Reading List: The Handmaid’s Tale and other dystopias

The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s classic dystopian novel from the 1980’s, has been adapted for television, and the first three episodes aired last weekend via Hulu. If you are not familiar with the novel’s premise, it follows a member of the near future society of Gilead, where men have taken control and forced most women into submission in return for their safety. Read what Margaret Atwood has to say about her experience creating the novel and what it means, here.

Novels of speculative fiction such as this often features dystopias ruled by oppressive, autocratic/ technocratic/ theorcratic regimes in which most of society has effectively given up or given over save for our protagonists, a few brave souls who have found reason to strive against the “norm,” albeit unsuccessfully in some cases. The appeal of these novels is the worlds they create, in the aftermath of calamity, a few take possession of the whole by exploiting a particular societal vulnerability. For instance, in The Handmaid’s Tale, men have taken away women’s access to money and credit, and created a world in which women, in order to survive, must be completely dependent on men. In Brave New World, society accepts the sacrifice of art, love, intellectual freedoms and scientific freedom if it guarantees a social stability and perpetual happiness without discord. These novels, though set in parallel-nows or possible-futures, can often tell us quite a bit about our own tendencies, or complacency, whether it be societal, political or personal, and remind us that there is still a chance to escape such a reality. They are also imaginative, immersive, and fun to read.

Here is a list of dystopias, to fear or escape to, before the next one comes to TV. Click on the covers to go to the catalog and place a request. (Descriptions taken from NoveList)

The Classics:

Image of itemBrave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932) Brave New World is a searching vision of an unequal, technologically-advanced future where humans are genetically bred, socially indoctrinated, and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively uphold an authoritarian ruling order–all at the cost of our freedom, full humanity, and perhaps also our souls.
Image of item1984, by George Orwell (1939) Winston Smith toes the Party line, rewriting history to satisfy the demands of the Ministry of Truth. With each lie he writes, Winston grows to hate the Party that seeks power for its own sake and persecutes those who dare to commit thoughtcrimes. But as he starts to think for himself, Winston can’t escape the fact that Big Brother is always watching…
Image of itemFahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953) A totalitarian regime has ordered all books to be destroyed, but one of the book burners suddenly realizes their merit.
Image of itemClockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess (1962) In a nightmare vision of the future, where the criminals take over after dark, the story is told by the central character, Alex, who talks in a brutal invented slang that brilliantly renders his and his friends’ social pathology.
Image of itemDo Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, by Philip K. Dick (1968) Captures the strange world of twenty-first-century Earth, a devastated planet in which sophisticated androids, banned from the planet, fight back against their potential destroyers.
Image of itemThe Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1984) In a future world where the birth rate has declined, fertile women are rounded up, indoctrinated as “handmaids,” and forced to bear children to prominent men.
Image of itemChildren of Men, P. D. James (1993) The year is 2021. The country is under the absolute rule of the Warden. Then by chance, Theo Faron meets a young woman who seeks to challenge the power of the Warden’s regime.

Future Classics?

Image of item2030, by Albert Brooks
A near-future world struggles with the challenges of a dramatically aging population revitalized by the cure for cancer, a scenario that is challenged by an unprecedented natural disaster that drives the government into bankruptcy.
Image of itemAmerican War, by Omar El Akkad In the not too distant future, the United States is again at war with itself. Fossil fuels, which have decimated the environment, are banned, but the states rich in them refuse to comply and thus break away from the union. Biological warfare, drones as killing machines, and state fighting against state contribute to make this a prescient novel.
Image of itemGold Fame Citrus, by Claire Vaye Watkins In the wake of a devastating Southern California drought, two idealistic holdouts fall in love and scavenge for their needs before taking charge of a mysterious child and embarking on a perilous journey in search of water
Image of itemThe Memory of Water, by Emmi Itaranta Global warming has changed the world’s geography and its politics. Wars are waged over water, and China rules Europe, including the Scandinavian Union, which is occupied by the power state of New Qian. In this far north place, seventeen-year-old Noria Kaitio is learning to become a tea master like her father, a position that holds great responsibility and great secrets.
Image of itemNever Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro A reunion with two childhood friends–Ruth and Tommy–draws Kath and her companions on a nostalgic odyssey into the supposedly idyllic years of their lives at Hailsham, an isolated private school in the serene English countryside, and a dramatic confrontation with the truth about their childhoods and about their lives in the present.
Image of itemThe Water Knife, by Paulo Bacigalupi Severe water shortages across the American Southwest fuel cutthroat competition between independent city-states for scarce resources. On one end of the spectrum is Las Vegas, a lush, high-tech “arcology” of fountains and gardens; on the other is Phoenix, devastated by drought yet inundated with refugees from bone-dry Texas. Against this vividly rendered backdrop, a diverse cast of characters do what they must to survive.
Image of itemWhen She Woke, by Hilary Jordan In the middle of the 21st century, a young woman in Texas awakens to a nightmarish new life: her skin has been genetically altered, turned bright red as punishment for the crime of having an abortion. Stigmatized and in a hostile and frightening world, Hannah Payne must make a perilous journey northward to safety.