Ever the intense curator of my social media channels, I don’t usually partake in the ’10 days to post 10 x things’ challenges, and always feel a bit of a killyjoy for not taking part!
A few weeks ago, my good friend Charlie tagged me in a ’10 books without explanation’ sort of challenge. I didn’t post anything at the time, but, in searching for new content to post on the blog, this felt like a great excuse!
The too long / didn’t read version of this post is that I have an undying love for dystopian fiction. Sorry.
I mean, what I can I say about Nineteen Eighty-Four that hasn’t been said 100 times before? This was instantaneously my favourite book when I read it, and has remained so ever since.
It was also what really birthed my love of dystopian fiction. That said, that was in a time when dyspotia wasn’t so bloody topical. In theory, there’s something inherently safe about reading dystopian fiction because your lived reality is so far removed.
In theory, anyway.
Whilst I grew up watching the film Oliver!, I never really paid that much attention to Charles Dickens until I started secondary school. Then, I was in a theatre production of Great Expectations which made me go away and read the book.
And it’s such a brilliant book. Atmospheric, creepy, but also quite psychologically deep, too. Miss Havisham became one of my favourite literary characters, and I remain enthralled by a house trapped in time.
In terms of adaptations, the Helena Bonham Carter adaptation is dreadful in my opinion, but the BBC three-parter with Gillian Anderson, Ray Mears, and Douglas Booth is a triumph.
And Then There Were None
Another book that I only picked up after being cast in the stage adaptation was the Agatha Christie classic, And Then There Were None. And it was also the gateway for me to go on to read so many more of her novels and short stories, too!
It’s the perfect mystery novel. It really is. I read it in a single day, and whilst a little twee at times, it really stuck with me.
Again, the BBC produced a fabulous three-part adaptation written by Sarah Phelps, with Aiden Turner and Charles Dance – very worth watching.
A Series of Unfortunate Events
OK, so, I know that I’ll get some stick for this: I never liked reading the Harry Potter books. There. I said it.
BUT, formative in my childhood was Daniel Handler’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. They brilliantly encapsulate so many different literary themes and elements, from absurdist, dark humour, to existentialism, all in the setting of a stunning and timeless gothic Americana. I love that shit.
Don’t bother watching the film adaptation with Jim Carrey, it’s woeful. Instead, check out the Netflix series, with Neil Patrick Harris as Olaf – Daniel Handler produced it, and you can tell it has his mischief and creativity all over it.
Brave New World
A continuation on the theme of dystopian fiction, this is a really fascinating book. Written between the two world wars, it examines the impact of intense technological, social, and economic development, and creates an imagined ‘nightmare society’ some years in the future.
It’s also a brilliant ‘futurist’ novel, too. Similar to Nineteen Eighty-Four, with personal liberties dispensed with in favour of social conditioning, it also closely examines what it is to be ‘human’, and how humanity sits within a mechanical, ageless, painless, and sterile context.
It also has quite a few similarities to The Time Machine by HG Wells, in the assessment of how social classes may diverge to create two sub-species.
The Most Human Human
Surprisingly, this is the only non-fiction book that makes it on to this list. It’s an absolutely fascinating and highly relevant look at ‘The Turing Test’ (a test of artificial intelligence to determine whether or not a human can differentiate between a computer and another person), and how AI is giving us cause to re-examine what it is that truly ‘makes us human’.
And despite the technical implications of the subject, it’s an incredibly accessible and thought-provoking book, too, even if you don’t have a full grasp of the finer points of the technology.
A Clockwork Orange
What, more dystopian fiction? Yep.
Most people know A Clockwork Orange far more through Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation with Malcolm McDowell (which, by the way features an amazing electronic film score by Wendy Carlos).
What’s fascinating about the book from a ‘dystopian’ point of view, is that unlike Brave New World, it’s set in a distinctly recognisable ‘near future’, similar enough that it could be today, but far enough away for it to be distinctly different.
From an academic point of view, too, the genius of this book also lies with its playful use of language. It’s written partly in ‘Nadsat’, a language created by Burgess (also a linguist), which is based somewhere between Russian and cockney-rhyming slang. The use of language is particularly interesting when comparing it with Nineteen Eighty-Four, with both books arguably using language as a weapon by the antagonist / anti-heroes.
Oop, more dystopia.
Written in 1953, but still so damn relevant for today, Farenheit 451 is a novel set in a future where books have been banned.
It sits perfectly alongside Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World as a depiction of a post-truth futuristic society, with the world enslaved by media and propaganda, riddled with addicted, and with conformity as a new religion.
And most pertinent to our world, it’s a novel with the appearance of happiness as the highest goal, and a world where trivial information is far more powerful than knowledge or ideas. One of the most fascinating and relevant quotes:
“Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs… Don’t give them slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy.”Fire Captain Beatty
OK, just one more dystopian novel?
I confess, I didn’t know much about this book until the first trailer came out for the film adaptation with Tom Hiddleston as the lead.
One of the themes that I enjoy (for one reason or another) in fiction, theatre, and art, is the exploration of man as animal, and under the right circumstances and stresses, no matter the class, position, or background, man will revert to animalism. It’s one of the core themes of The Exterminating Angel (one of my favourite films), and also High-Rise, too.
It’s a book that captures that ‘dangerous side of futurism’, much like Brave New World, whereby, when given everything they could possibly want, beneath the veneer of technological progress, lies tribalism and destruction.
Carol Ann Duffy
And finally… a curve ball.
This was on the syllabus at school, and it charts the course of a relationship, from its white hot passionate beginnings, through the romanticism of domesticity, and the pain, longing, and eventual acceptance of the breakup.
As we read and analysed it at school, it was also a time that I was experiencing my first real relationship, and we seemed to analyse the course of the relationship in the poetry at an almost identical pace to what I was going through personally.
I think that’s why this book made such an impact on me. It was an external documentation of everything I was feeling, but didn’t have the capacity to process or understand. And I still have my annotated copy, which is battered, bruised, and written all over. Perhaps for no other reason than as a memento of a particular chapter in my life.