three dystopian classics

dystopian_booksPlease note that this piece contains spoilers.

I’m planning on doing a bit of reading this summer – and the plan is to go through a pile of classics of various genres. I said that’s the plan – I can’t promise I’ll venture far from the science fiction books that I so dearly love. My intention, though, is to read books I think I should have already read or that I haven’t read in a very, very long time – to the point that I can’t recall what happened or why.

Here’s my exam books – that is, these are the books I read during the two weeks of final exams this semester. I decided to start with dystopian classics – that is, books set in a world where society is suffering (from our perspective) from some unconscionable ill.

  • Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
  • Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick

I read them in this order, so I’ll look at them in the same order.

Fahrenheit 451
Published 1953
Main characters:

  • Guy Montag, a fireman
  • Mildred, his wife
  • Clarisse McClellan, a teenager
  • Captain Beatty, Montag’s fire chief
  • the Mechanical Hound, a hunter/seeker robot
  • Faber, a former professor

I’m an unabashed Ray Bradbury fan. I’ve liked almost everything I’ve ever read by him (as opposed to Robert A. Heinlein, whose work dropped off seriously as he got older). Fahrenheit 451 is no exception. This is an excellent book. Set in the not-too-distant future, there’s nothing about it that’s inherently unbelievable except for the dystopian twist. In Guy Montag’s world, firemen don’t put out fires – they start them.

They burn books.

Montag is generally OK at the beginning of the story, maybe a little unsettled with a side of discontent, but he doesn’t know what’s bothering him, so he mostly suppresses it. His wife is addicted to drugs and television – she and her friends spend a lot of time with “the family” – but he seems to genuinely care for her.

One night after returning home from a fire, he meets Clarisse, a free-spirited 17-year-old girl who recently moved into his neighborhood. They strike up a tentative (for Montag) and chaste friendship. The chaste aspect was a pleasant surprise, given how many books (even my beloved sci-fi novels) seem to be obsessed with pedophilia, rape, incest, etc. (I’m talking to you, Piers Anthony, and your “Bio of a Space Tyrant” series). Montag is intrigued by Clarisse, but not interested in her sexually or romantically. As I said, he seems to genuinely care about his wife.

The problem is that Clarisse’s free spirit awakens something in Montag, and he starts to wonder if he’s cut out to be a fireman. Some time after they meet, Clarisse and her family disappear, never to be heard from again. Montag is understandably upset by this and it does add to his downward spiral.

What really pushes Montag into rebellion, though, is a routine fire. His crew is called out to a home where a woman has been hoarding books. She was reported and it’s their duty to uphold the law – to destroy the books. They set about burning down the entire house; the kicker is that the woman would rather die with her books than live without them; she runs back into the house and perishes in the fire. THIS is what sets Montag on his path – a path that follows right along with some books he managed to secret away and take home.

He forces Mildred to read (or listen to him read) some of the books. Mildred clearly can’t handle it and eventually turns him in. Montag escapes the fire, but subsequently kills Captain Beatty and is forced to go on the run, aided (somewhat) by Faber and hunted by two fearsome Mechanical Hounds. Montag hooks up with some folks living off the grid, people who each memorize one book and are identified by the title they have committed to memory. At the end of the book, Montag is no longer a fireman and free from Mildred, happier than he’s ever been despite losing everything.

Montag’s turn to rebellion is one that many of us can understand – his mind is awakened by a book of poetry that sticks with him, and his rusty intellect yearns for more knowledge. It is an awakening that many of us can relate to.

Throughout the story, there is an undercurrent of approaching nuclear war. It’s heard in snippets, discussed in passing – and treated like it’s no big deal. Montag isn’t freaked out when his city is destroyed, which I found a little disturbing. Given that F451 was published in 1953, during the early years of the Cold War, I would have thought the thought of nuclear war – let alone its actual occurrence – would bother the characters a bit more. Perhaps Bradbury was making a comment on how commonplace atomic weapons already were at that point, so much so that even their use is treated casually by his characters.

F451 reads fast and easy; though the language is sometimes outdated, it is easily understandable. Sex and violence is mildly portrayed; the most disturbing scenes involve, of course, fire – when Montag’s crew burns the house with the woman in it and when Montag kills his chief and one of the Mechanical Hounds. Montag treats women well (well, except for the one he burns up, but that was her choice), and he has a kind soul.

I would recommend this book for most kids by 12 as long as the parents think they can handle the deaths by fire.

Brave New World
Published 1932
Main Characters:

  • Bernard Marx, an Alpha Plus
  • Lenina Crowne, a Beta
  • Helmholtz Watson, Bernard’s friend
  • John, the Savage
  • Linda, his mother

Brave New World, in contrast to F451, takes place in a world that, though populated with humans, is completely alien in nature. It appears to be a utopia, which of course is why this is a classic of dystopian literature. Their utopia is our nightmare – one in which scientific processes destine each person’s role in a rigidly structured caste system of Alphas, Betas, Deltas, Epsilons and Gammas. Alphas are each an individual – Betas, too – but at the bottom of the system, each Gamma can be one of hundreds of identical humans all bred for a specific set of jobs.

