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Dystopian Fiction


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Having just finished Cormac McCarthy's "The Road", I'm once again wondering why I'm attracted to dystopian fiction.  Maybe it's because the sense of relief when I finish.  No matter how bad things are these days, they're never that bad.

Here's a random list of dystopian novels I've enjoyed over the years, in no particular order.

The Road is either a reader's dream or nightmare, depending on what you like.  I love good writing, no matter the subject, and was instantly fascinated by McCarthy's prose style.  The paragraphs are short, the sentences often fragmented, the characters nameless, and the punctuation minimal, all of which leads to a lurching, halting, rambling rhythm, perfectly echoing the journey the characters are taking.  Just when I thought I couldn't stand the pace anymore, though, he'd pop in an incredibly lyrical run-on sentence.

The subject matter is disturbing.  There were times when I had to set it aside for awhile.  I thought it the bleakest book ever until near the end.

The title "bleakest book ever" for me goes to George Orwell's 1984, because ultimately I was left with no sense of hope that things would ever get better for the human race.  Also, there are so many things in that novel that are so close to coming true.  It's not too far-fetched.

This might lead you to wonder if I've ever read On the Beach, by Nevil Shute.  Yes, I have, and I maintain that 1984 is bleaker.  Despite the finality of it all - even more so than The Road.  Trying to be a little vague here, deliberately... at least humanity never loses its sense of civilization.   On the Beach may be the best book that no-one ever reads.

Like 1984, Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a little too close to home for comfort, a future that's too easy to imagine, which makes it all the more frightening.  I think the best speculative fiction is like that: not so far-fetched to be unbelievable.  And no one is as good a wordsmith as Atwood; the punning vocabulary she creates for Oryx and Crake will have you laughing until the end... of civilization.  If there's a better example of the immorality of unrestrained capitalism I can't think of it.

It's been too long since I've read Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) and We (Yevgeny Zamyatin), both as canonical works as can be in an ill-defined canon.  But I remember them fondly.  Especially the final image in Brave New World.

I suppose I can't fail to mention the fantastically popular The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) in this discussion.  I'll posit that it's fiction rather than literature.  As with so much SF, it's a book of great ideas marred by poor writing.  I enjoyed it for the ideas, and the naming conventions were amusing.  The other books in the series... engh.

Speaking of great ideas/poor writing, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is one crazy ride.  I laughed out loud through most of the first chapter, and that's not an insult.  I thought it brilliant, and I never found a dystopian future so engagingly funny.  But then the book fell apart.  Too many ideas, too crazy a plot line.  Sure did have its moments, though.

There's more, but I need to get on with my day.

What are your favorites, and why?

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Just quickly while glancing at the bookshelf--The Dispossessed (LeGuin), Darkness at Noon (Koestler), Canticle for Leibowitz (Miller). Then there are a couple books in the sci-fi category that are partially concerned with dystopia like The Forever War by Joe Haldeman and Old Man's War by John Scalzi. I'll write more about the why later.

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I love Stephenson's writing, but I don't think he's ended a single one of his books well. It's almost like he picks in advance how long the book is going to be, gets 75% of the way through the story in 90% of the pages, and has to wrap up quickly.

Others off the top of my head:

Fahrenheit 451

The Giver

A Clockwork Orange


Children of Men

Parable of the Sower/Talents

Never Let Me Go

Windup Girl

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I'm not sure I'd call The Dispossessed, The Forever War, and Never Let Me Go "dystopian", but of course that depends on the definition of dystopian.  I don't want semantics to stand in the way of a discussion, though, so I'll leave it at that.  They're all good books.

A Clockwork Orange, though... not sure about that, either, but that book is in a league of its own.  One brilliant piece of writing.

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