The Books Issue 2016: The Dystopia Bookshelf

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There are seemingly endless ways to imagine social breakdown in literature (and film). Here are some better-known works of dystopian fiction — and how closely they foreshadow current affairs.

1984 (1949) by George Orwell. Protagonists struggle against an over-managed, authoritarian surveillance state rampant with deception and human rights abuses; the book popularized the terms “Big Brother” and “thoughtcrime.” Can it happen here? Undoubtedly. Isn’t it already happening, sorta?

Fahrenheit 451 (1953) by Ray Bradbury. In a bleak future world, a “fireman” whose charge it is to burn books begins to question his surroundings. Can it happen here? Nah; for that scenario to play out, more people would have to actually own books.

The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. Set in 2005, a terrorist attack leads to a violently religious police state in which women are not allowed to read or learn things, and can only serve as wives, breeders or servants. A woman who is forced to be a breeder for a general and his wife remembers how it was before, and plots a way out. Can it happen here? Only if VP Pence takes over.

Children of Men (1992) by P.D. James. The human population is rendered sterile, and ultimately democracy is suspended. A group of resistors fights. A film of the same name based on the novel was released in 2006. Can it happen here?  Maybe, but it’s more likely people will stop reproducing on their own under Trump.

The Walking Dead (2006-ongoing) by Robert Kirkman. In the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, a small group’s survival among hordes of ambling corpses begins to pale in comparison to the greatest threat of all: other humans. Can it happen here? Hope not; Negan’s super annoying..

The Hunger Games Series (2008-10) by Suzanne Collins. An adolescent girl is recruited to fight other kids to the death for the entertainment of a distant elite ruling class. Rebellion ensues. Can it happen here? Reality TV stars? Desperation among the masses? An obscenely wealthy leader egging it all on? OK, we’re worried.

Underground Airlines (2016) by Ben H. Winters. It’s the present day, with all the same cultural and technological trappings, but slavery remains legal in four states, dubbed “the Hard Four.” A free black bounty hunter struggles with his own identity as he pursues an escaped slave by infiltrating a modern-day version of the Underground Railroad. Can it happen here? Maybe, depending on what state you live in.

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