Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Dystopias


Dark Future Visions 



“As Hegel put it, only when it is dark does the owl of Minerva begin its flight. Only in extinction is the collector comprehended.” 
― Walter Benjamin, Illuminations: Essays and Reflections


Cormac McCarthy’s tenth novel, The Road, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2007 and was hailed as the ‘the first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation’. It is the story of a father and son walking alone through the ravaged landscape of a burned America to the coast.

The Road is many things, it is brilliantly-written, poetic, compelling and terrible in its beauty, but there is one thing that it certainly is not, and that is a fun read. It is, in fact, heart-breaking; playing strongly on the reader’s basic human instinct to protect their young at all costs and the father’s sense of desperation, dread and isolation are almost palpable.
The book is relentlessly bleak but it is also about love and as such utterly compelling and peculiarly life-affirming. I found it to be a both inspirational and cautionary tale and rarely have I experienced such a gamut of emotions whilst reading.

At just nigh of 200 pages it is a no more than a novella by today's standards, but this is due to McCarthy’s sparse prose, where he wastes not a single word and achieves more – and says more – than ninety nine per cent of books four or five time the size.  I highly recommend The Road;  it is one of the finest books of the last century.


The Road is a recent example of a genre with a long history.  Dystopian visions can be traced back to the twentieth century with examples like "Harrison Bergeron", a satirical, dystopian science fiction short story written by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.  A more famous dystopia from the first half of the century can be found in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.  Huxley's classic prophetic novel describes the socialized horrors of a futuristic utopia devoid of individual freedom.  Whether the dystopia is a claustrophobic individual vision like "The Metamorphosis" of Kafka or a future world that has been turned upside-down like Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, dystopian visions often present a dark future for humankind.


One exception to the bleakness of the post-apocalyptic future is presented in The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.  In his dystopic vision you are left with the hope for a possibility of a better future.  An even slimmer glimmer of hope may be found at the end of Margaret Atwood's distinctive dystopic novel, Oryx and Crake.  I have not yet read the conclusion of the trilogy for which this is the first part, so I may find by the end that glimmer of hope no longer exists.  Whether dystopias bode for a perpetually dark future or one that leaves room for some hope they present imaginative visions that I find both tremendously tantalizing and endlessly fascinating.


Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.  Harper Perennial, 1998 (1932).
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.  Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.
Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin, trans. by Harry Zohn.  Schocken Books, 1969 (1950).
The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

4 comments:

Brian Joseph said...

Since I was in my teems I have always like dystopian novels. With that said I am thinking that we may be a little over glutted with them at the moment.

I have refrained from reading The Road as I fear that its bleakness might get me a little too down. I really liked McCarthy's Blood Meridian so I am tempted.

James said...

Brian,

I share your interest in dystopian novels - one that probably began in my teens as well. These are all great books of this kind.
If you could make it through Blood Meridian you should try reading The Road. McCarthy has never been better.

Ruth said...

So interesting. I strangely enjoy dystopian stories, and I've not heard of Dog Stars or The Road. I may like to look into these, especially one that has a hopeful ending.

On the YA side, I am reading the last title in the Hunger Game trilogy. It's not great writing, but I like the story.

James said...

Ruth,

I would recommend any of these and I am sure there are others that are enjoyable to read. Certainly the popularity of The Hunger Games says something about its value for many readers.