(c) Warner Brothers
A little while ago I read The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s troubling 1985 novel about a near-future USA where the religious right rule the roost. Society is militarised, elitist, patriarchal and supposedly puritanical. The majority of women are either kept as domestic servants or kept as ‘handmaids’, i.e. veiled and isolated receptacles into which the male members of the elite pour their seed during brutal sex rituals in a desperate effort to propagate the species – the ladies of the elite are too old and / or too genetically damaged to reproduce healthily themselves. Late on in the book, we learn too that some women are kept as hostesses / prostitutes in gaudy out-of-the-way brothels because the elite’s menfolk, no matter how Christian, Bible-quoting and sanctimonious they are, still have certain needs, urges and desires to satisfy. Because they’re still blokes, after all.
I have mixed feelings about the ‘academic’ epilogue that Ms Atwood tags on at the end of the book but overall I found it an impressive, if depressing, piece of work. When I finally set it aside, I decided it was good enough – and spiritually bad enough – to feature among the best pieces of dystopian fiction I’ve ever read. And that set me thinking. If I had to name my favourite dystopian novels, what would they be? What books would make my top dystopian dozen?
Firstly, though, I will define my terms. By dystopian fiction I mean a story set in a society that’s gone seriously off the rails – either because of hellish political oppression of some fashion, or because of a natural or man-made cataclysm that’s suddenly turned life into a frantic scramble for survival. It has to be set at least a little way into the future, not in the present. Otherwise, Graham Greene – whose novels were commonly set in totalitarian or failing states (or in a combination of both, as in The Comedians) – would be king of the dystopian hill.
There’s also the issue of location. The horribleness described in a proper dystopian story, for me, has to be widespread, if not global. Therefore, books like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies or J.G. Ballard’s High Rise, where the societal breakdown takes place respectively on an island and in a tower block, don’t qualify because they’re too localised in scale.
I will disqualify novels where the setting for the story is pretty grim, but that’s all the dystopian element is, a setting. It’s a backdrop against which a character-filled, twisting-and-turning plot takes place. We gets glimpses of bad stuff in the background, but we’re more interested in the narrative and in the psychology of the characters who populate it. So for that reason I will exclude William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In a proper dystopian story, the world is in an awful state and that state has to be at the forefront. The setting has to be so vivid that it becomes an important character itself in the story, if not the most important character.
And finally, I will leave out novels where, yes, present-day society has met its nemesis and collapsed, presumably bloodily and destructively; but where the narratives take place so far in the future that they feel like fantasy or fairy stories. The settings are so distant and fantastic that there’s little or no link with our own world, and the reader isn’t really disturbed by the thought of what happened to civilisation between now and then. So that means H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine and Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse are both out.
Anyway, here are my literary-dystopia top twelve:
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.
The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.
The Death of Grass by John Christopher.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.
The Iron Heel by Jack London.
I am Legend by Richard Matheson.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
1984 by George Orwell.
Fugue for a Darkening Island by Christopher Priest.
Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.
A few books that are regarded as classics of dystopian writing aren’t on the list because, simply, I haven’t read them yet. These include P.D. James’s Children of Men, Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor and another Atwood novel, Oryx and Crake. I’ve seen the film version of Children of Men, however, and thought it was pretty darned good – despite Clive Owen being in it, acting on autopilot.
Another novel I haven’t read that might have been a contender is Harry Harrison’s meditation on the threat of human overpopulation, Make Room! Make Room! This was also made into a film, the 1973 Hollywood production Soylent Green, which added mass cannibalism to Harrison’s story. I remember one critic making an interesting observation about Soylent Green. He noted that the American filmmakers seemed not to realise that the crowded, impoverished world they were showing was actually real life (apart from the cannibalism) for many people living on the planet in the 20th century. Hence, the film didn’t really reflect American fears about the end of the world. It reflected American fears about the USA becoming just another, bog-standard poor country.
But to the list itself. Some of my inclusions are predictable – Orwell, Huxley, Burgess, McCarthy. A number of J.G. Ballard’s novels could easily have made the list, like The Drought and The Crystal World, but I’ve chosen The Drowned World because it’s the first and perhaps most famous of that sub-genre of surreal, psychological and hallucinogenic post-disaster novels that Ballard pioneered and made his own. Many people would argue that Richard Matheson’s I am Legend is really a horror novel, a vampire one, but the apocalyptic plague Matheson describes is given a scientific rationale; so it could happen, just about.
Nowadays it’s fashionable to knock Day of the Triffids because of the middle-class cosiness of its characters – their personalities manage to remain decent, upstanding and Radio 4-ish even after 99% of the population have been blinded and giant, mobile, flesh-eating plants have invaded the streets. And even some of Wyndham’s admirers might argue that The Chrysalids and The Kraken Wakes, both of which feature dystopias of their own, are better books. But I think Day of the Triffids deserves its place in the list because of its impact on popular culture. The word ‘triffid’ has entered the English language. I’ve heard it used to describe everything from a tangled, noxious-looking weed in someone’s garden to the condition of Helena Bonham-Carter’s hair.
On the other hand, I’ve picked John Christopher’s The Death of Grass and Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island because they offer an antidote to Wyndham’s cosiness. Both books have characters who start out as respectable middle-class English types, but whose personalities undergo a breakdown as violent and frightening as that wrought on the societies around them. Fugue, which was written in 1972 and which is probably regarded as a minor book in Priest’s canon, seems particularly chilling in 2014. It sees Britain go to hell after a nuclear war breaks out in the developing world and the country gets swamped by desperate refugees. In the 21st century, if climate change — as most scientists warn — wreaks environmental and economic havoc on certain parts of the globe, there could be a lot of refugees on the move very soon.
Incidentally, my brother, who works in the building industry, once told me that while he was attending a health-and-safety seminar about the dangers of asbestos, the speaker mentioned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. He said that in 1953, as a publicity gimmick, the publisher Ballantine produced 200 numbered and signed copies of Fahrenheit 451 that were bound in asbestos – the joke being that, in a future society where are books had to be burned, these 200 copies of the novel couldn’t be burned. Obviously, at the time, people were unaware of the links between asbestos and lung cancer. Now that sounds like a truly dystopian book – one that tells a story about a totalitarian future society whilst having the power to induce a dystopian-style breakdown inside the reader’s body.