Dystopias R Us – Book Group Report

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…

Has your book group ever tried theme reading discussions?
How does it work for you?
Do you enjoy this way of doing things?

* * * * *
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)

14 thoughts on “Dystopias R Us – Book Group Report

  1. Tomcat says:

    Luuuurve dystopias!

    But…Thomas More’s ‘Utopia’ is, *actually* a dystopia: the title is beset with irony and it’s a study of economic greed and the cultural uniformity that results: it’s a caricature of 16th Century Monarchic economies and was inspired by other dystopias of the time by Erasmus. Hence the opening paragraph that contains: “one might rather hear something […] than have any real or perfect knowledge of the same’” which is a warning not to trust anything that follows and an example of the contemporary literary technique of ‘unreliable report’. The narrator’s name ‘Hythloday’ is Greek and translates as ‘peddler of nonsense’ – further proof of the irony/sarcasm in the ideas. It was much more satire than reformative proposition.

    Likewise, the idea of dinner plates made of mud and toilets made of gold is pure farce: inversions which demonstrate the lunacy of appealing to ‘utopian’ notions outside of a religious context (More was *very* Catholic). Similarly, in ‘Utopia’ More says euthanasia and divorce are legitimate and legal – which, coming from such a devout Catholic, is clearly a criticism of the society he invents, and not a validation of it. As I say… irony aplenty! By placing such non-Catholic ideologies in the context of a super-rich society, More is criticising the immorality which comes with an obsession with money – rather than validating said ideas. No matter how rich, a society that legitimises divorce would never have been ‘moral’ in More’s eyes (it’s also a pretty cool dig at King Henry VIII’s divorce plans!).

    The fundamental message of the book is that a perfectly rich society (i.e. the ‘Utopia’ of the title) isn’t actually desirable as it elevates money above God and makes man immoral (hence all the divorce/abortion/euthanasia stuff).

    Sorry… rant, rave, *walks off gibbering on and on* It’s one of the most misunderstood works of irony ever!

    Great post btw… Love the idea of a book group meeting around a theme rather than an individual novel – so interesting!

    And I’m afraid I’m on the ‘do not like’ side when it comes to ‘Never Let me Go’ which was a non-sci-fi writing dabbling with sci-fi (which he admits, he never reads) and producing a very cliche, derivative novel and then being praised and lauded for it only because the literary press (who also like ignoring sci-fi) don’t realise how derivative and cliche it is! More ‘hard’ sci-fi writers did the same thing decades before Ishiguru, and were ignored by the mainstream literary world – always a shame methinks.

    Love your blog: always inspires debate and thinking! Tomcat. x

    • gaskella says:

      Blimey Tomcat! I will obviously have to actually read Utopia to understand completely, although not being a Catholic, I always think I miss much of the religious significance of works like it. I should have said above that they were “anti-More’s-concept-of-Utopia”, not the novel itself, but thanks for the explanation.

      As a SF lover, I did enjoy the Ishiguro, but agree that there is a huge degree of snobbishness amongst literati against it, which is a real shame, but I’m not against mainstream authors incorporating some futuristic or speculative concepts into their books. I’m all for it really, and it may just inspire a few readers to dabble further. We all love SF (and fantasy) in movies, why can’t that translate beyond classics into
      reading habits… However, it is great that all those early 20thC greats are still a) available, and b) read and loved and discussed by readers. Maybe you have to be dead for some years before your SF can approach the mainstream?

      The Zamyatkin is next on my list of dystopian novels to read. Looking forward to that. Cheers!

  2. Tomcat says:

    Sorry: I didn’t realise quite how long my comment was until it was posted!

    I’m not Catholic either; but it’s quite hard to ignore in Thomas More’s writing. I do recommend Utopia – check it out!

