Studying Dystopia

Quick summary of recent events: My Kickstarter fundraiser didn’t get funded. I’m not working on the ‘my experiences writing & publishing’ book right now, not as my primary project – it’s been on a back burner of my mind for years, and it’s much closer to the front of my mind now, but there’s no urgency in me for its completion. It’ll get written, just not ‘by memorial day.’ I am working on my vampire duology. Which is the subject of this post:

The core idea I have for the books is in the world I’ve been building in my mind, where vampires are an accepted part of humanity, using their supernatural gifts to benefit society as a whole, fed by the regular blood donations of the general population (opt-out, not actually mandatory) so vampires aren’t required to be murderous fiends to stay alive, or to live in the shadows, though they most certainly don’t sparkle (and they probably can’t go out in sunlight). I haven’t nailed down all the details yet, though I’ve got quite a lot of detail mapped out that I’m not even hinting at here. The structural concept I’m working on for these books is to write two books, one which presents this word as Utopian, and the other which presents the same world as Dystopian. I want each book to totally buy into its own point of view, for all its evidence, even when questioned my its characters, to come to the conclusion that it is correct, the world is [wonderful|terrible]. I’m structuring each book to be a valid demonstration (think Euclid), proving each book’s position by evidence and argument. I want readers to be so convinced by whichever book they read first that when they read the other book they get angry at the characters in it for being so oblivious/wrong.

As I did with my attempt to write ‘a real zombie book,’ where I read a stack of the popular zombie books before attempting to write my own ((though I still haven’t managed to read World War Z – I kept having people promising to send it to me or lend it to me, so I kept not simply buying it for myself or checking it out of the library, and eventually I wasn’t reading zombie books anymore, and I never got back around to it)), and since the idea for these books was inspired (in part) by my reaction to reading some other dystopian books (isn’t that always the way? You read a book and think “I could do better than this!” so you work hard, study hard, and write your own, in your own way), I’m doing the same thing with dystopian books. I’ve told you before about my not being well read, and dystopian lit mirrors that phenomenon; I haven’t read most of the classics. I read Brave New World in high school for a book report / project, but I never read 1984 or Fahrenheit 451 (or even watched the films). I had never read The Handmaid’s Tale before last year, and it was the dystopia I disliked so much I was inspired to write a better one. I read and watched Never Let Me Go as well, last year, and it was generally quite excellent, also inspiring me to write better books (though in a different way than much-loved yet terrible books do). This year, in addition to trying to read my own books, then, I am trying to read as much recommended dystopian literature as possible.

So, from my own shelves (because they were already on my to-be-read list, or because my wife teaches them in her high school English courses), I’m going to be reading:

  • 1984 – George Orwell
  • Ape and Essence – Aldous Huxley
  • A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
  • Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  • The Giver – Lois Lowry
  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep – Philip K. Dick

In addition to these, I put together the following list from recommendations from friends and from books mentioned during Dystopia Week at by other SciFi authors & bloggers, when speaking about their favorite and/or formative dystopian books/influences. Bolded items I haven’t acquired yet, italicized items I’ve borrowed (or plan to borrow, mostly from the library):

  • The World Inside – Robert Silverberg
  • Native Tongue – Suzette Haden Elgin
  • He, She, and It – Marge Piercy
  • Matched – Ally Condie
  • Brave New Worlds (an anthology with a lot of highly-recommended stories)
  • The Diamond Age – Neal Stephenson
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
  • Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
  • The Forest of Hands and Teeth – Carrie Ryan
  • The Dead-Tossed Waves – Carrie Ryan
  • The Dark and Hollow Places – Carrie Ryan
  • Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler
  • Parable of the Talents – Octavia Butler
  • Cyteen – C.J. Cherryh
  • Mockingbird – Walter Tevis
  • Julian Comstock – Robert Charles Wilson
  • Soft Apocalypse – Will McIntosh
  • We – Yevgeny Zamyatin
  • Super Sad True Love Story – Gary Shteyngart
  • Walden Two – B. F. Skinner
  • Ship Breaker – Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Across the Universe – Beth Revis
  • How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff
  • Uglies/Pretties/Specials/Extras – Scott Westerfield
  • The Hunger Games/Catching Fire/Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins
  • Birthmarked – Caragh M. O’Brien
  • Bumped – Megan McCafferty

