Indie Writing, Film & Culture
I’m a big believer in the dystopian genre representing a society in which we can avoid. (Everything else between is post-apocalyptic). It’s becoming incredibly difficult to find a reliable list of dystopian entertainment true to its definition without seeing the same old things. Believe me, I’ve looked. Unless you want incredibly heavy topics to weigh your thoughts down for weeks on end, or zombies left, right and centre, the lists are few and far between.
So with this in mind, I compiled my own list of books and cinema for your own amusement.
1. Childhood’s End — Arthur C. Clarke
Clarke’s biggest seller is a science fiction tale about the pitfalls of utopia. Greeted by a benevolent alien dictator, Clarke delves into the human psyche to see what makes us tick. Childhood’s End reflects on a utopia bestowed upon the human race, but there’s a catch: “the stars are not for man” and never ask important questions. Will boredom end in cataclysmic tragedy or is there such a thing as triumph in transcendence post an apocalyptic destruction?
This is an easy dystopian or anti-utopian read, even for the fussiest of readers.
2. The Death of Grass — John Christopher
Published in 1956, The Death of Grass is an easy but somewhat brutal read about the psychology of survival. Following a 3 day journey of main protagonist John Custance and his family, this psychological thriller will have you questioning your own ethics.
The nature of the story isn’t so far-fetched either, and is arguably with as much foresight as Orwell, and as frightening as Stephen King.
3. 1984 — George Orwell
If you claim to be a dystopian fan and have yet to read this literary feat, then stop claiming.
The book that coined the term “Big Brother is Watching” is a guide to what is fast becoming reality. Orwell saw the writing on the wall after his time with the Imperial Forces and his journalism, and knew better than to keep it to himself.
Ahh, not the rats!
4. The Wool Trilogy — Hugh Howey
Three books of sheer thriller in a small confined space in a time ahead of ours. I read “Shift” in one night—all 565 pages. The others in the trilogy are equally impressive.
This series has it all: from 3-dimensional characters to the landscapes and dystopian plot. Men are evil brutes, politicians are far worse; their schemes, incredibly cruel. Humanity is flawed and weak. What can only happen next is anyone’s guess.
5. Fahrenheit 451 — Ray Bradbury
The easiest read by far and the most fetching, Fahrenheit 451 documents a society where the intelligentsia are evil brutes and their tools, their books, the single cause of societal corruption.
Bradbury delves into our own history where book burning occurred, and turns the narrative into a work of art. The educated are the enemy because thinking causes misery—or is it they dissent against illogical governments?
Firefighters now run to alarms where neighbours rat out neighbours for their beloved book collections. It’s a page out of 1984 going one step further to ban the written word and to broadcast lies to a gullible, now feeble-minded population.
Relevant to today’s ‘memory-holing’ of Internet media, and the prevalence of ‘Double think’, Bradbury’s warning is stark.
Read the book before viewing the movie if you can. . . before we burn this to ashes, too.
6. Red Dawn – both the original and the remake.
In the original film, Patrick Swayze leads the fight against the Russian invasion on American soil. In the 2012 remake starring Chris Hemsworth, they’re fighting the North Koreans. Either way, the Wolverines kick foreign ass in a patriotic, yet sometimes gut wrenching fight for freedom. These movies remind us of the fine line between reality and the dystopian world, and have us questioning our own integrity.
7. How I Live Now
This Oscar nominated movie depicts yet another nuclear war; however the backdrop is young love. Get the tissues out—this one’s a real tear jerker, too. As you shake your head at the suffering and misery one can cause the other, and you’re reminded of the Nazi atrocities of the past, you’ll mutter “no” in utter disbelief more than once as this dystopian tragedy unfolds.
This movie depicts AI and its effects on society’s middle classes in a hauntingly real outlook. One single mother is faced with a gruelling choice of self-sacrifice for her family’s survival.
A truly dystopian movie, where “getting older is [simply] not an option.”
What feels like something taken from the pages of Stephen King’s The Dome, Netflix’s Between offers insight into youth’s desperation when all those above the age of 22 die from a mysterious virus. The kids can’t leave their small town due to quarantine restrictions and eventually the world forgets their existence.
But not all’s as it seems as the scientists swoop down on this dystopian experiment.
Gamer has received many a negative review since its 2009 release, and leaves me scratching my head as to why. This fast-paced movie warns of the dangers inherent to AI technology and our addiction to gaming. This very avoidable society is perhaps closer than we think with Musk’s labs currently designing chips for our thumbs and our heads.
Although the script could’ve done with some fleshing out, the movie is well worth the sacrifice for any dystopian fan.
Are our thoughts really our own?
Dystopian fiction offers a speculative glimpse of the future, one often experiencing a cataclysmic decline, with characters battling their way through environmental ruin, technological control, and government oppression. As a sub-genre of science fiction, the popular dystopian novel can challenge readers’ views about current social and political climates, offer warnings, and in some instances, inspire action. But how is dystopian fiction determined? First, let’s define the difference between the utopian and dystopian world.
What’s the Difference Between Utopia and Dystopia?
When Sir Thomas More coined the term “utopia” in his 1516 book Utopia, he was inadvertently shaping centuries of genre. With the advent of Utopia, which was about an ideal society on a fictional island, the dystopia was born.
