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November 24, 2014

Hungry for Dystopia: Eight Dystopian Titles That are Better Than The Hunger Games

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Mockingjay - Part 1, the newest addition to the Hunger Games franchise, has recently hit theaters, and between that and the success of HBO’s “The Leftovers,” the dystopian genre is back in the spotlight. I’m not a scientist or anything, but I predict that many gifts of grim futures will be given this holiday season.

Dystopia can be bleak, which may make its popularity seem odd (even Cormac McCarthy probably reached for a comedy to read after MOCKINGJAY). But the genre holds a certain allure. A typical tale involves a future society with an oppressive government that demands conformity. Sometimes this is in the wake of a disaster that has befallen humanity. Sometimes the oppressive government exists just because its rules are convenient to the plot.

Stakes are high. Resilience is tested. If you can look past the occasionally goofy names of characters and places, it’s material that makes for compelling drama.

Like all genres that skyrocket to trendiness, there are many authors that jumped on the dystopia bandwagon who possibly shouldn’t have. So if you find yourself curious about exploring the crowded genre, I thought I’d take this opportunity to help you weed out some of the gems from the duds.  

I’m mostly focusing on contemporary books, but I can’t talk about dystopia without mentioning its MVPs: Ray Bradbury, H.G. Wells and Aldous Huxley. Now, here is an eclectic range of corrupt authority-ridden goodness:

THE HANDMAID’S TALE by Margaret Atwood
I couldn’t possibly make a dystopia list and not begin with this. Although this isn’t Atwood’s best work (that would be THE BLIND ASSASSIN), it’s a good introduction to dystopia. It’s short and tackles the big guns of potential Horrific Future Regimes: religion and the subjugation of women. I will say, slight spoiler, the end is maddeningly frustrating because there is none --- the story stops abruptly in the middle of a scene. However, this is a good litmus test for the often-frustrating genre: If you can handle this ending, you can handle dystopia.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel
This book is more concerned with what a post-apocalyptic world means for the humans livingin it than it is with sensationalizing a Disaster or whatever else you might expect from dystopia. If that’s not enough to hook you, the world involves a traveling Shakespearean theater company. The plot also includes an homage to “Star Trek.” Now, I’m a terrible failure of a nerd and am not actually into “Star Trek,”but I hear a lot of people are. So. That’s worth mentioning.

UNWIND by Neal Shusterman
This is by far the best entry in the overstuffed category of YA dystopia, even beating classics like THE GIVER. It’s set in America of the not-too-distant future in the aftermath of a civil war between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice factions. The compromise they reach mandates the sanctity of life for all babies, but if they grow into problem teens, they are sent away for organ harvesting.

Calling it a beautiful book might sound odd, because parts of it are horrifying. But it explores its concept with grace and thought and humanity, and it will stay with you long after you finish the last page. If the last few chapters don’t have you feeling all of the emotions, you have no heart. It’s the first in a quartet, but you can also treat is as a standalone. The fact that this book isn’t seeing the same level of popularity as The Hunger Games is a capital crime.

HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff
A stream-of-consciousness style would normally cause me to put a book back on the shelf. But somehow, not only does Rosoff make it work; I couldn’t imagine the story told any other way. Unfortunately, this means the film adaptation did not work. But the book is engrossing and even includes magical realism --- just enough to give the world a certain tone…not enough to turn it into Hogwarts.

Just so that you don’t say, “Yuck, why didn’t you warn me?” if you read it, I should warn you about the main relationship. Let’s just say the Lannisters would approve. However, this is one of the few stories in which I can actually say incest works, or at least doesn’t make me vomit, because that’s the point: The dystopian situation creates an environment in which that seems like the least irrational thing happening. But if it sounds too off-putting, I can assure you it’s a minor part of the story and most sexytime occurs off-screen.

NEVER LET ME GO by Kazuo Ishiguro
I have to be vague about describing this one if you haven’t read it. However, plot aside, this is an example of a male author nailing a female voice. Some authors writing opposite gendered characters go overboard in their attempts, but this is just right. Plus, what’s not to like about an English boarding school setting? I did have problems with the ending, and I think Ishiguro could have made a different, more effective choice, but the book is highly acclaimed so it looks like I’m in the minority.

THE SILVER METAL LOVER by Tanith Lee
The premise of this book sounds like a bad porno: A girl falls in love with a robot. The cover isn’t much better. In the hands of another author, it might be one of those stories that’s so busy being Shocking for the sake of being Shocking that it forgets to say anything at all (I’m sure you know stories like that). But Lee, a veteran of weird tales, spins a surprisingly touching and philosophical story that explores the nature of being, sentience, consciousness, and superficiality.

THE LEFTOVERS by Tom Perrotta
I’ll be honest, I hesitated to include this because not only did I not love it, it actually made me angry. It was a great premise…that went nowhere. Wasted good ideas might be even worse than bad ideas. If only someone who was willing to do something with it had thought of it! That’s where the show comes in. But, with some exceptions, I believe if you watch an adaptation, you should read the book. So I begrudgingly include it. It helps that Perrotta is a sharply witty, engaging writer even when he says nothing. And there is one aspect of the book that is superior: the son’s storyline, which is blander than watching beige paint dry in the show, is mildly interesting in the book. Maybe if you try listening to the show’s dramatic soundtrack while you read, it will trick you into feeling like more Meaningful Things are happening.

“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson
I’m including this one as a bonus because isn’t a novel. It’s also breaking my rule of making this list contemporary. I won’t even describe this short story vaguely; I’ll only say read it if you want goosebumps. I don’t know that it’s traditionally classified as dystopia, but I’m giving it my non-existent Dystopian Seal of Approval.

Let’s quickly return to the idea of bleakness. Happy endings are understandably rare in dystopia; they would feel unearned and out of place. However, when we read, we ostensibly continue turning pages because we care about the characters and want to see what happens to them. Nobody wants to see someone they care about give up or succumb to defeatism. The best dystopian writers are able to find that balance between bleakness and hope; between throwing terrible things at their characters and letting them have moments of grace.

This has nothing to do with character death. There is a lot of that in dystopia, which is fine if it’s meaningful. But if it isn’t --- if you’re killing people left and right just because --- then you haven’t written dystopia. You’ve written misery porn.

Dystopia is some of the most political writing out there. That’s part of the fun of it, but when we read fiction, the primary component should be good storytelling. If it’s done well, the reader will pick up on the subversive aspects. If the narrative is drowning in bleakness, that means that storytelling has been forsaken in favor of conveying the political message --- which then backfires, because the reader is left feeling too numb to care about the message the author was passionate enough about to gamble their story for.

Also, if it seems like I’m throwing shade at The Hunger Games, I did enjoy the first two books,and I’m sure Suzanne Collins, the patron saint of distractingly goofy character names, is a nice person. The third book even has value in that it kindly provides other writers with an example of what not to do.