In times of turmoil we can turn to a kind of escapism that reminds us how much worse things could really be. While some will stay away from genres that depict the worst of human potential and surround themselves with stories that make you feel good, others are determined to peak behind the velvet curtain of the mind.
As one of the former I have compiled a reading list for anyone who is curious to know what loss of freedom looks like.
If you read any of these under the duress of a teacher, I promise that they had a good reason for assigning it and I would urge you to give them another try.
Listed here are my three favorites that I think of as the classic dystopian trilogy. A fourth book is included on the list because it serves the same purpose of being a valuable lesson against what should not come to pass. Unlike the first three it acts as a pallet cleanser by inspiring hope for the future and has the virtue of being a true story.
“1984” by George Orwell
This work of dystopian fiction is arguably the most well known of its kind and saw a rise to the top of bestseller lists at the beginning of this year. This story of totalitarianism has held the nightmarish imaginations of multiple generations as it paints an all too believable portrait of a world without freedom of speech, press, assembly, or even thought.
This book has been a warning against unchecked power since it was first published in 1949 and deals as much with the importance language and expression as it does with surveillance and military coercion.
By the development of newspeak, the controlling party removes words from the language that could be used to communicate dissention.
“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley
Published in 1932, this book predates “1984” and suggests a different method of totalitarian control. Where Orwell dressed his future in a regime that would physically torture you into submission, Huxley gave us a world where the public was controlled with genetic engineering and sedation through pharmaceuticals.
One possible explanation for the stark differences in their theories of dystopia is that “Brave New World” was published prior to the second World War. “1984” was published afterward and was undoubtedly shaped by the practices of the Nazis.
Both authors did agree that complete control over the printed word was indispensable to manipulating the masses. It is their difference of opinion regarding the execution of government control that makes these two books so very different. It can even be said that people generally prefer one over the other depending on your own opinion of which is more likely.
“Fahrenheit 451” by Ray Bradbury
This book takes the subject of controlling the written word to its extreme. The dystopia presented in Bradbury’s masterpiece is one in which television and self-medicating are both elevated to ridiculous proportions and normalized.
What distinguishes “Fahrenheit 451” is that the centrepiece of this tale is that books have become illegal and subject to immediate destruction courtesy of firemen, who no longer fight fires but create them.
While the other two books listed above merely include mention of literary suppression, it is the very heart of the matter in “Fahrenheit 451”. While this tale can be taken as a caution against censorship, it is equally an argument against moving toward forms of entertainment that do not challenge us.
I can say from personal experience that when I read less and watch television more, I have a harder time with intellectual exercises. The idea of replacing reading with less engaging activities is one that terrifies me, both as an individual and as a father.
“Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl
While this selection is not a dystopian tale of speculative fiction, I feel that it is worth including here for its poignant lesson about the past. It also has the distinction of being a hopeful analysis of the human condition despite talking about one of the darkest chapters of human history.
This author and psychiatrist writes about his experience in multiple Nazi concentration camps. After his account, that is more personal than it is graphic, the second part of the book gives an overview of his approach to therapy, that can summed up by a favorite quote of his from Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how“.
The point that Frankl makes is that if man has a reason to endure, he can choose to survive. I have never encountered a more effective encouragement for overcoming adversity.
So there you have it. If there is one of these that you have not read, give it a try. Each of them are under 300 pages and they will stay with you. If you have read them, let me know in the comments what you thought and if you have a favorite.