Monday, July 9, 2007

The Book Revue: a dystopian reader

I just finished Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake. It was a fantastic book. So engaging I could not put it down. 374 pages in about 3 days. Shades of 1984, shades of Brave New World, shades of The Time Machine, Frankenstein, and others. But not in a rip-off way, either. More like a tribute way. It's as if Atwood is at once recognizing the greatness of other authors and building on it, going beyond it, synthesizing and incorporating it into something new and her own.

I was first introduced to Margaret Atwood by my wife, who is the proud owner of a paperback copy of every Atwood novel. However, it wasn't until I my senior English seminar on Utopian and Dystopian literature that I read one of her books, The Handmaid's Tale. In that same course, we also read The Republic, Utopia, Gulliver's Travels, Herland, We, 1984, Brave New World, The Dispossessed, and I'm probably not remembering a few.

So what follows is my attempt at a few recommendations of dystopic literature:

1. 1984 is kind of like the granddaddy of the genre. It isn't the oldest or the biggest or the most complex, but it is probably the most read and the most influential. It is the most political, for sure, and perhaps the most enduringly relevant.

2. The Time Machine is not the most elegantly written piece of fiction out there, but it remains one of my favorites. It was truly inventive for Wells to take social stratification to its most frightening Darwinian conclusion.

3. Brave New World is a well-written work by a truly crazy man. It really makes you think. I wonder, though, how many of the politicos who cite it in their fear-mongering about stem cells have actually read it.

4. The Road is a recent novel by a man who customarily writes stories about cowboys and sunsets and dangerous mexican jails and bleak desolate country and what it means to be a man. It is a post-apocalyptic account of a man and his son (Abraham/Isaac and God/Christ comparisons are inevitable) trying to survive. It is probably the most gorgeous on my list in its use of language. The most poetic, the most lyrical. I actually cried.

5. Oryx and Crake is, as noted above, fantastic. I think it's better than Handmaid's Tale. At least, the fact that it is less in-your-face feminist makes it seem a bit more universal, and it explores the themes common to the genre more deeply than Handmaid's Tale.

6. A few selections of the Book of Mormon (The Book of Fourth Nephi and The Book of Ether), I think qualify as dystopian writing.

7. Some helpful background: it is almost impossible to read some of these pieces without an understanding of a few biblical stories: Eden, and Abraham and Issac are probably the two most critical. Sir Thomas More's Utopia is also helpful, as is The Republic, as well as some cursory knowledge of Marxism and Utilitarianism. Knowing Shakespeare makes everything better, and these books are no exception.

Any other thoughts? Have I missed any? Any that don't belong here?


Bjorn said...

I now have a new audio book to listen to on the way to NYC.

JKC said...

Which one?

I listened to The Road as an audiobook. Maybe that's why it made me cry, but I think it would have been just as moving in print. I am often more affected (moved, disturbed, haunted, whatever) by the printed word than by audio or cinema.

On the other hand, maybe that means it doesn't count. I still don't know where I stand on that issue.

When are you going to NY? It's a great city.

Liz Muir said...

Sweet dystopianism! Thanks for the post. I'm adding those Margaret Atwood novels to my reading list--I've been meaning to catch up on her since my contact with her poetry in my high school English class. Good times for Mormons who love dystopian lit.

Bjorn said...

Oryx and Crake. We leave right after Jeannette gets her hands on the new Harry Potter book around midnight on the 20th. We also have A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, and Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't by Stephen Prothero. It's a long road trip, so I'm sure we'll burn through what we're bringing.

JKC said...

I've heard good things about Prothero. Sounds like a fun trip.

Bjorn said...

Oryx and Crake was pretty good, a little quick, i would have liked to have seen a little more character development on Crake, but all in all very entertaining. I could see this movie on the SciFi Channel, but I don't think big audiences would dig it.

JKC said...

It was a quick read, no doubt. More from Crake's pov wuld be interesting since he's really the source of the change resulting in the state of the world at the end of the book.

I suppose that Atoowd would say that the book isn't about Crake, it's about Snowman. Crake's story would be interesting, but it isn't necesarily Snowman's story because Snowman isn't present for Crake's development from a smart kid into a cynical, self-worshipping smart adult. Going into that transition would make it Crake's story.

On the other hand, it is maybe a bit too convenient that Crake just happens to disappear for a perios of time. That way the author doesn't have to bother to detail his descent.

But then again, to detail it would force her to take a position on how he developed into what he did. Maybe the point is that the source of evil is unknown, it's a mystery. Just like Oryx's past is also a mystery.