Dance like Big Brother’s Not Watching You: A Tribute to Dystopian Novels

I’m currently at a conference predominately catered toward analysts and engineers in the government sphere, which has got me thinking about some great novels about what can happen when governments grow too corrupt, using technology for devious purposes. This dystopian theme has garnered more popularity in the past few years, thanks to the rise of young adult thrillers like The Hunger Games, so I thought I would share some tidbits about the novels that make you want to wear an aluminum hat.

The Classics

1984 by George Orwell (1949): The king of dystopia, Orwell paints the bleak picture of a totalitarian state that not only watches your every move, but also sabotages your mind with double-think. The intensity of this story quickly made it one of my favorites of all time!

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932): This is an excellent portrayal of genetic engineering gone totally wrong, complete with drug-induced complacency. Read with caution, as it also contains more disturbing themes than the other two classics.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1950): A haunting commentary of society’s attention-deficiency and willingness to sacrifice literature and civil rights for mind-numbing entertainment. Its brevity proves that good things can come in small packages.

The Genre Re-Definers

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985): One of the most well-renowned feminist writers, Atwood illustrates an alternate dystopia where the feminist movement of the 1970s backfired, creating a twisted world where women are reproductive slaves. Given current politics in America, this story’s just as relevant almost 30 years later.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005): I’m hesitant to label this novel as science-fiction, or even describe its main premise for fear of spoiling the reading experience, but I will say that never have I seen an author blur the lines between genres as Ishiguro. A heartbreaking tale that transcends past, present, and future.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd (1988): I don’t normally include graphic novels, but this one epitomizes dystopia to the max. Based on the history of Guy Fawkes’ Day, it depicts the ultimate narrative of revolution. The V mask is a must-have for anarchists everywhere.

The Newcomers

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008): After flipping channels between reality TV and war footage, Collins wrote the bestselling trilogy of the ancient Greek-esque punishment for rebellion. Arguably too brutal for children, but it’s an apt critique of society’s desensitization of violence.

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (2005): One of my favorite YA series, it demonstrates how our obsession with beauty and perfection often hides uglier interiors. Add an element of romance, and you’ve got the next silver screen contender.

Matched by Ally Condie (2010): Again, what’s a YA trilogy without a love triangle? Lit nerds will love its influence from poetry, and Twihards suffering withdrawals will soon have new boys to swoon over when Disney brings the adaptation to a theater near you.

So there you have it! My recommendations for those wanting to dive into dystopia! What other novels would you add to the list?

I, Claudius: Part Three

Well, I’m back from Vegas, only to find out that a literary legend has been lost. Even though I have only read one novel of Ray Bradbury’s, Fahrenheit 451, I will definitely read more of his work, as he is celebrated as one of the greatest speculative fiction writers of all time. We owe so much to his words, and for that he will be missed.

In other news, I’m 300 pages into I, Claudius (only 150 pages to go!). I really hope I can finish it before I hop the pond to Japan, because my package from Amazon just showed up at my door today with some new books and manga.

Don’t you hate it when your to-read list is taunting you, reminding you of how impossible it is to even make a decent dent in the amount of fantastic literature out there?

Anyway, Chapters 15-21 are an improvement from the previous 100 pages. After Augustus dies, the Roman soldiers start to create mutinies due to the limited reward they received from his will. Tiberius proves to be an ineffective ruler, so his commander son Germanicus must forge a letter in his name to appease the troops.

This doesn’t work too well, and Germanicus has to send his family away for their own safety. This decision upsets the soldiers even more, as they have fallen in love with Germanicus’ son Caligula. They agree to behave if the little boy can return to camp.

One hilarious scene narrates an exchange between Hermann, a German chieftain, and his brother Flavius, who served in the Roman army. On opposite ends of the Rhine, they yell at each other about their treacheries–Hermann in German and Flavius in Latin, as neither man wants to offend their fellow soldiers.

The dialogue is so funny, since the brothers shout insults, ranging from one’s drinking problem to losing an eye in battle. Things get especially cruel when they each lie about their mother and wives’ lack of love for the brothers. It was amusing to picture these armed men yelling essentially what were “Yo Mama” jokes to each other across a river.

Meanwhile, Claudius moves to Capua and spends his days writing and enjoying time with his beloved prostitute-companion Calpurnia. He receives a secret message that Postumus is still alive (as his doppelganger slave was executed in his place), but sadly Tiberius finds out the news as well. Postumus is soon captured, tortured, and beheaded.

Tiberius then plots against his own son Germanicus. He sends Germanicus to Syria and appoints a man named Piso as governor to spy on him. Piso poisons the emperor’s mind, convincing him that his son is trying to overthrow him.

Eventually, Germanicus gets sick and strange things start occurring. He finds bloody rooster feathers and dead babies and animals hidden in his home. Suspicious of witchcraft, he keeps a talisman under his pillow. After 25 days (25 being Germanicus’ most-feared number), the talisman goes missing and he dies.

