To say that 2020 hasn’t been a great year so far would be a whopping understatement. Aside from the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world, many other issues and tragedies have happened over the past few months.
It’s only natural that you would want to distract yourself.
However, instead of going on another binge-watching session of comedic classics, such as Exclusively White Main Cast in 90s New York and Exclusively White Main Cast in 2000s New York, I suggest a more thought-provoking alternative: dystopian novels.
You may be wondering why you should read about horrifying regimes and disease-stricken worlds when there’s plenty of those in the real world. Dystopian fiction is nearly always focused on keeping hope alive, on breaking free from oppressive powers, and fanning the flames of inspiration.
The following five novels are all beautifully written works on resistance and hope.
1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
People have been talking about and discussing Margaret Atwood’s novel ever since it was first published in 1985. The book has received increased attention, thanks to an equally critically acclaimed television series in 2017.
If you’re not familiar with the book’s setting, it takes place in a truly horrifying future where religious fanatics have taken over the United States. These zealots forbid women from reading, writing, and generally treat them as chattel.
The worst is reserved for the handmaids, women who have escaped infertility that afflicts most of the population. They are forced to become nothing but glorified breeding stock for the powerful men who run the country.
Offred (so named because she “belongs” to a man named Fred) is the titular handmaid. The book does not shy away from the indignities and terrors inflicted on Offred and other victims of the regime. However, the book also explores Offred’s continued resistance, her will to be free, and ultimately taking the chance to escape from her circumstances.
2. Children of Men by P.D. James
P.D. James is more known as a crime fiction writer, but her foray into dystopian fiction is incredibly thought-provoking and chilling. In a world where it seems that the entire human race has gone sterile, the youngest are treated as treasures and gods, government-sponsored mass suicides occur regularly, and generally everything straight up sucks.
This all changes when a female dissident reveals to a doctor that she is the first human in 25 years to achieve pregnancy. What happens next is a storm of bullets, ideologies, and political discussion.
As much as the book is a true classic, readers may find it a little alienating and a bit unrealistic. Personally, you would get a more complete appreciation for the crisis presented in the novel by reading it as well as watching the 2006 film adaptation by Alfonso Cuaron.
3. Kill Six Billion Demons by Tom Parkinson-Morgan
“Kill Six Billion Demons” is a graphic novel. It follows the story of Allison Ruth, a normal Los Angeles barista inexplicably torn from her life when her sort-of boyfriend is kidnapped by rogue angels, a crazy bearded guy shoves the most powerful item in the cosmos into her forehead, and she’s transported to the megalopolis in the center of all universes.
And it gets worse.
Allison discovers that God died giving birth to creation and now the 777,777 universes are divided equally among seven insane god-tyrants. Somehow, she’s supposed to defeat them.
KSBD is wonderfully illustrated and provides truly ingenious explorations on self, religion, fate, and the perils of power, whether over entire universes or over yourself. It’s about overcoming challenges from outside forces and from within, about overthrowing tyrants and gaining self-confidence.
And binding a demon or two with names from “Sailor Moon.”
4. Red Rising by Pierce Brown
Set in the impossibly far future, human civilization has become a solar empire, stretching from the capital of Luna to the moons of Neptune. However, this spacefaring civilization is built on a brutal hierarchy designated by color and duty called the Society. At the bottom of the pyramid, the Reds slave away, some never even seeing the sky to fuel the power and pleasure of those at the apex, the cruel and brilliant Golds.
When a callous Gold punishes two Reds with death, it sets of a chain reaction that will see war spread across the entire Solar System. Pierce Brown’s novels, originally a trilogy but now expanded to five books, follows Darrow as he embarks on a campaign to bring down the Golds from the inside. It explores the responsibility of the powerful, the horrors of war, and how unity is the best weapon of all.
5. Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
The first of China Mieville’s novels set in the dangerous and horrifying world of Bas-Lag, Perdido Street Station takes place in the city of New Crobuzon. A powerful city-state, it’s run by a tyrannical government that ruthlessly hunts down dissenters, crushes popular movements against its corporations, and leaves the depressed areas of the city to rot. The metropolis is also home to living cacti, amphibian water wizards, and insect-headed artisans.
Things come to a head when a stranger seeks out a scientist, seeking a way to fly. A series of unlikely events follows that unleashes a horror upon New Crobuzon even demons fear to face.
Ultimately a novel about taking responsibility of one’s actions, Perdido Street Station still presents fighting an oppressive force, be it an eldritch nightmare, a deranged criminal, or a fascist government, to be the right choice. But one must live with the consequences of resisting such forces.
These five novels are dark and miserable at times, but each one espouses that hope may seem fragile, but it’s surprisingly hard to kill.
So long as people seek inspiration and put it to action, we can stave away our own dystopian future.
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P. Torres' favorite animals are dragons, despite the lack of tangible evidence of their existence. When reading books or watching movies, anything with dragons in them gets top priority.