Seems like a long list, but I’m already making good progress on it. If you know of other dystopian novels you think I should add to the list, please comment (or email me, or Twitter @ me) and I’ll add them. I’m especially keen on the recent surge of YA Dystopian books, because (something I haven’t told you about the books I’m working on, yet) the books I’m planning to write will very likely be written for the YA market. (Or at least with young/teen protagonists, dealing with that sort of teenage angst/love/drama.)

As I read them, I’m trying to pay attention to how the stories are told, how the characters relate to their worlds, how their worlds are presented, the structure of the storytelling, and on and on, so many elements to try to pay attention to … not because I want to copy these books, but to learn from them so I can make my own informed decisions about how to write my own. What works (for me) and what doesn’t, what sort of arcs characters go through (or don’t), and what I want to take and what I want to leave behind. If you read Cheating, Death, you know I wrote something which was both a zombie novel people who were looking for a zombie novel would enjoy as well as being the sort of book I prefer to write. I hope to do the same with these books, this year.

Oh, and as a parting note, a strange idea: I’m thinking of doing the paperback version as a flipbook (two books, back to back, upside-down of each other), and I’m already brainstorming how I could accomplish such a thing with the eBook and/or audiobook. I may make them two books for formats other than paper. Your thoughts on this strange idea are welcome.

Update: I added a few additional books to my list of dystopias to read. Mandy was flipping through the Brave New Worlds anthology and saw a “further reading” list at the back of it… and noticed that we owned one of the books on the list, so she went and pulled it from the shelf and added it to my stack. So I took a glance at the list and saw a couple of others, and added them to the stack, too. The list at the end of the book was “compiled by Ross E. Lockhart” and is five pages long. I’d already read 5 of them before creating a dystopias-to-read list, and I have another 21 of them on my lists above. This weekend was a Friends of the Phoenix Library sale weekend; they come up a couple times a year and Mandy and I like to go on Sundays (half off) when paperbacks are $0.50 and hardbacks are $1; we take home a good number of books for a small amount of money (usually less than $20 for a couple dozen books). I made a copy of the list and brought it with me to the sale, and got a good-sized stack of books. Then this evening I went through the rest of the list and looked up whether it would be easy to get the remainder of the books to read; I found that a good number of them are in the Phoenix Library system, a bit more than half. The following is a supplemental list. The first four I already had on my shelves (Neuromancer & Grey, I’ve read, but may read again), the next chunk of the list I found at the book sale this weekend, and the italicized end of the list are additional (58) books I found available in the library system and added to my account’s ‘bookshelf’ to remind me to check them out later.

