Tag Archives: Dystopia

The Giver – Lois Lowry

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I never read The Giver. When I picked out books for my kid to read, The Giver always looked too sad, too solemn, too serious. Now that we are both dystopia fiends—probably because we live in a dystopia—the other insatiable reader in the house has passed along The Giver to me. Lois Lowry won the Newbery Medal for this amazing tale of what it means to be human and how even pain is a privilege to be treasured. The Newbery must have been no contest that year because the novel is flawless and superb.

Jonas lives very carefully and precisely in the Sameness. Children are guided, year by year, by immutable rules that govern behavior. At certain ages you have jackets that fasten in the back so you learn interdependence. Then you graduate to front-buttoning jackets and in a year or so to your own bike as you are gradually introduced to more independence from your family unit. Pain is contained by medication. Courtesy is absolute. Everyone has an assigned role in life and at twelve you receive your Assignment—the task you will learn and perform until you are old enough for the House of the Old and, one day, celebrated and Released.

It is December and Jonas, an Eleven about to become a Twelve, is nervous, anticipating the news he will get at the annual Ceremony but unsure about which job he will draw. His father, who works at Nurturing with the newchildren has requested and been given permission to bring home an infant who is too fussy and failing to thrive. The baby will be Released if it doesn’t reach weight and development milestones by the time it should be transferred to a family who has applied for a child. But Jonas doesn’t think Nurturing will be his Assignment. He certainly won’t be a Birthmother, coddled for three births in as many years and then graduated to Laborer for the rest of life. He can’t imagine himself as Caretaker of the Old, a Doctor, or a Director of Recreation.

But then the Chief Elder skips him when she is handing out Assignments and his anticipation turns to anxiety. His unease isn’t much relieved when, at the end of the Ceremony, she explains to the puzzled audience that Jonas has been selected to be the Receiver of Memory, a prestigious and mysterious position that is seldom awarded and little understood. Jonas begins to study with the old Receiver, the Giver, and is stunned at the unusual transmission of skills that comprises his apprenticeship. And everything changes.

Jonas learns about the exhilarating and excruciating colors of life, about feelings he didn’t know could exist, about history, wisdom and emotion. The Giver shows him what Release really means and awakens a humanity that has been trained out of everyone in the community for generations. And, as Jonas awakens, he discovers that his bland and comfortable life is really an intolerable nightmare. The choices he will have to make demand a courage he isn’t sure he has.

It’s an extraordinary book, smooth as a polished stone, and as capable of stunning you as a polished stone aimed to hit you squarely between the eyes. The Giver explores the demanding terrain of memory, the significance of what it means to give, and the impulse to know the truth and follow it into an uncertain future.

The Giver (Newbery Medal Book)   Lois Lowry | Delacorte Press 1993


Kingdom Come — J.G. Ballard

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Kingdom Come is smart, surreal, dystopian, predictive and exhausting. This is J.G. Ballard’s final shot across the bow, warning us about the slippery slope of mindless consumer culture and the intellectual wasteland of our various suburbias. For me it was preaching to the choir—I don’t surrender my will or my time to the vast unlettered hordes—at least when I can help it. No football mania here. No leisure time dedicated to mall shopping. No search for a dubious “leader” to make sense of a senseless existence for me. But no immunity from that dangerous malaise either.

I live in a corrupt society in which words and music are devalued, art is a commodity, shopping confers meaning and your social position is defined by what you have. It would be utterly deceptive to pretend I wouldn’t love a silent, spacious multi-bedroom apartment in a “good” building, or a couple of pricey designer jackets to throw over a pair of faded jeans, or a fabulous flat screen on which to watch Downton Abbey. Retail therapy is a term not unknown to me—but this story takes ennui and acquisition to extraordinary depths. Ballard creates a hell in the once bosky communities that ring central London. The denizens of those towns are captive to the Metro-Centre, an inflated British version of the Mall of America and an insidious presence at the heart of a dark conspiracy.

Richard Pearson has been edged out of his London advertising job by his ambitious ex-wife. His estranged retired airline-pilot father has been gunned down in a mall rampage in Brooklands, the home of the Metro-Centre. Brooklands has a virulently sports-crazed population, plenty of racism directed at its growing Asian immigrant populations, an obsession with a soaps actor who is the 24-by-7 broadcast king of the mall, and a cadre of duplicitous, seemingly ordinary citizens who may—or may not—have had something to do with dad’s death. When Pearson travels to Brooklands to deal with the estate and the burial arrangements, he is hooked into finding out what really happened and whether or not his father’s death was the random incident the police are claiming.

