Dystopian Days

What is it about dystopian books that can be so appealing? Is that they serve as cautionary tales for our own society, extrapolating to possible-but-hopefully-still-avoidable futures? Or is it the antithesis of “the grass is greener” argument, in that the societies pictured are so depressing and dehumanizing that they make us feel better about the one we’re stuck in? Either way, I’ve read a few dystopian books over the past couple of months and thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to review them together.

Let’s start with The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Maybe you’ve heard of it? I think that I very well might be the last person I know to read it, but it had gathered so much press (and most of it pretty good), I thought I should give it a shot.

And pretty good it is. Katniss Everdeen is teenager eking out a hardscrabble existence in a post-apocalyptic North America (now called Panem), which is ruled by an authoritarian government. Every year, the government sponsors the titular Hunger Games – a battle royal to the death between two-dozen teens from all over the country. As you might guess, Katniss is selected to compete. There’s very much a bread-and-circus feel to lead up to the Games – and we see it told exclusively through Katniss’ eyes. Of course, Katniss is a teenage girl and so there are some romantic complications and confusions brought on by one of the other competitors, a boy from her own district, Peeta.

The book really takes off when the Games begin and Katniss proves to be much savvier about combat strategy than boys and distinguishes herself in the arena. I will say that I think Collins painted herself into a corner dramatically by using Katniss as the sole narrator because I never really feared that she might not survive. Still, as the combatants get whittled down, she does a good job of ratcheting up the tension and I recall one specific “Oh crap!” moment that I thought was particularly inspired.

So, while I enjoyed it and was satisfied by it, The Hunger Games doesn’t exactly break new ground and from my perspective owes a lot to Stephen King’s The Running Man and The Long Walk. Three stars out of five.

In PD James’ The Children of Men, the bleak future arises from the creation of a world in which humans have lost the capacity to reproduce. Set in England about 25 years after the realization that the race is dying, James follows the story of Theo Faron who had been an Oxford professor (back when there were college age people to teach). Theo’s cousin Xan has assumed a dictatorial control of the country, mostly because the populace no longer really seems to care what happens.

This novel is one of those books that is perhaps a better idea than a story. You find yourself asking: what would you do if you knew you were part of the last generation? (To me, this is a particularly interesting contemplation as a childless adult in a somewhat child-worshipping society.) James’ citizens are consumed with an overwhelming ennui – that they are playing out the string, so to speak. It’s a feeling that permeates the prose to some effect. Theo is approached by a small sect of “rebels” that are seeking to change the government’s totalitarian ways and seek to use his influence with his cousin.

There are some very interesting propositions explored by The Children of Men, including some big “meaning of life” type questions and James makes some astute observations about people’s willingness to be lead, and not to rock the boat even in the crappiest of circumstances. But in the end, The Children of Men didn’t grab me. James’ writing is somewhat dry, Theo is kind of a prick, and I didn’t buy into his cousin’s assumption of power and the government’s Big Brother like control. The story arc goes pretty much where you think a book like this might go, and so there was little to shake me out of my own reader’s ennui. Have a lively discussion about the concept over drinks with your friends instead of reading it. Two stars out of five.

As is often the case, I’ve saved the best for last. While I was on vacation, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, which is the follow-up to Oryx and Crake. It’s funny, I’d had The Year of the Flood for a while on my to-read stack, but kept hesitating to start it. I was a little nervous to read it because I really enjoyed Oryx and Crake and didn’t want a follow-on to spoil it, Tehanu-style.

I should have had no fear. Atwood’s book not only integrates with the first book (in what I understand will be a trilogy), but enhances and surpasses it. In The Year of the Flood, we follow the story of two women, Ren and Toby, who are trying to navigate a brutal society of violence, lawlessness, genetically modified horrors and corporate domination. Atwood never spells when exactly in the future this is supposed to be, but you get the sense that it’s not all that far. There are corporate stand-ins for McDonald’s, Starbucks and, most dangerously, agri-bio-pharma companies, which have begun wide scale genetic modifications on plants and animals.