Unlike utopian literature, dystopian literature explores and warns of the dangerous effects of political and social structures on humanity (Hugh Howey’s Wool Trilogy) , and what led the society to the totalitarian outcomes and the difficulty of correcting the situation. Often there’s no way back, and the character’s needs are striped down to their basic survival (Aral Bereux’s J Rae Books).
Utopian literature, on the other hand, often focuses on the individual and societal cost of maintaining a perfect world. Usually one individual’s sacrifice is necessary for the utilitarian society to flourish (Ursula Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas), or there may be a hidden secret that must never be revealed (Arthur C. Clarke’s The City and the Stars and Childhood’s End).
What Is the Significance of Dystopian Fiction?
Margaret Atwood once said, “If you’re interested in writing speculative fiction, one way to generate a plot is to take an idea from current society and move it a little further down the road. Even if humans are short-term thinkers, fiction can anticipate and extrapolate into multiple versions of the future.”
The significance of dystopian fiction on literature can vary from educating and warning humanity about current social and political structures, to reflecting an author’s beliefs on the pitfalls of society (H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine), to critiquing behaviorism (Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange), and cautioning on oppressive regimes (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Orwell’s 1984).
5 Characteristics of Dystopian Fiction
Often times, dystopian novels focus on central themes that generally fall under these topics:
1. Government control
Specifically, there is either no government or an authoritarian ruling body. The most contemporary portrayal of the Government Control feature is Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy.
Collins’ The Hunger Games takes place in a future nation built on the ruins of North America. The fictional Panem is ruled by President Snow’s totalitarian government, the Capitol. Just as our own society amasses vast amounts of wealth into the top one percent, Collins’ Capitol holds most of Panem’s wealth and uses this to control its citizens.
Each year, two children from Panem’s 12 poverty-stricken districts are mandatorily selected to participate in a televised death match called the Hunger Games.
George Orwell’s 1984 also presents the reader with a world under complete government control, known as the omnipresent surveillance of Big Brother, which enforces complete control over the citizens of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia – the three inter-continental superstates remaining after a world war.
2. Loss of individualism
The dangers of conformity are often written into classic dystopia’s like 1984. How should the needs of society as a whole compare to the individual needs? Authors writing in the dystopian genre will need to keep this question in mind.
Two examples are Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, written in 1953, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.
Fahrenheit 451 explores the censorship of books in a future society where increased technology and mindless entertainment dominate. The idea? To save the citizen from the misery of thinking freely, critiquing life, or being creative.
We , written in 1920, follows a spacecraft engineer living in One State. The citizens of One State wear uniforms and are referred to by number, and are forever refused privacy or individual belief.
3. Environmental destruction
Often set in places that are inhabitable, the dystopian environmental story documents a warning of impending destruction.
The one dystopian novel that comes to mind when discussing this characteristic, is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Written in 2006, the post-apocalyptic tale documents a father and son’s journey of survival to a more hospitable environment in which to live after an extinction-level event wipes out their old life.
James Dashner’s The Maze Runner series also chronicles the events of how a world is destroyed by solar flares and coronal mass ejection. In the first book, a group of teenage boys are stuck in The Glade and have to find their way of out of an ever-changing maze.
4. Technological control
In a dystopian novel, the advancement of science and technology goes far beyond providing tools for improving everyday life. In this particular take of dystopia, technology is depicted as a controlling, ubiquitous and inescapable force which creates fear-mongering tactics and a subservient culture. Oftentimes, the government can be seen herding the people like sheep.
Two standout authors capture this terrifying characteristic in the form of authoritarian bureaucracy: Huxley and Philip K. Dick.
Philip K. Dick’s 1968 short novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? takes place in a post-apocalyptic San Francisco where android robots are indistinguishable from humans, and mass extinction has led to artificial animals. Although it is supposed that the main character hunts down rogue AI before they can assimilate into society, the novel leaves the reader wondering if the protagonist is himself a sophisticated android hunting down the lesser AI, and if humanity was driven to extinction.
Philip K. Dick also warned of artificial intelligence advancements in Minority Report, where the Department of Precime looks into the future to arrest potential criminals before they actually commit a crime.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was written in 1932, and explores the danger of advancing technology too quickly. In the novel, the ruling World State uses powerful artificial reproduction conditioning technologies to control citizen class and actions.
All three books have since been adapted to film and streaming services.
Dystopian and even utopian worlds require some level of survival to be built into the narrative. Innate to the dystopian world are its inhabitants fending for themselves. after a complete or almost complete destruction and devastation of their world.
One instance of survival is found in the pages of an early Stephen King novel, The Running Man. Written and first published under the pseudonym Richard Bachman in 1982, the novel takes place in 2025 and follows the story of an impoverished man living under an oppressive government. The protagonist is to compete on a life-threatening game show to earn money to care for his family.
In the renown Lord of the Flies by William Golding, a group of schoolboys find themselves abandoned on a tropical island after their plane is shot down. Conflicts naturally emerge between the boys as they struggle to build a civilization and fight for survival. This dystopian novel has been widely distributed among literature programs for decades.
Aral Bereux is a freelance journalist, author and editor. She has written on many topics including AI, climate change, geopolitics, history, finance, religion and philosophy. Bereux’s writing has appeared in various online publications including Zero Hedge, AnonHQ, and Antimedia.com, and she was the only Australian author shortlisted by Lulu for her short story contribution to the Anthology.