Using or abusing dystopian fiction

burnbookLike a lot of people, I spent some time leading up to and following the recent American presidential election reading some dystopian fiction in my spare time. I’ll recommend a few titles at the end of this post. But first, this morning I read K. E. Colombini’s provocative First Things post about dysfic. In a nutshell, Colombini raises the specter of technology and its corrupting influence on our lives, the way it crowds out classic literature and other influences that no longer refine our culture.

What interested me most about the post was the sensation of whiplash it gave me as I read, alternately resonating and disgusting me. Resonate-wise, there’s something to be said for the ubiquity of screens and their impact on the quality of our relationships, speaking from personal experience. Colombini doesn’t mention the fact that every technological communication advancement—from books, to telegraph and telephone and smartphone—has summoned prophets of doom. (My favorite non-fiction book ever tells this tale.) Still, I like thinking about the warnings because they can’t all be misplaced.

So far so good, but some of Colombini’s specific comparisons were jarring:

“In Orwell’s [1984], books aren’t locked away as smut [as they are in Huxley’s Brave New World], but are simply rewritten to suit the interests of the Party. Like today’s crusaders for the removal of Civil War memorials to Southern soldiers, the Party systematically erases any reminders of the past that stand in conflict with the present: records, photographs, statues, street names, and even dates. ‘History has stopped,’ Winston tells Julia. ‘Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.’”

Referring to them as “Civil War memorials” begs all the best questions, of course. (See here if you need some background on this controversy.) Depending on one’s view of history, removing these monuments could seem like blinding dystopian iconoclasm on the one hand, or heroic and remarkable historical consciousness on the other. I personally think the monuments themselves were precisely an exercise in erasing history, or at the least, abusing it. They were erected to celebrate treasonous acts against the United States; acts undertaken in order to perpetuate human slavery.

How would we Mormons feel about a glorious statue extolling the virtues of Lilburn Boggs in downtown Nauvoo?

For history’s sake I believe it’s important to find an appropriate way to memorialize these memorials—to help us remember the ways history can be abused to either perpetuate, celebrate, or perhaps even erase gross human rights violations. But the idea that removing the memorials is itself an act of unfair erasure strikes me as exactly backwards. The memorials were erected precisely because “the present” of Reconstruction was resisted by people pining for those halcyon days of owning, abusing, and killing slaves.


P.S.—Colombini also gets Marshall McLuhan backwards, calling him “the greatest prophet to foresee the advent of technological dystopia.” He celebrated and exulted in it! He was less a prophet than “anti-Christ,” if we grant Colombini’s other points. But that’s a topic for another day.

P.P.S.—Recommendations. Rather than Brave New World (which I thought was stodgy and boring) or 1984 (which was ripped off from another author, see below), I recommend these:

—Yevgeny Zamyatin, We. This is the book that inspired 1984, and having been written by a Russian, it’s incomparably better.

—Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. You might’ve already done this one to prepare for the new Hulu show, which actually differs considerably from the book. I doubt the show will ever match one of the book’s biggest strengths—reflecting on the limitations and sexism of historical research.

—Adam Novy, The Avian Gospels. This one’s a lot more fun to read than Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, (underground 80s-punk-inspired revolutionaries and a boy with mysterious powers to control birds, anyone?) but don’t be fooled. It’s just as dark.

—David Markson, Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Unlike the other books I mentioned, this one isn’t about dystopian society, but focuses rather on one single, solitary woman. My favorite one in the list by far.

Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments!


  1. We is an incredible book. I might add LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, which isn’t exactly dystopian in the traditional sense, but breaks down the border between dystopia and utopia.

  2. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    a fine post-I agree with you Blair

  3. I’m adding Novy and Markson to my summer reading list–thanks, Blair. I love these thoughts and your commentary on the Civil War statues. As a lover of dysfic myself, I want to second you on Zamyatin’s We (one of my favorites, too) and Atwood, and I would also add to the list Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and P D James’ Children of Men, the latter of which reads really well with Handmaid’s Tale, and I can’t decide if I love the novel or the film more.

  4. Excellent rejoinder to the comment on Confederate memorials (which I think is more accurate than Civil War Memorials … no one’s trying to dismantle Gettysburg). I’ll second the Ishiguro and James recommendations, and add a few of my own: Jack London’s The Iron Heel is an interesting precursor to Handmaid’s Tale; Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is essential; and more recently I like Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station 11.

  5. andrewheiss says:

    Octavia Butler’s *The Parable of the Sower* is fantastic and has a cool religious spin.

