Suzanne Collins’ series about children killing each other has been surprisingly mainstream and popular. This is even more remarkable when you realize her much less controversial series, Gregor the Overlander, did not achieve this kind of following.
Not only does The Hunger Games have a movie franchise, but major directors want to work on it, an Oscar-winning actress leads the cast, and hip bands seem to willingly offer their music (as opposed to begrudgingly offering it, as in the case of the Twilight movies).
So, how did an American knockoff of Battle Royale become so successful? Why is dystopia the go-to genre of choice for, of all things, escapist literature? What does this say about our culture?
Honestly, that’s really up for its own discussion.
What we can do, however, is bring you the best of Pushy Librarians and coerce you into the world of highbrow literature! And thank goodness this is a dystopian series and not, say, another paranormal romance, because there’s a whole lot of literati-goodness to choose from!
1. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
While it’s not a great classic, we would be sorely remiss to leave off the book that Collins owes the greatest debt. If you read The Hunger Games, then you already know what Battle Royale is basically about. There’s a futuristic world where a corrupt government (this time focusing on a pan-Asian dictatorship) keeps control of the populace by forcing groups of children to battle to the death on live television. Like The Hunger Games, it is both a straight dystopia about the evils of tyranny and government coercion, and also a satire of voyeuristic TV culture. But after the basic plot, that’s where the similarities end. In the world of Battle Royale, there is no segregated society of haves and have-nots. Instead, the class conflicts are much more like those of today. Also, no one is really immune to the battles. There are no tributes selected from labor camps. Instead, groups of middle school children are simply drugged and taken to the fight zone. There, they fight on a marked location where their territory gets smaller and smaller due to rigged explosives, until even hidden children must be forced to encounter one another. What makes Battle Royale so intense is that all of the children are from the same school, and so you see the harrowing decisions they make concerning whether or not they have to kill their friends and peers. Unlike The Hunger Games, the book is told from a variety of perspectives, so that even seemingly evil characters get full back stories and development. This makes for an intense, harrowing, and profoundly disturbing read, and one that most fans will thoroughly appreciate.
2. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
If The Hunger Games discusses the violence present in the state (“Now we see the violence that’s inherent in the system!”), Lord of the Flies looks at the violence present from human nature left to its own devices. Like The Hunger Games, it’s a story of violence and brutality, and features children in the acting roles. But, unlike The Hunger Games, the children are the instigators and arbiters, as well as the victims. The story is about a group of schoolboys who end up on a deserted island, forced to govern themselves. While readers may or may not agree with the message that humans naturally gravitate toward brutality, the story does raise many important points about the nature of violence and human’s proclivity toward cruelty. And, in case you were wondering, this is another Nobel-prize-literary novel, so no docked points on the literati-o-meter!
3. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
This sci-fi dystopian novel is dated, often silly, and regularly dips into less-than-sensitive race relations. So, why read it? Well, aside from inspiring one of the greatest dystopian novels of all time (next number down, folks), it also has the distinction of being the most hated book of the Soviet Union. That’s ballsy stuff. What’s the story? Well, in the future everyone’s life and work is based on mathematical forms and utility. You are a series of mathematical functions, and your job is to work properly in a larger system that is far, far more important than you. Personal liberty, love, individuality, these are weaknesses and must be stamped out by the law. In many ways, the novel functions as a satire of the USSR’s interest in Taylorism (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/taylorism), communist statism, and the constructivists’ idea that mathematical harmony leads to betterment.
For the record, this is constructivist art:
So, you can see, you’re already getting brainy just by learning these terms! But, on top of your adorable braininess, We is also a straight dystopian novel. It raises questions about the role of government, individual liberty, human rights, and how a society may be repressed and may accept its repression. And, if you like dystopia, you have to read the book that inspired the man who made dystopia what it is today…
4. 1984 by George Orwell
I wanted to leave this off the list in the same way I left The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia off of the Harry Potter List. I’d like to think everyone’s already read 1984. But, my work as a real-life librarian has informed me that this is not even close to being true. Even though dystopia is a huge fad, so huge that Tyra Banks actually tried her hand at it (with appropriately hilarious results)…
…many people still haven’t read the book that basically made the genre what it is today. Orwell’s work set the stage for what people think of when they think about dystopia. Like Zamyatin, he writes about government control, individual liberty, and how a society may be repressed –along with plenty of references to the USSR. But, Orwell went further with his world-building than Zamyatin. While in We the characters talk and think in mathematical forms, roboticized as they were by Taylotistic models, Orwell focuses on more realistic reasons for how a society may be repressed. Orwell came up with the idea of New Speak, changing words and terms in order to weaken just what concepts the populace may even be able to grasp. He also wrote about random arrests for control, absolute loyalty to the state, invasion of privacy, and children being used as informants. Orwell’s journalistic abilities helped create a world that is both realistic and terrifying, despite its moment of datedness. If you want to be a true dystopian-reader, you have to read this book.
