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Dystopias, anyone?

Author Robert Collins recently listed his Top Ten Dystopian Novels in The Guardian.

His choices included the following:

1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
3. Crash by JG Ballard
4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
6. In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
7. Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson
8. Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K Dick
10. Idoru by William Gibson

I definitely agree with some of these choices. I teach three of these in class. A few seem overrated to me, I'm not even sure Lord of the Flies fits under the same definition as the others, and a couple of these are still on my list of books to read, I'm ashamed to say. But my immediate reaction is that several titles I would have expected to see are missing, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Anthem by Ayn Rand, Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Handmaid's Take by Margaret Atwood, The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Welcome to the Monkey House by Kurt Vonnegut (especially for "Harrison Bergeron").

The dystopian issue is particularly on my mind since I am preparing a talk entitled "Still Big Brother After All These Years" for PhreakNIC 9. Athough it's tempting to consider film, from 1927's Metropolis to this year's The Island, I am thinking about focusing primarily on a few key works of dystopian literature at the moment.

So what dystopias would be on your top ten list?

A quote for the day:

"'Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then they will be far removed from that disturbing element - direct observation. Do not learn anything about this subject of mine - the French Revolution. Learn instead what I think that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing thought Lafcadio Hearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolution. Through the medium of these ten great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to an idea which you may employ most profitably in your daily lives. But be sure that the intermediates are many and varied, for in history one authority exists to counteract another. Urizen must counteract the scepticism of Ho-Yung and Enicharmon, I must myself counteract the impetuosity of Gutch. You who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am. Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time' - his voice rose - 'there will come a generation that had got beyond facts, beyond impressions, a generation absolutely colourless, a generation
seraphically free
From taint of personality
which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place in the days of the Machine.'"

from "The Machine Stops," E.M. Forster (1909)


( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 30th, 2005 04:01 pm (UTC)
I find it interesting that neither "The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood nor "The Passion of New Eve" by Angela Carter were on there. Or, for that matter, novels by any female writer.

Although I totally agree with you on "Farenheit 451".
Sep. 2nd, 2005 03:54 pm (UTC)
Excellent point about the lack of female authors represented on the list! I totally agree about The Handmaid's Tale. I haven't yet read The Passion of New Eve, though I've read about it. Thanks for reminding me of this one.
Aug. 30th, 2005 04:12 pm (UTC)
I'm with kangeiko; the absence of any female authors is extraordinary. In the interests of balance, I'll go with The Handmaid's Tale, and add Swastika Night by Katherine Burdekin, The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, and The Gate to Women's Country by Sheri S. Tepper. Also We by Zamyatin.
Sep. 2nd, 2005 03:58 pm (UTC)
Excellent point and great choices. I'm so glad you mentioned The Dispossessed! And Swastika Night does not seem to get the attention it deserves, especially considering the fact it predated so many of the others. Thanks so much.
Sep. 2nd, 2005 04:40 pm (UTC)
Swastika Night is a brilliant book - although often commentators misunderstand it in strange fashion, IMHO. I'm thinking mainly of John Carey's account of it in The Faber Book of Utopias, where he asserts that it gives a unrepresentative account of Nazi ideology "which encouraged the health and welfare of women, provided they were racially 'pure'". *slaps forehead* I've read other critiques which describe it as rampantly homophobic, which I think misunderstands Hermann's role in the novel (the character who acts out of love not for state or nation or ideology but for another person, Arthur, and so transcends his cultural conditioning).
Sep. 8th, 2005 11:31 pm (UTC)
I see what you mean - it's fascinating how this work has garnered those kinds of muddled, "missed the point" responses.

Sep. 5th, 2005 08:23 am (UTC)
I've been reading Walk to the End of the World by Suzy McKee Charnas. this weekend. It's in a double edition with Motherlines, and it made me think of other feminist dystopias that are paired in this way with a utopia (I know there are a couple more in that series). Anyway, there's The Dispossessed, The Gate to Woman's Country, Woman on the Edge of Time... I don't know what general point I can make, but some things spring to mind: 1. It's just what More was doing in Utopia; 2. Perhaps it's a more specific engagement with the reality of things, backed up by, 3. Marge Piercy's dystopia is real life.
Sep. 6th, 2005 09:55 am (UTC)
I'll stop spamming you in a minute, but I just remembered that Burdekin has a novel which is the obverse of Swastika Night: The End of This Day's Business, in which the women rule, the men are infantilized, and one woman refuses this Omelas solution. Oh, there's another double-sided utopia/dystopia. Argh, must stop free-associating in someone else's journal!
Sep. 8th, 2005 11:35 pm (UTC)
You are NOT spamming me! I'm eating this up, and I thank you. I will definitely look up Burdekin. Great stuff! Thank you!

I got to thinking about how some of the works we've listed above are also post-cataclysmic, while others are just showing "slippery slope" descents based on current trends. The issue of culpability there intrigues me. I'm a little too tired to be rigorous at the moment, alas, so my next post is a bit of a ramble, but I was just thinking about the dystopia and post-cataclysm categories, which are so mainstream in science fiction circles, and the ways in which they overlap and don't. So I guess I'm interested in post-cataclysmic works, too, in the context of this whole conversation. I just apologize for my scattered wits! ;)
Aug. 30th, 2005 04:25 pm (UTC)
So what dystopias would be on your top ten list?