Much like F451, one of BNW’s critical plot points involves a book in the midst of a society that has banned reading for intellectual or emotional enrichment – this time, The Complete Works of Shakespeare. The spectre of nuclear war haunts BNW as well, though it happened in this world’s past and was the impetus for the creation of their manufactured society.

The book starts slow, but you can’t stop reading it, experiencing a combination of horror and fascination as Huxley details exactly how the citizens of this brave new world are constructed – and they are, indeed constructed – and educated, largely by subliminal repetitive conditioning. It truly is horrifying, but you can’t stop turning the pages.

The first chapter gives way to the main characters of Lenina and Bernard fairly quickly, where we discover that, though a top-of-the-heap Alpha Plus, Bernard is intellectually and socially an outlier. He prefers to spend time alone in thought, even discussing nearly rapturously a time where he just … sat … and did nothing. NOTHING. Bernard is also marginalized sexually; in a society that treats sexual encounters as freely and casually as this one, Bernard’s desire to keep Lenina more or less to himself is nothing short of bizarre.

The central events of the book get into gear when Bernard takes Lenina on vacation to Malpais – the Savage Reservation – in New Mexico. There they discover Linda, a Beta from London (like them) who was accidentally lost and left behind during a similar vacation many years before. Linda had a baby and became a mother – concepts which disgust Lenina so thoroughly that she car barely resist puking. Bernard can’t resist taking Linda and her son John, usually referred to as The Savage, back to London. John is treated as a major scientific discovery and Bernard becomes a celebrity for a little while. In the third act – the second act being the vacation to Malpais, which translates from French as “bad country” – sees The Savage supplant Bernard as the main character. Bernard is exiled to an island (where, ironically, it’s likely he’ll be happier than he was in London) and The Savage tries to live a solitary, isolated life after his mother dies.

F451 isn’t rife with too terribly much social commentary, but BNW sure is. It is a biting critique of communism, consumerism and education as well as the moral/ethical values of 1920s/30s England/Europe. It is a fantastic story in every sense of the word; though it starts a bit slow (all the science is a little hard to get through at times, and I found a typo (perhaps intentional) in a chemical formula in my edition), but once you read your way out of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre, it moves very quickly and smoothly.

It is this book’s treatment of sex that makes me hesitate to recommend it to anybody under the age of, say, 14 or 15. Certainly I wouldn’t let a kid who hasn’t learned about sex (and not just the mechanics of the act) read this book. There is very little violence in BNW, but one character whips himself viciously and there is a suicide as well – though portrayed “off screen.” The story also features pervasive drug use throughout – the people of BNW consume a recreational semi-psychedelic called soma like we take aspirin.

Both Bradbury and Huxley are excellent writers – descriptive and evocative don’t even really begin to describe them. Dick’s style is as dystopian as his future, a stark contrast in every way to the above two novels.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
Published 1968
Main Characters

  • Rick Deckard, a bounty hunter
  • Iran, his wife
  • Rachael Rosen, a Nexus 6
  • J.R. Isidore, a chickenhead
  • Pris Stratton, a Nexus 6

When you read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the first thing you have to do is forget everything you think you know about this book because you’ve seen Blade Runner 57 times. Here’s the similarities between the book and the movie:

  • the main character’s name, Rick Deckard, and occupation (hunting down and killing androids)
  • Deckard’s boss is named Bryant
  • Rachael is a Nexus 6
  • the name Roy Batty (Baty in the book)
  • the name Pris
  • the Voight-Kampff test
  • the androids stole a shuttle and came to Earth
  • flying cars

Things that are different between the book and the movie – from the perspective of the book:

  • Roy is a married, pudgy, slovenly “andy” who is easily ambushed and killed
  • Joanna Cassidy’s character (Zhora) doesn’t exist at all
  • Pris doesn’t fight back
  • Brion James’ character (Leon) is a Soviet cop
  • the closest thing to Edward James Olmos’ character (Gaff) is a bounty hunter called Phil Resch
  • Rachael and Pris are 2 “editions” of the same “model” – i.e. they are nearly identical in appearance
  • Rachael is a mean-spirited, nasty person – er, andy
  • Animals – real or artificial – are the most important and expensive things in the world
  • JR Isidore (JF Sebastian in the movie) is nearly retarded
  • the world is permeated with radiation-laced dust
  • a religion called Mercerism guides the book’s human characters
  • and much, much more

Pretty much everything else is different – and vastly so. I’m going to go ahead and say it now – but I liked the movie more than the book. I’m not sure this is a book I’ll reread.

The world Deckard lives in was devastated by a nuclear war, which prompted the humans to emigrate off world – mostly to Mars. They started creating androids to keep them company – apparently life on Mars is quite lonely – and work. The Rosen Association has been constantly improving their “andys” (androids) to the point where bounty hunters have to use intricate empathy tests to ferret out and “retire” the ones who have illegally returned to Earth. (Dick actually refers to them as illegal aliens several times.) Deckard’s predecessor, Holden, hunts down two of a group of 8 andys who have come to Earth, but is nearly killed by one. Deckard takes over and with a little help from Phil Resch, manages to retire (execute) the other 6 in one very long day. Resch kills 2, Deckard kills 4, including Polokov (the one who lasered Holden), Pris, Roy and Roy’s wife. The climax of the hunt takes just a couple of paragraphs and is quite anti-climactic given the time and effort Deckard has put into finding the androids.