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Let’s talk about feminist literature and… hey, come back!
Yes, we live in a post-feminist society in many, many ways, and in quite a lot of circles the backlash has pretty well blacklisted the idea of feminism in public thought. This is unfortunate, because much of how we relate to one another in society and politics is based on gender norms and relations. If you’re in doubt, check out the stir concerning the recent rape trials and the politics involved. Regardless of your personal beliefs, feminist thoughts have had huge impacts on the discussion of gender in society and any good thinker would be remiss to dismiss them.
In the school of feminist literature, there are certain eminent members, like Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir that all feminists must read. Atwood is pretty secure in her place on the list. From her pursuit of feminine literary norms, to her desire to elevate “chick lit” to an art, she’s definitely a feminist writer. However, just as Orwell and Zamyatin were not just political proselytizers against Stalinism, Atwood is far from the feminist strawman of a yowling man-hater whose politics go before her art. This is apparent in her dystopian classic, A Handmaid’s Tale.
The story is a science fiction tale about a right-wing theocratic military dictatorship that imposes strict roles on the populace, especially women. The main character is a concubine, and the conflict is her struggles for autonomy in a society that does not value her.
While the other dystopians I mentioned have to do with freedom of thought, freedom of speech, and freedom of work, this also includes freedom of bodily autonomy, freedom of relationships, and freedom of religion. It is an award-winning science fiction piece that has spurred enough debate and discussion to definitely warrant a literati stamp of approval!
6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Bradbury is a veritable god among book-lovers. He produced some of the most engaging, entertaining, and intelligent stories in American history, and we will fight you on that. Not only that, but he was insanely prolific, and managed to address complex, intelligent subjects with great scope and depth in a way that was enjoyable and entertaining to read. So, what I’m saying is, Nobel Prize for Literature people, you totally missed a good one.
The story is set in the future, and concerns a world where books are illegal and firemen are employed to find contraband books and burn them. Many people say that the story is about censorship, and while that is the case Bradbury himself said that the main focus was not on how people take literature away from us but how WE relinquish our literature freely. The characters give up their freedom for the sake of technological convenience and nonstop entertainment programming. They don’t even realize that there is a war going on!
Sound uncomfortably familiar?
Bradbury’s story hits eerily home with his insights about giving up our heritage of literature and great thought for a sense of security and entertainment, even if we’re not secure and are dying inside!
The plot focuses on a fireman who one day does the unthinkable and reads one of the books he is supposed to burn. His depressing, empty life is changed completely and he realizes that the crazy of the world may be the only sane people left.
Also, any book that encourages readers to abandon simplistic entertainment in favor of intellectual thought, or else face dire consequences, is definitely something we can get behind!
7. A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Fun fact, did you know the band The Doors was named after Huxley’s book The Doors of Perception, which is about dropping acid. Just… saying.
Ah, A Brave New World. You know, a lot of people who feel stupid saying that we live in an Orwellian future like to say that we live in this book. Personally, I think the only book that sucks people in and forces them to live the events is The Neverending Story, but I digress.
The story sounds at first like a utopia. The world is peaceful. We have technology. No one is getting burned alive with their collection of Shakespeare… But, that’s just the surface. Huxley’s book shows that peace at all costs may not be such a great idea. The people are artificially created, and live a weak, anti-intellectual, passionless lifestyle. Families and romance are pornographic. Nothing matters. Humans are basically just there to blandly exist, consume, and die. The chillingly clinical look at human existence and the reasons for continuing at all is not only frightening but important in today’s “unexamined life” espousal. If there’s nothing to die for, is there anything to live for?
Or, as Huxley himself said: “Within the next generation I believe that the world’s leaders will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging them and kicking them into obedience.”
8. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
If no other book on this list will give you an invite to the “cool readers” crowd, this will. What can you really say about A Clockwork Orange that hasn’t been said? Or, what can even be said that the trailer for the (amazing!!) Kubrick film didn’t say?
