Social distancing, self-isolation, and the closure of non-essential businesses eerily resemble dystopian novels. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is a global emergency, not the rise of a dystopian future. Local, state, and federal governments continue to function, and businesses and schools are adapting to the temporary circumstances. And, as many Americans stay in to slow the spread of the virus, the next few months are the perfect time to familiarize ourselves with five unforgettable dystopian novels of the 20th century.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
The novel is based on Huxley’s observations of the rapid progress of psychology, science, and technology in the early 20th century. Huxley’s setting in Brave New World is a futuristic World State, a unified government that runs the entire planet. The World State had made numerous scientific advancements in classical conditioning, psychological manipulation, and sleep-learning. Citizens are artificially engineered into a predetermined intelligence-based social hierarchy. They live in a relatively pain-free society because of their constant consumption of a relaxing “happiness” drug called soma. The loss of individual identity is a prominent theme in the novel.
That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis (1945)
That Hideous Strength is the epic conclusion of C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy. Set at an unknown time “after the end of the war,” the novel introduces the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.), a totalitarian scientific and social planning agency. N.I.C.E. illustrates the grim consequences of defying objective morality and natural law, themes that Lewis addresses in The Abolition of Man. He argues that mankind perfecting itself apart from God is impossible, and he weaves Biblical themes as well as Roman and British mythological symbolism together to exemplify the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
1984 by George Orwell (1949)
The setting and themes of 1984 are based on Orwell’s observations of communist and fascist regimes. The novel explores mass government surveillance, freedom of expression, thought crime, doublethink, censorship, nationalism, propaganda, rationing, brainwashing, and torture. The setting is Oceania, one of three totalitarian super-states that rule the world after a global war. Oceania is controlled by the Party, led by Big Brother, an authoritative cult of personality. Government propaganda constantly reminds citizens that “Big Brother is watching you” while their public and private lives are monitored by the Party.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
A Clockwork Orange explores themes of free will, behaviorism, juvenile delinquency, and state-sponsored experiments on incarcerated inmates. The plot focuses on a gang of teenagers and their extremely violent crimes in a near-future society. The gang’s sociopathic leader, Alex, is convicted of murder and sentenced to 14 years in prison. State authorities choose Alex to undergo an experimental behavior modification treatment, promising to lift a significant portion of his sentence. The treatment is a form of aversion therapy, and Alex is released back into society now repulsed by acts of violence as a result of the treatment. After a widely publicized suicide attempt, Alex is admitted to a mental institution. The doctors at the institution undo the effects of his treatment, but the state agrees to pay Alex a large sum of money if he admits to the public that he is “cured.” Alex agrees, and his violent impulses return.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
The Handmaid’s Tale explores the role of women in a totalitarian state that is governed by religious laws. The main themes of the novel are religious fanaticism, women’s rights, individual rights, and social class. In the novel, a radical political group overthrows the United States government and implements a military dictatorship. Using a perverse interpretation of the Old Testament, the new regime severely limits individual rights, and women are no longer allowed to read, write, own property, or handle money. The novel is a first-person narration by one of the few “fertile” women remaining in her community.