Well, in my personal opinion, Battle Royale by Koushun Takami is the best dystopian novel ever written. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? would be up there, too.

I don't think A Brave New World counts, because it's a satire--and I would probably lump satire in its own category, even if its satirical of utopias. I probably wouldn't include Lord of the Flies, either.

How about Incal, Feed, The Giver, or Bend Sinister? They're pretty awesome dystopian novels. Maybe even Ender's Game or Starship Troopers.

Sep. 2nd, 2005 04:03 pm (UTC)
What a fanastic response! Great choices. Especially Bend Sinister, which I'm especially glad you reminded me of. Thanks!
Aug. 30th, 2005 06:55 pm (UTC)
Is one of my favorites. I read it in the 5th grade, I suspect that it may be more then responsible for what I have grown up to be.

But then... I also read "The Republic" when I was in the 6th grade and I knew that it was very important that I one day read that book again but that it didn't mean much to me then.
Sep. 2nd, 2005 04:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Anthem
Anthem was also the first - though not my last! - book by Ayn Rand I read, and it had a great impact on me, too.
Aug. 31st, 2005 12:26 am (UTC)
I'm with you on Farenheit 451. It may have been that very story that got me hooked on Bradbury, my first real favorite author other than C.S. Lewis. I'm going to be forever kicking myself that I didn't get to take your "History of the Future" course!! I can't even think about the others or I'll get depressed. :(

Glad you're back safely from Iceland- thank you for the postcard! Isn't that church amazing? I love Reykjavik. I should ask: did you buy anything woolen??
Sep. 2nd, 2005 04:26 pm (UTC)
I really enjoyed Trouffaut's Farenheit 451 film, as well, though it's not as good as the book. The Martian Chronicles now is my favorite Bradbury (which is saying something). My students just finished H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. I can't wait for the class in which we listen to the original War of the Worlds radio drama. That always gets a reaction.

If you're ever interested in any of my syllabi, please let me know. Did you see I'll be teaching a new course just on the Trail of Tears in the spring? It should be good for exploiting some of the local research opportunities we have here, and it will also be nice to focus on that while I finish up the Trail of Tears book.

I did buy myself a woolen scarf in Reykjavik, but I couldn't justify anything else, because I'm never cold here! :( I did get a darling hat for my sister, whose birthday is later this month. It's exactly the color of her eyes. Did I mention I was in Reykjavik during their annual marathon? They figured there were more than 100,000 people just in the downtown area. There were stages with live music and everything. The one picture I couldn't get, thanks to rain, was of the Gimli building. I of course thought of you. :) *hugs*
Aug. 31st, 2005 08:41 pm (UTC)
Does it count if you've only seen the film. *g* I've watched Crash, and only stuck with it because of James Spader. If the book is like the film, it's one fucked up world his characters inhabit, but is it a dystopia in the sense of Brave New World etc?

Since dystopias are usually SF biased, I've read a number, but I don't particularly enjoy them. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury sticks in my mind as a chilling read.

I guess I have a problem with definition. The huge tome named the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction defines dystopia as - 'the class of hypothetical societies containing images of worlds worse than our own' which to my mind kind of leaves it wide, wide open. *g*
Sep. 2nd, 2005 04:32 pm (UTC)
Great point! The definition is a bit hazy. I think I may make another post about this, because for my purposes, I may need to distinguish "hypothetical societies" (such as "this would be bad, so let's not go here") from post-apocalyptic stories (after the war/bomb/disaster, here's life) and alternate histories (if Hitler had won...). The latter two might be subsets of dystopias, but they seem to me to be creatures of a slightly different stripe in some important ways. Thanks for your help!
Sep. 1st, 2005 05:33 pm (UTC)
*slaps forehead* Forgot one of my absolute favourites: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.
Sep. 2nd, 2005 04:37 pm (UTC)
Great call! I think I may make another post to separate the plain dystopian from the post-apocalyptic dystopian. I'm interested in both, but they seem to be slightly different creatures to me, since one says "this would be bad, so let's not go there," and another says "if X happens, then this very bad Y might happen," if that makes any sense. Perhaps the latter is simply a subset of the former. At any rate, this is just the kind of thing I'd hoped to be reminded of. Thanks so much!
Sep. 3rd, 2005 01:34 am (UTC)
This is in part a well-deserved tribute to altariel who recently discussed "The Stand" in her J. And she's the expert on all things Blakes7-ish and dystopian.

Sheep have already been mentioned in the contrast of Electricity--let's not forget The Sheep Look Up (John Brunner).
Sep. 8th, 2005 11:28 pm (UTC)
Excellent point about altariel - and great rec (Brunner). Many thanks!
Sep. 15th, 2005 11:59 am (UTC)
I don't know if Darkness at Noon counts as a dystopia (since it's set in the real world), but it's always mentioned in the same context as Nineteen Eighty-Four, so here's an article anyway.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )

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