Witty, funny, satiric, musical, exciting, bizarre, witty, political, thrilling, frightening, metaphorical, comic, sardonic, exciting, metaphorical, Beethoven, metaphorical, frightening, sardonic, comic, bizarre, musical, witty, frightening, political, satiric, Beethoven, thrilling, funny, exciting, funny, comic, bizarre, satiric, metaphorical, sardonic, thrilling, exciting, political, musical, exciting, witty, Beethoven, frightening, comic.
Basically, Clockwork is one of the most interesting books you’ll ever read. The story is set in the future, where crime and depravity have become extreme and government corruption is the norm. Our “hero” is Alex, a young hoodlum who basically typifies the “kids doing violence” archetype. He’s a murderer, a mugger, a rapist, an abuser, a household terror, a gangster, and he does it purely for the fun of it. He’s Shakespearian in his enjoyment of villainy, and not in a way that seems mustache-twirling or unrealistic. He has fun when he’s being a criminal, and that’s who he is.
Enter the law. Enter a new treatment by the law: The Ludovico Technique, which classically conditions Alex into being an unwilling law-abider and pacifist.
The novel asks you, what do you think of this? Can a person’s human integrity be violated, even someone as evil and rotten as Alex?
For a book filled with so much depravity, to the point that the movie received an X-rating and was blamed for copy-cat crimes, one might think that it’d be too difficult for the average reader. However, Burgess separates the reader from the action through a writing style done in an imaginary slang-speech that Alex uses throughout the book. The experimental style allows the readers to step back and consider the ideas without being repelled by the story. (To be fair, the movie does this, as well, through experimental film techniques.)
It’s frightful, fearsome, and so, so quotable, and you won’t be sorry you read it!
9. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Murakami is one of those divisive names in literature. On the one hand, he’s very popular and an excellent writer (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyone?). On the other hand, some people dislike him because they see him as being overrated among Western readers whose only introduction to Japanese literature is through his books. While I understand the need to branch out and read other Japanese writers, this doesn’t mean that Murakami is a bad author in his own right. In fact, he’s a damn good writer, and don’t you forget it! (Again, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, anyone?)
So, what is this nearly-thousand-page monstrocity about? Well, it’s 1984! But, it’s a bizarro 1984. It’s 1984, but with magical creatures, a martial arts technique made entirely out of testicle-punching, a massive publishing scam, and an alternative universe created by doing something so out of the Japanese norm that the fabric of space and time is actually ripped.
The story is about an assassin and championing ball-smasher (this is seriously a plot point –highbrow literature is weird), who climbs over a railing and creates the alternative 1984 (the Q is for question). It is also about a cult, an editor who is trying to pull off a literature scam, and his dyslexic prodigy who may not be writing fiction after all. In with all this weirdness is still the familiar Orwellian story about government, control, and the importance of language. Plus, you get to say you read a Murakami book.
10. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
So, you really, really want to prove you’re not a literary newb, love for YA book series aside? Why not Wallace?
And, yes, let’s address the pink elephant in the room: this is a notoriously difficult novel. People make flow charts about this book. Yes. There are flow charts to help you understand what’s going on.
But, who am I kidding? You’re no pansy! You are dying to prove your literary chops, and, let me tell you, difficulty aside, this is not a book you’re going to regret reading. Satirical, poignant, funny, memorable, harrowing, and full of tennis, it’s one of the most entertaining books you’ll ever encounter.
So, what’s the plot of this notorious, difficult, smart, funny, awesome book of pure awesome? Well… Um… Okay, will a teaser do? It’s about a video that’s so entertaining that anyone who sees it will watch it on loop until they die. In a futuristic world of drug addicts, extreme tennis, support groups for the ugly, and wheel chair terrorists, the students of a prestigious tennis academy, the inmates of a drug rehab halfway house, and a variety of other characters eventually pursue the afore-mentioned Infinite Jest.
The book is hardly linear, and written in a series of snippets that reveal a lot of daily life for the characters in the story (complete with copious footnotes, so watch out!). This may feel daunting, but it’s actually very rewarding in that you get to experience a lot of Wallace’s insights. And, as one of the greatest intellectuals, if not the greatest intellectual of our time, Wallace’s insights are not to be missed.
Empathetic, gorgeously written, and dense enough for you to feel really good about yourself at the end, this is most assuredly a book you don’t want to skip!