There Are More Than Two Dystopian Novels

 

Every day since the inauguration, journalists in the U.S. and the UK have published articles urging us to read (or in my case, reread) George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. May I confess that I would rather scrub the bathroom wall tiles or give up salted caramel frozen yogurt?

One wonders: can’t they recommend other novels? Hundreds of dystopian novels have been published, dozens in the last decade.  My own preference is for  environmental/political dystopian novels: I recommend John Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up (which I wrote about here) and Stand on Zanzibar (here), Doris Lessing’s The Memoirs of a Survivor (here), Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse (here), Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape (here), David Mean’s Hystopia (here), Lionel Shriver’s The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 (here), and Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve (here).

Many have suffered low-level depression since the election, and I hardly think a dose of Orwell and Atwood is an antidepressant. And surely we needn’t all read the same two books to understand our political problems.  There’s something very high school canon about these particular novels.

Well, it’s a matter of taste.  Even in Norwich, England, they’re pushing the same two dystopian novels.  Inspired by giveaways of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale at a bookstore in San Francisco, a  book group in Norwich, donated copies of 1984 and A Handmaid’s Tale to The Book Hive, an independent bookstore, for its own dystopian giveaway.

And this upset the writer Susan Hill, who canceled her appearance at the store.

You can read her essay at The Spectator, or the article about it at The Guardian. As an American, I found it confusing.  First I wondered humorously if  she canceled because she thought the store should give away her own favorite dystopian novels.  But, no, she calls the giveaway a  form of “censorship,” because, if I understand correctly, she dislikes the idea of an anti-Trump giveaway, and she also says the bookstore is not stocking Trump books.  She says they

“put their own political and personal views about the USA and its President before their business, their customers and what a bookshop is and must, more than any other sort of shop or business, be about.”

Well, that’s extreme, isn’t it?  Independent bookstores can stock what they want, can’t they? and give away what they want? Why is that censorship?  I’m all for book giveaways.  Give away whatever books they want:  I’m for it!  Even if they’re not my favorite books.

I do think my fellow Americans are doing a fine job with their own protests here, and if the English want to get involved, here’s my suggestion:  give away AMERICAN dystopian novels instead of English and Canadian!  Support American writers like Lethem, Shriver, and David Mean, who are writing very close to the bone about America.  This situation is not their fault.

More Baths on “Dune” and Five Dystopian Classics

Dune frank herbert newish 71c5xWv-fkLThere was much interest in my post on Frank Herbert’s science fiction classic, Dune, probably because I asked the question, “How often should a water conservationist bathe?”

So here’s a little more background.

Dune was a groundbreaking ecological novel, originally published in 1965 by Chilton Books, a press known for auto repair manuals.  (it was rejected everywhere else, according to the afterword of my paperback.)  Herbert, a journalist, got the idea for the novel while researching a magazine article on a government project in Oregon.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture planted “poverty grasses” (which grow in sandy soil) on the crests of dunes to stop the drifting of sand on to the highways.

Fascinated by the idea that the change of an ecosystem could green a planet, he wrote Dune.

Set on a desert planet, this SF classic focuses on the paucity of water and the exploitation of a planet’s resources for the mining of a valuable, addictive spice called Melange. The rich live luxuriously, with access to all the water they want, while the native Fremen survive by wearing “stillsuits” that recycle every drop of moisture, from sweat to urine.  A radical planetologist, Kynes, plots a scientific system that several centuries on will green the planet.  But after the assassination of the sympathetic Duke Atreides, Kynes, too, is killed.  The duke’s priestess-witch concubine Jessica and psychic son Paul flee to the desert, where Paul becomes a T. E. Lawrence-style leader and champion of ecology and the Fremen culture.

Frank Herbert’s son, Brian Herbert writes in the Afterword that Dune sold slowly in the ’60s but eventually became a best-seller.  It received a good review in The New York Times and was promoted in The Whole Earth Catalogue.

He writes,

By the early 1970s, sales of Dune began to accelerate, largely because the novel was heralded as an environmental handbook, warning about the dangers of destroying the Earth’s finite resources. Frank Herbert spoke to more than 30,000 people at the first Earth Day in Philadelphia, and he toured the country, speaking to enthusiastic college audiences. The environmental movement was sweeping the nation, and Dad rode the crest of the wave, a breathtaking trip. When he published Children of Dune in 1976, it became a runaway bestseller, hitting every important list in the country.

I in high school, a very clean young woman!

Here I am in high school, a very clean young woman!

It is easy to see why this hit a nerve in the ’70s.  In  my hometown, we read The Environmental Handbook and The Population Bomb (two books still pertinent today).   The professor/political activist family I lived with for a few months in high school recommended Dune.  They were very aware of the advertising culture (soaps, detergents, deodorants, makeup) that defined American lives and made us heartily dislike our bodies.  They showered only a couple of times a week, while I admired their philosophy but continued to shower daily and washed my hair at least twice a week. “You’re the cleanest person we know,” they teased.

