Dystopian novels have been really popular among teenagers for a while now, with books such as The Hunger Games and Divergent being forerunners in many reading lists. And I am not really surprised that, in a climate where children are continuously tested and assessed, the dangers and fears of categorising and labelling manifest themselves in fiction aimed at teenagers. But dystopian novels have been holding up a black mirror to our world for a long time, reflecting (or refracting) the way our society is organised the genre began. The myriad of dystopias available, and the current obsession with the genre, seems to me to be highlighting the variety of anxieties and concerns that people have about politics at the moment – whether these are conscious choices or not.
5. 1984 – George Orwell
1984 is, potentially, the pillar of the genre – the book for anyone who really wants to understand what dystopian fiction is. The constant surveillance, the thought police, the telescreen, the posters, the propaganda, etc. are all symbols that we have adopted into our consciousness of what the dystopian genre is, but these symbols of the novel have also become part and parcel of everyday modern life.
The novel itself remains as relevant as ever as we continue to develop methods of watching (and controlling) the way that people interact and communicate. In fact, The New York Times described it as a ‘must read’ back in 2017, shortly after Trump’s inauguration; the Independent described it as a ‘book of a lifetime’ in 2015; and more recently, George Packer suggested that ‘no novel of the past century has had more influence’, with the novel influencing the way that we discuss politics and censorship.
But why do so many people seem to be so obsessed with this novel? For me, it is because 1984 shows the power of propaganda. It is very easy to forget, or ignore, the motivations and intentions of people who feed us information. It is very easy to make assumptions and forget that what we see, read, and hear is not necessarily true. It is easy for us to trust what we are told and the information that we have, especially when it comes from governing bodies and authorities. 1984 allows us to see a society – obviously not our society(!) – where the population are kept in ignorance, fed lies, manipulated. The world that Orwell created in the novel is both strangely familiar, but not quite the same. We feel safe critiquing this world, it is not the world we inhabit after all, and we are able to identify the flaws in the society and their terrifying consequences. Only afterwards do we see that the world that Orwell created back in 1948 wasn’t just plausible, but it has come into effect.
4. A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
Perhaps not a book for younger teenagers, or people who would be unsettled by upsetting events. Burgess’ novel raises many problematic ethical questions and talking points, particularly surrounding the treatment and rehabilitation of offenders.
A Clockwork Orange, like 1984, seems a very familiar world. The novel’s protagonist, Alex, is intelligent and at times incomprehensible as Burgess twists language to create totally new slang terms for the teenagers in the novel to use. In fact, some versions of the novel itself have included a glossary of all of the different slang terms that are used throughout the book. Originally reflecting fears about violence from teenage gangs in the 1960’s, the themes in the novel are still, unfortunately, surprisingly relevant: juvenile delinquency, violence, rehabilitation of offenders remain daily topics of conversation in the media.
But these issues only frame the main themes in the novel: the importance of free will vs. government control and the question of whether people are ‘naturally’ good/evil, or whether they’re products of their environment. A Clockwork Orange remains one of the important dystopian novels, for those who can stomach the violence, because it doesn’t just look at the construction or society, but the construction of ourselves and our own morals in the first place.
3. Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn
Ella Minnow Pea was a recommendation from my English teacher when I was studying my ‘A’ levels, and I enjoyed it so much that I’ve been recommending it to people ever since.
On the surface, Nollop seems like a lovely place to be. Lovely, that is, until the letters start falling off a sign and the government in all their wisdom decide this is a sign that they must ban that letter from their communication. With letters, and consequently words, being censored, the people on the island become increasingly limited in what they can and cannot say. Letters and communications are monitored for those flouting the ban and the citizens of Nollop quickly become suspicious of each other.
Compared with other dystopian novels, this book is positively cheery. Of the five dystopias on the list, this is perhaps the most friendly. It is certainly the least violent. That doesn’t mean that it is any less frightening than the others – this is still a dystopia after all, and it still illustrates the problems that might occur when you have an authoritarian state monitoring language and punishing those who fail to adhere to their strict (if irrelevant and arbitrary) standards.
2. Noughts and Crosses – Marlorie Blackman
Amongst young adults, Noughts and Crosses is probably the most widely read book on this list and is often studied throughout key stage three: Noughts and Crosses is more recent than 1984 or A Clockwork Orange – and to a lot of teenagers that has become synonymous with ‘better’ – and it’s much more famous that Ella Minnow Pea, holding a larger readership, perhaps, because it is one in a series rather than a standalone piece of writing. The first in a series, this book is often a gateway to further reading and study of black history and culture, whether that is through references throughout this and the rest of Blackman’s novels, or inspiring independent research.
The world that Blackman creates reverses the privilege that white people have. It takes real events and reverses the ethnicity of the victims and the perpetrators. By doing so, she emphasises the racial problems that still exist in modern society, and the highlights the inequalities that many people are still blind to.
1. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
I often cite this book as being (one of) my favourite book(s) of all time. As a bibliophile, books are important to me and as someone who can’t really sit still through a whole film, televisions and screens are not. F451 is not just a dystopia, but my idea of complete and utter hell. Genuine, no hyperbole, hell.
The novel is so influential for me because I see people being drawn to screen time more and more in one form or another. Books, if some teenagers are to be believed, are a waste of time: they take too long to read, you get all the information in a film much better/quicker, you don’t have to think when you’re watching a screen. Bradbury’s novel is more important than ever to try and break through this mentality. It shows the horror of the world without books, it shows us how disengaged, how uninteresting, how passive people might become if they rely on screens for their only source of entertainment.
Fahrenheit 451 isn’t just a horror story about the state of the zombie nation without texts. It’s a celebration of literature, and those who seek to preserve it.
So there you have it – a whistle stop tour of what I consider to be five of the most interesting or influential dystopian novels. If you have any other suggestions that haven’t made my list, please pop a message in the comments and let me, and everyone else, know.