1 Jun
2012

Summer Reading: Dystopian & Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

This is one of the most popular genres in fiction right now, and as saturated as my bookshelf is with these books I don’t seem to get tired of them. At some point everybody imagines what the world would be like with the structure of civilization stripped away - I do it when I’m driving. We all want to push “the button” and see how people would rebuild. The general consensus is that we would be worse-off...much worse. However, people still need things to do, even in a ruined wasteland. Although the setting may be dramatic, many of these stories are just about how people fill up their time. They could be brutally fighting for their life in an arena for the amusement of the wealthy, or just going about their day-to-day grind, cleaning out the zombies from office and apartment buildings. Everybody needs something to do once the “novelty” of living in a dystopia wears off.

Hunger Games Series by Suzanne Collins

Collins is an efficient no-nonsense prose stylist with a pleasantly dry sense of humor. Reading The Hunger Games is as addictive (and as violently simple) as playing one of those shoot-it-if-it-moves videogames in the lobby of the local eightplex; you know it’s not real, but you keep plugging in quarters anyway. Balancing off the efficiency are displays of authorial laziness that kids will accept more readily than adults. When Katniss needs burn cream or medicine for Peeta, whom she more or less babysits during the second half of the book, the stuff floats down from the sky on silver parachutes. And although the bloody action in the arena is televised by multiple cameras, Collins never mentions Katniss seeing one. Also, readers of Battle Royale (by Koushun Takami), The Running Man, or The Long Walk (those latter two by some guy named Bachman) will quickly realize they have visited these TV badlands before.
But since this is the first novel of a projected trilogy, it seems to me that the essential question is whether or not readers will care enough to stick around and find out what comes next for Katniss. I know I will. But then, I also have a habit of playing Time Crisis until all my quarters are gone.        -Stephen King

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s feminist dystopia has now reached the status of a classic, and may well prove to be the book she is remembered for. It is 25 years since it was first published, but its freshness, its anger and its disciplined, taut prose have only grown more admirable in the intervening years.
Atwood’s heroine’s role in life is contained in her new name: Offred, literally “Of Fred”. She belongs to the Commander, an officer in a theocratic new regime, the Republic of Gilead, in which women are required to breed. The wives of officers who cannot have children must find surrogates to fulfil that role. Offred is one of these surrogates. But humanity always intervenes: the Commander begins falling in love with Offred once she is carrying his child. Offred, knowing that the baby will be taken from her once it is born, plans escape with the help of a rebel, Nick. Atwood’s novel is an ingenious enterprise that shows, without hysteria, the real dangers to women of closing their eyes to patriarchal oppression.

Four Novels of the 1960s by Philip K. Dick
Edited by Jonathan Lethem

This Library of America volume brings together four of Dick’s most original novels. The Man in the High Castle, which won the Hugo Award, describes an alternate world in which Japan and Germany have won World War II and America is divided into separate occupation zones. The dizzying The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch posits a future in which competing hallucinogens proffer different brands of virtual reality. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, about a bounty hunter in search of escaped androids in a post-apocalyptic future, was the basis for the movie Blade Runner. Ubik, with its future world of psychic espionage agents and cryogenically frozen patients inhabiting an illusory “half-life,” pursues Dick’s theme of simulated realities and false perceptions to ever more disturbing conclusions. As with most of Dick’s novels, no plot summary can suggest the mesmerizing and constantly surprising texture of these astonishing books.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

America, and presumably the world, has suffered an apocalypse the nature of which is unclear and, faced with such loss, irrelevant. The centre of the world is sickened. Earthquakes shunt, fire storms smear a “cauterised terrain”, the ash-filled air requires slipshod veils to cover the mouth. Nature revolts. The ruined world is long plundered. Canned food and good shoes are the ultimate aspiration. Almost all have plunged into complete Conradian savagery: murdering convoys of road agents, marauders and “bloodcults” plunder these wastes. Most have resorted to cannibalism. One passing brigade is fearfully glimpsed: “Bearded, their breath smoking through their masks. The phalanx following carried spears or lances ... and lastly a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars and yoked each to each.” Despite this soul desert, the end of God and ethics, a father still defines and endangers himself by trying to instil moral values in his son, by refusing to abandon all belief.

The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau

Ember, a 241-year-old, ruined domed city surrounded by a dark unknown, was built to ensure that humans would continue to exist on Earth, and the instructions for getting out have been lost and forgotten. On Assignment Day, 12-year-olds leave school and receive their lifetime job assignments. Lina Mayfleet becomes a messenger, and her friend Doon Harrow ends up in the Pipeworks beneath the city, where the failing electric generator has been ineffectually patched together. Both Lina and Doon are convinced that their survival means finding a way out of the city, and after Lina discovers pieces of the missing instructions, she and Doon work together to interpret the fragmented document. Life in this city is well limned; the frequent blackouts, the food shortage, the public panic, the search for answers, and the actions of the powerful, who are taking selfish advantage of the situation. Readers will relate to Lina and Doon’s resourcefulness and courage in the face of ominous odds.

