As dystopia becomes a rising trend in Hollywood, more and more novels have been reduced to cut-and-paste plots and predictable characters for the benefit of the screen. As a result, the messages and ideas behind the dystopia novel are being forgotten. Stories about the looming threats of the future, the unknown, and the inevitable demise of our current way of life are so overdone that we have become desensitized to their shock-value. It’s time that we took a look at the inspiration behind today’s pop-culture and its many real life implications. Modern classics are the most underrated; too old to keep up with the endless stream of new novels and too young to be allowed into the “classic literature” club. Stories like The Handmaid’s Tale, Brave New World and even 1984 often get overlooked, but that doesn’t mean they should be forgotten.
1984, George Orwell
Perhaps the most quoted book on this list, 1984 is often regarded the father of modern dystopian novels– or should I say, their Big Brother. It follows the life of Winston, a fat, antisocial nobody living in Airstrip One (formerly the UK), a province of Oceania. There are no countries: only three super-states that are in a constant state of war. Winston’s job is to rewrite the past in the name of the collective good. It’s not a glamorous future. “Big Brother”, the leader of Oceania, who rules the superpower through his zealous cult and terrifying “Thought Police”. Although this book can be challenging at times (Winston’s stream of consciousness can become tangled and confusing), powering through is well worth it. Winston’s world is both a relic of the communist past and a snapshot of our reality, where every moment of every day is watched and recorded. People disappear and are then erased from history. You’re not even safe within your own mind; neighbors, secret police, and even your own children will turn against those who commit thought crime. Love is outlawed, and Big Brother is the figurehead smiling benevolently down at the chaos. In this future, dominance comes from fear and fear alone, and those who shudder at the thought of the NSA will understand that better than anyone. Orwell’s world will make you smile with the twistedness of it, from the names of the Ministries–the Ministry of Peace perpetuates war, the Ministry of Love tortures dissenters, the Ministry of Plenty rations goods and the Ministry of Truth controls censorship–to the harrowing and heartbreaking twist at the end. Still relevant in a post-Soviet world, 1984 will make you dread the future and reconsider our collective past like no other.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
At first glance, the future depicted in Brave New World doesn’t look so bad. In fact, it’s a much happier place. Everyone has a job that is tailored for them. No one goes without food or shelter. Plus there’s more sex and drugs than the Playboy mansion. And it’s all government endorsed. It seems perfect if you can get passed the stifling caste system, the death of any sort of true love, and the hyper-consumerism that makes the world go round. Parents have been done away with; children are mass-produced in factories, with specific amounts of alcohol mixed into their fetal blood to make sure they are limited cognitively and physically. People are encouraged to have sex with as many partners as possible, and time spent alone or with one particular person is ridiculed. Children are schooled from birth in sex and are taught to work and consume until they die. Huxley’s envisionment of the future is chilling because of how Western society seems to be barreling towards it. Sexualization in the media, our relentless consumerism, the overall shallowness of our culture: all of it points toward a world where hedonism replaces humanism, and the meaning of life will be to have no meaning. And if you can get through the first twenty pages, you will look at our world the same way.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale follows “Offred” through her life in Gilead, the cultist religious society that has risen from the ruins of the United States. Society is separated into castes, with women in a position of subjugation. The central doctrine of the ultra-conservative religion is reproduction. Offred is a handmaid: a nun-like woman given to a high-powered, married man as a breeding implement. As the protagonist, she is not an action hero favored by modern young adult literature, but rather one in millions, fierce, loyal and loving in the most human and realistic way possible. What makes Atwood’s work so extraordinary (other than her Canadiana status) is her socio-political commentary. Everything about Gilead is a perversion of real religions and societies. Like Orwell’s allegories of the USSR, Atwood never directly states the recipient of her ridicule, but you can certainly feel the passion with which she disparages her targets. Gilead feels eerily real: the separating out and elimination of the castes and races, the systematic executions of the educated class, the complex sumptuary laws, and the omnipresent secret police read as a textbook formula of creating a successful theocratic dictatorship. The Handmaid’s Tale is the type of book that inspires people to create social change. Atwood has managed to strike a chord that as a feminist and humanist is impossible to ignore. If you need any more reason to get up and do something impactful with yourself, this is the push you are waiting for. * There’s a reason these novels have inspired so many rip-offs and reiterations. Their stories and characters are not just relevant, but they’re also grippingly real. Unlike most modern YA reading, these authors didn’t write what they thought we wanted to hear so much as what we needed to understand. There is no happily ever after. These novels read like nonfiction, and it’s up to you to pick which future we end up with.