Dystopia, literally, is the anti-Utopia, not a happy place. Stories and books of this genre create a futuristic vision of a society in which conditions of life are miserable and characterized by elements such as poverty, oppression, war, violence and terror, resulting in widespread unhappiness, suffering, and other kinds of pain [wikipdeia]. Many authors have had great success writing about dystopias, visions of dangerous and alienating future societies, that paint a bleak and dreary outlook for human kind. This list looks at 10 great books that have dystopian themes: stories about the anti-utopia.
10. The Running Man by Stephen King
The Running Man is interesting in that it is King’s only novel-length foray into true science fiction, as opposed to occult or more spiritual worlds. The book concerns a man named Ben Richards, who lives in a dystopic future: the government has been partially if not completely usurped by the powers that Free-Vee: television has become the ruler. The Richards’ are poor and their child is sick, and Ben realizes early on that the only way to afford the outrageously expensive medicine is to become a contestant on one of the Game Shows. Richards goes though a series of challenging mental and physical tests, then is selected to be a contestant on a show called The Running Man. The purpose is simple: the contestant has to stay alive for thirty days. He has Hunters after him, and the entire free world has instructions to inform the Games commission of Richards’ whereabouts. In essence, it’s Richards against the world, as the dystopian theme is played out.
9. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
Although released in 1952, Kurt Vonnegut’s dystopian Player Piano serves as a satire of modern America. Player Piano paints a future America where a technocratic oligarchy has established a corporate-styled command economy and cradle-to-grave socialism. The leaders think they’ve created a utopia but the workers disagree. Advancing technology makes more people useless or redundant, every day. Retraining is no answer; even engineers are being replaced by computers. Society has become a player piano, creating flawless music without aid of human hands. The dystopian society in Vonnegut’s story is one in which everyone’s basic needs are met: pre-fabricated homes, washers, TV, national health care and twelve years of free education as most people graduate to idleness. In Player Piano, terrorists are also called “saboteurs,” the ugliest of obscenities. Alleged saboteurs cannot appeal to a judge, since judges have been replaced by computers.
8. The Iron Heel by Jack London
The Iron Heel concerns the era from 1912 to 1932, as viewed from seven hundred years in the future. A journal kept by Avis Everhard during that period, but not published until 419 B. O. M. (Brotherhood of Man), tells of her husband’s part in organizing and carrying out the plans for the First and Second Revolts which eventually lead to worldwide socialism. The Iron Heel, published in 1908, was one of the first dystopian novels chronicling the possibility of a police state in the US. The novel describes the anti-Utopian future in which an an oligarchic regime nicknamed “The Iron Heel” takes over the United States, generates class warfare from a socialist perspective, and brings an outlook sympathetic to the working class and revolutionaries who fight for its rights. The story progresses from the philosophical to the physical as the action moves from drawing room encounters between intellectuals to street clashes between militia and laborers. Classic descriptions of strikes, strikebreaking, riots and street massacres are reminiscent of experiences of American workers in the late 19th century.
7. Feed by M.T. Anderson
This novel is about a world where almost everybody has supercomputers planted into their brain, and thus is subject to 24/7 information, shopping, chatting and advertising (the Internet has evolved into the “Feednet”; a computer network to which the brains of American citizens are directly connected by means of an implanted computer chip called a “Feed”). The novel focuses on Titus and his friends who, on a trip to the moon, meet a strange girl named Violet and end up getting touched by a hacker, which breaks their ‘feeds’. While the others are quickly “repaired”, Violet is not able to recover her feed and becomes progressively ill. Titus is not able to understand how it is possible to live without the feed, in this dystopian world where your identity is determined by what you buy. The story unfolds with Titus struggling to understand what happens to Violet while at the same time maintaining his presence in the world and the Feed.
