We had a new first for our book group last night. Because we just couldn’t choose a book to read in August two months back, we decided to try reading to a theme. You could choose whatever book you wanted to read as long as it featured a dystopian society.
Firstly, what is a dystopia? One on-line source defines it thus: ‘A dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being Utopian, as characterized in books like Brave New World and 1984. Dystopian societies feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, various forms of active and passive coercion. Ideas and works about dystopian societies often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and humans individually and collectively coping, or not being able to properly cope with technology that has progressed far more rapidly than humanity’s spiritual evolution. Dystopian societies are often imagined as police states, with unlimited power over the citizens.’ (Wikipedia). A counterpoint to Utopia – as in Sir Thomas More’s 1516 book.
What makes a good dystopian novel though? One of our group put their finger on it nicely when he said that they need a Eureka-moment – where a character (or the reader? – Ed) realises that the society they thought was Utopian, isn’t. This goes along well with the premise that Utopias are not actually reachable; instead there exists a kind of ‘Social Entropy’ in which societies will break down over time bringing chaos!
So what did we read? Most of the group stuck to some modern classics (pictured above), and those who hadn’t read them were at least vaguely familiar with some of them. Other members had read books with dystopian elements, but were not known to the rest of the group, so I’ve concentrated on the ones we knew below:
- Three of us read Lord of the Flies, (see my review here). We all found the violence shocking but utterly believable. How would a group of girls have fared in a similar situation I wonder?
- Two of us read Brave New World, (see my review here). Fiona and I were both rather shocked at the amount of sex alluded to for a novel of the 1930s. This society founded on nurture, having tried to eliminate nature totally from its development, but not quite succeeding, could only ever fail in the long term. It was the conditioning of the children that particularly sent shudders down spines with this one.
- Our group had previously read 1984, and one member followed that up with Animal Farm; another had started but not finished We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, in which people are known by numbers and live in a glass world where little goes unseen.
All these novels above were written in response to other novels or world events and regimes, and were published between 1921 and 1954. As such they are more satirical rather than speculative, seeking to poke holes in other Utopias, or criticize the world order.
Which brings us to the purely speculative Never Let me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Several of us had previously read this book and enjoyed it, but it turned out to be more of a ‘marmite-book’. Georgia didn’t enjoy Ishiguro’s detached, sparse style, and couldn’t believe in the main relationships between the characters at all – she found them all too accepting and bland. But we did agree that in a world of saviour siblings and stem cells, that the premise of this novel was not so far-fetched, and because of it rather creepy.
So was reading on a theme a success? Mixed feelings. While we all agreed that discussing the same book is ultimately preferable, the fact that most us had at least a vague familiarity with some of the books read, meant that it largely worked. We felt that if we’d chosen a broader theme say e.g. Books set in Italy, the range of books we could have read was too diverse to make a meaningful discussion. But we might try it again – next year perhaps…
How does it work for you?
Do you enjoy this way of doing things?
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To explore further on Amazon UK, click below:
Brave New World
Animal Farm: A Fairy Story (Penguin Modern Classics)
Lord of the Flies
Never Let Me Go
We (Penguin Twentieth Century Classics)
1984 Nineteen Eighty-Four (Penguin Modern Classics)