The dystopian novel, a time-honoured and well-represented subclass in the genre of science fiction, teaches us almost everything we need to know about the coercive control of a large population.
Set in a possible future where an all-powerful state has taken over most or even all aspects of their citizens’ lives, the dystopian story arc will present us with a protagonist, who, discovering the mechanisms of coercion, can either break free to build their own community – or be broken down and finally learn to love Big Brother. There are many lists of fine works of fiction in this genre, but following are the top five dystopian novels that I’ve read and loved; these brilliant authors teach us about the dynamics of totalitarian regimes, giving their readers an intimate understanding of the subject, the stories resonating much more deeply than any academic explanations.
1. 1984, George Orwell – even if this list weren’t being presented alphabetically, this would be have to be the top selection in any list of dystopian fiction, ranking alongside Brave New World as the best-known and most-read of the genre. Orwell’s 1948 classic portrays a world where constant war and hatred of the enemy is used to keep the populations of the three remaining countries – Eastasia, Eurasia, and Oceania – in tight control. Not only the news of the present, but also the archives of past events, are continually edited to make it look as if life is constantly improving, but the reality is bleak and the citizens living in a constant state of terror; everyone is required to spy and report on everyone else – a normal aspect of totalist cults – so that parents have learned to fear their children, who gleefully turn in family members and neighbours in order to gain favour in the youth organizations. Non-reproductive sex is forbidden, and the only permitted love is the citizens’ love for Big Brother, the figurehead of the totalitarian government. The most remarkable feature of this society is Newspeak, the state-mandated language which restricts thought by banning words which might lead to thought; synonyms and shades of meaning have been stripped away, and, as Orwell himself states in the must-read appendix to his novel, the entire preamble to the Constitution of the United States could be boiled down to one word: thoughtcrime.
2. Anthem, Ayn Rand – this slim volume packs a lot of dystopian punch into its pages. In a world where thinking as an individual is the ultimate crime, the singular personal pronoun “I” has been abolished and all citizens of this agrarian society are raised to think of themselves as the property of the state. Reproduction has been turned into a shameful necessity at the government-run Place of Mating, and the citizens, given such names as Unity13-161, Freedom 59-118, and Community 67-892, never know their biological families, instead living in state-run homes until they are old enough to work, and then, after being assigned their lifelong tasks by the World State, are sent to live in barracks with dozens of their fellows who share their particular function; the Home of the Street Sweepers, the Home of the Farmers – even the Home of the Useless (the term for those who have aged past being able to work) – function as a single unit, with all members acting, speaking, and thinking in unison. Because all must agree, no one dares state their own opinion, and new advances in technology, such as the candle or the plough, are carefully monitored and kept to the slowest trickle of forward progress: in this totalist state, Toil is viewed as the one virtue that keeps the citizens humble, and labour-saving devices, such as electric lights, are banned, and the knowledge of them heavily suppressed. Although she espoused a message of individuality in her books, Rand knew a few things about keeping a group under tight control; she would later become the leader of her own totalist Objectivist movement.
3. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley – this 1932 book proves that you can be given everything you want, and still be a prisoner. In this vision of the future, sexual pleasure is divorced from intimacy, as promiscuity becomes a citizen’s duty, and the family has completely disappeared; the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ have become base profanities, unacceptable in polite company. In this Year of Our Ford 632, people are manufactured, not born: bred, grown, ‘decanted’, and conditioned in state-run hatcheries through various forms of mental manipulation, in order to instil in them the correct values, opinions, desires, phobias and attitudes they will need in order to fulfil their state-mandated roles in society. Whether bred in batches of a few dozen lower-caste clones with artificially stunted mental capacity, or specially nurtured ‘Alphas’ raised to become the future ruling class, individuals spend their lives in a whirlwind of sex and drugs (but no decent rock and roll), buried in the endless consumption of consumer goods, banal and shallow entertainment, and a life devoid of any deeper meaning. Huxley made a brilliant comparison between his novel and that of his friend George Orwell’s in Brave New World Revisited.
4. The World Inside, Robert Silverberg – this lesser-known novel from 1971 is well worth the read, not only for its insight into thought control but also for its compellingly flawed and ultimately relatable characters. This completely indoor society – inhabiting a series of thousand-floor super-skyscrapers called ‘urban monads’ – is more lenient than the others on this list, allowing for some limited democracy and even a few, carefully monitored, malcontents, but ultimately, those who step too far out of the lines of cultural expectation will first be sent to the ‘consolers’ to be drugged and hypnotized into towing the party line, and only rarely sent ‘down the chute’ – to their fiery death in the building’s central furnaces – if the conditioning fails. The citizens can choose their own mates, but they practice a strange form of non-monogamy, where husbands wander to different apartments each night to sleep with their neighbour’s wives, and jealousy is a vile, old-fashioned sin. Reproduction is the main goal of this society, with contraception completely banned and families with less than a dozen children subject to the disdain of their neighbours. Religion, philosophy, music, and art are present, but trivialized to the point of holding no meaning at all; the only function of a citizen is to work, socialize with and ‘top’ one’s neighbours, and keep on breeding.
5. This Perfect Day, Ira Levin – In a future where humanity has interbred to the point of all being of uniform appearance, there are only eight names for the entire population – four for the boys, four for the girls. Or rather, the citizens are given ‘namebers,’ and everyone is considered interchangeable and all working toward the same goal: the spread of the ‘Family’ across the universe. Guided by their own brand of Marxist Christianity, and controlled by a supercomputer named Unicomp (or Uni, for short), the members are told where to live, what to wear, what job to do, who to marry, and whether or not they may reproduce. Everyday requests, such as whether or not one can ‘claim’ a certain item at the supply depot, are granted or denied by the computer through a series of scanners activated by bracelets on one’s wrist. Food is limited to a form of energy ‘cake’ and a beverage called ‘coke,’ and adults only have sex on Saturday nights. In order to keep everyone happy and placid and well-behaved, the ‘members’ submit to weekly chemical ‘treatments,’ drugging them into a dull, content daze – and also killing them when they reach the age of sixty-two. Like in Orwell’s world, the citizens are encouraged to report on each other and on themselves, but here this form of control is disguised as a method of ‘helping’ each other not be so ‘sick’, with a network of counsellors keeping tabs on a population trained to confess their innermost thoughts to them, all for their own good.
The similarities between these worlds are obvious, but there are also important differences: for instance, many experts on totalist structures believe that although Orwell’s 1984 does hold valuable warnings (not to mention its compelling views on language and thought, which is a topic for another day), the government portrayed within its pages is less likely to keep a population in line, suppressing, as it does, the lusts, desires, and happiness of its citizens. Such models of reality as Brave New World and The World Inside, in contrast, control these wants of the people by indulging them in excessive and instant gratification. In both books, the natural bonds of intimacy and love are weakened by imposing promiscuity and abolishing jealousy. In Brave New World and Anthem, families have been abolished altogether. Individuality is suppressed to the furthest extent in This Perfect Day and Anthem, with numbers replacing names and interchangeability replacing identity, but in all of these worlds, being an individualist is definitely not the safe option.
Whether the food is bland or flavourful, provided for you or hard to get, whether sex is banned or warped into complete promiscuity, whether the children are decanted out of bottles or born into families, the ultimate control of the state has invaded the lives of its citizens, controlling their minds and hearts, and ultimately, stunting their growth, limiting their destinies, and killing their spirits – all in the name of cultural ‘stability.’
These books are great reads indeed, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
What do you think about this article? Do you agree? Have you read Spike’s dystopian novel? Do you have a dystopian book you’d like to tell us about? We’d love to hear from you!