Rather than looking at the hunt for the andys as the central plot device, then, let’s look at what really matters to Deckard. His main goal in life is to own a real animal – a real, live animal – and the $1,000 bounty he gets for each andy he retires helps him achieve that goal. After he does, he is dismissive of his artificial (electric) sheep, which it is clear at the beginning of the story he clearly cares deeply for. This, perhaps, is the central theme of the book – that humans can so easily shift their affection from one thing to another thing that is perceived as better. The denizens of Deckard’s nuclear wasteland of a society spend their time obsessing about live animals and looking up their values in a ubiquitous catalog.

Isidore is what Dick calls a “special” – and the other characters call a chickenhead. It’s clearly a derogatory term and liberally peppered throughout the story. Ironically, Isidore is the one character who doesn’t care that Pris, Roy and the others are andys. Though Deckard has sex with Rachael in an almost self-hating way, Isidore feels great affection towards Pris and struggles to protect her. Even though it is a hopeless, unrequited love, it is perhaps the one bright spot in the entire book.

A great deal of the book is taken up with a religion called Mercerism; the characters interact with Mercer with the aid of a box that they kind of port into with their minds. It’s an immersive and interactive experience, but in the end one that is denounced and exposed as fake by a TV/radio personality called Buster Friendly, who is most likely at least one android, if not two or more. However, in the long run, neither Mercerism nor the “mood box” concepts are fully fleshed out, leaving the reader wondering if the story could have been streamlined by leaving them both out completely.

The most intense scene in the book takes place after Deckard is himself arrested for harassing a suspected andy, an opera singer called Luba Luft. He’s taken (by an android masquerading as a beat cop) to an unfamiliar police station run by another android masquerading as a cop, though a high-ranking one.  Inspector Garland (the andy) completely messes with Deckard’s mind, nearly convincing him that he himself is an android, but Phil Resch comes in, laser a-blazin’, and saves the day.

Deckard’s Voight-Kampff test on Rachael is subtly erotic and fairly charged, but when he runs the same test on Luba Luft, it’s as if Deckard has become one of the Keystone Kops, suddenly unable to control a suspect or manage an interrogation.  It’s a stark indication that Deckard just might suck at his job.  After all, Holden is the primary bounty hunter in his precinct; Deckard is only sent after the 6 remaining andys after Holden is grievously wounded.  Deckard is easily fooled by Polokov and suckered in by Garland as well.

The idea that Deckard is an incompetent cop stuck with an important assignment shows through in his resistance to go after the 3 remaining andys, a task he puts off with sex and alcohol, finally resigning himself to finish the job after Rachael agrees to go with him and kill the andy that looks like her so he doesn’t have to do it.

There is one lightly described sex scene and a good bit of violence – one of the androids is “blown apart” by Deckard’s “laser tube,” but most of the violence isn’t particularly graphic and it’s all over very quickly. Though I’d let kids as young as 10 or 12 read this book, I doubt they’d like it much, so it’s perhaps better left to older teens who have developed the patience to crawl through a lot of extraneous material and can focus on the story at the heart of this book.

I think DADOES would have made a great short story. It is not a great book. It’s a decent book, maybe even good, but it’s not great. This is one of the rare cases in which the movie is better than the book.

Wrap Up

I think it’s clear from the above descriptions that Fahrenheit 451 was my favorite, followed by Brave New World, with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? coming in a distant third.

There are things about Dick’s book that I like better than the other two, though. I like that Dick’s dystopia is a harsh, dirty, rough place – like a dystopia should be.  Living in that world sucks, and they all know it.  Bradbury’s and Huxley’s dystopias have a taste of the rough life, but both are minimally populated.  Perhaps, however, Bradbury’s dystopia is just getting going – after all, the nuclear war in his story happens all the way at the end – but for those characters, that is actually the beginning of the redemption of their world, a return to a time when literature was important and those who possessed it (even if only in their memories) were revered.

I find it interesting that books are a central theme in all three stories – Montag’s new obsession with forbidden books, The Savage’s ability to understand the world outside Malpais through his understanding of Shakespeare, and Deckard’s dog-eared, heavily used Sidney’s Catalog.  While one of the books Montag rescues is an actual Bible, in the other two stories, the iconic books in them take on the role of religious texts to their owners, which is quite an interesting parallel between all three stories.

Feel free to leave suggestions for other works of classic dystopian literature that you think I might enjoy.

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2 thoughts on “three dystopian classics

  1. Don’t know if you’ve ever read “Alas, Babylon” by Pat Frank, but it is one of my go-to books dealing with an alternate future….tho it lacks a bit now, as it was written at the beginning of the Cold War (1959) and the future Mr. Frank wrote about never came to pass…

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