8, 2017
@1a Richard Wright's man who lived underground-I will never forget this story— Mary O'Neill (@mtoneill4) February 8, 2017
@1a our book club is reading The Plot Against America by Philip Roth during these current interesting times— Rob Rivers (@robclayrivers) February 8, 2017
@1a goodnight moon.— jay cowit (@jaycowit) February 8, 2017
@1a The Giver was my first exposure to dystopian lit. It still stands as my favorite. I think young adult dystopian lit is so important.— Brittany Pye (@stillbpye) February 8, 2017
@1a Animal Farm! I lovehow popular Margaret Atwood is right now! Look at Hugh Howe, too!— Karen Butler (@ThePromoGoddess) February 8, 2017
A Quick Guide To Six Dystopian Novels
Conversations about dystopian fiction usually center around a few pivotal works. While these are required reading in many schools, not everyone remembers them, and not everyone did the homework. Before your next dinner party, brush up on these classics with this primer:
Published in 1949, George Orwell’s vision of the future was grim, with an all-controlling Party led by Big Brother spying on citizens and twisting language into a means of controlling citizens. “War is peace,” “Freedom is slavery” and “Ignorance is strength”are slogans used by government agencies in the book.
“As I reread it as an adult, what terrified me more was the constant infantilizing supervision,” Ron Charles said on 1A. “What fascinated me was the way language was being controlled in order to control how people thought and behaved.”
In a society where books are burned and censorship is championed, the illusion of happiness destroys interest in literature (the title is also the temperature at which book paper burns). In Ray Bradbury’s novel, the populace is dialed in to television, blissfully unaware of the world as they consume vapid entertainment. As minds are numbed and brains congealed, the world slowly becomes devoid of context.
Parable of the Sower
Published in the 1990s, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable Series depicts the world of California in 2024, which is bleak. Society has essentially collapsed, though not because of a war or natural disaster. “There is no big thing that has happened to make the world unbalanced,” Professor Dana Williams said on 1A.
In this near-future California, society has stratified into classes, with citizens living inside of walled communities, which present their own dangers unique from those outside of the walls. “What we see Butler doing here is challenging our ideas of how we articulate and define freedom for ourselves,” Williams said. “They’re questioning what does freedom look like inside and outside of a walled community.”
The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood’s novel describes the rise of a totalitarian regime after a catastrophic and widespread change in the fertility of women threatens a society dominated by men. In the Republic of Gilead, women become commodities. They are not allowed to read or gain knowledge in any way. Sex is for reproduction only, not pleasure. The Gilead women have a job to do. Meanwhile, handmaids fill a non-romantic procreation role, subjected to bizarre loveless sex rituals.
“It feels as if feminism is in danger of shoving into reverse,” Lionel Shriver said when discussing this book’s recent sales spike. “More practically, there is a lot of anxiety about what’s going to happen in the supreme court particularly in relation to Roe v. Wade. I think that’s one reason.”
Brave New World
Set in London in 2540, Aldous Huxley’s novel depicts a future global society organized around strict rules and regulations, which guarantee stability, peace and happiness. Multinational corporations rule the world, and people are bred in bottles for jobs that will make society more efficient. Everyone seems to be satisfied with their predetermined jobs, relationships and lives. Notions of family, religion and love have no reasons to exists.
“If you are born in the lower classes, you are going to stay there and think its the greatest place you could have possibly been born in,” Shriver said. “Huxley is really asking a question on the nature of happiness and the nature of a good society. If you are forced to be happy, are you really happy?”
It Can’t Happen Here
Called “a message to thinking Americans” by the Springfield Republican when it was published in 1935, Sinclair Lewis’ political satire was inspired by the political rise of Louisiana governor-turned-senator Huey Long. In the novel, the President of the United States slowly turns into a dictator who promises to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime and the press. Without a system of checks and balances in place, tyranny prevails as journalists struggle to expose the corruption within the government.
Despite it’s new popularity, the book isn’t necessarily the best read. “It’s pretty heavy handed,” Charles noted on 1A.
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