I’ve been fascinated with dystopian novels ever since reading Lord of the Flies in my high school sophomore literature class. While many of my classmates were bored or completely disgusted by the time we finished William Golding’s famous novel, I found myself feeling something akin to horror-struck fascination (“kill the pig” chant and all).
Sir Thomas More coined the word “utopia” (literally meaning, “not a place”) in the sixteenth century to describe an imaginary place where everything is perfect. A dystopia is just the opposite. Dystopian novels typically describe tyrannized, corrupted societies, devoid of various human rights. Though they may seem far-fetched at first glance, they highlight problems in society today by magnifying them in an unstable, futuristic world—and they prompt readers to think about the philosophical and moral implications of our society’s current trajectory.
Unsettling as dystopian novels are, I cannot get enough of them. The following novels are alike in that they all contain warnings about society through the actions of one brave young man or woman, leaving us with new thoughts about civilization, freedom, human nature, and spirituality. (Warning: a few spoilers ahead!)
01. Anthem by Ayn Rand
What Ayn Rand’s novella lacks in size (you can easily read it in one sitting), it makes up for in depth. Anthem takes place in a future, yet regressed, world, a world in which freedom is stifled and former modern advances are buried, sometimes literally. There is no choice, there is no action or thought or idea that is permitted to exist unless it is held by all, and there is no “I.” There is only “we,” one collective will—“equality.”
Equality is a good thing, though, right? Not in this form, we learn from the brave hero of the story, whose only “name” is the code “Equality 7-2521.” He writes, “As we all undress at night, in the dim light of the candles, our brothers are silent, for they dare not speak the thoughts of their minds. For all must agree with all, and they cannot know if their thoughts are the thoughts of all, and so they fear to speak.”
If this is equality, please don’t sign me up. Sadly, though, this reminds me all too much of our own modern-day society, where we are often encouraged to adopt the thoughts and opinions of others, rather than form and state our own. How many times have I held back my own thoughts, scared to speak them out loud for fear that others may not agree with me? Or tempered my words carefully so as not to cause any possible offense (in a world that is very easily offended)? It may be extreme to compare our world to the world depicted by Rand in Anthem because there are also strong points of contrast between her imagined world and ours; I do have the freedom to be my own individual person. Together, the similarities and contrasts between Rand’s dystopia and our world offer a subtle warning of what we have to lose.
Although I do not agree with every aspect of Rand’s philosophy of individualism, I find so much food for thought in this short book and her overall theme of the collective will versus the individual will. Equality 7-2521 ponders to himself, “I guard my treasures: my thought, my will, my freedom. And the greatest of these is freedom.”
02. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Lois Lowry’s The Giver is most often labeled as a book for teenagers and young adults, and it definitely carries a certain appeal for that age group (the highlight of my middle school career was the time I got to meet Lowery at a book signing). However, it is a story for both the young and old to hear.
The Giver tells the story of a young boy named Jonas, living in a society that appears to be quite wonderful and perfect, but is, in actuality, one devoid of individuality, freedom, and beauty. Jonas’s “Community” is characterized by “Sameness.” Babies are genetically engineered, children are assigned careers, and memories, emotion, love, and uniqueness do not exist.
In a world where we often seek to look the same, act the same, or be the same as other people, this novel is a timely reminder that our individuality is a gift to be celebrated. Further, our memories are truly precious—without them, there is neither pain nor real happiness, and we are condemned to repeat past mistakes. Lowry’s poignant words remind me of my own blessings, warn me against seeking “Sameness” with others, and reignite my love for my family and my freedom.
03. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I’m embarrassed to admit how many years I stared at the ominous-looking black and white spine of Aldous Huxley’s famous dystopian novel before I finally decided to read it. And it turns out that I had every right to be frightened by this book.
