Tuesday, January 26, 2010

This Book's Not THAT Depressing

I've noticed a theme in my favorite books.
Not all by any means, but a noticeable amount seem to concern dystopian societies, or at the very least an apocalypse or something. I don't know what is attracting me to these books exactly, but whenever I find a good one I can't seem to put it down. And this isn't just some "Ultra-Dramatic-College-Intellectual" phase, either, I've been reading these kinds of books for a long time now. It's morbid, really, and the best ones are unbearably depressing. Or absolutely hilarious, in the case of Galapagos. Either way, I guess.
Maybe I'm just a dark person, or maybe there's something very human about wanting to picture the worst possible scenario. You can ponder that one for yourself, but in the mean time I've gather a list of "Kelsey's Top Ten Super-Depressing or At Least Really Good Dystopian Novels"!!! So enjoy it. No particular order is involved here because I can never choose a favorite book. A top ten is challenging enough.

1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
This story follows Offred, a woman bound to the government by still being able to have children. After some unspecified disaster, many women become infertile. Some are sent to labor in colonies, others remain as Wives, who run the households of their husbands. The fertile women, like Offred, become invaluable to their country-- as long as they produce a child. Margaret Atwood has mastered dystopian novels in many of her other books, but this one stands out to me for its unique twist with feminist themes.

2. Blindness by Jose Saramago
I just finished this one last weekend and I was blown away. The story begins with a man going blind behind the wheel while stopped at a red light. Thus begins the unstoppable epidemic of blindness that ends up reaching the country very quickly. The first to go blind are sent to quarantine quickly after their infection-- this "haven" turns out to be an abandoned mental asylum which soon dissolves into anarchy. I became so engrossed in the horrors these people experience, at times I almost felt physically ill myself. Don't let this deter you, however, overall the book is a beautiful and (eventually) inspiring story.

3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Of course this one is up here. I'm going to get the big two out of the way right now (this one and 1984.) If possible, read these (or re-read these) two one after the other because I think they work beautifully as a comparison. In Brave New World everyone is controlled by pleasure; in 1984 everyone is controlled by pain and fear. The citizens of Brave New World are hedonists, 1984's citizens are cowering in fear. So which do you think is more accurate? Personally, I think they both had it right (partly.) Television is the ultimate example. One channel has the news, visions of endless wars, poverty, crime, and hatred. Flip to the next channel and you get Jersey Boys and Tila Tequila.

4. 1984 by George Orwell
For those of you who never passed 9th grade English, or somehow slipped by without this one, read it now. Right now! Or eventually, whatever, I won't know either way.

5. Watchmen by Alan Moore
This one is an interesting example of a dystopia because it is pretty close to what we have going on right now, up until a certain shift in the book. It's a graphic novel and might fit better under the category "alternate history." In this version of the past, Richard Nixon never left office, the U.S.S.R. is still the #1 enemy of the United States, and masked heroes are more than just comic book figures. Don't discredit this one just because it's a graphic novel, the message is still there, just presented in a different way.

6. Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut
This is the funniest book about the apocalypse that I've ever read (and it should be obvious now that I've read quite a few.) It only makes sense that Kurt Vonnegut wrote it. This is the story of the apocalypse told one million years after it occurs, and by then it's really not that big a deal. The apocalypse didn't manage to whip out all human life. A group of shipwrecked misfits on the Galapagos Islands is spared the plague of infertility that swept all other countries. These character don't survive much too long, but they do manage to reproduce, causing humans to evolve into seal-like creatures, getting rid of the human's troublesome over-sized brains.

7. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
This is one of my favorites. Don't let the strange lingo get you down, a lot of editions have a Nadset dictionary in the back. Based on a little bit of a Russian and a little bit of common sense, this language only serves to heighten the reality of the book. Once you get going into the horrorshow ultraviolence of the whole thing, you find yourself swept up in a way you wouldn't imagine. This novel also has one of the best anti-heroes I've ever read. Alex is the kind of guy anyone would love to hate. Even your grandma wouldn't hesitate to give him a swift kick to where it really hurts. But by the end of the book the lines between hero and villain blur in unexpected ways.

8. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This is another new classic. I'm yet to see the movie, but I've heard good things. What I do know for sure is that the book was fantastic. It takes place after some unsaid disaster that leaves the United States (and maybe the rest of the world-- it's never specified) in a complete state of distress. A father and son travel down the coast, trying to make it to the warm southern climates before Winter. Survival seems unlikely, at best, and pointless, at worst. More than anything this book conveys the intense love and trust between a father and his son.

9. The Giver by Lois Lowry
At the beginning of this book, one might think the community described is a more of a utopia than anything. No one feels pain, everyone seems contented, families spend plenty of time together. The opposite quickly reveals itself, however, when Jonas, the story's protagonist, excepts his role as The Giver. His job is to hold all the memories of the world before that the rest of the community has forgotten. Passed down to him through some sort of telekinesis, Jonas learns the beauty and pain of what we consider the real world. Along with these he learns the horrifying secrets of the place he calls home.

10. Feed by M.T. Anderson
This is the first book that really got me into the dystopian sub-genre. It seems to have proved itself to be eerily true as time has passed. By the time Titus (the protagonist) and his friends have reached their teenage years, the internet has evolved into something called Feednet. This system will directly feed images, music, and anything (and everything) else into the person's mind. Basically, everyone lives with a screen in front of their face all waking hours. How this differs from constant texting, tweeting, television, and internet connection everywhere you go I'm still searching for an answer. When Titus' feed deactivates because of an anti-feed hacker one day, the story really begins.

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