The story is set in the same time-frame and involving some of the same events as Oryx and Crake – and while you can read The Year of The Flood as a standalone book, I think reading the first one makes this read much better. Interestingly, Oryx and Crake is told from mostly male characters’ perspectives, this book provides an interesting juxtapoistion, highlighting female views of the similar events. The story shifts back and forth between Ren and Toby who for different reasons become involved with a “green” religion – one that predicts the imminent demise of civilization. The women go their own ways for different reasons and must fight for survival when a plague wipes out most of humanity.

Both main characters (and the supporting ones) are well-drawn and the plot moves forward in unexpected ways constantly keeping the reader on their toes. And along the way, the subtle reflections of our own world in her horrible creation are sometimes rather uncomfortable. Atwood skewers modern society’s obsessions with sex, violence, consumerism, and religion without falling into simplistic tropes.

Comparing it to the above books — whereas Katniss is a pretty straightforward tough-girl teenager, Ren is seen maturing from a child to a young woman, who in many ways is weak but lucky. She has her own boy problems (you know, before everyone dies) but Atwood doesn’t let her fall into the same teenage hand wringing that occasionally slowed down The Hunger Games.

Similarly, where The Children of Men was a great idea and thoughtful insight into society that moved along too ploddingly for me to really get into, The Year of The Flood had me contemplating civilization’s ills while being completely engrossed and searching for extra minutes where I could read another chapter. Five stars out of five.

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33 thoughts on “Dystopian Days

    • I remember us talking about Atwood before. I think you’d like both O&C and Year of the Flood.

      It would be interesting to consider The Children of Men and The Handmaid’s Tale together. Of the two, Handsmaid is a much more enjoyable read, but they ask interesting questions about the role of reproduction and fertility in society.

  1. Ooo, what fun!
    I enjoyed the Hunger Games. I did feel the teen angst, etc., in the face of survival itself was a bit much, but overall..yes, a 3 out of 5 stars. I won’t bother reading The Children of Men.
    I do love “end of the world” fiction….I loved “The Stand”….my favorite Stephen King book. “The Road” Cormac McCarthy was haunting. I loved it, but feared it.

    Dystopian was not a word I was familiar with, but now that I know…it’s one of my favorite kind of book. I am so excited to check out Margaret Atwood and her works. I have no idea what is in store for me…but it has to be good!

    A dystopian book I enjoyed from decades ago was “Lucifer’s Hammer”…by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. I need to reread that one to see if it stands the test of time.

    • Yeah — there’s sort of a subtle difference between the post-apocalyptic books and dystopian books. The governments in the latter are almost always totalitarian and menacing.

      “Lucifer’s Hammer” was one of the first SF books that I read in my early teens. I really enjoyed it.

  2. You were not the last one to read, “The Hunger Games.” All three of my girls have read them all. They NEVER looked appealing to me, no matter what people said. The second book you mentioned sounds like a nightmare. The third book sounds marvelous and I am going to try to get the one you read first, and then read the second. I am hoping my library has both of them! Thanks for the reviews. You confirmed my instinct that I would not like, “The Hunger Games.”

  3. I just read Lauri’s comments, I realize that Dystopia is my least favorite type of book. I usually am into murder/mayhem/mystery books, and the occasional ridiculous chick lit book, just for a laugh. Sometimes I read books about complicated women’s relationships and things of that sort but I do not like sad endings, so Nicholas Sparks is out!

    • I loved the ending of the Hunger Games. I was so glad she didn’t take the easy way out.
      I’m not sure why I enjoy reading about 99% of humanity being destroyed. But I think the earth would be a much better place without it. ;)

  4. I personally loved the Hunger Games. Knowing that they were Young Adult fiction helped me not get hung up on the teen angst. Especially since the previous series that made it huge with that age was (barf) Twilight. I like that katniss can hold her own, and that she’s a good role model for the girls that these books are written for. I flew through all three, and really cared about the characters. There were some pacing issues, but that’s not a huge deal to me.
    I have been told I need to read Margaret Atwood, and your review makes me think I will like her. I never thought I really liked dystopian novels, (Brave New World, I’m looking at you!) but the ones I’ve read recently, I have enjoyed. Thanks for the recommendation!

    • I could definitely see where The Hunger Games was targeted for a YA audience — though I don’t know that means it should completely get a pass for some teen stereotypes. “The Book Thief” by Marcus Zusak is YA-directed, but was beautiful and heartbreaking.

