In times past, when mapmakers drew their maps, they placed the cryptic warning “Here Be Dragons” for placed on the edge of the known world. The message was clear: Go past this line on the map at your own risk, and don’t say we didn’t warn you.
The very first dystopic novel I ever read was called Outside. After about fifteen minutes of searching on the WWW (yet another reason why the Internet is the coolest invention in my lifetime — thanks, Al Gore!), I discovered it was written by Andre Norton. Andre Norton, who also wrote as Andrew North, was a prolific science fiction writer. She was born Alice Mary Norton, and I can only imagine she used a male pen name because she wanted to be taken seriously in the predominantly male sci-fi establishment. I have been thinking about this book a little bit lately. Ironically, Norton died just last month. Sometimes I wonder about the way brain waves work.
Outside really appealed to me. I must have read it more than 20 years ago. I distinctly remember pulling it off the library shelf. Our library in Aurora divided the “Juvenile” section into three groups: J1 was picture books; J2 was early chapter books like Judy Blume or Beverly Cleary; J3 was the young adult novels. The blurb at Amazon says that this book was at reading age level 9-12, but my memory puts this book in the J3 section. Maybe it was. I suppose that isn’t really important. I remember being intrigued by the cover. If I recall correctly, there was a girl cast in a bluish light with a bleak city surrounded by walls in the background. I can’t confirm this, because I can’t find a picture of the cover online. I can’t remember anymore what the teaser inside the library dust cover said about the book, but Amazon says:
A young girl determines to find out what is “outside” the sealed off city in which she’s always lived but discovers that the only way she can get out is with the help of a mysterious rhyming man.
I remember really liking the book, but at the same time, thinking it was “weird.” That’s sort of the definition of dystopic fiction, isn’t it? I gather that Outside is difficult to find, now. That’s no surprise, given that it was published in 1974. I shouldn’t wonder if I could no longer find it in the Central Branch of the Aurora Public Library, even if I were able to go there to look.
Since then, I’ve read more dystopic novels. There are a few I am ashamed to admit I haven’t read yet; Brave New World and 1984 are the chief ones about which I’m embarrassed. However, I can recommend some very good ones, if you are interested (coupled with blurbs from Amazon, because I am feeling too tired to come up with my own).
- Fahrenheit 451:
In Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s classic, frightening vision of the future, firemen don’t put out fires–they start them in order to burn books. Bradbury’s vividly painted society holds up the appearance of happiness as the highest goal–a place where trivial information is good, and knowledge and ideas are bad. Fire Captain Beatty explains it this way, “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.”
Guy Montag is a book-burning fireman undergoing a crisis of faith. His wife spends all day with her television “family,” imploring Montag to work harder so that they can afford a fourth TV wall. Their dull, empty life sharply contrasts with that of his next-door neighbor Clarisse, a young girl thrilled by the ideas in books, and more interested in what she can see in the world around her than in the mindless chatter of the tube. When Clarisse disappears mysteriously, Montag is moved to make some changes, and starts hiding books in his home. Eventually, his wife turns him in, and he must answer the call to burn his secret cache of books. After fleeing to avoid arrest, Montag winds up joining an outlaw band of scholars who keep the contents of books in their heads, waiting for the time society will once again need the wisdom of literature.
- The Giver:
In a world with no poverty, no crime, no sickness and no unemployment, and where every family is happy, 12-year-old Jonas is chosen to be the community’s Receiver of Memories. Under the tutelage of the Elders and an old man known as the Giver, he discovers the disturbing truth about his utopian world and struggles against the weight of its hypocrisy.
- The Handmaid’s Tale:
In the world of the near future, who will control women’s bodies?
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are only valued if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now….
Funny, unexpected, horrifying, and altogether convincing, The Handmaid’s Tale is at once scathing satire, dire warning, and tour de force.
- The Lord of the Flies:
William Golding’s classic tale about a group of English schoolboys who are plane-wrecked on a deserted island is just as chilling and relevant today as when it was first published in 1954. At first, the stranded boys cooperate, attempting to gather food, make shelters, and maintain signal fires. Overseeing their efforts are Ralph, “the boy with fair hair,” and Piggy, Ralph’s chubby, wisdom-dispensing sidekick whose thick spectacles come in handy for lighting fires. Although Ralph tries to impose order and delegate responsibility, there are many in their number who would rather swim, play, or hunt the island’s wild pig population. Soon Ralph’s rules are being ignored or challenged outright. His fiercest antagonist is Jack, the redheaded leader of the pig hunters, who manages to lure away many of the boys to join his band of painted savages. The situation deteriorates as the trappings of civilization continue to fall away, until Ralph discovers that instead of being hunters, he and Piggy have become the hunted: “He forgot his words, his hunger and thirst, and became fear; hopeless fear on flying feet.” Golding’s gripping novel explores the boundary between human reason and animal instinct, all on the brutal playing field of adolescent competition.
Finally, I will end with a link to Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Harrison Bergeron,” a classic of the genre.
Leave your own recommendations for me in the comments.
If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face for ever. — George Orwell
2 thoughts on “Outside, or Here Be Dragons”
Love how you put "Cheers!" after If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face for ever, lol.
I've been meaning to read The Handmaid's Tale for so long now, must go grab it.
I've read most of the dystopic novels you mention. My latest work in this vein is the oddly-titled "Ella Minnow Pea". Of course, it's easier to write these sort of novels than ones that represent a positive future of society and the future – ones in this vein include Plato's "Republic" and More's "Utopia" but they were written a long time ago. Culture generally – film, television, drama – finds it easier to present the problems of life than the benefits of it. One of my favourite TV shows is "The West Wing" precisely because it shows people working together for positive causes, even if their intentions are often frustrated.
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