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The Age of Trump

It’s interesting, in the Age of Trump, that my article on writing dystopian fiction is one of the most-viewed articles on this site. My review of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is running a close second.

A Dystopian Novel Reading List

In observance of President Trump’s first 100 days in office, which will be coming up soon, here are a few dystopian stories you might like to check out. A dystopia is a world where something, to use the technical term, has “gotten out of whack.” It is an unpleasant place, usually an extrapolation of what our future could look like if current trends continue. The disturbing thing about some of these stories is how many of these visions already have come true. For instance, in Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953, Ray Bradbury predicts interactive television, although it is a klunky version of interactive television because he did not predict digital technology. In that same novel, Bradbury envisioned reality shows and that entertainment media would become a major focus of many people’s lives–he also predicted our fascination with large screens, except his screens weren’t 50, 60 or 70 inches–one of his screens made up the entire wall of a home, and families saved to up to turn all four of their parlor walls into TV screens.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it contains some of the most memorable dystopian visions created over the past century.

We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924): This novel was completed in 1921, only three years after the Russian Revolution. In those early days, there was still a little freedom left in the Russian literary world, but the New Order was clamping down hard. We was not published in Russia (and as far as I know it has not been published there to this day), although it was published outside of the former Soviet Union, and Zamyatin (who asked to leave Russia and, surprisingly, Stalin let him in 1929) is better known in the West than in Russia. We depicts a totalitarian society where everyone has a number, not a name, and conformity is the norm.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932): This one is about a 26th Century society that worships technology and conformity. The main character is Bernard Marx, an Alpha who is different from others in his caste. When Bernard returns from vacation–to a  “Savage Reservation” in New Mexico–with a savage named John, he basks in his short-lived notoriety. But the meeting of the two worlds does not work out well for either of them.

1984, by George Orwell (1949): Shortly after Trump took office, this novel shot to number 1 on the Amazon best seller list, an extraordinary feat for a novel that was first published more than 60 years ago and had long been relegated to the list of books that are assigned in English classes but that few people seek out for pleasure reading, which is understandable–a lot of unpleasant things happen in this story. It is about a world where individualism is discouraged, citizens are under continuous surveillance, and the past is rewritten to support what the government wants people to believe. 1984 originated some phrases that have come into general use, such as “Big Brother,” “doublespeak,” and “thoughtcrime.”   It is understandable that the novel is suddenly hot again; the Trump Administration seems to be using it as an instruction manual–Alternative Facts, anyone?

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953): This story is set in a future where books are illegal and firemen are called to burn books in secret libraries of a few elusive radicals (librarians, college professors, and other book lovers). Guy Montag is a fireman who used to love his job, until he succumbs to his curiosity about what’s in books. After that, the sh-t hits the fan.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood (1986): This is a society in the near future, so near in fact that the narrator, Offred, remembers being taken from her husband and child and indoctrinated into her new life where her job will be as a Handmaid, whose main purpose is to bear a child for her “Commander.” Her name is Offred because her Commander’s name is Fred, and she is the handmaid Of Fred. Everyone in this new society has a specific function and must live by specific rules, even the Commanders. The Handmaid’s Tale is unusual for a dystopian novel because it has a happy, or relatively happy, ending.

The Hunger Games Trilogy, by Suzanne Collins: This trilogy consists of The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010). Every year a boy and a girl from each of the 12 districts of Panem–which long ago was known as North America–is sent to a competition (think gladiators of ancient Rome) in which they are expected to fight to the death. The victor–in a society where it’s a struggle for most citizens in the Districts to put food on the table–is rewarded with a house and the promise of food for the rest of his or her life. The rules specify that there can be only one survivor, until Katniss and Peeta change the rules, which causes considerable embarrassment to the Establishment and drives the story for books two and three.

Honorable Mentions:

Animal Farm, by George Orwell (1945): Orwell, which is the pen name for English writer Eric Arthur Blair, hated totalitarianism. He made this clear in no uncertain terms in his non-fiction as well as his two most famous novels, 1984 and Animal Farm, the latter of which tells the story of a group of barnyard animals that overthrow an autocrat (the farmer), and set up an animal democracy only to have it overthrown by another autocrat, a conniving pig (a real one, not metaphorically speaking) named Snowball.

