Dystopian Fiction 101
These all contain graphic descriptions of violence, including sexual and racialised violence; natural disasters such as fire; human rights abuses such as slavery; abuse of disabled people, and other content that may disturb readers. Please exercise your own discretion here.
This listicle also contains spoilers for some works.
George Orwell, 1949, Secker and Warburg
This is the one everyone is referencing when they talk about “Big Brother”, “doublespeak”, “thought crime”, etc. If you didn’t read this in high school, then it’s a good place to start our list. Orwell was pretty edgy in criticising authoritarian communism at a time when a lot of progressives were rooting for communism to win in the near future. Nowadays, a lot of the content has become cliched – but the book’s not too long, and will give you a good solid foundation in Bad Future Fuckery.
After you get the creeps from thinking about mass surveillance of citizens, check this article out and do some of the stuff on their list so you can temporarily settle your nerves, before jumping into…
Brave New World
Aldous Huxley, 1932, Chatto & Windus
Shakespeare lovers will be stoked. Personally I got a bit sick of doing Shakespeare in school because we studied one Shakespeare play every single year and spent a large proportion of class time trying to figure out what in shit the characters were even saying. This is a lot easier to get through. Again we’ve got an authoritarian, perma-stratified, oligarchal society… But with more sex, so that’s fun, I guess?
(How does socialism play out this time compared to 1984? Which aspects of real-life communist and socialist powers have been kept, and which have been subverted? )
The Handmaid’s Tale
Margaret Atwood, 1985, McClelland and Stewart
Do not skip the epilogue. This is a harsh, cold look at religious and white supremacist fascism in the USA. Absolutely invaluable for introductory dystopian fiction, regardless of your political or ideological background. While the technology described has aged dramatically
(How do the powerbrokers of Gideon come to power, and increase their control over the nation and then the continent? Are there real-life examples of governments using these tactics? Why does the narrator feel slightly distrustful of Luke, despite their close relationship?)
The Parable of the Sower
Butler’s work is sorely underrated. This book stands out from the others in this list because of the libertarian, rather than totalitarian, governance in place, and the freedom individuals have in the story. It’s also notable in that it doesn’t use religion as a blunt force weapon, and there’s a moderate amount of rationalism and prepping involved, which is always good. Butler shows us the importance of social bonds and the power of faith as strong counterpoints to the bleakness of their surroundings.
(Compare and contrast the place of religion and drug use in this dystopia with others such as Brave New World. What events catalyse governmental change in this story? Who benefits from these changes?)
Children of Men
Aaaaaand we’re back in the UK. You know what? I actually liked the film version of this better than the book, especially in the depictions of “Quietus”. Your mileage may vary. The film in particular is an intimate and confronting story of a father searching for meaning in a society that seems to have doomed itself.
(What are the main differences between the treatment of refugees in this film versus the treatment of refugees in 1984? How is assisted suicide depicted here versus in Brave New World? What were those sheep eating in that camp? I didn’t see much grass. Is it fair to call Sid a “fascist”?)
V For Vendetta
Alan Moore and David Lloyd (DC Comics)
This is how those Guy Fawkes masks became popular as a symbol of defiance, hacktivism, and generally spending too much time on the internet. Elrond and Queen Armidala commit terrorism against a far-right state controlled by religion, which is funny because Guy Fawkes himself probably wouldn’t have had a problem with anything the baddies in this work are doing. Reading the graphic novel before seeing the movie is strongly recommended.
(How does the government in this story take and expand power? How do people choose to resist? )
So now that you’ve got a broad-but-shallow background understanding, which is great, I guess I’ll do a 102 with stronger categorisation so you can wade deeper into the bits that interest you.
Tags: 1984, aldous huxley, authoritarian, Bad Future Fuckery, big brother, brave new world, Children of Men, communism, doublespeak, drugs, dystopia, dystopian, fascism, fcition, future, Handmaid's Tale, handmaiden's tale, history, libertarian, Margaret Atwood, mass surveillance, Octavia Butler, Orwell, P D James, Parable of the Sower, politics, race, sci fi, science fiction, sex, shakespeare, society, sociology, thought crime, thoughtcrime