      I agree though that I have zero-interest in any of the Twilight franchise — movies or books.

      I’ve enjoyed all the Atwood books I’ve read to a certain degree. Noelle mentioned “The Handmaid’s Tail” — that’s certainly a classic and a good jumping off point.

  5. Thanks for these…I’m heading to the book store tomorrow so I’ll look these two up. I just finished “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and loved it. The one before that was “The Book of Negroes” by Lawrance Hill and while not of this particular genre, was an excellent read. Have you read it?

    • I really enjoyed “The Road” — though it was hardly the feel-good read of the year. I haven’t heard of “The Book of Negroes” but I will keep an eye out for it.

  6. Absolutely everyone I know has read the Hunger Games books. Except me. I have limits to both dystopias (every other book nowadays seems to be one) and teen angst, so the combo is daunting.

    • L — I definitely let the furor die down. It was funny to watch my twitter-stream when Mockingjay came out. Wow. I enjoyed “The Hunger Games” and will definitely try the second one.

  7. I enjoyed the Hunger Games trilogy – there’s a movie due out next year. But I found Katniss to be fairly annoying a lot of the time. And it will be remembered as a book that made me cry hard and ugly. I read a lot of young adult dystopia, another one I enjoyed was The Maze Runner, book 3 is due out in October and I’m pretty keen for it.

    • Jane — I actually think if done right “The Hunger Games” could make a great movie. A couple of good characters, lots of action, some quiet moments and even some humor.

  8. I keep putting off reading Oryx cos I end up reading silly stuff instead. My step work is challenging, so if it’s not non-fic, I keep hitting the shallow end of the pool. I still want to read it, though!

  9. I haven’t read many dystopian novels because I find the genre depressing. Some of them end on a hopeful note, but most tend to be grim and their outlook dire. (1984 anyone?) I haven’t read The Hunger Games because I find the premise repugnant. Maybe it could be read as a metaphor for life in high school (j/k, sort of) but with all the other books I have piled on my table, I don’t think I’m opening this one soon. I read The Children of Men after I saw the movie, but was disappointed with the coldness of James’ writing, which was one reason I stopped reading her mysteries. I will make a note to read Atwood—I like her novels anyway, but this one fell under the radar.

    • HG — I’ve heard that film version of The Children of Men departs pretty significantly from the book, but I’ve never seen it. Better, worse? Just different? I’m glad to hear that I wasn’t the only one put off by the James’ writing — I’d previously read one of her mysteries and found it pretty stiff.

      • The movie is better—much better—than the book. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but I think you’d enjoy it far more than James’ novel. The character of Xan is eliminated in the movie and Theo is much more sympathetic, though he is emotionally withdrawn and almost cold at times. Julian is his ex-wife, and there is a mystical element to the pregnant woman, a whole new character, who drives the movie’s plot. The only things the movie has kept from the book are the unexplained sterility of humans, the feeling of doom as TV news reports predict that humans will disappear from the earth within a century, and the underground group The Fishes. But there is a hopeful ending to the movie, while I wasn’t entirely sure in the novel if James was optimistic or being Sybil-like about the future of civilization. I certainly enjoyed watching Clive Owen as Theo, who struggles between cynicism, despair and hope, and seems to be a thinking person’s response to a world in collapse. The movie wobbles in some parts, particularly when it tries to explain why the government is so interested in the only known pregnancy in the world, but I’d still give it four stars out of five. :)

  10. The Long Walk is classic Stephen King and an excellent read.

    We’ve had The Hunger Games sitting on the shelf but I never took an interest. It was one of my wife’s reads. I shall now endeavor to check it out. Thanks!

  11. Well, I haven’t read the Hunger Games, either, so there. :P Heh.

    I haven’t read any of PD James’ non-mystery novels, so I don’t know what they’re like. I have to say, however, that while I really liked her early mystery novels (Dalgliesh, mostly), the later ones seemed to be getting more and more plodding and dull.

    • AB — yes, I had read a couple of her non-Daigliesh mysteries and like you I thought they were sort of lumbering. I decided that maybe SF was the way to go. Apparently not!

  12. most of atwood’s stuff seems to be dystopian. If you liked Hunger Games, you should give Battle Royale a read. the second two books aren’t nearly as good in hunger games though.

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