6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The book, published in 1953, earns its title from the temperature at which book paper catches fire and burns. In this future dystopia, Guy Montag is a fireman who starts fires rather than stopping them. The firemen respond to calls of those who accuse someone of harboring books: they burn the books along with the house, and the owners are arrested (unless they choose to commit suicide). Books are forbidden because they can allow people to think, to be unhappy, to question things around them, such as the government and war. His neighbour Clarisse, a seventeen-year-old girl identified as “crazy” and “dangerous” because she is not enslaved to the media, takes walks, examines her surroundings and the people in it, talks with her family and others about matters of substance and is not afraid to ask questions. The honesty and openness of Clarisse unhinges Montag, and he soon becomes one of those who hides from the fires, rather than one of those who sets them.
5. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Director of Hatcheries and Conditioning explains that this Utopia breeds people to order, artificially fertilizing a mother’s eggs to create babies that grow in bottles. They are not born, but decanted. Everyone belongs to one of five classes, from the Alphas, the most intelligent, to the Epsilons, morons bred to do the dirty jobs that nobody else wants to do. The lower classes are multiplied by a budding process that can create up to 96 identical clones and produce over 15,000 brothers and sisters from a single ovary. All the babies are conditioned, physically and chemically in the bottle, and psychologically after birth, to make them happy citizens of the society with both a liking and an aptitude for the work they will do. The Controller, one of the ten men who run the world, explains some of the more profound principles on which the Utopia is based. One is that “history is bunk”; the society limits people’s knowledge of the past so they will not be able to compare the present with anything that might make them want to change the present. Another principle is that people should have no emotions, particularly no painful emotions; blind happiness is necessary for stability. One of the things that guarantees happiness is a drug called soma, which calms you down and gets you high but never gives you a hangover.
4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
A Clockwork Orange takes place in a futuristic city governed by a repressive, totalitarian state. In this society, ordinary citizens have fallen into a passive stupor of complacency to a violent youth culture. The protagonist of the story is Alex, a fifteen-year-old boy who narrates in a teenage slang called nadsat, which incorporates elements of Russian and Cockney English. Alex leads a small gang of teenage criminals through the streets, robbing and beating men and raping women. Alex and his friends spend the rest of their time at the Korova Milkbar, an establishment that serves milk laced with drugs, and a bar called the Duke of New York.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian and theocratic state that has replaced the United States of America. Because of dangerously low reproduction rates, Handmaids are assigned to bear children for elite couples that have trouble conceiving. Every month, when Offred is at the right point in her menstrual cycle, she must have impersonal, wordless sex with the Commander while Serena sits behind her, holding her hands. The architects of Gilead began their rise to power in an age of readily available pornography, prostitution, and violence against women—when pollution and chemical spills led to declining fertility rates..
2. Anthem by Ayn Rand
Anthem, published in 1938, is a story of self discovery told in the setting of a world that has eliminated the individual and operates under the principle of the collective. A youth named Equality 7-2521, who has found a hidden tunnel and hides in it to write, knows his solitude violates all the laws of his society. As he spends more time alone, he realizes that solitude suits him, and he begins to crave more and more time by himself. As a child, he often fought with the boys at the Home of Students, and he was reprimanded by his teachers for being too smart and too tall. He tried to conform to the standard the others set, but no matter how hard he tried, he was smarter and quicker than they were. When the Council of Vocations assigned him to be a street sweeper instead of a scholar, he was pleased because it meant he could atone for the sins he had committed. Equality meets a spirited girl named the Golden One, and after the trials and tribulations of trying to fit in with society, realizing that he cannot, the story finishes with the discovery of the word “Ego” and the search for the individual in society.
1. 1984 by George Orwell
Winston Smith is a low-ranking member of the ruling Party in London, in the nation of Oceania. Everywhere Winston goes, even his own home, the Party watches him through telescreens; everywhere he looks he sees the face of the Party’s seemingly omniscient leader, a figure known only as Big Brother. The Party is forcing the implementation of an invented language called Newspeak, which attempts to prevent political rebellion by eliminating all words related to it. Even thinking rebellious thoughts is illegal. Such thoughtcrime is, in fact, the worst of all crimes. Winston works in the Ministry of Truth, where he alters historical records to fit the needs of the Party. He notices a co-worker, a beautiful dark-haired girl, staring at him, and worries that she is an informant who will turn him in for his thoughtcrime. They end up having a secret affair that leads to disastrous results and the ultimate triumph of Big Brother.
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