1 Jun

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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