But if my use of water was high in those days, imagine how it increased over the next decades.   By the ’80s, I washed my hair every other day. In the ’90s, I washed my hair daily.   It is only in recent years that I have rethought this and bathe according to my activity level.  (Today  I rode into a fierce wind that whipped my hair into my eyes and my bike chain fell off twice, so I came home with filthy hair and hands covered with grease.  Thank God for water!)

In answer to yesterday’s question, “How often should a water conservationist bathe?”, two commenters mentioned that they do not wash their hair everyday, because it is not good for it, while another says she washes it daily and considers it her water therapy. (I find it relaxing to sit in a hot bath, which is even more taboo than showers in terms of water usage.)  In an article in Buzzfeed, “How Often You Really Need to Shower (According to Science)?”, two dermatologists said that showering too often can dry out and irritate skin and wash away the good bacteria that naturally exists on your skin.  Dr. Ranella Hirsch, a Boston dermatologist, said, “We overbathe in this country and that’s really important to realize.  A lot of the reason we do it is because of societal norms.”

Yes, we want very much not to smell our bodies.  Isn’t it wonderful that we live in such a luxurious clean culture?  But one wonders:  how long will it last?  Probably through my lifetime, but I have real doubts about the future.

And now here is a list of five more classic dystopian novels.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver1 Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior.  Is Kingsolver the best writer working in the U.S. today?  In 2013, I wrote, “When Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, Flight Behavior, was published last fall, critics asked if it was possible to write a good novel about climate change. Having inhaled this stunning literary novel in two days, I can answer, Yes, it is. Kingsolver boldly interweaves the science and politics of climate change with the everyday lives of a struggling family. She creates a plausible fictional overview of a problem that will not go away.   One day the heroine, Dellarobia, a bored housewife, is on her way to a rendezvous with a hot telephone repairman. She sees something that looks like cornflakes on the trees. Then it seems to turn to flames. She thinks she is seeing a kind of orange burning bush, or burning trees, but it turns out to be monarch butterflies that have veered off-course and flown to overwinter in Tennessee instead of Mexico because of climate change. Soon Dellarobia is working with a scientist and graduate students who have followed the butterflies.  It changes her life.

2 Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart.  Many of you know Shteyngart from his short stories and memoirs in The New Yorker.  This is a brilliant satire of a dystopian future where everyone is tuned constantly into apparati (essentially smart phones which everyone has to carry or be arrested as a traitor). The dystopia is a reality where attention is fragmented by cyber-lives.  Lenny, the 39-year-old youth-worshipping second-generation immigrant Jewish hero, works for an eternal life society and tries to interest his Asian girlfriend in books. Reading books is a suspicious activity: books “smell.”  And unfortunately Lenny’s “fuckability” score, which is posted on a screen when he enters a bar, is low.

Super Sad True Love Story3 City by Clifford D. Simak.  This classic SF novel is divided into eight linked stories, told from the point of view of genetically altered talking dogs who are guardians of the history of an Earth abandoned by humans.  The first chapter,   “City,” is about urban sprawl. Very few people in the late 20th century remain in cities – atomic airplanes and helicopters have replaced cars and made it possible for a dwindling population to live on big country estates and commute hundreds of miles to work. Only renegades are urban dwellers: old-fashioned residents reluctant to give up the traditional ways and farmers displaced by hydroponic farming who have developed their own urban culture . A crisis occurs when an insanely controlling police force decides to burn down the farmers’ houses. Webster (the first of many Websters in the novel) supports the rebel farmers and gives a speech on how the city is a dying structure, and “the automobile started the trend and the family plane finished it.”

City by Simak 61e1-z87MhL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_4 Kevin Brockmeier’s graceful novel, The Illumination, is reminiscent of Saramago’s Blindness. The beauty of the language, the strangeness of vision, and the starkness are almost mystical. Unlike Blindness, however, The Illumination is not a political allegory. A twist of science fiction keeps this novel spinning in the world of story.

Divided into six stories, the novel is an elegy for the ill and dead, underpinned by rage about why people must suffer.  In Brockmeier’s alternate world, human pain suddenly begins to glimmer and glow. Every bruise, wound, cut, lesion, toothache, cancer, or heart ailment lights up. As people walk down the street, you can see their illnesses glinting and shining. Pain sometimes defines people, but does not make people kinder.

The Illumination Kevin Brockmeier 0224093371.02.LZZZZZZZ

5 Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. One of the best-written post-apocalyptic novels of all time, it is set in Australia in 1963 after a World War kills everyone in the northern hemisphere. The winds will bring the fallout to Australia soon, and all will die of radiation by the next September.

The characters in this chilling 1957 novel are well-developed, and the plot is horrifyingly realistic–people worried about the Bomb then, as they should now, and Shute gives us one of the best arguments for disarmament I have ever seen. The popular writer Shute’s book was categorized as fiction instead of science fiction, and that gave it a wide readership.  The movie is good, too.

onthebeach by nevil shute