  6. In the YA vein, my wife would recommend the Steelheart series by Brandon Sanderson, the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld, the Partials series by Dan Wells, the Numbers Game series by Rebecca Rode, and the Divergent series by Veronica Roth.

    I’d only recommend the first, as Sanderson is an amazing writer. I personally hate Dystopian fiction. I don’t believe that it’s possible for people to let society to get into any such state.

  7. Frank,
    What in history would cause you to make such an argument? As an example, I recently read Bloodlands by Timothy Snyder, which is a history of the lands between Germany and Russia between the world wars and there are plenty of events in there that make horrors like The Road and The Hunger Games seem tame.

    A Canticle for Leibowitz is a great post-apocalyptic novel, not what you’re looking for but close.

  8. John C, history kept these kinds of things limited to a specific area. You can even argue that any number of countries and areas are currently dystopian. Worldwide, or even in any large portion of the world, just isn’t possible.

  9. Even The Time Machine is a moral fable in what things look like vs. What things are. Thanks for a few more books to think about reading… honestly, the Book of Mormon has some really dystopian sections… thank goodness for a belief in God and hope in Christ to balance all the natural man running around. And I vacillate on whether I can read Bloodlands. It is almost too hard to go there.

  10. BHodges says:

    Andrew: Butler’s book is on my current stack, waiting for its turn. Can’t wait.

    Thanks Star, Grover, and other commenters! I’m gonna look at some of these suggestions.

  11. Dog Spirit says:

    I’m a worrier, so I only read dystopian fiction when things are going really well. I’ll put these on my list to catch up on at a time when they won’t give me more gray hairs. Also, totally agree that Brave New World was more than a bit silly.

    Re : Confederate monuments, I recently learned that a large portion of them date to the mid-twentieth century and were erected by groups with highly questionable motives during the Civil Rights era, speaking of erasing the past.

  12. Jason K. says:

    Adding a second endorsement for Wittgenstein’s Mistress, which I’d love to reread.

  13. Post-apocalyptic fiction isn’t the same, but related. My favorite, despite its being about 60 years old — it holds up well — is _Alas, Babylon_. It gives hope that mankind can rebuild not just physically but emotionally and morally, even after the worst happens. I simply cannot emotionally live in the worlds of novels in which there is no hope.

  14. And I’ll second the _Station Eleven_ recommendation. I’ve never read a post-apocalyptic novel that left me so full of gratitude and hope. A simple, beautiful little book.

  15. Kristine N says:

    I’d also recommend “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler.

    As much as I love Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men I don’t quite know how to feel about dystopia that posits infertility as the end of western civilization. It’s like we’d rather imagine some inverse malthusian end than contemplate the more realistic scenario of human population coming up against resource limitation.

  16. I enjoy dysfic and one of my favorite books is Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. It is a short and simple novel but I think it is pretty powerful because it deals precisely with technology and its corrupting influence in our society and how it pushes classic literature and other influences aside to such an extent that no meaning or impact in our society.

    Ray Bradbury was prophetic on that point.

  17. EnglishTeacher says:

    Re: dystopian fiction recommendations! If you like a good bonking over the head with metaphor and social criticism, Dave Eggers’ book The Circle is a good fit. I like it insofar as it engages my students (usually), and for its over all message, but it does have its limitations as far as nuance.

  18. John Mansfield says:

    Blog commenting sometimes is a little too close to Montag’s wife talking to the television to participate in the programs she watches.

  19. Hedgehog says:

    On the younger YA front I recommend Jeanne DuPrau’s Ember books, particularly The City of Ember and The People of Sparks, in addition to those YA books already mentioned.

  20. Ardis, great recommendation with Alas Babylon. I found it haunting but also hopeful.

  21. Blair, I’m surprised you didn’t include Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things (1987).

  22. Put me down for a strong dissent from the claim that We is “incomparably better” than 1984.

  23. karpetlapangan says:

    Good Post

  24. The Handmaid’s Tale eerily prefigures modern commercial surrogacy, especially with the exploitation of poor women in the third world.

  25. BHodges says:

    Good call, John F. My experience of that book was damaged greatly by reading the back cover copy before reading the book. There is a gigantic spoiler on the back cover that completely changed my experience of reading it. So I recommend that one, but don’t read the back cover, don’t read any prefatory stuff, don’t read any reviews. Just read the text!

  26. BHodges says:

    Roger, Russell. You are down as preferring the ripoff version better… ;)

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