    As for Ishiguru: I don’t in anyway object to mainstream writers attempting Sci-fi. What I object to is such writers (some of who admit to never reading sci-fi), thinking that they’re doing something new and original with the genre (when they’re just re-hashing long established cliches), and their agents and the press agreeing with this because they themselves are utterly unfamiliar with the sci-fi cannon. It’s so dismissive: as if sci-fi/fantasy can only be taken seriously if you’ve proved yourself with naturalistic fiction beforehand.

    Iain Banks wrote a hilarious article about this, in which he envisions the complete opposite: a writer trying to write a book set in an English Country House, and assuming that they’re the first person to ever do this, just because they’ve never read anything outside of their own genre. Very funny.



  3. gaskella says:

    Great article from Banks – whom I (mostly) love reading. I do like his positive last paragraph in particular in which he essentially supports the cross-fertilisation of genres.

    Who knows – we have a comedy western in the Booker longlist this year (The Sisters Brothers, which I adored), we had a spoof memoir (Me Cheeta) and a pretty good thriller (Child 44) also recently – maybe a novel that’s a bit more SF/Fantasy may creep in another year – here’s hoping.

    Going back to Ishiguro – it may be a bit cliched, but it doesn’t stop it being a good read if you like his style (and I do). The DVD of the film is just about out, and I shall look forward to seeing that too.

    Loving this debate by the way! 😉

  4. Nana Fredua-Agyeman says:

    I have read 1984, Lord of the Flies and the Handmaid’s Tale. I enjoy reading dystopian novels. It reminds me that if care is not taken all could go wrong; especially with the kind of technological advancement all that is needed is the initial right message to sway the masses into believing.

    • gaskella says:

      I agree, and some of them are ominously close to a possible near future which makes them even more thought-provoking.

  5. Rachel says:

    So many of these are on my 100 challenge list but I have very little exposure to Dystopian novels so this is going to be interesting. I love your idea for themes in a book club.

    • gaskella says:

      Thanks Rachel. Dystopian novels (plus post-apocalyptic and speculative fiction ones) are amongst my favourites. As you can see from my discussion with Tomcat, they’re often as close to science fiction as most non-SF lovers go, but are really a whole sub-genre in themselves. Will be interested to see your thoughts on any of them if you take the plunge – go on – you know you want to…

      Our group weren’t convinced about the theme reading – I think we felt that if we’d all chosen books outside the well-known ones on that theme, we’d have spent all our time introducing the books and not discussing the theme/commonalities etc. So be careful with your theme, or provide a suggested list to read from I think we’d say. Doubtless there are other book groups that do this all the time.

  6. winstonsdad says:

    I ve read a number of these when in late teens as a lot of young men do I like dystopia fiction last I read was hidden camera by a serbian writer it probably just qualifies as dystopia ,all the best stu

    • gaskella says:

      Stu – it’s not just men who like dystopian fiction – I love it too for starters. I was pleased that these landmark books bore up to re-reading and I got so much more out of them the second time around.

  7. anothercookiecrumbles says:

    Dystopian fiction is really amazing, and the fact that so many books tackle so many different aspects of it would/could lead to animated discussions and debates. Toss in Handmaid’s Tale, The Chrysalids, some Saramago and something like A Clockwork Orange and… it could go on for hours and hours and hours! And then some.

    • gaskella says:

      All of the books you mention are wonderful! Why do dystopias appeal to us so much? Is it schadenfreude, or something else? I shall be reading plenty more of them, as I love this sub-genre. Our bookgroup has read several over the years, and they are particularly great for discussion too.

  8. Angel Jem says:

    Reading to a theme? Sounds interesting actually, and likely to produce a wide variety of books. Dystopic visions a la Never Let Me Go but from the other end of the age spectrum is The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist. We read this in our group and, as a final solution to overpopulation was just on the believable side of the fence, where singletons over 50 are encouraged to go into a unit and ‘disappear’ bit by bit. Interesting read!

    • gaskella says:

      Hi & welcome. the theme reading was fun, but not something we’ll do often. The Unit is in my TBR, I’ve heard mixed reviews of it, but am keen to read it myself…

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