As readers are turning to the classics of dystopian fiction to make sense of politically uncertain times, Eimear Dodd offers some reading suggestions.
Irish readers are involved in the trend for dystopian fiction that has seen sales of books such as George Orwell’s 1984 rise in recent months.
The increase in the sales figures began in November. A further spike was identified following President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January 2017.
The BBC reported on a 20% increase in sales of the book in the United Kingdom during the first three weeks of January. The American publisher has also ordered a reprint of 100,000 books to meet demand.
As of Saturday 11 February 2017, 1984 was number six on the list of Amazon’s best-selling books.
“1984 was getting a lot of profile in the USA where many media highlighted it was a perfect example of post-truth politics in use by Donald Trump” – Susan Walsh, Dubray Books
This popularity is also being reflected by the choices of Irish readers. Susan Walsh, Marketing Manager at Dubray Books said by email that “a few books along this vein have started to sell very well in the past few weeks, in particular, 1984.”
“The book was getting a lot of profile in the USA where many media highlighted it was a perfect example of post-truth politics in use by Donald Trump,” Susan Walsh continued.
Other Irish booksellers have also seen an increased interest in 1984. Staff from Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway city said they have also noticed a demand for Orwell’s other famous work Animal Farm.
Works by Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury and Aldous Huxley have also been included on lists of recommended reading since Donald Trump’s election win in November 2016.
Orwell’s dystopian novel is set in a Britain where the government uses mass surveillance and public manipulation to maintain control.
This is not the first time that parallels have been drawn between the fictional 1984 and real world politics. In fact, the book has a long association with American politics. In 2013, its imagery of state surveillance was once again conjured by details of the NSA’s programmes.
More recently, it was evoked following comments made by President Trump’s special adviser Kellyanne Conway in an interview on 22 January 2017. Ms Conway used the phrase “alternative facts” while defending White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s statements about the size of the crowd at the Trump inauguration.
Stories for Strange Times
To borrow a phrase from George Orwell, we could be forgiven for imagining that the clocks have recently started to strike thirteen. Extra second aside, clocks carry on as they always have.
But for some, the world feels different. And interesting fiction provides a space to explore the unfamiliar. The selected stories offer contrasting visions of how people can respond to surveillance and manipulation. It is a stretch to call them all dystopian. Instead, they are connected more by their urban landscapes than their storytelling category.
After all, this is The City.
- Alif the Unseen G. Willow Wilson
‘I will tell you a story, but it comes with a warning; when you hear it, you will become someone else.’
Set in an unnamed Middle Eastern emirate around the time of the Arab Spring protests, this is an adventure which looks at how stories have the ability to change the status quo for both better and worse. The narrative blends computer code, state surveillance and culture into something immensely beautiful. A young hacker finds himself under attack from the authoritarian elite that rule the city.
- From out of the City John Kelly
In a future Dublin, the official story is not the whole truth. Instead, an old man uses it as a starting point for his own version of the events surrounding an assassination on Irish soil. For me, the narrative relied too heavily on the surveillance. However, the polluted and decaying city lingers in the reader’s subconscious for months after.
- The Grace of Kings Ken Liu
An epic of bickering gods and warring humans. Here, the urban landscapes come from the cultural narratives of Imperial China. The death of the emperor who united the seven kingdoms of Dara sparks a competition for power that makes rivals out of close friends.
The surveillance might be carried out by airship but the methods of manipulation are all too familiar. In one chilling sequence, an ‘alternative fact’ is used as both carrot and stick to secure the loyalty of the bureaucratic elites in the capital city.
- The City and The City China Miéville
A detective investigates a crime that threatens the stability of two intertwined but very different cities. Miéville’s novels have a way of challenging your understanding of social conditions. Here, he examines how societies can adapt to the restrictions of surveillance by learning to manipulate their perceptions of reality.
- The Town Manager Thomas Ligotti
A word of warning. Thomas Ligotti’s work is not for everyone. His horror stories contain a profound pessimism about humanity and our willingness to manipulate one another.
The Town Manager features in his collection, Teatro Grottesco. A town’s inhabitants change their lives and surroundings to meet the bizarre requests of successive town managers. This is a tale of bleak humour. After all, it could always be worse.