Tuesday, December 6, 2011

More Classic Dystopia!

In the real world, you want to avoid dystopia (a society, culture, or environment in which it is extremely unpleasant to live), but in fiction, bring it on! Last month I looked at Ninteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, the two most famous works in the genre. Today, I'll explore few more contemporary classics.
A Clockwork Orange, written by Anthony Burgess in 1962, takes place in a world driven by violence. Its protagonist is a young gang leader names Alex who nightly sates his desire to commit "ultra-violence" by cruising neighborhoods with his gang hurting people. Eventually he is captured, imprisoned and "reformed" through a process that strips him of virtually all passion. Sent back out onto the street, Alex is now defenseless and becomes, for a time, a victim of the very type of crimes he previously perpetrated. A few notes if you want to try this one out:
  1. It's really really disturbing. Definitely for the more mature reader. The violence is truly ugly, and Alex's nonchalant attitude toward the pain he's inflicting is at times stomach-turning. And though the book is somewhat science-fictiony, the characters who are having this brutality inflicted on them are very much like real people--they're not like zombies or anything--which makes it somewhat worse than your typical violent horror or sci-fi novel.
  2. Burgess invented a kind of slang, called "Nasdat" for his gang members to use. Nasdat includes a lot of Russian and Russian-sounding words. Nasdat sounds cool in a hard-core punk sort of way, but be sure you read one of the editions that includes a Nasdat glossary in the back; without it, nothing will make any sense.
  3. American editions of the book published before 1986 are missing the last chapter (the original U.S. editor didn't like it). Get a later edition or a British edition so you have the book as Burgess intended it. You can decide for yourself whether the last chapter helps or hurts the story.
  4. Later in his life Burgess said that he regretted writing the book because it was so widely misunderstood. Honor his memory and keep in mind that the book is not intended to promote violence.
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood Narrated from a post-apocalyptic future by a character who calls himself "Snowman", Oryx and Crake tells the story of how unrestrained genetic manipulation, rampant consumerism and the Internet bring about the end of the world as we know it. Snowman, formerly known as Jimmy, and his friend Crake (an Internet code name for a boy named Glenn) grow up in the midst of corporate genetic experiments which lead to hybrid creatures such as "pigoons," modified pigs developed to grow organs for human transplantation, "rakunks," designer pets with attributes of both raccoons and skunks and "wolvogs," dogs which appear domestic but have the viciousness and feral nature of wolves. Crake grows into a scientific genius who is eventually given free reign within a corporation's experimental wing. He decides the species which most needs to be redesigned is humanity. Jimmy reluctantly assists him and by the time he discovers the true extent of Crake's plan, it is too late. Better than any other novel of the future I've read, Oryx and Crake portrays a world that seems both entirely possible and unimaginably wild. Oryx and Crake is not so upsetting as A Clockwork Orange, but does include some disturbing content. Margaret Atwood also has two other notable dystopian titles to her credit: The Year of the Flood, which occurs in the same future as Oryx and Crake, and The Handmaid's Tale about a future America ruled by religious fundamentalists.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy The Road is more post-apocalyptic than dystopian, if such distinctions mean anything. It's a sort of poetic, meditative narrative about a boy and his father attempting to survive in a world after civilization has been destroyed. What remains of humanity are half-starved vagabonds like themselves and various predators ranging from petty criminals to cannibals. Their quest is to simply survive, to go on being the "good guys," and to "carry the fire" for humanity. Their journey is grim and dark and harrowing. While there are parts of the story which seem included for strictly sensational purposes (like the keeping of human livestock) and aspects of our world that seem weirdly missing (there seem to be no brand names on the discarded products the characters find) the book manages to be both haunting and hopeful.

1 comment :

Unknown said...

I have read both "A Clockwork Orange," and "The Road," and loved them both. It's funny that, while I haven't read the Margaret Atwood novel you posted, I have just finished her "Handmaid's Tale," which is a frightening look at a future in which men have grasped as much control over reproduction as they possibly can. It was frightening and spellbinding, and is a nice little antidote to the super-masculine books by Burgess and McCarthy (which I love, don't get me wrong.)

(There should probably be a point to this comment other than to say that I agree with you!)

I am currently reading The Postmortal by Drew Magary, which is a light and entertaining visit to a dystopian near future. You may like that.