Aldous Huxley- Brave New World (1932)
Aldous Huxley takes a swipe at American egalitarianism in this 1932 dystopian satire. Set in AF 632 (632 years after Henry Ford, responsible for the development of the assembly line technique of mass production), the novel depicts a futuristic ‘World State’ in which technology and science govern the lives of citizens. Sex no longer has anything to do with reproduction but exists for pleasure alone, whilst infants are raised in hatcheries and placed into pre-determined social castes. An unsettling combination of conditioning, eugenics, recreational drugs, promiscuous sex and mindless consumerism all serve to keep the docile citizenry under the control of the World State. Yet citizens are happy with their condition of existence, albeit deprived of their individuality. Ultimately, it is only John from the outside Savage Reservation who can shed light on the plastic and dehumanising society of the World State.
Brave New World is often compared and contrasted with George Orwell’s 1984, but Huxley takes rather a different stance than that of his peer, arguing that pleasure and happy go lucky consumption is a much more effective means of state control than force or authoritarianism. As Huxley himself wrote to Orwell after reading 1984: ‘‘whether in actual fact the policy of the boot-in-the-face can go on indefinitely seems doubtful. My own belief is that the ruling oligarchy will find less arduous and wasteful ways of governing and of satisfying its lust for power.’’
Anthony Burgess- A Clockwork Orange (1962)
Anthony Burgess’ novella A Clockwork Orange caused quite some controversy when it was published in 1962; Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation stirred even more. Following the protagonist Alex and his gang of teenage criminals as they engage in a routine of ultraviolence and drinking milk laced with drugs, A Clockwork Orange offered England a picture over its own fears surrounding juvenile delinquency. More than anything, however, Alex’s journey from sadistic criminal to state guinea pig is a powerful indictment of behaviourism as propounded by the likes of B.F Skinner. Furthermore, Burgess was dismayed when the American edition of A Clockwork Orange was published without the final chapter, distorting the novella’s conclusion. Even so, this didn’t prevent Kubrick from basing his film adaptation on the American version.
Sinclair Lewis- It Can’t Happen Here (1935)
In light of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here is receiving renewed interest, with some even claiming that the author ‘predicted Donald Trump.’
Written during the rise of fascism in Europe, It Can’t Happen Here asks what would have happened had Franklin D. Roosevelt lost the 1936 US election to a would be dictator. Once president, Berzelius ‘‘Buzz’’ Windrip soon consolidates his control of government and imposes a strict totalitarian rule, after running a populist campaign with the pledge of a return to patriotism and so-called traditional values. Critics of the time and today have pointed out a connection between Windrip and the real life Louisiana politician Huey Long, who was planning to run for president until he was assassinated in 1935. Even so, It Can’t Happen Here remains a relevant and important cautionary tale, and also highlights the importance of opposing authoritarian regimes.
Yevgeny Zamyatin- We (1924)
Along with Jack London’s The Iron Heel, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is generally considered to have lain the groundwork for the satirical dystopian genre. Set one thousand years after the ‘one state’ has taken control of the entire world, We follows the life of spacecraft engineer D-503 in a city constructed entirely out of glass, allowing for mass surveillance by the ‘Bureau of Guardians.’ Surrounding the One State is a post-apocalyptic landscape, whilst within the ‘Benefactor’ resides over this nightmarish society in which all people are known by numbers and all lives are directed by ‘the Table.’
Zamyatin’s novel had a direct influence on George Orwell’s 1984, and the similarities between the two novels are abundant. Moreover, as with Orwell’s nightmare, We offers the hope of a love story as D-503 meets the non-conforming I-330.
Margaret Atwood- The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
Cambridge, Massachusetts provides the dark setting for this harrowing depiction of a repressive theocracy. Suffering from low fertility rates, the novel begins with the overthrow of the United States by the new, religiously extreme Republic of Gilead that quickly moves to eradicate women’s rights. Typically regarded as a feminist narrative, the tale is told in the first person by ‘handmaid’ Offred, who has been forced into one of several castes of women to serve the ruling class’s reproductive agenda. Having recently been made into a television series, The Handmaids Tale takes its place alongside other dystopian works that have criticized repressive regimes of all kinds.
Kazuo Ishiguro- Never Let Me Go (2005)
At the core of many of the greatest dystopian novels is a human story, and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go falls firmly into this category. In a secluded spot of the English countryside, Kathy, Ruth and Tommy are told that they are ‘‘special’’ by their guardians at the mysterious boarding school- Hailsham. Ishiguro keeps her reader guessing in this unsettling though ultimately moving tale, when as young adults the trio begin to discover what it is that makes them so ”special.”
George Orwell- 1984 (1949)
George Orwell’s 1984 is the quintessential dystopian novel. Although Huxley’s Brave New World arguably turned out to be more relevant to the West, Orwell’s warning against totalitarianism still has much to say, with many of the books terms making it into popular usage.
Following the plights of Winston Smith, a low-ranking Party member in the despotic regime of Oceania, Orwell depicts a society in which disloyalty to Party is a sin, and freedom of thought a crime. Here children are encouraged to report their parents for ‘thought-crime,’ whilst telescreens of mass surveillance monitor the behaviour of citizens. Through a disturbing combination of propaganda, psychological control, the erosion of history and physical force, the Party retains strict control over the lives of individuals. In spite of this, with just a diary and the prospect of love, Winston seeks to take a stand.
Jack London- The Iron Heel (1908)
Jack London’s socialist views find an outlet in this speculative novel. Published in 1908, The Iron Heel imagines the rise of an oligarchic tyranny in the United States, and the subsequent hoped-for socialist revolution. Though much in the novel would not come to pass, The Iron Heel has nevertheless been praised for foreboding the rise of fascism and as an experimental narrative. Critics have labelled the novel a socialist diatribe, yet it gave rise to the dystopian genre and remains incisive in its depiction of government power structures.
Shirley Jackson- The Lottery (1948)
Though not a dystopia as such, Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery sure has its share of dystopian themes. Initially published in a 1948 issue of The New Yorker, this short story takes place in a small American village where residents engage in a mysterious and sinister annul tradition known as ‘‘the lottery.’’ On June 27th children run around the village square gathering stones, whilst the older residents await anxiously and excitedly for the tradition that is supposed to lead to a good harvest. With a final haunting twist, The Lottery warns against mob psychology and the dangers of blindly following tradition.
P.D. James- The Children of Men (1992)
England is a very different place in 2021, following the consequences of global mass infertility. No child has been born in 25 years, and democracy has given way for absolute rule by the Warden of England- Xan Lyppiat. Teo Faren, the Warden’s cousin, however, leads something of a secluded life. But when he meets a young woman and a group of dissenters, Teo soon finds himself responsible for the future of mankind. Having also been made into a film, The Children of Men is filled with suspense and incisive social criticism.