Literature and politics are never far removed from one another: political climates influence the mindset of writers, and dystopian books can encourage their readers to think critically about the socio-political world around them.
as they grow older and explore the world outside Hailsham, as they begin to experience feelings of love and hope
Stories of dystopias warn readers to be mindful of their political environment and to take action before it is too late before the horrific has become normalized.
iTHINK discusses five dystopian novels and what they can tell us about the past, present, and future of the world we live in.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
A classic read reminiscent of high-school English classes, Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably the most well-known dystopian novel in existence.
Published in 1949, Orwell’s novel explores WWII era anxieties about society falling under a totalitarian regime. It is set in a world largely based on the USSR under the rule of Joseph Stalin and acts as a cautionary tale about corrupt revolution.
As the title suggests, the story takes place in 1984, in a totalitarian super-state referred to as Oceania. Winston Smith, a middle-class worker, is emboldened by his secretly rebellious co-worker Julia, and the two attempt to claim what little freedom they can under the suffocating omniscience of the Party.
Nineteen Eighty-Four is a cornerstone of dystopian fiction and introduces a plethora of terrifying concepts, such as thoughtcrime (nonconformist political thoughts that are severely punished by the law) and doublethink (the concept of simultaneously holding two conflicting thoughts in one’s mind and believing them both).
For a claustrophobic experience of government encroachment on personal freedoms, and a prime example of dystopian fiction, Nineteen Eighty-Four is the place to start.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Written between 1920 and 1921, We is widely considered one of the earliest dystopian novels. Aldous Huxley, Kurt Vonnegut, Ayn Rand, and even Orwell are said to have taken inspiration from Zamyatin’s ground-breaking novel.
Zamyatin wrote We shortly after the end of the Russian Revolution and used it to critique and question the idea of a socialist utopia propagated by the USSR.
Because of his controversial opinions, Zamyatin was heavily criticized by the state and We was first published as an English translation in 1924. It only began circulating in the USSR in 1927.
We depicts a society that runs purely on logic and reason. In the One State, people are referred to not by names but by numbers. They live under constant surveillance in a city of glass. They wear uniforms and march in unison. And their behaviour is dictated by the logic, formulas, and equations outlined by their government.
The plot follows D-503, an engineer who is working to build a spacecraft for the One State to conquer other planets. Much like Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Winston, D-503 encounters a woman who introduces him to a world of rebellion: I-330.
I-330 opens D-503’s eyes to the reality of the world outside the One State and how life within the confines of the Green Wall cannot be preserved.
We explores many of the same themes as Nineteen Eighty-Four, but has a slightly more hopeful outcome.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go adopts a narrower perspective on a dystopian society. Published in 2005, Ishiguro’s novel focuses on a more modern political issue than Orwell’s and Zamyatin’s: the ethics of cloning humans.
Set the 1990s, Never Let Me Go takes place in an alternate version of the UK, where cloning humans for organ donation is commonplace.
The novel follows the reminisced past of Kathy H., who describes herself to the reader as a ‘carer’. She reflects on a blissful childhood spent at Hailsham, a boarding school where the children are kept under close supervision.
When Kathy and her classmates learn from one of their teachers that their only purpose in life is to become organ donors when they are of age, they take it in stride and continue with their lives.
But as they grow older and explore the world outside Hailsham, as they begin to experience feelings of love and hope, Kathy and her friends wonder if there is a way for their lives to diverge from their predetermined paths.
We eventually learn that being a ‘carer’ involves Kathy prolonging her life slightly in order to take care of her fellow donors when they begin their donations, and we are able to follow her as she bears witness to the slow deterioration of her childhood friends.
Never Let Me Go is a story that evokes deep empathy and sympathy. It is a beautiful reflection on what it means to be human and a fascinating speculation about the future of cloning.
The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Lathe of Heaven delves into a more philosophical aspect of politics and presents a science-fiction dystopia where dreams have the potential to become reality.
The protagonist of the story is George Orr (likely a tribute to George Orwell), a draftsman living in a world where poverty and global warming have significantly lowered the quality of life.
Orr is able to have ‘effective’ dreams – dreams that permanently change reality. After attending sessions with a psychiatrist named Richard Haber, Orr begins to try and use his ability to improve the world.
But in his attempts to make the quality of life better for everyone, Orr changes the world for the worse through unforeseen consequences of his dreams.
For example, in dreaming up a world ‘without racism’, Orr creates a population of people all with the same, light grey skin and makes his love interest, who is of mixed race, disappear from existence.
Through Orr’s misguided attempts to improve everyone’s lives, Le Guin criticizes the concept of a political platform based on utilitarianism (acting to ensure the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people).
Le Guin even suggests that such a political focus would likely lead to a eugenics movement (such as the racial uniformity seen in Orr’s world without racism).
For a clever and thought-provoking novel about political philosophy and the human desire for control, The Lathe of Heaven is the place to go.
American War by Omar El Akkad
Published in 2017, American War is a dystopian novel that takes contemporary political issues into consideration.
American War is set in a world where the use of fossil fuels has been banned in the USA and a second American Civil War has broken out as a result.
The plot follows the life of Sarat Chestnut, who is six years old when the war begins. After her father is killed in a bombing, Sarat and her family move to a refugee camp, where they live a difficult six years that culminates in a massacre.
The novel portrays the horrors of extremism and war, focusing on drones, torture, and the lives of refugees, all of which are relevant in the current political climate.
As a journalist for The Globe and Mail, Akkad reported on the War in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, the Arab Spring, and the Black Lives Matter Movement before writing American War.
Akkad’s experiences as a journalist are clear in the themes explored in American War. In an interview with Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Akkad states that what he describes in his novel are largely based on reality and what he’s witnessed rather than extrapolating political ideas to create a dystopian future.
If you’re looking for a novel that encourages reflection on current events and politics, American War could be the right book for you.
We hope you enjoyed our list of 5 books of the dystopian genre which explores the theme of societies in decline.
The dystopian genre continues to expand with works encompassing all manner of topics relevant to current society and presenting them in bizzarre and terrifying ways.
These stories help us consider the possible directions humanity could be heading in, and encourage us to take an active role in our current political world.
Hi! My name is Nethmi and I’m an English and Creative Writing student at the University of Birmingham. I write about Literature and Women’s Health here at iThink. When I’m not writing or curled up with a good novel and a cup of tea, I spend my time binge-watching cartoons and trying to keep my succulents and cacti alive.
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