Friday, September 01, 2006

Dystopian Novels

After finishing “Birds Without Wings” by Louis de Bernieres, which by the way was an excellent novel, I decided to read Orwell’s great dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty Four” which in turn has induced me to binge on the genre of dystopian fiction.

I often let the book I am reading lead me on to the next. As I rarely buy new books these days, this always involves hunting through my book collection for a vaguely remembered novel purchased 20 or so years ago. It took me a while to track down “Nineteen Eighty Four”, but I found it when I was looking for Huxley’s “Brave New World” which has still not come to light, though I know it is there somewhere.

I had not read “Nineteen Eighty Four” since 1978 and, after all this time, vividly remembered the ending, but hardly anything else. So it was like approaching a new novel where the ending is known, but how the book arrives at the ending is a mystery. This is perfectly OK with me as a great deal of my reading matter these days is often a second, third or umpteenth re-reading of a well-loved book.

“Nineteen Eighty Four” is a profoundly unsettling novel and is, despite being written more than 50 years ago, relevant to today. Newspeak, Big Brother, the Thought Police have been absorbed into the public perception of totalitarian governments and are the bogymen threatening free society today. The wonder of the Internet is how universally free it is, but what if it was controlled by a hostile power? China for instance controls the information available to its citizens with a modified version of Google.

This week I’m reading “Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury. It is interesting, though not all that surprising that books play an important role in all dystopian novels, and represent the free and independent mind. The thing about governmental control is that it is desirable for society to be obedient and if prone to rebellion, dumbed down to suppress opposition. You can see it happening these days. Intelligent debate is discouraged. Over the past decade, right wing governments, world wide, have been elected to power by an uninformed or apathetic electorate.

One of my all time favourite books, “Mockingbird” by Walter Tevis is also a dystopian novel. Set in a far future New York, reading has been forgotten and it is the story of how one man, in a drugged controlled, slowly dying society, rediscovers reading. The consequences of his doing this form the basis of the novel, and indeed, ultimately is the salvation of his world. It is, in my opinion a perfect novel, beautifully plotted, an enthralling futuristic fable that is haunting and melancholy. I’ve read it many times and go back to it time and time again to savour its special quality.

There are many dystopian novels. If I was so inclined I could continue reading books in this genre for the rest of the year, but knowing me, I’ll be off on a different tack after a few weeks.

I’m picking up two new books tomorrow from Justin at Slowglass Books - my preferred purveyor of Science Fiction and such like books. One book is the second volume in the Romanian trilogy by Paul Park, called “The Tourmaline” and the other is “Rainbow Bridge” the final volume in Gwyneth Jones’ Rock N Roll Reich series. Both these novels will fit nicely into my dystopian mood being about alternate worlds/societies of a nightmarish kind.


Clare said...


I really love George Orwell's writing - I think I've read most of his stuff - mainly because I bought one of those unwieldy 'All works in one' volumes when a fairly young adolescent. I still have it. I read most of it then, and sometimes have a quick dip back again now. It's interesting to see how books you read at different times of your life affect you differently, I find.

Although I loved most of Ray bradbury's work Farenheit 451 wasn't my favourite. I loved his short stories and the Martian Chronicles. But maybe it's one I need to go back to as well, perhaps I didn't see the point.

I'd not heard of Mockingbird. So thanks for that, I do like this sort of novel.

I think you're right the depressing state of reality -- the dumbing down, the lack of debate, the corruption and the lack of vision about what is happening to the planet. It is much more depressing than reading the books. Some of these books are bleak - but at least they're fiction!

Anne S said...

I agree about Fahrenheit 541. I didn't like it as much as I thought I would and remembered from my first reading many years ago. I am fond of Bradbury's October Country stories, but in general he is not writer I follow with much interest. There is something about his writing style that puts me off.

Mockingbird, on the other hand is a wondrously well written book. I buy second hand copies of it whenever I see them and give them away to friends. It's that sort of book, you want to share it with everyone.

Walter Tevis is terribly underrated, though three of his books were made into films - Hustler, The Colour of Money and The Man who Fell To Earth.