Kingdom Come is seriously creepy. The entire suburban world is so vacant, sinister and deranged it’s hard to fathom why Pearson doesn’t just take his modest inheritance and get out. But he pokes around and lands in the thick of nasty things. Everyone seems to be hiding the truth from him. Neighbors living near his father’s flat are inexplicably afraid of him. Someone sticks a powerful bomb in the back seat of his beloved vintage car. The cops are oddly detached when it comes to solving homicides or containing riotous marauders after weekend sporting events. The mall looms over all of life like Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Evil emanates from its highly visible dome and multi-storied walls. The toxic tide will not recede before swamping the countryside, destroying lives, property, civic tranquility and any illusions people are foolish enough to harbor.

Was pilot-papa a clandestine Nazi? Is the psycho who rants against the evils of the mall a killer? Are doctors healers or are they dispensers of death? Can a new refrigerator solve your life? What is true and what is left to us in the moral wasteland of mall culture? And is Richard so dumb he doesn’t realize what his relentless marketing campaign is doing to society? Ballard nailed it but you’d have to be really thick not to know this stuff already. Kingdom Come is both a warning and an indictment. Read it and weep.

Kingdom Come: A Novel   J. G. Ballard | Liveright Publishing (First American Edition) 2012

Pure – Julianna Baggott

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Julianna Baggott’s Pure is a truly hideous dystopia, the warped, twisted and ash-covered wreckage of civilization after a series of “Detonations” level everything outside a radiation-proof, climate-controlled Dome. The survivors outside the Dome are fused to whatever was near them or touching them at the instant of the blast. They are part-human, part-thing—a boy with bird wings fluttering out of his back, an old man with a handheld fan fused into his trachea, a man with his little brother permanently attached to his back. Inside the Dome, life is antiseptic, comfortable, surreal, robotic and ominous. Propaganda is the only language spoken; students are tracked and genetically altered; no one is allowed to step into the ashy world outside.

Pressia was six when her mother was killed in the flash of light by the impact of a glass wall. She survived with the head of the doll she was clutching fused to the place where her hand used to be. Now that she is sixteen, she will have to leave her ailing grandfather and turn herself in to kill or be killed in a deadly game. When the soldiers come for her she runs away.

Partridge is a Pure, a boy who was safely gathered into the Dome before the Detonation. His brother and his father were with him but his mother stayed behind to help the injured and died—or so he was told. One day, Partridge’s father, an important architect of the Dome and its social structure, slips and reveals that Partridge’s mother might be alive. The boy hatches a plan to escape the prison of the Dome and manages to elude capture. But his unmarked features, his vigorous health and his privileged life mark him as a Pure and put him in mortal danger in the desperate land outside the protective bubble. When he is attacked by a monstrous fusion of three people, Pressia saves him and they both go on the run.

Bradwell is a rebel with a flock of passing birds fused to his back. He knows that every explanation for what happened, both inside and outside the Dome, is a lie. But his knowledge is a death sentence if the authorities on either side discover that he is alive. His magazine clippings of life before the Detonations convince Pressia to believe him—his survival skills save her once but may not be enough to rescue her when she is captured.

Julia Baggott draws a bleak landscape convincingly. The crazed reality in Pure is carefully rendered and unrelievedly creepy. The characters are sympathetic and their questions are absorbing. You do want to find out what is behind events, what really happened to Partridge’s mother, how any kind of salvation could come from such complete and macabre damage. Pure has all the cruelty and craven authority of The Hunger Games with its own spin on a trio of young people who set out to expose the evil around them.

I found the storytelling terrific and the disfigurements repulsive. The family connoisseur of YA dystopias pronounced the fictional conceit of the book “disturbing.” That’s exactly right. But it is so fantastical that, in order to be disturbing and not merely disgusting, every detail of the story has to work. Read it if you like well done dystopian fiction—but maybe not at night. You would not want to dream about the nightmares inside the covers of this book.

Pure    Julianna Baggott | Grand Central Publishing   2012