It Can't Happen Here
A fine recommendation from the dystopian-fiction-written-before-Nineteen-Eighty-Four category, Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here chronicles the rise to power of a man named Berzelius "Buzz" Windrip. Windrip takes the presidency after defeating Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 election, running his campaign largely on a sense of patriotism and a promise of a return to wholesome traditional values and norms… all of which may sound familiar to those of us living in a post-Trump world.
From there, Windrip takes the opportunity to seize total control, founding what comes to be called the “Corpo” government. Despite all of this, the element that resonates most surprisingly with modern America is the extent to which the general public seems to approve of his increasingly authoritarian moves, seeing them as necessary steps in the effort to right a listing America. If any of this seems too chillingly true to life, then it’s worth noting that It Can’t Happen Here also boasts a rich vein of satire running through the whole novel. The book is more often funny than outright horrifying, which makes it a pleasure to read despite its disturbing similarities to reality. If you’re going to have a book disrupt your view of the world, then there are few better.
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Zevgeny Zamyatin’s We is often considered to be the prototypical modern dystopian novel, at least in the sense that we consider the genre now. It's generally considered to have been a healthy influence on Orwell, whose Nineteen Eighty-Four remains the poster child for dystopian fiction in English. By contrast, Zamyatin’s novel, first published in 1924, presents a postapocalyptic world in which individuality has been stripped away to so great an extent that people no longer have names and are instead assigned serial numbers.
We also takes a more low-fi approach to the notion of the Orwellian panopticon. Where Orwell’s dystopian future is dominated by the constant almost-presence of Big Brother as projected by the ever-present “telescreens,” We posits a world in which individuals live out their lives in glass apartments. Curiously, this somehow distributes the power and responsibility of the book’s dystopian One State, fragmenting the responsibility for surveillance among the population. In this respect, the panopticon that We suggests is both markedly different and perhaps closer to a modern world in which we so readily “share” so much of our lives with one another.
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Kurt Vonnegut may be best known for the anti-war masterpiece Slaughterhouse 5, but his debut novel, Player Piano, has only grown more relevant with time. Set in a future in which the majority of human labour has been taken up by machines, Player Piano presents readers with a deeply stratified society, split between a wealthy elite that manages and maintains the machines and those whose labour has been taken over by machines.
Among other things, the book chronicles a group called the Ghost Shirt Society, whose dissatisfaction with the current state of their lives has led them to rebel against the engineers and managers who have consigned them to an existence they feel to be meaningless. As we continue to march into an ever-more automated future, Player Piano only grows more and more relevant. Moreover, its vision of a future in which humanity is so fundamentally divided between rich and poor speaks to modern audiences in the wake of “occupy” protests and the mass movement against “the one percent.”
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Parable of the Sower
Science fiction author Octavia E. Butler was probably better known for the telepathy-based novels of her Patternist series, but in the mid-1990s Butler wrote The Parable of the Sower and its successor, The Parable of the Talents. Set in the then-distant 2020s, The Parable of the Sower follows Lauren Olamina, a young woman who suffers from “hyperempathy syndrome,” which causes her to feel reciprocal pain when she sees someone else suffering. Though she understands this to be “delusion,” Lauren can do nothing to prevent it. It’s an interesting setup, and one that works particularly well in Butler’s dystopian future, a world plunged into chaos by a combination of poverty and environmental calamity.
The ‘environmental calamity’ part resonates with the world we live in today, but the biggest reason that people tend to think of the books now is that The Parable of the Talents features a presidential candidate, Jarret, whose campaign includes the promise that he will “... make America great again.” Were that slogan alone not familiar enough, Jarret also stands accused of being a demagogue and rabble-rouser. When his followers burn someone at the stake, he half-heartedly condemns their violent actions. Obviously, this is a sneaky way to recommend two books, but it’s also a slice of too-close-to-home dystopia that’s too good not to include.
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The Plot Against America
Like Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America begins with a candidate beating Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the White House, though in this case it’s in the 1940 election. Less directly satirical and perhaps more harrowing, the novel describes the plight of a Jewish family living in America during the rise of its new president, Charles Lindbergh. Once elected, Lindbergh immediately signs a treaty with Hitler, assuring Nazi Germany that it will see no interference from America. At the same time, he signs a similar treaty with Japan, guaranteeing that the U.S. will not oppose Japan’s expansion in Asia.
From there, The Plot Against America gives an uncomfortable glimpse into the extent to which the course of history could be altered by the right man in the wrong place. While it could be argued that It Can’t Happen Here’s Buzz Windrip feels more like Trump in character, the response of total disbelief after Lindbergh’s election is so true to life that it’s sometimes difficult to read. Moreover, the treatment of a religious minority under the Lindbergh administration shares an uncomfortable symmetry with the Trump administration’s move for what has been called a Muslim travel ban.
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