By ALANA AL-HATLANI The Trump presidency has converted some Americans into ravenous readers of the dystopian classic, 1984 by George Orwell, sending it to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list last week and out of stock. The novel’s renewed popularity coincides with the rise of fake news and “alternative facts,” two phenomena Orwell wrote about long before Kellyanne Conway. For fans of 1984, keep sorting fact from fiction with these post-apocalyptic novels recommended by English professors and NYC’s Strand bookstore.
High-Rise by J.G. Ballard 1975
This novel imagines an apartment complex built to suit economic class: the nicest apartments on the top floors are for the rich, complete with deluxe amenities from supermarkets to private schools. Lower floors shrink in furnishings and size accordingly. As a result, the tensions run high between the haves and have-nots. Despite taking place in London, Strand staffer Kyle says, “It’s really about class-warfare which America is certainly struggling with.” For those short on time like the president (who only reads article summaries), there is also a film adaptation starring Tom Hiddleston.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler 1993
Set in LA in the not-so-distant 2020s, Butler imagines a world of unchecked, free-market capitalism. Civil society breaks down, public goods and services erode, and due to climate change, society suffers a severe drought. The rich, meanwhile, live in walled enclaves with private security.
NYU Gallatin professor Anne DeWitt heard of a protest photo on Twitter of a sign with the message “Octavia warned us.” That’s certainly the message of the novel, says Dewitt, who teaches a science fiction seminar. “The world that the novel portrays captures where this Republican establishment wants to take the country—they want to destroy the public good, privatize everything, and demand endless sacrifice from the working and middle classes.”
Butler also wrote a sequel, Parable of the Talents, that starts with an eerily familiar election of a charismatic fundamentalist president who enacts a program of oppression.
The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth 1953
In an overpopulated world where the government has relinquished control to big business, advertising runs society. Malicious “Don Drapers” deceive the public into believing their quality of life is improved by the products they sell. While the market is flooded with commercial goods, necessities like water and fuel run scarce.
The authors were visionary in imagining environmental degradation, says Andrew Goldstone, English professor at Rutgers University. He believes, “It’s a useful counterbalance to the widespread idea that our present danger is a ‘totalitarian’ absorption of society by an all-powerful state.” Instead, Pohl and Kornbluth consider how the market can overtake society. The novel has been scanned to the Internet archives (under its original name “Gravy Planet”) where it can be read now, for free.
The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula K. Le Guin 1974
Professors and Strand staff recommended this more hopeful novel to both help prepare for the end and provide some solace. It follows two radically different societies on neighboring planets. The protagonist is a physicist named Shevek from the utopian planet Anarres, where society runs without a government or economy. Shevek travels to the next-door planet Urras; a society composed of a confederation of states, each with their own “restrictive” government. There he discovers supposed utopia on Anarres is not all it is cracked-up to be as anarchy and fierce individualism destroy society.
“Imagining utopia is crucial when so many of the powerful tell us that no one is entitled to hope for better than what we have,” Prof. Goldstone says.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood 1985
Also flying off shelves, this novel imagines the U.S. government replaced by a totalitarian theocracy. It follows a group of lower class women, called handmaids, who are forced sex slaves having to bear children for upper class families. Atwood’s plot seems prescient amidst renewed debates on abortion rights. Read it before Hulu releases its new series based on the novel this spring.