Dystopian Summer

I am a sucker for just about anything dealing with a dystopian vision of the future. That fascination is exactly why zombies, particularly the Romero-inspired planetary epidemic version, hold so much appeal for me. I am always on the lookout for intelligent, entertaining, and thoughtful explorations into a darker view of what is to come. So when I read a glowing review of World War Z (a fictional account of a global zombie war), I immediately requested a copy from the library.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I can be a little obsessive focused when something captures my attention. So I guess it shouldn’t be at all surprising that World War Z took my summer reading in a decidedly dystopian direction.

After World War Z, I moved on to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which was utterly captivating and beautifully written. I tore through it, and when I finished it this weekend, I realized I hadn’t really settled on what to read next. Honestly, I thought the next book in the Twilight series would have been in at the library by now, but no such luck. So, I halfheartedly picked up The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman, but I was only a few pages into it before I had to admit that I was really not feeling done with the dystopian theme. So, I walked over to the bookshelf and picked up Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, who is one of my personal heroes and the author of my favorite dystopian novel of all time–The Handmaid’s Tale. Looks like I will continue down this path for at least a little while longer.

Given this particular obsession, I started thinking about why it is I connect so strongly with these types of stories, and a few things emerged.

One, I am interested in survival. Or, more accurately, what people think is the key to survival in a desolate and dangerous world. From story to story, why does one person make it and not another? Is it luck? Intelligence? Fate?

Second, I am fascinated by the treatment of what I loosely define as hope, although it could just as easily be labeled motive power. In other words, what I am looking for in these books (or movies or television shows) is what keeps the hero/heroine going. What belief drives their survival? How do they maintain their sanity? What are they moving towards? Survival for the sake of survival is always the initial response, but what happens beyond that? When things seem hopeless, why do they keep trying? And in the absence of hope, what is there? Duty? Honor? Habit?

Third, I am interested in the questions that are asked about the devolution of society and the answers that are given to explain what has gone so horribly wrong. All you have to do is turn on the television, listen to the news, or open up your internet browser to see that we are heading toward what seems like a very dystopian future. The type of pessimistic speculation that goes on in literature (and film and other media) is an ideal playground for exploring the problems inherent in our modern lives. The types of questions asked and the answers that are given can help us make sense of what is going on right now and perhaps even impact how we approach the future.

There are other things as well (themes of loss, loneliness, trauma, rage, destruction, greed), but I’m just getting started with my dystopian summer. As I mentioned, I’ve already read World War Z and The Road (reviews to follow in later posts). I’m starting on Oryx and Crake. I’ll probably take another read through The Handmaid’s Tale. Anybody else have any favorite dystopian novels they would recommend adding to the list?

This entry was posted in Books and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Dystopian Summer

  1. kaizerin says:

    Interviewed about “The Stand”, Stephen King said something to the effect that stories about the end of the world are comforting to people, because everyone imagines they would survive, and get to keep all the ‘goodies’ for themselves. You know—we’d finally have time to read all those books we’ve been meaning to get to! (*I* can read without my glasses, fortunately.)

    Ken will kick me for taking his answer, but if you talk about post-apocalypse, “Lucifer’s Hammer” is the first thing that comes to mind. And it’s largely because of how in-depth the book gets about the survivors—who survives, and how, and what they do to go about rebuilding society. It’s a product of its time, so of course the women get the short end of the survivalist stick, but the ideas are very interesting. Every time the world gets a little too apocalypty, I immediately have the urge to triple-wrap my books in plastic and hide them down the sewage system (as one character in the book does, to keep them safe during the post-strike rioting and looting. He knows they—the information in them—will be vital to whatever society survives.)

    “Alas, Babylon” is another one I really enjoyed, sexist gender stereotypes aside AGAIN, and for the same reason—the bulk of the book is what happens after most of the world is bombed out of existence—how this one little town struggles back to its feet and tries to make something of itself.

    I loved “A Canticle for Leibowitz”, though it was a titch dark about our chances for survival long-term. I don’t know, I guess I have a vicious streak that thinks if we are so stupid as to actually blow ourselves up, well, then we get what we deserve. It satisfies the same place in me that finds the Darwin Awards hilarious, I guess.

    The essential appeal of apocalyptic stories is they cut the world down to size. The stresses of the modern world fall into absolute irrelevance when you’re fighting for survival. The physical work is much harder, but the emotional work is vastly simplified. Choices become stark and clear-cut — and that is rather of comforting, as long as it’s just fiction.

  2. kaizerin says:

    In my personal post-apocalyptic fantasy, we have all survived and done well, due largely to Ken’s great living-outdoors skills and knife collection, along with our collective intelligence and talents—plus the library of DIY and Foxfire books I retrieved from the septic system. I like to check in on us far enough away from the catastrophe that we’ve got permanent shelters built, a small flock and herd established, burgeoning gardens, and have scavenged sufficient supplies to can and preserve the harvest to see us through winter. There’s a comforting cord of wood stacked up already, and we all add to it while the weather is fine, amongst our livestock-tending and garden-weeding and watch-standing in the lookout tower. When winter comes, we’ll probably have to move into the main community building, to conserve heat and wood, and we’ll have long days to fill: playing card games, inventing toys, improvising versions of implements we miss, writing down as much as we can remember, and telling stories out of the other books we saved and our own heads. And of course, we will knit, all day long—warm socks and sweaters and hats and mittens and wooly leggings and densely felted slipper-shoes. They’ll appreciate our knitting, come the apocalypse, oh yes, they will! (This explains why, when The World As We Know It ends, I’ll be looting the yarn store while everyone else is squabbling over canned goods at the grocery. If it felts, it’s MINE.)

    See? It’s not so much Last Humans on Earth as it is Super-Fun Camping Trip That Never Ends! 🙂

  3. I realized when living at the Colorado Renaissance Festival campground for 2 months that, after a relatively short while, it stops being camping and becomes Homeless.

  4. Pingback: The Road by Cormac McCarthy : Bookish Dark

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *