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Must-read dystopian novels

Last updated 08:33 08/01/2013

Ahhh, it's good to be back and blogging again after a nice two-week break, in which I overindulged in way too much bad food, wine, song and sunshine. To be honest, I hardly had time to crack open a book, though I'm slowly making my way through Gone Girl. It's turning out to be the kind of novel you have to savour slowly, only gradually piecing your way back to the beginning of the maze that is the plot - turning out to be a fantastic read so far.

Anyway, to counteract all that golden weather, I thought I'd kick off 2013 with a list of must-read dystopian novels. You see, my reading tastes tend toward the dark and difficult, the cloudy and moody. Dystopian novels fit the criteria nicely every time, being set in sinister societies where the worst qualities of humanity are unravelled. Big Brother

Dystopias are, of course, the opposite of utopias (the perfect society), and what I like about fictional dystopias is that they often appear to be utopias at first glance. It reflects real life in more ways than one. Think about that golden couple envied by everyone at dinner parties, the friend who appears to be living the dream life at a tropical island paradise, all those shiny electronic gadgets that you can't do without.

In dystopias (and also, often, in reality), the golden couple hasn't had sex for two years, the friend who's living in paradise has picked up a heavy drug addiction and that shiny new tablet was made by Chinese workers labouring under sweatshop conditions to get it to you at that bargain price. So without much more ado, here is a list of dystopian novels that everyone should read at least once.

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
First on the list is Orwell, the godfather of dystopian literature. He coined the term Big Brother, which has entered our everyday lexicon as a way to describe totalitarian regimes. The protagonist, Winston Smith, is an intellectual rebel who keeps a diary of secret negative inner thoughts that will bring about his downfall if discovered. I particularly love the fact that Penguin is set to release a new edition of 1984, with a special "censored" cover.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood
Speculative fiction at its best - in the future, in a society called The Republic of Gilead (hinted at to be formerly America), men and women are segregated and thrust back into strict traditional gender roles, with men running the outside public and political sphere, and women relegated to roles as either "wives" (pure) or "handmaids" (breeders). The amazing thing about this novel, first published in 1985, is that many of the social justice and moral issues raised by Atwood are under hot debate again now, in the 21st century.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
There's a huge crop of post-apocalyptic novels that have popped up, but one of the best in recent times is YA novel The Hunger Games. The games refer to a twisted and dark version of the Olympics, where teenagers or "tributes" from economically poor districts are pitted against each other in a futuristic death match and televised for the entire country to watch. I especially like the fact that the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is no wilting flower waiting to be rescued by a big, strong man.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding
This book still gives me shivers thinking about it, especially because it's about children, used as symbols of innocence in many fictional works - who, left to their own devices, descend into savagery and turn on each other. It's the predecessor to works like The Hunger Games, delving into the psychology of boys on the cusp of puberty, and raises questions about the nature of evil and whether it's only the veneer of civilisation that keeps society from chaos and anarchy, or some deeper, intrinsic form of goodness.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
If the thought of a society where books are forbidden, and the concept of "firemen", people sent out to burn books, frightens the hell out of you, read Bradbury's magnum opus and find out how to avoid that fate. If this seems impossible, think of historical events that have happened which are still within living memory - apartheid, racial segregation, institutionalised sexism, the Holocaust, terrorism, etc etc...and think again.

In the Country of Last Things, Paul Auster
What is so chilling about this novel is that the unnamed city in the book so closely mirrors our own, albeit that it's clearly written by someone living in the 1980s; it will keep you tossing and turning at night. In the book, a girl called Anna has left the comfort of home - somewhere "back east" where society hasn't totally collapsed, to go to the city, which is basically a hollow shell peopled with ghosts from the past, of things as well as the shreds of humanity. Unnerving, terrifying and totally worth reading!

What are some of your favourite dystopian titles?

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