Dystopian Fiction – My One Big Weakness (This Week, Anyway)

What is it about dystopian fiction that really pulls at our heartstrings?

I refused to see the movie The Road, based on the book by Cormac McCarthy, because I found the book so desolate. I am the first to start bawling in theatres, so I figure that if it’s really that great, then I’ll wait until I can watch it on DVD in the comfort and non-judgment of my own loungeroom and cry my little heart out. Funnily enough, I had no problem watching another McCarthy book-to-movie adaptation, No Country For Old Men, which is arguably equally as desolate. But then, it’s that ‘dystopian’ thing, isn’t it?

Deriving from  an ancient Greek language construction of ‘bad’ and ‘place’, the idea of the ‘dystopia’ has long been fascinating school of thought for skylarking philosophers. Dystopian fiction then, does have a cautionary edge to it for us plebean readers. Like a school teacher that just won’t quit, a dystopian tale often takes place in a futuristic universe, or an alternative history that we wouldn’t wish on our worst enemy, and tells us that if we do or don’t do something, then THIS will happen. And it’s generally bad. Besides a foreshadowing of what things may come if we take a certain route, the marks of the dystopian societies are often just skewed reflections of who we are today, right now.

People in modern day society have often made the connection to dystopian novels: the surveillance of Big Brother from Nineteen Eighty-Four through ‘Reality’ TV; the test tube designer babies just as prophesied in Brave New World. To the uninformed Westerner, the society in which Offred lives in The Handmaid’s Tale is Afghanistan; and uninformed foreigner or not, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, where people are transformed under surgery to become perfection, is pretty much Los Angeles, USA under a different name.

It always comes back to one thing: not the struggle for humanity per se, but the question of what exactly humanity is. This post may seem a little depressing but the latest dystopian novel I’ve been reading has affected me greatly and caused me to think about this subject a lot. I finished it a few weeks ago but I still I have a lot of questions, some answers, and some more questions to those answers.

Stay tuned for my review on Kazuo Ishiguro’s heartwrenching dystopian Sci Fi, Never Let Me Go, tomorrow.

Why David Mitchell Makes My Head Hurt (In the Best Way Possible)

Guys, just finished David Mitchell’s newest: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, and just had to share my thoughts on it. It is ah-mazing. I don’t know why I haven’t read more of his work, but last year was my first taste of his genius, when I finally worked up the courage to plough my way through Cloud Atlas (it had been sitting on my shelves gathering dust for at least a year previous). So, what did I think of that one? Pretty damn crazy, and also pretty damn good.
Cloud Atlas, if you haven’t had the chance (or the bravery) to read it yet, I warn you now – it gets a little muddy. There are six narrators in all, cursing their way through history with the echoes of each other’s voices at their backs. Your first reaction may be to hit your head against a wall, and that’s ok. You wouldn’t be the first, or the last. But stick with it, and this philosophical map of human power; the way we lust after it, and the way we fall victim to it, makes itself known across the 544 pages. Like I say with all my chunksters, the sense of accomplishment is there, but David Mitchell has this added extra of ‘enlightenment’ for the reader:

“Another war is always coming, Robert. They are never properly extinguished. What sparks war? The will to power, the backbone of human nature. The threat of violence, the fear of violence, or actual violence, is the instrument of this dreadful will… The nation state is merely human nature inflated to monstrous proportions. QED, nations are entities whose laws are written by violence. Thus it ever was, so ever shall it be.”

Pg 462, Cloud Atlas.


It appears from fan reviews that he likes a fat splash of sci-fi in his novels: I would liken one of the stories in Cloud Atlas to the Eastern movie 2046 (also highly recommended), or maybe a condensed and not entirely westernised version of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. There’s another story in Cloud Atlas that speaks of colonialism and this is perhaps where we first see Mitchell’s talent at writing ‘colonial historical fiction’ , later brought to the fore in his first ever one-man story, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.

Think feudal Japan on the brink of revolution (westernisation). The island of Dejima, an island just off the coast of Japan set up for the pure purpose of trade. An island that is open only to a select few foreigners, and Jacob De Zoet – a 20-something Dutchman – is one of them. Like Cloud Atlas, The Thousand Autumns is also about the will to power, the subjugation and replacement of a minority culture by a majority culture. And besides the message it conveys about humanity’s greed, there’s also a rollicking good adventure to be had in reading this book.

Every so often, a book comes along that – through some holy fusion of chance – has a wonderfully stylised viewpoint, a hidden message, a set of brilliantly realised and fatally flawed characters, and an historical storyline that is more fascinating than any fantasy. I’m thinking this is one of them!
I did a bit more of an indepth review on my lifestyle blog, if you’re interested in a few further thoughts on the book. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is released at the end of this month with that stunning cover art (it’s sparkly in the flesh!), and while it may be a bit more exxy than your usual weekly read – believe me, it’s worth it, particularly if you’re already a Mitchell fan. And if you’re not, well, chances are you will be.

What do you think of David Mitchell? Does he deserve the critical praise he receives for his works? Do you have a favourite David Mitchell book? Let me know, so I can make a decision about which to read next!

Beg, Borrow, Or Steal (But Mostly Only From Family)

Fahrenheit 451It’s dangerous to allow family members to spend any length of time in my room, because any visit invariably leads to the same thing: a casual perusal of my bookshelf followed by an indignant ‘Hey! That’s my book!’

Indeed, I’ve earned something of a reputation among my family for only buying them books I want to read, reading the books before I hand them over, and then feigning innocence when they notice their books on my bookshelf later on. They christened me ‘The Book Burglar’ long before Markus Zusak’s novel of a similar name was penned, but I refuse to apologise for my voracious book appetite and my love of looking after books.

It should be noted that the only people I steal from are my immediate family and that it’s technically not stealing if I paid for the book in the first place. Besides, I’m pretty sure that book thieving runs in the family. Case in point: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I’ve heard that the book’s a classic, a must-read up there with Orwell’s Animal Farm and Huxley’s Brave New World, but I wouldn’t know. My brand, spanking new copy disappeared from my bookshelf before I’d even cracked the spine.

Two years since it disappeared, it’s become something of a bone of contention with my brother (AKA Prime Suspect #1), with the issue raising its ugly head around gift-giving birthdays and Christmas. Ever the peacemaker, my mother maintains that the book’s just slipped down behind something and will turn up. My sister considers it book thief karma. My brother staunchly maintains his innocence (some would say too staunchly). And my insomniac father tries to stay out of it—I’ve awoken at least twice in the wee hours of the morning in recent times to see him sifting through my bookshelf for reading material to consume the hours he can’t sleep. He knows that he’s Prime Suspect #2.

Whether or not I ever get to read Fahrenheit 451 remains to be seen (I refuse to purchase the same book twice and there’s currently no one in my family game to buy it lest they be accused of the crime), but I maintain that book thieving is genetic and if I’m guilty of book theft, so too are my guilty-until-proven-otherwise Fahrenheit 451-thieving family.

But surely I’m not alone in this passion for books? Surely there are others so passionate about books and reading they’re prepared to beg, borrow, or steal (from family members only) to satiate their reading appetite? C’mon. Which books have you commandeered for your bookshelf? Which books have been commandeered from yours? And do you know the whereabouts of my Fahrenheit 451?