01 March 2016

20 Dystopian Classics: how many have you read?

Dystopian literature emerged in the 20th century. When the optimism for progress in the late 1800s was confronted by a series of unprecedented disasters in the early 1900s, a new genre was born to highlight possible futures and warn against the dangers of misrule.

To look back on the dystopian classics is to revisit the major forms of dysfunctional society, many of which still pose a threat to us today.

Here’s a chronological list of 20 dystopian classics of the 20th century:

'The Iron Heel' (1908) by Jack London.
A group of powerful business people take it upon themselves to get rid of all protection for workers and systematically eliminate anyone who dares stand up against their exploitative regime.

‘The Sleeper Awakes’ (1910) by H. G. Wells.
A man awakes in the distant future to discover that an oppressive regime is now in power, yet when that is overthrown, the new leader betrays the people by imposing ruthless controls over them, provoking a new rebellion.

‘We” (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin.
A ruling clique seeks to retain absolute power by imposing mass surveillance and stripping people of their sense of individuality. But some people begin to discover there is an alternative beyond their confines.

‘Brave New World’ (1932) by Aldous Huxley.
A hierarchical social system is sustained by dividing all new born into classes with distinct capability, diffusing all potential frustration with a ready supply of pleasure-inducing substance, and promoting a culture of unquestioning contentment.

‘It Can’t Happen Here’ (1935) by Sinclair Lewis.
A politician with the public persona of an affable man-of-the-people gets himself elected as the President, and proceeds to use his power to crush all opposition, while amassing more wealth and power for himself and his cronies.

‘Swastika Night’ (1937) by Katherine Burdekin (writing as Murray Constantine).
The Nazis have won the Second World War and established an enduring regime that exploits non-Germans, marginalises non-Nazis, and dehumanises women. History has been completely rewritten but one man has a true record of the past.

‘Animal Farm’ (1945) by George Orwell.
An allegorical tale wherein the rebel leaders promise equality for all until they have seized power, after which they deviously widen inequality and deepen exploitation until they are no different from those they overthrew.

‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) by George Orwell.
A regime that turns deception into a round-the-clock strategy, feeds the masses with jingoistic stories, monitors the behaviour of the people, and inflicts psychological torture on anyone suspected of dissent.

‘The Day of the Triffids’ (1951) by John Wyndham.
Disorder spreads when the unforeseen consequences of genetically modified plants, combined with the loss of vision amongst most people, leave individuals exposed to harm until a new democratic sanctuary begins to be developed.

‘Fahrenheit 451’ (1953) by Ray Bradbury.
Society is rendered ignorant by the burning of all books, and control of the masses is reinforced by entertainment that ranges from mind-numbing TV drama and reality shows that focus on the hunting down of those designated public enemies.

‘The Chrysalids’ (1955) by John Wyndham.
Following a devastating nuclear war, a regime rises to impose its own religious orthodoxy on the survivors and eliminate any ‘deviants’ not conforming to the prescribed normality.

‘A Canticle for Leibowitz’ (1960) by Walter Miller.
A monastic order preserves fragmentary learning after deadly weapons have wiped out most of humankind, not realising that the fragments contain information that will one day be used by irresponsible rulers to develop and deploy similar weapons.

‘Cat’s Cradle’ (1963) by Kurt Vonnegut.
An ailing ruler controls his people with a mixture of physical threats and the secret promotion of quasi-religious doctrines that will breed a sense of contentment. A substance that can destroy the world then falls into the hands of this ruler.

‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?’ (1968) by Philip K. Dick.
Android slaves are made to do all the dirty work and subject to arbitrarily shortened lifespan. When they question if there should be alternative arrangements for their existence, they are hunted down one by one.

‘The Lathe of Heaven’ (1971) by Ursula Le Guin.
A doctor discovers his patient can alter realities through his dreams, and seeks to change things better for the world and himself. But each attempt to bring about a new utopia is ruined by overlooked details or unforeseen twists.

‘The Running Man’ (1982) by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman).
In a society structured purely for the profit of rich corporations, a destitute man is forced to go on a reality TV show where he will get money to pay for his sick wife’s treatment, if he survives being hunted down by professional killers.

‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1985) by Margaret Atwood.
An oppressive regime uses force to quash dissent and deploys religion to reduce women to the roles of wives, child-bearers and servants. A resistance movement emerges but it is hard to tell who fights for it and who is a government agent.

‘The Children of Men’ (1992) by P. D. James.
As for some unknown reason, children can no longer be conceived, the government takes on absolute power to determine whose lives are to be curtailed, and what to do about the dwindling labour supply and the end of the human race.

‘Parable of the Sower’ (1993) by Octavia E. Butler.
With the extreme rich living in their own protected domain, everyone else descends into abject poverty, with many becoming vulnerable to being robbed and killed by others. A young woman hopes to escape and build a new, fairer community.

‘The Ice People’ (1998) by Maggie Lee.
In a bleak future where, in the midst of the returning ice age, men and women are divided into antagonistic camps, food is scarce, robotic pets are turned into killing machines, lawlessness threatens to destroy everyone.