As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and analysts speculate on how it might change society on a global scale, you might want to take your mind off all things coronavirus with some light reading. Or, an alternate approach: Immerse yourself in some dystopian fiction to reassure yourself that things these days really aren’t so bad after all. Here, a few of my favorite recent dystopian novels:
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
I first read this book when it came out in the 1980s. Decades later, amid all the hype over the TV series, I couldn’t recall anything except that the story has to do with young women kept as virtual slaves attempting to reproduce after a large-scale calamity rendered almost everyone infertile. Upon re-reading, I found the novel incredibly prescient, especially in its depiction of fringe political factions rising to power, and its theme that any built-from-scratch “perfect” society will inevitably be marred by a dark, sinister side that simply cannot be suppressed.
This novel is a masterpiece. The voice of Offred, the Handmaid heroine, is bittersweet and believable, wistful and true. Her descriptions, perspectives and observations are so heartfelt and vivid. Margaret Atwood outdid herself with this story.
That said, the reader spends the entire time in Offred’s head, her thoughts becoming their thoughts. Anyone looking for an action-packed tale may be disappointed, as the novel’s feel is downright sedate. It may also be best appreciated by an older, more mature reader; I read this book along with my 24-year-old daughter, who did not take to it. That may be because she listened to the audio version – having read the book twice, both in book form, I have to recommend words-on-paper (or e-reader) over audio narration, for better understanding (for example, seeing the name “Offred” in type – it’s much easier to grasp as “Of Fred” or “Property of Fred,” a nuance that was not at all obvious to my daughter listening to the tale being read to her).
I also sampled the TV series and found it disappointing when compared with the book. As always, Hollywood tends to ruin, or at least damage, good books. It should have been a movie, not a series strung out into multiple episodes. In my view: Skip the TV version, read the book.
5 out of 5.
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
A father and son make their way through an ashy, barren post-apocalyptic world, just trying to survive amid various unsavory elements trying to do the same. It’s a bleak view of the world, yet so compelling I finished it, straight through, in a day. (It certainly helped that there are no chapter breaks in this book – it’s like a story told in just one breath.) You never find out what happened to destroy everything, and perhaps it’s best to leave that to the reader’s imagination. The Pulitzer winner for fiction in 2007, it’s definitely worth your time. As one who’s read the book but not watched the movie, I’ll say the book was enough for me – when it comes to this particular dystopian world, I don’t need to see with my eyes what my mind has already captured.
4.5 out of 5.
Station’s Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Similar to The Road, but I liked it even better. Once again a post-apocalyptic world – this time, explained as a virus-run-amok that kills virtually everyone planetwide – but this time the overall feel is more optimistic and bright, as a band of performing artists travels the countryside entertaining those who have managed to survive, and are beginning to rebuild. Like The Road, though, travel on foot (or by motley caravan) is treacherous, everyone is armed, and danger lurks behind every tree and building. A study in contrast: Frightening yet hopeful, a quick read but hard to read, a cautionary tale and a story to inspire. I won’t soon forget this story or these characters.
4.5 out of 5.