Dystopias for Grown-ups | The Reader’s Shelf, June 1, 2012

Few can deny the success of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series, with the trilogy long situated at the top of many best sellers lists, and the recent film adaptation of the first book shattering box office records. These gripping tales of teens forced to fight to the death in a dystopian, totalitarian United States first took root in a devoted fan following and quickly ignited interest among a much larger audience. These books clearly gave adolescent readers a thrilling escape from reality and many highly charged issues to ponder. But what about adults who crave similar reading experiences? Never fear, or perhaps fear greatly; here are some dystopian sagas for adults to enjoy.

In Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (Vintage. 2006. ISBN 9781400078776. pap. $15), 31-year-old carer Kathy H. reflects on her childhood at Hailsham, a seemingly idyllic boarding school in the English countryside. Always assured of their special role in society, Kathy H. and her companions Tommy D. and Ruth slowly uncover the unsettling truth behind what sets Hailsham students apart. Ishiguro expertly draws readers into the lives of these flawed yet highly engaging characters with his elegant prose and devastating revelations. Check out the 2010 film adaptation, starring Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, and Keira Knightley.

Readers who like works that question societal norms should try The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (Harper Voyager. 1994. ISBN 9780061054884. pap. $7.99), by Ursula K. Le Guin. This futuristic novel relates one man’s journey from the rebel colony he calls home to the capitalist society his people severed themselves from nearly two centuries before. A gifted physicist and ardent anarchist, Shevek struggles to reunite two worlds long separated by hatred, distrust, and disparate ideologies. Which world is the true dystopia? Le Guin leaves this choice to the reader.

What happens when religion and politics become inextricably entwined? Theocracy reigns in the Republic of Gilead, the United States of the not-so-distant future as depicted in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (Anchor: Random. 1998. ISBN 9780385490818. pap. $15). In a world where fertility is a commodity, Offred’s sole purpose is to act as concubine and child bearer to a wealthy Commander, while his barren wife looks on. Haunted by the memory of a happy past with her own husband and daughter and growing interested in the resistance movement to Gilead’s oppressive government, Offred is an undeniably compelling character, as is Atwood’s premise. Movie fans can experience the novel via Volker Schlöndorff’s 1990 film starring Natasha Richardson.

A population goes blind, save for one unnamed doctor’s wife in José Saramago’s Blindness (Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. 1999. ISBN 9780156007757. pap. $15). Saramago won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature, and his talents are on full display in this powerhouse of a novel. Crowded into excessively unsanitary living conditions and thrown into a world of pain, fear, and chaos, his characters come to understand the disturbing inner workings of human nature as they struggle for survival. Offering a fascinating perspective on a people stripped of social standing and a structured life, the distinctive, challenging narrative will engage readers who appreciate departures from traditional storytelling style. In 2008, it was also adapted to film, starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo.

Alex, a sociopathic teen living in a socialist, dystopian England, narrates Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (Norton. 1995. ISBN 9780393312836. pap. $13.95). Hedonistic and unfettered by commonly agreed-upon standards of decency, Alex and his gang of Droogs unabashedly wreak havoc on the people and property around them. Will the law ever catch up to Alex, and what of his conscience? In addition to raising provocative questions about right and wrong, this novel is widely recognized for Burgess’s invented Droog language, which was modeled after Russian slang. Also be on the lookout for Stanley Kubrick’s stylized and disturbing 1971 film adaptation of this book, starring Malcolm McDowell as Alex.

For an adventure in genre- and time-hopping, try David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (Random. 2004. ISBN 9780375507250. pap. $15). From a California crime drama, to a dystopian world of enslaved sentient beings, to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, this book has it all in terms of setting, style, and character. Mitchell deftly connects each of these seemingly unrelated stories in deeply surprising ways. A film version, directed by the Wachowski brothers of The Matrix fame and starring Tom Hanks, is slated for a 2012 release.

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  1. Meredith Schwartz says:

    I also recommend The Gate to Women’s Country, by Sheri Tepper; John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar and Shockwave Rider (almost any Brunner, really, it’s a shame more people don’t know about him), and P.D. James’ Children of Men (much more elegiac and less political than the film, though that was also good).

  2. Vicki Harden says:

    A couple new books (2011) to read are Ashes of the Earth by Eliot Pattison (he writes mysteries and set this one a dystopic future) and Fallen by Traci L. Slatton. They’re both books that begin a series. Pattison’s doesn’t need a follow up, but Slatton’s leaves dangling threads to be answered.

  3. KindleReader says:

    Against Nature by John Nelson is a modern dystopia set in the post-9/11 landscape. The catalyst is a global pandemic, but the content is very much inspired by events of the past decade (secret prisons, extraordinary rendition, suspended habeas corpus, war based on falsified intelligence, etc…) I think that makes it a scarier dystopia. We can see the reflection of our own society reflected back in the pages of tthe fantasy society (pandemic America.)

    I love dystopia and it’s great to see a new generation of dystopia like Against Nature. The Cold War is over, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t Orwellian roadsigns in our contemporary society and culture. Nelson offers a modern (post-9/11) dusytopia that is all too plausable. Great Stuff!