Reader's Exchange

Hungering for a new game?

In an ideal society (a utopia), here's what you'd encounter just about everywhere you go: citizens reading great literature and sharing thoughtful comments--in checkout lines, in the break room at work, in the bleachers between soccer games, at the coffee shop, and so forth.

OK, that's just my personal ideal, and we know that utopias don't really exist.  Still, the one city, one book concept pioneered in Seattle moved us all forward.  That admirable model has been emulated in more locales than you'd imagine.

So why am I not 100% pleased with ubiquitous mentions of the Hunger Games trilogy?  Movies, book groups, Sunday school discussions, library programs, blogs, and yes, a chat overheard in line at the grocery store: is this not Utopian behavior?Dystopian vista

I don't begrudge HG one bit of the excitement it's generated; book buzz is wonderful, period.  I just fear that many fans of the trilogy won't follow up on their discovery:  whether or not they've been dedicated readers in the past, they've now bonded with dystopian fiction.   Other engrossing stories of this type abound.  Some have been around for decades; they're just less trendy.

Not all definitions of dystopia suggest simply "an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad"; some also require political or societal repression.   I prefer to start with Oxford Companion to Literature's "unpleasant or catastrophic future" and figure in some environmental degradation, a trend carried to an extreme, and/or terror and deprivation.

That's a formula for a dynamite reading list, combining Utopian curiosity with dystopian intensity:

  • Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles (2012). What will happen to growth cycles, crops, and human behavior if the earth's rotation goes completely awry? (Susan Beth Pfeffer's young adult Life as We Knew It offers similar appeal.)
  • Ryan Boudinot's Blueprints of the Afterlife (2012). Described by a Goodreads commenter as "nearly unreviewable", this edgy, crazy scenario imagines that a sentient glacier has destroyed the continent, human nervous systems can be hacked, etc.
  • Kevin Barry's City of Bohane (2011). Publishers Weekly describes this Costa Award winner as "a walking tour of Bohane, an apocalyptic fictional city on Ireland's west coast." City has reminded some readers of Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange.
  • Albert Brooks' 2030: The Real Story of What Happens to America (2011): Not only has cancer been cured, life expectancy has been extended via other means. No surprise, then, to find a world of old vs. young amidst ravages of global warming.
  • Hilary Jordan's When She Woke (2011): With elements of both The Scarlet Letter and dystopian classic The Handmaid's Tale, Jordan's chiller, set mostly in Texas, portrays a society where convicted criminals' bodies are dyed to advertise their misdeeds to the world.
  • Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960): Amid dystopian greats like Brave New World, 1984, and Lord of the Flies, Canticle is less frequently assigned as school reading. Deemed "a masterpiece" by many critics, Miller's Hugo Award winner chronicles a nearly obliterated world slowly (sometimes hilariously) reestablishing a foothold on scientific knowledge.

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