Even though the term dystopian was first coined in the 1740s by historian George Claeys, dystopian fiction novels did not become fully defined until the turn of the twentieth century. Written in 1921, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s social satire We laid the foundations for the genre that is now ubiquitous: dystopian fiction.
Zamyatin’s We imagines a future devoid of free-will and individuality. The ruler of OneState, the “Benefactor”, has discovered the equation for happiness—absolute and complete subjugation of the state’s citizens. Within the glass walls of the state, everyone is known by their designated numbers; everyone adheres to a regimented schedule (inspired by the concepts of industrial efficiency by Frederick Winslow Taylor); everyone wears the same uniform; and everyone’s thoughts are regulated by the Benefactor. “Imagination” and “having a soul” become synonymous with the word disease.
Written as diary entries by the book’s narrator, D-503, We’s narrative is erratic and peppered with undertones and ellipses. This may seem like a criticism. But oddly enough, it adds a certain weight to the messages that Zamyatin is trying to convey: first, the significance of human individuality; second, the intrinsic part of what makes us human is our inherent primal instincts; third, a perfect society is unattainable due to humanity’s complicated nature; lastly, in every totalitarian regime, there will always be revolutionaries.
Zamyatin’s We is an emotionally-charged book. As D-503 begins to discover his own individuality and begins to experience cognitive dissonance, the narrative takes on a more hallucinatory and disjointed tone, making the book even more riveting. For such a short novel (less than two-hundred pages), Zamyatin includes a lot of nuance about the human condition and posits questions about human nature and society to which there are no easy answers. It is no wonder that authors like George Orwell took inspiration from Zamyatin’s novel. In this current socio-political climate, We remains as relevant as ever.
Vox by Christina Dalcher
Language and women’s facility with it are the focal points of linguist Dalcher’s chilling dystopian tale and first novel. Jean McClellan and her family live in a U.S. taken over by religious extremists who have forced the female population to wear electroshock bracelets that deliver painful charges to any woman who speaks over 100 words a day. Jean, a scientist whose research centered around a neurological condition that causes aphasia, is forced to watch in virtual silence as her three sons become indoctrinated and her six-year-old daughter tries to speak as little as possible. Jean’s marriage grows strained as her husband goes along with the new regime. She is then offered a potential respite when government officials come to her for help after the president’s brother is diagnosed with the very condition for which she had been seeking a cure before women were forbidden to work. With its focus on the vitality of communication and human interactions, Dalcher’s tale is a fresh and terrifying contribution to the burgeoning subgenre about women-focused dystopias spearheaded by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. — Kristine Huntley (Reviewed 7/1/2018) (Booklist, vol 114, number 21, p21)
Severance by Ling Ma
With apocalyptic fiction having become so popular a genre, how does one approach it with originality, avoiding the too-familiar reference points? Embracing the genre but somehow transcending it, Ma creates a truly engrossing and believable anti-utopian world. Ma’s cause for civilization’s collapse is a pandemic. Shen Fever spreads through fungal spores, causing its victims to lethargically repeat menial tasks, ignoring all external stimuli, including the need for sustenance. Prognosis is terminal. Candace Chen, a rare survivor of the outbreak, blogs anonymously as NY Ghost on a slowly disintegrating internet, capturing the horror of what has happened in her photographs of an empty New York City, where she lived when “the fevered” started dying. The narrative flashes back to Candace’s life before the end, working for a book-manufacturing company in the Bibles department; spending free time watching movies with her on-and-off boyfriend, Jonathan; and longing for the seemingly fulfilled lives of other millennials her age. Candace’s story also crosses that of a group led by a former IT specialist named Bob, who seems to be suffering from a messiah complex. Ma’s extraordinary debut marks a notable creative jump by playing on the apocalyptic fears many people share today, as we live in these very interesting times. Pair Severance with Adam Sternbergh’s similarly disturbing Shovel Ready (2014). — Ruzicka, Michael (Reviewed 6/1/2018) (Booklist, vol 114, number 19, p36)
The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh
This first novel from award-winning short story writer Mackintosh is set on the edge of a postapocalyptic world. Three sisters, Grace, Lia, and Sky, live in a moldering spa hotel with their mother and a father called King. The parents have kept the young women isolated from the mainland, where environmental toxicity and gender wars have ravaged the female population; Grace’s pregnancy can only be the result of incest. The hotel somehow has running water and a pool, and the girls languish in shabby luxury. Occasionally, damaged women arrive on the shore, and the mother gives them a water cure , which involves salt water purges and muslin wraps. The tension ratchets up when King fails to return from a trip to the mainland for provisions, and their insulated women’s world is violated when two men and a boy wash up on the beach. VERDICT This image-laden and lyrical first novel, its short chapters interspersed with brief, disturbing messages from women from the mainland, imagines a societal breakdown that has inflicted most of its harm on women, which seems both frightening and inevitable, offering a dark, extended metaphor on toxic male/female relations. [See Prepub Alert, 7/9/18.] –Reba Leiding (Reviewed Winter2018) (Library Journal, vol 143, issue 21, p71)