So, you’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Attwood… or maybe you’ve just watched the TV series and for some reason haven’t read the book yet – a. Read the book then b. report straight back here. I can wait…
So, now you’ve read the book… you loved the understated and masterful prose… you loved the gripping first-person narrative and you identified with Offred in her plight. You loved the bleak wretchedness of the world she lived in and now you’re thinking… what now?
Well, you’re in luck. There are plenty of dystopian novels out there to whet the appetite of your inner goth. And as it happens, I’ve put together a list of five great novels that you should absolutely read after finishing The Handmaid’s Tale.
They’re watching you
1984 by George Orwell is a dystopian masterpiece and a literary classic set in a terrifyingly skewed vision of a Communist society.
“Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal.”
If you haven’t yet read my comparison article between The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 you can read it here. As I go into in the article, one of the main themes that links these two books is that both protagonists live in a watched society, where suspicion is sown among the citizens as a way of keeping control.
What I love about both Winston and Offred is their rebellious natures hidden under masks of total obedience.
We was the first novel banned by the Soviets in 1921, and was finally published in its home country over a half-century later.
What, you need more of a reason to read it? OK…
“Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We is set in an urban glass city called OneState, regulated by spies and secret police. Citizens of the tyrannical OneState wear identical clothing and are distinguished only by the number assigned to them at birth. The story follows a man called D-503, who dangerously begins to veer from the ‘norms’ of society after meeting I-330, a woman who defies the rules. D-503 soon finds himself caught up in a secret plan to destroy OneState and liberate the city.”
The sense of collectivism and anti-individualism in We is another theme that runs through The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred doesn’t get to keep her name, she must wear an identical uniform, much like the protagonist in We.
Unlike Offred, however, D-503 has never known anything other than the society in which he lives, and what’s striking about the narrative is how well Zamyatin captures this duality of thinking in the protagonist in that his obsession with I-330 conflicts with everything he’s been taught as “normal”. Which leads on to…
The Left Hand Of Darkness
Not strictly a dystopian novel (well, not at all really), I’ve chosen Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand Of Darkness as suggested reading, because firstly, it’s a flawlessly written masterpiece of science fiction by a writer who needs no introduction, and secondly because of how it attempts to question what is considered normal with regards to gender and sexuality.
“Genly Ai is an ethnologist observing the people of the planet Gethen, a world perpetually in winter. The people there are androgynous, but they can become male or female at the peak of their sexual cycle. They seem to Genly Ai alien, unsophisticated and confusing. But he is drawn into the complex politics of the planet and, during a long, tortuous journey across the ice with a politician who has fallen from favour and has been outcast, he loses his professional detachment and reaches a painful understanding of the true nature of Gethenians and, in a moving and memorable sequence, even finds love…”
Like The Handmaid’s Tale and many dystopian novels, The Left Hand Of Darkness, for me, forces the reader to confront what they consider normal in their own lives as the protagonist faces those same poignant questions about theirs.
“All over the world women are discovering they have the power. With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain – even death. Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they’ve lost control.
“The Day of the Girls has arrived – but where will it end?”
In The Power the world is a recognisable place: there’s a rich Nigerian kid who lounges around the family pool; a foster girl whose religious parents hide their true nature; a local American politician; a tough London girl from a tricky family. But something vital has changed, causing their lives to converge with devastating effect. Teenage girls now have immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death. And, with this small twist of nature, the world changes utterly.
This extraordinary novel by Naomi Alderman is not only a story of how the world would change if power was in the hands of women but also attempts to expose our contemporary world.
So, basically The Handmaid’s Tale in reverse?
Brave New World
Utopia or dystopia?
“Far in the future, the World Controllers have created the ideal society. Through clever use of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs all its members are happy consumers. Bernard Marx seems alone harbouring an ill-defined longing to break free. A visit to one of the few remaining Savage Reservations where the old, imperfect life still continues may be the cure for his distress…
“Huxley’s ingenious fantasy of the future sheds a blazing light on the present and is considered to be his most enduring masterpiece.”
The thing that seems to link most dystopian novels, suggested here, at least, is a two-pronged attempt of those in power to a) stay in power and b) create what might be called a utopia in their own view, with dark results – by our own understanding, of course. Who’s to say in a hundred years your average reader won’t be reading titles based on our own time, seeing what we live now as the dystopia?
A Brave New World exposes, for me, that not all that harms you harms you. Even though the characters in this story, for the most part, are having a raging time, there’s a hollowness to them caused by what has been restricted from them. They are like children with nothing to worry about, indulging in pleasure after pleasure.
The Man In The High Castle
What could be described as the ultimate dystopia, Philip K. Dick’s acclaimed cult novel gives us a horrifying glimpse of an alternative world – one where the Allies have lost the Second World War.
“In this nightmare dystopia the Nazis have taken over New York, the Japanese control California and the African continent is virtually wiped out. In a neutral buffer zone in America that divides the world’s new rival superpowers, lives the author of an underground bestseller. His book offers a new vision of reality – an alternative theory of world history in which the Axis powers were defeated – giving hope to the disenchanted. Does ‘reality’ lie with him, or is his world just one among many others?”
Like Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, The Man In The High Castle is written with masterful skill as it follows four different characters as they simply try to go about their lives in this world.
What I love about this book is that it would have been so easy for Dick to write a gratuitous piece of propaganda that’s all bombs and spies and adventure, but that isn’t this book. It’s understated, it’s carefully and meticulously thought through regarding how the systems of power might have divided between Japan and Germany, and of course how people’s lives would settle into these new regimes.