Some writers seem to spend all day gazing out at the world through dreary, rain-smeared windows. It can’t do much to perk them up, but it has made for some great works of fiction.
Dystopia in fiction has a long history stretching back to Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and beyond. Whenever people have been unhappy with a supposedly perfect society, and have taken steps to put these feelings into words, a piece of dystopian literature has been born. Swift’s satirical take on early 18th century life is a fantastic example of early dystopia; with each and every world he lands in bringing to light a flawed aspect of British society. As science progressed, many writers began using science fiction as a platform to explore their own visions of dystopian lands and futures. H. G. Wells’ 1895 novel, The Time Machine, explores the class divide by having its protagonist, the Time Traveller, journey to a seemingly perfect future, where he soon discovers the Morlocks: a slave class of sub-human workers who live under ground and have begun to adapt to this dark, cold environment. It’s Dickens, but with time travel, and it’s fantastic.
Modernism brought with it its own dystopias; the likes of Kafka’s The Trial, Milo Hasting’s City of Endless Night and Huxley’s Brave New World, all of which sought to comment on the plethora changes both before, and after, WW1. Later, as The Cold War escalated, science fiction and dystopian novels enjoyed a bittersweet surge of popularity, and even graphic novelists released seminal works of dystopian literature, including Watchmen, V for Vendetta and Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows.
As long as writers have a social conscience, there will always be works of dystopian fiction, otherwise, that would mean we would all inhabit a perfect, utopian world, a subjective idea at best. In celebration of all the writers who have tried to do their bit to aid society’s ills, here’s a rundown of the best of modern dystopian fiction.
Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
When we lost Ray Bradbury last year, we lost a true genius. Bradbury was a man whose output made the word ‘prolific’ seem like an understatement. I’m yet to work my way through the entire list of Bradbury’s novels and short stories, but even with limited exposure, I can safely say Fahrenheit 451 will remain one of my favourite books for a long, long time. The story deals with Guy Montag, a fireman whose duty it is to burn books, which are now outlawed as a subversive element. Initially, Montag is happy in his work, that is, until he meets Clarisse McClellan, a free spirited young girl who helps him drift further and further away from ‘normal life’ and his wife’s TV parlor (a room with ceiling to floor televisions).
Nothing I can write could do this book enough justice, so here’s one of the best bits about the beauty of those bound pages that tell us all stories: “I still love books. Nothing a computer can do can compare to a book. You can’t really put a book on the Internet. Three companies have offered to put books by me on the Net, and I said, ‘If you can make something that has a nice jacket, nice paper with that nice smell, then we’ll talk.”
Vermilion Sands – J.G. Ballard
I’m unsure how to begin this description, other than saying Vermilion Sands is the most insane book I’ve ever read, perhaps except for another book of Ballard’s short episodes, The Atrocity Exhibition. Vermilion Sands is set around a Californian holiday resort, and its wealthy and parasitic residents. Amongst the strange and wonderful stories are a man that sells singing plants, a crew who shape clouds and sand skiffs that float over the sand dunes, like buccaneers of the land. Ballard’s talent is to take the usual and distort it though a twisted glass, until it resembles fantastical and disturbing landscapes, full of new and strange possibilities. It takes perseverance to get through this book, but you’ll certainly be rewarded.
Closing Time- Joseph Heller
The sequel to the Best Book of All Time (Catch 22, if you have to ask) deals with Yossarian, Milo and co in the 1990s as the world teeters on the brink of corruption. As Yossarian goes about his life in New York, Milo Minderbinder has moved on from acquiring Egyptian Cotton en-masse, and has a new role as a military advisor. As you’d imagine, this is more of a black eye, than a feather in the cap of the human race. Heller himself also appears as a character, in a lovely postmodern touch, but the Best Cameo award has to go to Vonnegut, a soldier whom one of the characters met in Dresden. Sound like any other fantastic dystopian novels? The Literary Review has called Closing Time ‘the finest prose Heller has ever written’, it isn’t, but when you’re a writer of Heller’s calibre, everything is damn good.
The Day of The Triffids- John Wyndham
An absolute bloody beauty. The premise- ‘Meteor blinds human race, allowing cannibal plants to go on the run’ sounds as daft as if I’d told you it was possible to win the lottery by rubbing your stomach and patting your head, whilst jumping up and down and reciting the Japanese alphabet backwards. (This definitely does not work, and I have definitely wasted the morning). Anyway, back to the novel. Bill Masen is the hero of the piece, a man whose job it has been to work with the triffids, those titular cannibalistic plants. When Masen is stung in the line of duty, he has to undergo an emergency operation on his eyes, and thus misses the meteor shower that blinds the population of Britain.
Masen waking up to this world of blindness is a fantastic scene, and one that’s been adapted by the likes of 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead. Like those works, the beauty of ‘Triffids, is that it takes what we know; London, the countryside, England, and takes away the rules, the government, society as we know it, and let’s anarchy reign as Masen and his companions try to forge a new life for themselves in a changed world.
An unofficial sequel, Night of the Triffids was released in 2001. Unfortunately, it received mixed reviews. I’m yet to get hold of a copy, but if it’s even half as good as the original, you can count me in.
World War Z – Max Brooks
Are zombie books/movies dystopia? Yes, of course they are: see above. George A Romero is the man to thank for the zombie as we now know it. Dealing with race relations, consumerism and genetic experimentation, Romero’s original ‘of the Dead’ trilogy were brilliantly terrifying social commentaries, that held a mirror up to our world, as all good dystopian works should. World War Z is a book in this fine tradition. I’ve written about the trailer for the movie not looking too great, but forget that; here I’m talking about the novel, and it’s fantastic. From governments poisoning their own people, to Japanese geeks being pried away from the computer, to Chinese government conspiracies, there’s a lot going on here, and as horrifying as the zombie threat is, this is a book about humans, and how we treat and mistreat each other.
A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
What’s it going to be then, eh? How about a bona-fide Cold War classic? Kubrick’s adaptation has been hailed as disappointing, but I’d take both/either any day of the week. Alex DeLarge will forever be one of literature’s finest creations, much to the chagrin of Burgess, who became understandably fed up with people thinking ‘Orange was his only work.
The book is a brilliant exploration of our right to free choice, told in Nadsat, a fantastic argot Burgess fashioned from odds and ends of Russian and English. The society is totalitarian, the medical experiments a bit suspect (to say the least) and the council houses, terrifying. It’s such a brilliant book that I can only urge you to go out and grab a copy right now. The icing on the grey cake of violence, the real milk-plus part, is that Burgees claimed to have written the whole thing in a three week burst of creativity. A real horror show bit of malenky ultra-violence. Viddy it immediately, dear reader.
Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
The quote from the Sunday Telegraph on the dust jacket of Cat’s Cradle reads ‘A major novelist, and a major novel.’ I couldn’t agree more. The novel deals with the threat of nuclear war, but in the guise of ‘ice-nine’, a lethal chemical which has the power to freeze the entire planet. The novel begins in the ashes of Hiroshima, as the protagonist, John, seeks to write a book about what important Americans were doing on the day the bomb dropped. Vonnegut is at his best when he’s satirising American narcissism, but here his scope extends beyond his own country to the Arms Race, organised religion and the stupidity of the entire human race. Vonnegut handles it all with sublime humour, finesse and skill to create a postmodern masterpiece, equally horrifying as it is entertaining.