When I was a sophomore in high school, I remember a conversation with my friend Tommy concerning Dystopian Novels. He hated them. I was shocked—I had kinda liked them—but his reason seemed fair enough.
Beginning in the 8th grade and extending through 10th, we had been on a dystopian novel kick. My classes had forced upon us The Giver, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World. All good books, but they start to weigh heavy after a while. In addition, that year, The Hunger Games had come out and was becoming popular. Tommy’s reason for hating these was simple: he was tired of all the depressing books. Every page of every novel was about shallow, sad people, and every book we read said this is the way our world is going. In just a short time, we are all going to be shallow, sad people too.
So I, also, got a little fed up with these dystopian novels. I stopped reading other entries in the genre and always condemned them in conversation. Who needs ‘em? I appropriately distanced myself from that canon of depression and moved on to bigger and better things (e.g. the “Twilight Saga” in 11th grade). I thought I had cut all ties.
However, not long ago, some friends got into a literary debate. My hubris got the best of me, and I found myself headlong in the conversation, not really knowing the topic of contention: dystopia. So this post today, is a brief reflection on that conversation and an analysis of the best products of that depressing and horrid genre.
In this discussion of horrible futures and the depravity of man, I think all of the works pumped out on the subject can be organized into three categories: the trash—the paperback chapter books on the shelves at Barnes & Noble, the good stuff—all of the works considered classics on the subject, and the greats—of which I think two belong (and we will see the victor of those shortly). Below are some of the entries to the second grouping, moving past the “trash” category:
- Atlas Shrugged
- A Clockwork Orange
- Fahrenheit 451
- The Giver
- Lord of the Flies (You may have noticed that I have twice, now, included Lord of the Flies in the discussion of dystopian novels. I acknowledge it is not really a part of that genre, but you must admit its similarity in tone.)
- The Minority Report
- The Time Machine
- The Trial
Most all of these are great books, and many more classics could be listed (though, the definition of dystopian novel might be debated). Now, I must admit that I haven’t read the “Divergent” series or “Hunger Games” series, but I have seen the movies. And on those alone: let’s not kid ourselves by including them on the list.
Finally, the real interesting part comes with the conversation about what is the best dystopian novel of all time (and if I’m honest with myself, one of the best novels over-all). Of course the frontrunners are 1984 and Brave New World. George Orwell’s 1949 novel is simply entertaining. In addition to its contributions to culture in the form of “Big Brother” and “Newspeak,” it is also engrossing and thrilling. Unlike most books forced upon students in high school, many young readers actually care about what happens to Winston Smith when he is taken to Room 101. On the other hand, no one really cares about Bernard or John the Savage in Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel. Everyone in Brave New World is either despicable or unrelatable. From the initial scene in the hatchery, every reader is uncomfortable, and it only gets worse as you feel more at home and familiar with the World State.
It is that familiarity that wins the competition for me. Even though the others might be a better read, Huxley knew before all the rest what a real dystopia would be. The world isn’t getting worse; it’s getting better—and we’re paying for it. If I had to forgive the entire dystopian genre for its drab settings and depressing morals, I would do it solely on Brave New World’s merit. It is one of the greatest works ever conceived, and speaks more to more problems than any other work I know. It makes me a little paranoid, I admit, but it is for the best I tell myself. We have a lot to watch out for.