The rest of this section follows Rome’s mourning of Germanicus and anger at their despicable emperor. Livia convinces Piso’s wife Plancina to murder Piso and stage it as a suicide, in exchange for her own freedom. Germanicus receives many semi-divine honors, and his wife Agrippina becomes a martyr among the Roman populace.

These chapters further illustrate how messed up this imperial family is, with all the back-stabbing and assassinations. The only reason Claudius has lasted this long is because none of his relatives consider him a threat. I enjoyed this section much more than the previous, because I remember studying Germanicus’ death in Roman history class and finding it fascinating. So I’m intrigued to read how the rest of the story will go!

If I read 30 pages a day, I can wrap up I, Claudius by Thursday. Wish me luck!

Masterpiece Monday: “Dover Beach”

British poet and critic Matthew Arnold viewed ...

Matthew Arnold (Image via Wikipedia)

Last week I reviewed Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, in which the protagonist Montag reads a poem by Matthew Arnold called “Dover Beach.” Arnold was a 19th century British poet and considered one of the greatest Victorian poets who ever lived, among Tennyson and Browning. I first read “Dover Beach” in high school, and again in my senior seminar at UCSC:

“Dover Beach” (1867)

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Aegean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

This is an exquisite poem that flows much like the sea which Arnold vividly describes. The speaker tells his love, possibly his bride given that Arnold himself honeymooned there, that they should love one another loyally because faith has abandoned modern society. With classical references to Sophocles and Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War “where ignorant armies clash by night,” Arnold reminds the reader that war is never-ending–it comes and goes just like the tide.

If you’ve read Fahrenheit 451, you can see why Montag reads this poem in frustration to his wife and her naive friends. He also laments how society has degraded and lost all sense of faith, both religious and interpersonal. Of course, by reading the illicit poem, his wife will betray Montag by reporting him to the authorities and thus prove her lack of loyalty.

In my next blog post, I want to share a modern response to “Dover Beach.” It’s Anthony Hecht’s poem “Dover Bitch,” and if you haven’t already heard it, you’re in for a treat! So stay tuned!

Masterpiece Monday: Fahrenheit 451

Cover of "Fahrenheit 451: A Novel"

Image via Amazon

Rating: 4 out of 5

So after reading Orwell’s 1984, I continued with the dystopian theme with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Published in 1953 and named after the degree at which book-paper burns, this short novel has become synonymous with the fight against censorship.

Set in a futuristic America in which our vehicles travel over 100 miles an hour and our home’s walls convert into televisions playing 5-minute shows in rapid succession, Guy Montag is a fireman who burns down houses that harbor any books. At first he enjoys his occupation, but after a woman chooses to die with her books instead of face her impending arrest, Montag questions the world around him.

Montag meets mysterious comrades Clarisse, a inquisitive high-schooler, and Faber, an ex-English professor, but his life is forever changed after he is caught stealing books.  The rest of the novel follows his life on the run as a fugitive trying to make sense of everything.

Although not nearly as chillingly timeless as 1984, Fahrenheit 451 is still an exquisite warning against society’s dwindling attention span. As the internet dominates our lives and offers endless entertainment in minutes-long YouTube videos, people are devoting less and less time to absorbing the wisdom we can gain from literature. In the age of the Kindle, sadly even paper books are becoming obsolete.

Yes, the novel disapproves of how extreme political correctness can limit free expression in books, but more importantly it points out how if nobody’s reading books in the first place, they won’t be missed. It is up to future generations to keep reading and reciting these literary tales so as to preserve their messages. Montag learns that you never know when you’ll need those stories to shape the world for the better.

For fans of 1984, this novel will be harder to comprehend at first, since Bradbury does not spell everything out like Orwell. Characterizations of various beast-like creatures, such as the Hound, the salamander, and the beetles, are often symbolic. The ambiguity between the residents and the people they watch in their parlors blurs the line between fact and fiction.

So even though Bradbury himself wrote the novel in a mere nine days, don’t blaze through it like a bonfire. Instead enjoy the words slowly and without distractions; take comfort in reading for pleasure, because when the world is obsessed with faster speeds and instant gratification, it’s good to live in the moment of a masterpiece.

Favorite Quote: “Let you alone! That’s all very well, but how can I leave myself alone? We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

Masterpiece Monday (Delayed)

Sorry everybody, I have failed to blog this week’s Masterpiece Monday, because I spent my day finishing 1984! I know, finally! I absolutely loved it, and it definitely qualifies as a masterpiece, so keep an eye out for my book review this week! I’m continuing the dystopian trend, because next up on my list is Fahrenheit 451. It’s a classic that I can’t believe I’ve put off this long to read, so I’m looking forward to it.

Speaking of dystopias, I’ll make up for my lack of blogging today by sharing “The Hunger Games” trailer (for the few who haven’t already seen it):

I know that I shared my livid review of Mockingjay this summer, and while I don’t agree with the way the trilogy ends at all, I’m still so excited to see this film! I like the overall vibe of the setting, and hopefully all the actors will live up to their characters. Let me know what you think!