… Suddenly, I am in a long and dimly lit tunnel, surrounded by pillars of concrete and metal, flashing red lights and a mechanical voice that yells, “Please report all suspicious activity….”
While this may sound like the tired beginning of any dime store dystopian thriller, it’s actually a description of what I experience every morning as I descend into the underworld of the Oakland public transportation system.
During the long, arduous commutes of our hyper-industrialized world, it’s hard to walk more than a few steps without feeling crushed by technology — talking watches and self-driving cars make you think, “Wait… is this real life or a sci-fi novel?” We so readily accept this booming technological metropolis as the norm, and yet, we know so little about where it is all going. The consequences.
If you have similar strands of thought, you are not alone. People have been asking these questions for decades (centuries even!), and many have put those thoughts into writing. Enter the genre of: The Dystopian Novel. These books, which cover every societal issue imaginable, grapple deeply with these questions of humanity (i.e., Where is this all going? What does humanity mean? What if it all fails, miserably?). These author’s daring imaginations give us space, and permission, to pause and wonder. But more than that, they give us hope. Hope that we can be strong enough to make the right decisions for ourselves and our future.
I recommend picking up one of these books for your morning commute — at the very least, it will give you something to talk about by the watercooler at work. And, if you order them on Amazon, you can get free shipping.
Fahrenheit 451by Ray Bradbury
There’s no book that will make you value books more than Fahrenheit 451. Written in a heavy-hitting prose that moves, unflinchingly, from action to emotion to long poetic monologues — this book is always on the run. The dystopian world it contains is set in a near-future, where society has turned against books because of all the conflicting (and therefore existentially confusing) information they contain. And it resembles our own era of 2015 a little too eerily: a society of people who spend all day sitting in rooms constructed of television screens, participating in their favorite programs and wearing little musical shells in their ears whenever they are faced with being alone in the “real world.” The problem? Outside of the bubble of their city, war rages. And, despite all that they do to distract themselves from the sadness of thinking, no one seems particularly happy.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
If you’re looking for a really dynamic and intriguing narrator, look no further. Written in an epistolary form as a series of journal entries, letters and freaky emails, this dystopian soon-to-be-classic is set in the mid-2000s. Technology has overrun human relationships in ways that feel particularly close to home: People wear their phones like necklaces (ahem, Apple Watch, ahem) and run around live-streaming their days, rating the “hotness” of the people around them (Tinder, anyone?), and completely ignore the geopolitical conflicts that rage around them. Read this one if you’ve been feeling especially creeped out by your social media addiction recently… and then delete everything.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
An old school parable taken to new school levels: This dystopian classic sets its sights into a complex analysis of power and shows how well-intentioned systems of governance (ahem, communism, socialism) can be corrupted by politics and turn fascistic. Though the story features a society of animals living on a farm, it’s rare to read a story that feels so human. We watch as the pigs incite rebellion against the farmers, declare equality for everyone and then swiftly become a maniacal and power-hungry monopolistic elite. This book asks some big questions about community and human nature. It’s also always fun to read about talking animals, particularly when their struggles resonate so deeply.
The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
Ursula K. Le Guin is a dystopian-novel-writing master with nearly 25 books to her name — many of which have racked up some serious awards. This particular one, The Dispossessed, has taken home three major literary awards and has never been out of print since its pub date in the late 1970s. It is an intergalactic novel that flashes back and forth between different planets, and we travel along with a physicist named Shevek as he explores the human differences between socialism and capitalism and ultimately makes a case for the strength of anarchism within humanity. Fierce characters and expertly explored moral questions mark this book as a tour de force.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nestby Ken Kesey
You’ve probably heard of the film adaptation of this class novel — Jack Nicholson is hard to forget, especially when he does his crazy eyes. Whether or not you’ve seen the film, I highly recommend reading the book. Kesey is a master at writing steadily beating prose that catches you unaware — that hooks you in and holds you tight. Written in the late 60s as a commentary on our newly minted societal conceptions of mental illness, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest strives to complicate our narrow understandings of normalcy. The book is narrated by a mute patient in a psyche ward — a big guy dubbed “Chief” — which is the perfect vantage point, given that people assume he lacks intelligence and ignore him. This provides us with total access to all the goings-on that occur in the hospital. I challenge you to read this book and to then think really critically about what it has to say about how we treat each other — and ourselves.