Matched by Ally Condie

Dystopian novels for teens have been around for a long while, but this particular sub-genre of fantasy got a huge second wind from Susanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. If a teen you know is looking for a good follow-up, lead him toward Matched. The novel is set in a world controlled by an all-powerful group known as The Society, in which everything about each person’s life — food intake, profession, marriage partner, date of death, etc. — is determined by statistical formulas.

Seventeen-year-old Cassia Reyes gets her first hint that something’s not right during the all-important Matching Ceremony, when she learns who her husband will be. It turns out that it’s her best friend, Xander. But when she gets home and looks at the picture she’s been given, it’s that of Ky, one of the outcasts at her school. How could this discrepancy occur in a perfectly regulated society? And is there anything she can do? Can any individual take on The Society — and win?        -Nancy Pearl

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Set in Oklahoma in 2044, Cline’s novel follows Wade Watts, a chubby, unpopular high-schooler who spends all his free time in the OASIS, a virtual-reality online game that’s become something like Second Life on steroids. The country has fallen into near-total collapse, with the majority of Americans living in abject poverty and dodging violent criminals on every corner. “I never wanted to return to the real world,” Wade says. “Because the real world sucked.”
With no realistic prospects, many people around the globe have dedicated their lives to finding an “Easter egg” that the designer of the OASIS has embedded somewhere in the game’s vast expanse. Whoever is first to solve a series of puzzles (all of which are based on geeky 1980s cultural icons like Dungeons & Dragons and the movie WarGames) will inherit the designer’s enormous estate. When Wade unlocks the first puzzle, he’s forced to move quickly, desperate to be the first to find the Easter egg, all the while dodging a team of murderous corporate villains.

The Stand by Stephen King

I think Stephen King is unfairly lumped into the horror-fiction genre by most people who are unfamiliar with his work. The supernatural is a vehicle that brings the plot to its climax, but his books are really about what people do every day. The Stand may be about a sudden plague that nearly wipes out the world’s population, but the core of the story is about what happens when a line between good and evil gets drawn in the sand and people are forced to make a choice. The characters aren’t heroes or villains; they are just everyday folks who were born with the right genes. King said he set out to write an American Lord of the Rings, and the story reflects that. It is an epic tale of people coming together to defeat an evil horde and a Dark Lord of sorts...not the first, nor the last, time you will read a story like that. But where in Lord of the Rings you are transported to a fantasy world with magical characters, the world and characters in The Stand surround you every day, giving you a chance to wonder: What would I do?

Divergent by Veronica Roth

In a market saturated with dystopian worlds, this debut novel stands ahead of the pack. The society of Veronica Roth’s futuristic Chicago has been divided into five factions, each representing a different virtue: honesty, selflessness, intelligence, peacefulness and bravery. At the age of 16, each member must choose a faction, and our narrator, Beatrice, faces a near impossible decision from the start: stay with her family or dare to be herself. Her choice lands her in an initiation process that could prove fatal. She is surrounded by friends with questionable loyalty, and under the tutelage of Four, a handsome instructor who proves to be as baffling as he is irresistible. As the initiates are pushed to their breaking points, Beatrice, now called Tris, begins to unravel a plot that could lead to war between the factions, one that she and Four are the only ones capable of stopping. Beneath the surface of this gripping action story, Divergent is a book filled with tough choices, thoughtful relationships and a strong protagonist whose path to self-discovery is anything but stale.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

In Colson Whitehead’s literary take on a zombie apocalypse, the afflicted ex-humans break down into two categories. Most of the monsters are regular old flesh chompers, ripping fist-size holes in their victims’ necks while spreading the infection that has wiped out much of the world’s human population. But a small percentage — stragglers, in the book’s parlance — are something else: lost souls who find their way to some cherished past activity and freeze, stuck in time until teams of human-survivor ‘’sweepers’’ discover them and blast their craniums to vapor. It’s a testament to Whitehead’s talent that the mostly harmless stragglers are more unsettling than the flesh-munching skels. Zone One is not the work of a serious novelist slumming it with some genre-novel cash-in, but rather a lovely piece of writing that happens to be about hordes of homicidal undead.
It’s about more than that, of course. The book, which follows a survivor as he roams lower Manhattan with a team of zombie hunters, plays off the jitters of our post-9/11, post-Katrina, pandemic-panic era. Whitehead picks at our nervousness about order’s thin grip, suggesting just how flimsy the societal walls are that make possible our hopes and dreams and overly complicated coffee orders. Pretty scary.

 

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