I’m not gonna lie; I’m more into historical fiction than the dystopian genre. My first interactions with it were in high school when we watched the dated A.I. Artificial Intelligence. It has Jude Law in it, but that’s about all I got out of the movie.
My forays into dystopia may have been accidental, but I’ve always welcomed them. As it transpires, dystopias, or science fiction more broadly, is a perfect way to analyse aspects of the self and society. It’s helped me refine my political beliefs, question my agency over my life, and consolidate my aspirations.
Here are my favourite five books (and movies) for self-discovery.
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
Cat’s Cradle explores questions of morality, mortality and the meaning of life. Throughout this process, Vonnegut uses a well-established pattern of nihilistic amusement with the stupidity of man. Cat’s Cradle places these typical themes in a modern context of scientific advancement. The immediate danger of worldwide collapse due to ice-nine is interpreted as allegorical of nuclear weapons.
He asks: do researchers have an obligation to consider the practical application of their research? More broadly, he questions the reliability of individual consciences to protect the masses, particularly in the context of our inevitable mortality.
The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
On one level, Le Guin’s book deconstructs the practical flaws of the socialist and capitalist worlds she creates. However, on a deeper level, the narrator explores the deeply flawed understandings of freedom present in both societies. Wherever there are norms and customs, there is a restriction on freedom. Narrator Shevek explores the socialist belief of slavery to capitalism but sees no escape in his anarchist alternative, where the needs of the collective trump individual desire.
The result is a reflection on what it means to be free, whether freedom can exist, and what basic necessities we need to feel free.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World depicts the downfall of morality at the hands of capitalism and quick, cheap happiness. Like The Dispossessed, it discusses politics, but that isn’t the main concern. This society finds its happiness in erotic movies, state sponsored drugs and hedonistic pursuits. It turns conservative motifs and cultural icons on their heads (‘The Year of our Ford’) to create a new society that questions how to live genuinely and happily.
It’s not just a shallow 1930s man questioning the liberal attitudes of the 1920s. It includes powerful debates on how genuine our society can be – and whether it should be. He creates an ordered society that quickly removes the suffering of individuals. It makes us question whether we mask painful truths with our consumerism and hedonism, and whether that’s even wrong.
Stasiland by Anna Funder
Yes, this is historical fiction: it depicts the ‘Stasi,’ the East German secret police during the cold war. This cheeky alternative to 1984 explores the effect of state surveillance and interference in the lives of not-so-radical individuals. The shadowy world Funder creates seems so removed from the society we now live in and is so different to the kitschy, cartoonish way communism is often depicted.
It’s never been a better time to read Stasiland, as new laws continue to encroach our privacy in ways unimaginable 30 years ago. It’s a slippery slope, and we’re left to wonder how we would react to a state beyond our control, and whether we’re already there.
Gattaca by Andrew Niccol
Gattaca is in many ways similar to Cat’s Cradle. It depicts the slippery moral slope of scientific advancement, but its real power is how it facilitates empathy with the ‘invalids’ of its world. It forces you to consider how to respond to injustice adequately, and what one’s motivations are in opposing policy.
It mirrors V for Vendetta by James McTeigue – depicting ways of actively resisting disagreeable policy. Opposition in Gattaca is subtle: the main character’s resistance is exciting and empowering, but it’s essentially for his own gain. You’re left wondering, what is the right way to oppose wrongs in society? Can such small acts of defiance, while dramatic, be purposeful? Are more militant actions required to create change? If opposing an Adani mine, is changing banks enough? Or should you be holding the picketing sign?
I always saw dystopias as an extension of science fiction – I thought it was a method of escapism and a way to feel better about our world. But the characteristics of dystopias are always rooted in the past or present of our society. Ultimately, they’re a pathway to introspection and self-improvement.