A Friend of the Family, by David Kubicek (2012): Allow me a bit of shameless self-promotion. This is on the “Honorable Mentions” list because it is a novella, not a full-length novel, and it deals with characters acting within the confines of their dystopian world rather than trying to change their screwed up society or escape from it. It is about a future society that has outlawed the practice of medicine, replacing medical doctors with Healers who rely on magic to treat patients. But not everyone in the society puts their faith in the Healers, and for those people there is a loose underground network of doctors. Hank, a doctor estranged from the underground, finds himself blackmailed into trying to help a girl’s dying father and becomes enmeshed in a power struggle for control of the family, which could expose Hank and land him in prison.

Halloween: Stories of the Season

Pen and inc drawing by Jeff Mason from October Dreams, a Harvest of Horror

Copyright 1989 by David Kubicek & Jeff Mason

moaning-rocksIt is almost an impossible task to make a list of good horror stories because there are legions of them, and there are many authors who aren’t on this list and probably should be. But in the interests of keeping the list manageable, I will only note a few of my favorites. The stories are listed in approximately the order in which they were published, ranging from “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in 1820 to “Sun Tea” in 1989.

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving 

This is a well-crafted story by one of the first master’s of the American short story. With his richly-detailed descriptions of the settings, the people, and the food, Irving transports the reader into his tale.

 “The Tell-tale Heart” by Edgar Allan Poe

I first encountered this short gem in class when I was in elementary school. Poe, like Irving, also did much to develop the style of the American short story. He wrote many other stories that are worth a read, but “The Tell Tale Heart” is one of my favorites.

“The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs

This is my favorite all-time horror story, probably because it doesn’t show, but rather implies, and the implications are chilling. I also read this one (or my teacher read it to the class; I can’t remember which) when I was in elementary school. Teaching horror stories in elementary school seems to have been a trend when I was young.

“The Rats in the Walls,” “Pickman’s Model,” “Cool Air,” etc. by H.P. Lovecraft

I have never been a huge Lovecraft fan because, even though he wrote in the 1920s and 30s, his style was reminiscent of authors writing a century earlier. Also, he struggled with dialogue, so there isn’t much of it in his stories. That said, his imagination has generated many stories that have kept generations of readers awake at night.

“The Graveyard Rats” by Henry Kuttner

This is another one of my favorites. When Jeff Mason and I edited our anthology of original horror stories, October Dreams, a Harvest of Horror, we wanted to publish a classic story, and we chose this one because it had been out of print for years. Now OD has been out of print for years (although you can still pick up used copies on Amazon and other used book outlets), but fortunately this story is online in its entirety.

“Interim” by Ray Bradbury

Actually, this was my first choice for our OD classic horror story. Originally published in Bradbury’s first collection, Dark Carnival, it had been out of print for years. But while we were preparing our anthology, it was reprinted in a collection of stories from Weird Tales magazine, so we went with our second choice, “The Graveyard Rats.”

“The Girl With The Hungry Eyes” by Fritz Leiber

I saw the Rod Serling’s Night Gallery segment based on this story before I read the original. I highly recommend it, both the story and the Night Gallery adaptation.

“The Children of the Corn” by Stephen King

This is as good of Stephen King story to start with as any. He has filled several volumes with many excellent short stories. “Children of the Corn” is from his first collection, Night Shift.

“Beat Well” by Steve Vernon

This gruesome little gem (only about 175 words), had appeared in a magazine a short time before Jeff and I published it in October Dreams, can be read on the author’s blog.

“Sun Tea” by Robert E. Rodden II

Published for the first time in OD, this 12,000-word story currently is not in print, but if you can snag a used copy of OD, it is well worth a read. I hope at some point the author decides to re-release it as an e-book.

First, it may seem that I am shamelessly self-promoting my horror anthology; however, since that book has long been out of print, all of the copies you’ll find online were bought and paid for long ago, and I won’t receive a single dime for any of them that are sold today (except for a few copies I have, should I ever decide to sell them). And besides, they were in OD because Jeff and I liked them.

Second, this is by no means an exhaustive list of horror stories or of authors. If you want to investigate this genre further, in addition to the authors listed above check out the work of Robert Louis Stevenson (especially The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and “The Body Snatcher”), Richard Matheson and Robert Bloch, as well as the plethora of horror anthologies on the market.

 

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