Brave New World takes place in a futuristic World State full of genetically modified citizens, who are broken into a social hierarchy based on intelligence. It is a world dominated by Science—a world that, like The Giver, appears to be quite perfect, when in reality it is bereft of freedom and rife with psychological manipulation and scientific “advances.” It is a world full of comfort. Sounds nice to me! Or, at least, it sounds nice in theory, until it is forced upon you through severe conditioning.
As I discovered, comfort isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. I dogeared the page of my book where the “Savage” (an outsider from a far-away reservation where such extinct terms as “marriage,” “religion,” “birth,” and “family” can still be heard) discusses this concept of comfort with the Controller of this World State (also known as “His Fordship” Mustapha Mond). When the Controller states that “We prefer to do things comfortably,” the ensuing dialogue is awe-inspiring.
“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”
“In fact, said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”
“Not to mention the right to grow old and ugly and impotent; the right the have syphilis and cancer; the right to have too little to eat; the right to be lousy; the right to live in constant apprehension of what may happen tomorrow; the right to catch typhoid; the right to be tortured by unspeakable pains of every kind.” There was a long silence.
“I claim them all,” said the Savage at last.
Sure, a world without pain or ugliness or unhappiness sounds nice. But what else would this world be without? Freedom. The ability to live—to be truly alive. Sometimes it’s so easy for us to wish for lives without pain, suffering, and disappointment, telling ourselves that this is what would make us happy. And it is precisely for this reason that I love dystopian literature so much—because it paints realistic pictures of our “ideal,” “stable” worlds and shows us just how unstable and terrifying they could be.
04. The Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld
And speaking of ugly worlds: A series of books (comprising four novels) that came out in the early 2000s focuses on ugliness in a futuristic world. The first book in the series is called The Uglies. While this one is not of the same literary caliber as the others on this list, I did glean some wisdom from it—especially reading it as a teenager struggling through many of the themes covered in the books.
In this series everyone is born ugly, and they are trained to hate the way they look. Then, when they come of age at sixteen, everyone undergoes a plastic surgery process to become a “Pretty.” Supposedly, this is done so that nobody feels jealousy and everyone is happy and, well, perfect. But, of course, it does not actually end up like this. (Are you beginning to notice a theme here?)
One brave teen, Tally Youngblood, fights to bring down a “perfect” society filled with similarly-thinking, perfect-looking people who unwittingly allow their minds and bodies to be completely controlled. Not only does this series ignite discussion on plastic surgery and the ethics of changing one’s physical appearance, it forces its (often young) readers to appreciate their unique looks and gifts—and to realize how truly terrifying a world of perfect “beauty” would be.
05. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In case you can’t tell: I really love books. I honestly cannot imagine our world without them! And for this very reason, I find Fahrenheit 451 particularly frightening. Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel depicts a near-future American society without (you guessed it) books. In this futuristic world, books are outlawed and burned by “firemen.” Like the rest of the dystopian novels I’ve discussed, a single person decides to question the world in which he is living, and his questioning becomes a challenge.
Fireman Guy Montag realizes that there has to be a reason some people are willing to burn alongside their books rather than give them up, and that there has to be a reason that the authoritarian government only wants people to get their information from their televisions and radios. The government claims that all literature is contradictory and forces people to become familiar with the unpleasant things in society. But just because something is unpleasant, does that mean that it should be censored? This is the fundamental question the book poses for its readers.
Bradbury knows that the beautiful is always mixed together with the unpleasant, and that you cannot simply eradicate one without jeopardizing the other. As he wrote in his essay collection, Zen in the Art of Writing, “We never sit anything out. We are cups, quietly and constantly being filled. The trick is knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.”
I love this image of beauty spilling forth from us as a result of taking everything in—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our world is uncertain. Life as we know it is not guaranteed to last this way. Dystopian literature affords us the opportunity to appreciate what we have (and whom we have) while we still have the chance. It teaches gratitude; even more importantly, it teaches us that we can make a difference in our societies. Although it takes bold courage, we do not have to blindly conform to injustice and corruption. It takes only one person to make all the difference in the world.