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.