Dystopian Fiction: Part 2
For the sake of this blog, and not relying totally on memory, I have used a brief synopsis of each novel mentioned here courtesy of Wikipedia.
Last time out I discussed some of the earliest-known (to me, at any rate) dystopian novels that I read in the last 4 decades of the 20th century. I also talked a bit about why I stopped reading dystopian fiction: to me, they are really horror novels, more or less. As for horror novels . . . I don’t think of them as such. I think of them as just dark fantasies. The only “horror” novel that actually creeped me out, and gave me a nightmare or two was The Exorcist. But dystopian novels such as George Orwell’s 1984, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, and Jack London’s The Iron Heel really got to me, and those are the real horror stories.
Today, with the help of Wikipedia, I’m going to discuss a few dystopian novels published in the latter part of the 20th century, novels I consider important and that should be read by those who read and write dystopian fiction. I just hate to see really great novels go unread and forgotten by today’s reading audience, and in many cases younger readers may not even be aware of these novels. So hopefully I will be turning some people on to a few really great reads.
First, a shout out to the late, brilliant Philip K. Dick. Many, many of his novels take place in dystopian futures: this was his niche. And he seems to be as popular with young readers today as he was when I first discovered him in the 1960s. He was one of a kind, a truly unique and gifted writer. A number of his novels and stories have been turned into films, such as Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (filmed as Blade Runner), The Minority Report, (filmed as Minority Report), A Scanner Darkly, and The Man in the High Castle. He is one of the greats of classic science fiction, with a voice like no one else. His is most definitely a must read.
So onward we go. . . .
Although I had read 1984 and Brave New World in high school, the first dystopian novel I read on my own — long before the “label” was attached to such fiction, was John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar. This novel was part of 1960’s New Wave of science fiction. Published in 1968, the book won a Hugo Award for Best Novel at the 27th World Science Fiction Convention in 1969, as well as the 1969 BSFA Award and the 1973 Prix Tour-Apollo Award. Stand on Zanzibar was innovative within the science fiction genre for mixing narrative with entire chapters dedicated to providing background information and world-building, to create a sprawling narrative that presents a complex and multi-faceted view of the story’s future world. Such information-rich chapters were often constructed from many short paragraphs, sentences, or fragments thereof — pulled from sources such as slogans, snatches of conversation, advertising text, songs, extracts from newspapers and books, and other cultural detritus. The novel’s story is overpopulation and its projected consequences. Brunner remarked that the 3.5 billion people living in 1968 could stand together, upright and shoulder to shoulder, on the Isle of Man, 221 square miles, while the 7 billion people who he (correctly) projected would be alive in 2010 would need to stand on Zanzibar, 600 square miles. The story is set in 2010, mostly in the United States. A number of plots and many vignettes are played out in this future world, based on Brunner's extrapolation of social, economic, and technological trends. The key main trends are based on the enormous population and its impact: social stresses, eugenic legislation, widening social divisions, future shock, and extremism.
John Brunner followed up with The Sheep Look Up, first published in 1972. The novel’s setting is decidedly dystopian; the book deals with the deterioration of the environment in the United States. It was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1972. With the rise of a corporation-sponsored government, pollution in big cities has reached extreme levels and most (if not all) people’s health has been affected in some way. By the end of the book, rioting and civil unrest sweep the United States, due to a combination of poor health, poor sanitation, lack of food, lack of services, ineffectiveness of services (medical, policing), disillusionment with government/companies, oppressive government, high incidence of birth defects (pollution-induced), and other factors; all services (military, government, private, infrastructure) break down. This is truly a realistic horror novel.
Probably one of the more famous, latter-day novels of a dystopian future, thanks to the popularity of the film, Soylent Green, is the novel which inspired the movie: Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! Published in 1966, the novel is set in the then far-future of August, 1999. (The 1973 film, if I recall correctly, was set in 2022.) In his novel, Harrison explores trends in the proportion of world resources used by the United States and other countries compared to population growth, depicting a world where the global population is seven billion, subject to overcrowding, resource shortages and a crumbling infrastructure. The plot jumps from character to character, recounting the lives of people in various walks of life in New York City (population around 35 million). The novel differs greatly from the film, which has become its “own thing.” In the movie, character names have been changed, the murder investigation is solved, and “soylent green” is just a simple cracker made of soy beans and lentils, and had almost nothing to do with the plot of the story, not in the way it figured so memorably in the film version. I applaud the screenwriters for taking that “simple cracker” and turning it into the crux of the plot, and for adding the element of cannibalism to the story. Making soylent green out of dead people sure solves the problems of both a food shortage and dead body disposal.
Another famous dystopian novel, made even more famous by Stanley Kubrick’s film version is Anthony Burgess’ 1962, A Clockwork Orange. Set in a near future English society featuring a subculture of extreme youth violence, the teenage protagonist, Alex, narrates his violent exploits and his experiences with the state authority’s intent on reforming him. The book is partially written in a Russian-influenced argot called “Nadsat.”According to an essay by Burgess, the title of the book “would be appropriate for a story about the application of Pavlovian or mechanical laws to an organism which, like a fruit, was capable of color and sweetness.” Something organic that is mechanically controlled, as one friend described it. I found the both the book and the film to be a dark and disturbing look at a possible future controlled “by the state,” where gangs roam free and control the streets, practicing their “bit of the ol’ ultra-violence” on innocent victims, just for the fun of it. While not as much of a futuristic horror story as other dystopian novels, it is definitely a most influential novel, even prophetic novel, but not one I’ll ever read again.
Lastly, I come to another famous dystopian novel, this won written by one of the masters of Science Fiction, and of short stories in particular: Ray Bradbury. I’m talking about Fahrenheit 451, of course, which has been turned into two films, as of this date. This is a dystopian novel, published in 1953, that presents a future American society where books are outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found. Fahrenheit 451is the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns. The novel has been the subject of interpretations focusing on the historical role of book burning in suppressing dissenting ideas, such as the books burned by the Nazis, and here in the United States; so many more removed from school libraries, too. In a 1956 radio interview, Ray Bradbury stated that he wrote Fahrenheit 451 because of his concerns at the time (during the McCarthy era) about the threat of book burning in the United States. In later years, he described the book as “a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature.” How true! I’m very proud that my first published short story, in 1984 and in an amateur “fanzine” called Orion’s Child, appeared with a previously-published story Ray Bradbury graciously donated to help us sell magazines. Better than that, my name is on the magazine’s cover, right near his!
That’s all for now. Tune in next month for Part 3, when I’ll be discussing some other writers of dystopian fiction. Thank you!
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