  • Neuromancer – William Gibson
  • Grey – Jon Armstrong
  • Player Piano – Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Fifth Sacred Thing – Starhawk
  • Einstein’s Monsters – Martin Amis
  • The Jagged Orbit – John Brunner
  • Crux – Albert E. Cowdrey
  • Mindscape – Andrea Hairston
  • Final Blackout – L. Ron Hubbard
  • The Second Angel – Philip Kerr
  • It Can’t Happen Here – Sinclair Lewis
  • Unquenchable Fire – Rachel Pollack
  • Postsingular – Rudy Rucker
  • Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America – Brian Francis Slattery
  • Soulsaver – James Stevens-Arce
  • The Mirrored Heavens – David J. Williams
  • Random Acts of Senseless Violence – Jack Womack
  • A Scientific Romance – Ronald Wright
  • Feed – M.T. Anderson
  • Yarn – Jon Armstrong
  • Pebble in the Sky – Isaac Asimov
  • Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood
  • The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood
  • The Windup Girl – Paolo Bacigalupi
  • Crash – J. G. Ballard
  • Jennifer Government – Max Barry
  • Genesis – Bernard Beckett
  • Genetopia – Keith Brooke
  • The Wanting Seed – Anthony Burgess
  • The Army of the Republic – Stuart Archer Cohen
  • The Pesthouse – Jim Crace
  • Prayers For (/Sins of/Heart of) the Assassin – Robert Ferrigno
  • Truancy – Isamu Fukui
  • Daughters of the North – Sarah Hall
  • The Gone-Away World – Nick Harkaway
  • Fatherland – Robert Harris
  • Make Room! Make Room! – Harry Harrison
  • Hellstrom’s Hive – Frank Herbert
  • The House of Dust – Paul Johnston
  • The Iron Standard – Henry Kuttner
  • The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. LeGuin
  • Just Like Beauty – Lisa Lerner
  • The Road – Cormac McCarthy
  • Perdido Street Station – China Mieville
  • Market Forces – Richard Morgan
  • Thirteen – Richard Morgan
  • Paradise – Toni Morrison
  • The Baby Squad – Andrew Neiderman
  • The Suicide Collectors – David Oppegaard
  • The Last Book in the Universe – Rodman Philbrick
  • The Space Merchants – Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
  • Anthem – Ayn Rand
  • Enclave – Kit Reed
  • The Wild Shore/The Gold Coast/Pacific Edge – Kim Stanley Robinson
  • Jamestown – Matthew Sharpe
  • Solstice – Ulises Silva
  • Blackjack – Lee Singer
  • The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith
  • Battle Royale – Koushun Takami
  • Far North – Marcel Theroux
  • The Gladiator – Harry Turtledove
  • Farthing/Ha’Penny/Half a Crown – Jo Walton
  • Love Among the Ruins – Evelyn Waugh
  • The Time Machine – H. G. Wells
  • When the Sleeper Wakes – H. G. Wells
  • The Bar Code Tattoo/The Bar Code Revolution – Suzanne Weyn
  • Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks
  • Looking Backward – Edward Bellamy
  • Ecotopia – Ernest Callenbach
  • Herland – Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Moon is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein

Considering my original dystopias-to-read list was less than 40 books long, and I’ve already picked up an additional dozen-plus, I may or may not choose to work through the other nearly-60 books I’ve got italicized there. There are several among them I’m more eager to read than others, but if you read my previous posts about my reading history the last few years, you may realize reading 100+ books, most of them new-to-me or borrowed, is neither likely nor my intention for this year. We’ll see. Without 2-3 weekly podcasts requiring my attention, no ongoing series I’m trying to complete, et cetera, I may be able to read through a book every day or two (or two books a day, depending on their length and engagement level), and get through even the extended list within a few months. We’ll see.

((Also of note, I’ve been writing this update while growing ever-sleepier, so there are probably some unusual typing errors mixed in. Sorry about that.))

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2 thoughts on “Studying Dystopia”

  1. Neuromancer, I think, may be one of the best sci-fi/fantasy books in your list. All Gibson’s other books (except for the two most recent) follow in the same vein and are really good as well. Have you checked out Gene Wolfe’s Books of the New Sun? Amazingly inventive. Finally, for a more modern addition, N.K. Jemison’s “The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms” is insanely good.

  2. @7442ba45f03f4314d1810d896f641fbc:disqus – I read Neuromancer (and most of the rest of Gibson’s books) back in high school, but it’s been so long I want to re-read it/them. I remember enjoying them.

    I found The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (and its 1st sequel – what’s with everything being a trilogy anymore?) in the Phoenix Library system, and added them to my to-check-out list, there. The Phoenix Library also has Gene Wolf’s *Long Sun* books, but not the *New Sun* (Or Short Sun, which Wikipedia mentions) books. I will keep an eye out for them at local used book shops, though. All those series seem interesting, if not obviously dystopian (from brief descriptions). I look forward to getting to them.

    Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad you found my blog.

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