Dystopian novels - Recommended Middle School reading
Each week, the AKS English Department will recommend books suitable for readers in the Middle School. This week, we're going to have a look at dystopian fiction – a genre which follows on neatly from sci-fi last week. The 15th/16th century writer, Sir Thomas More, invented the concept of Utopia in his book of that name. It was a place where every good thing came to pass: a perfect civilised society. A ‘dystopia’ is the opposite of that – a society is shown which is twisted, strange, repressive and often violent. In dystopian fiction we see alternative societies to the ones we're used to, and they are places that we wouldn't want to live. Dystopian fiction is very important element of fiction-writing for it enables us to value a lot of the trademarks of the society we live in, such as peace and democracy. Dystopian fiction allows us to see how the world might turn out if we do not guard our freedoms carefully.
1984 by George Orwell (1949)
We will start off with the ‘big brother’ of dystopian fiction, the classic novel 1984 by the English writer George Orwell. In this novel, Orwell imagines a repressive society set 40 years on from when he was writing ruled by Big Brother. Fortunately the world he envisages not going to pass although in his novel he has predicted a number of things which have been developed such as CCTV. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is unable to come to terms with the society created by Big Brother's ruling Party. Winston rebels against the controls imposed on individual freedom, questions the deliberate falsification of facts, especially historical facts, and believes that human nature will triumph over all the lies, deception, and control of this authoritarian government. He and his girlfriend Julia attempt to subvert the government but are betrayed. Winston ends up being interrogated by his nemesis, O’Brien, in the dreaded Room 101.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
This novel tells a haunting story about the moral hazards of technological advances by focusing on the lives and relationships of children at a boarding school as they grow up together in a darkly skewed version of contemporary England. The novel is narrated by Kathy, now 31 in the present of the narrative. Never Let Me Go hauntingly dramatises her attempts to come to terms with her childhood at the seemingly idyllic Hailsham School, and with the fate that has always awaited her and her closest friends in the wider world. The novel looks at advances in cloning technology and the horrors of trying to create ‘perfect’ people.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)
This is the first of a trilogy of dystopian novels aimed at young readers. It appeals to boys and girls equally, and has been a deserved bestseller, well worthy of reading rather than relying on just seeing the film. In this dystopian society, North America is now known as Panem. Here we see a very rich city surrounded by twelve Districts. Annually, this wealthy metropolis (The Capitol) shows its control over all the Districts by staging the Hunger Games. Two youngsters, one boy and one girl from each district from the ages of twelve to eighteen, have to leave their families in order to compete in a live event which is aired on televisions all over Panem. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, aged sixteen from District 12, volunteers to take the place of her twelve-year-old sister, Prim, after Prim's name is called forth to become the 23rd member to compete in The 74th Hunger Games. She promises to Prim that she will win! Her certainty is admirable but these ‘games’ are lethal.
Divergent by Veronica Roth (2014)
This novel is about Chicago after an apocalypse. Now society has been divided up into five factions which have common personality traits: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. Beatrice, a member of Abnegation, transfers to Dauntless at the age of 16 when all teens take a personality test to see which faction they would fit into. Beatrice now takes the new name ‘Tris’. She forms a romantic relationship with a fellow Abnegation transfer, Tobias Eaton. As she eases herself into her new home, Tris slowly uncovers a conspiracy from the Erudite faction (the intelligent ones) which threatens to tear apart the balance of the faction system. There are echoes of ‘Animal Farm’ in the cunning rise of the educated elite, and of ‘The Hunger Games’ in Tris’s initiation battles, but the book stands up well on its own merits. The Guardians by John Christopher (1970) Set in a future dystopian Britain, ‘The Guardians’ has many elements of ‘1984’. The UK is divided into two societies. One is the futuristic ‘Conurb’ where people live in huge overpopulated concrete-jungle cities, surrounded by barbed wire, The Conurbans watch endless sports games on holovision, eating chemically produced food and believing that everyone is ‘equal’. Outside the barbed wire and searchlights lies ‘The Country’ – a society where people live with horses and carriages, there is no electric, they eat traditional seasonal food and there is a rigid feudal class system of servants and masters. Our hero, Rob, aged thirteen escapes from the Conurb to the Country where his mother was from and tries to adapt to this new way of life. Rob is adopted by a rich family and finds that he enjoys his new lifestyle, even though there are only books for entertainment, and the way of life is strenuous. The book traces his adventures and poses many interesting questions about what we value in life.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1931)
The title of this classic dystopian work is a sarcastic reference to Shakespeare’s line in ‘The Tempest’. The line (said by Prospero’s daughter Miranda) is uttered in admiration at humankind, but Huxley wants to show what happens if you take all problems and difficulties out of existence – you create a nightmare of complacency. This provocative and prescient novel depicts a nightmare Earth where everybody is perfectly happy all the time. The ‘World State’ government of the year 2540 AD controls the population not by telling them what to think, but by numbing them with happiness. This is assured through destroying the free will of most of the population using genetic engineering and Pavlovian conditioning, keeping everybody entertained continuously with endless distractions, and offering a plentiful supply of the wonder drug Soma to keep people happy if all else fails. The typical person is conditioned to love their subservience, and either be proud of the vital work they do or be relieved that they don't have to worry about the problems of the world. Even the characters who are smart enough to know what is going on (and why they should be concerned) seem content with everything that is happening. Huxley’s Brave New World introduces readers to a seemingly perfect realm, with genetically-engineered, carefree, and well-fed citizens, but it asks us what we lose of our souls in the desire for perfection.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Recently televised, this novel is both a feminist classic and a dystopian thriller. Canadian author, Atwood, looks at a futuristic North America which has become a totalitarian theocratic (ruled by religious principles) state. This place is ironically called Gilead (a reference to a Biblical location which in Hebrew means ‘eternal joy’). It is a sexist, dictatorial society where the clock has been turned back to Old Testament times, and men rule over women. Women are no longer permitted to own property, have money, or even read. They are forced to dress in clothes with veils which denote their status, and fertile young women act as ‘handmaids’ (baby carriers) to rich and influential men in the ruling elite. Our narrator is Offred (‘Of Fred’) who has some recollection of the democratic life before the religious fanatics took power, and learns of the existence of an underground resistance movement (Mayday). She is attracted by them but fears being reported to the secret police ‘The Eyes of God’.
The Guardians by John Christopher (1970)
Set in a future dystopian Britain, ‘The Guardians’ has many elements of ‘1984’. The UK is divided into two societies. One is the futuristic ‘Conurb’ where people live in huge overpopulated concrete-jungle cities, surrounded by barbed wire, The Conurbans watch endless sports games on holovision, eating chemically produced food and believing that everyone is ‘equal’. Outside the barbed wire and searchlights lies ‘The Country’ – a society where people live with horses and carriages, there is no electric, they eat traditional seasonal food and there is a rigid feudal class system of servants and masters. Our hero, Rob, aged thirteen escapes from the Conurb to the Country where his mother was from and tries to adapt to this new way of life. Rob is adopted by a rich family and finds that he enjoys his new lifestyle, even though there are only books for entertainment, and the way of life is strenuous. The book traces his adventures and poses many interesting questions about what we value in life.