After finishing my most recent novel, This Sacred Isle, I am working on my next book, a dystopian novel called Second Sun. Over two blog posts, I am looking at my favourite dystopian novels, and why they are important to me.
In my first post, I looked at three classic works: We, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. In this post, I am discussing two of my favourite reads: V for Vendetta and The Tripods. All these books - and others - are key inspirations for Second Sun.
The Tripods - John Christopher
Yes, this is an odd and possibly controversial choice, but I will explain myself!
My introduction to The Tripods trilogy was via the BBC TV adaptation (sadly and hurriedly truncated after two series) but I soon dived into the books and what a rich experience they proved to be - not only a wonderful read but one of my inspirations for wanting to write novels. It was certainly an influence on my Tree of Life fantasy series.
Strictly speaking, The Tripods is a post-apocalyptic SF novel rather than a dystopian one, but I think there are a number of key elements and themes that bring it within the dystopian realm.
The story is set in the future, where the Earth has been conquered and humanity enslaved by the alien Masters who bestride the world in the Tripods, enormous three-legged walking machines. Human society has returned to a pastoral, pre-industrial level, with few towns – all monitored carefully by the watchful Tripods.
Obedience to the alien conquerors is established through Caps, implants forced on every human at the age of fourteen. Once the Cap is implanted, humans lose curiosity and (most importantly to their rulers) any sense of rebelliousness. For a few, the Cap fails and they are turned into ‘Vagrants’, who are considered mad and wander from village to village, shunned by the populace. This is not a dystopia that uses consumer or sensual pleasures to lull and distract the people (like for example Brave New World), but the Tripods impose an orthodoxy, where people ‘know their place’, and to challenge this stability is to risk punishment or death.
The hero of the book is thirteen year-old Will, an English boy, who is suspicious and fearful of the Tripods. With his ‘Capping Day’ approaching, Will flees with his cousin, Henry, to the ‘White Mountains’ in Switzerland. During their dangerous journey across France, they meet up with Jean-Paul, known to them as Beanpole. Beanpole is intelligent and inventive, and fears that Capping will steal his curiosity, and so he joins Will and Henry on their quest for freedom. During their subsequent adventures, they face danger not only from the Tripods (and the mysterious Masters who control the machines) but from adults who have been Capped.
Capped humans never challenge or question the Tripods, who they believe only wish to protect them and stop them slipping into horrors of the past like disease, famine and war – they believe they live in a better world, not a dystopia. And I think this is a crucial point: the distinction between utopia and dystopia is sometimes found only in the eye of the beholder. The world as ruled by the Tripods is peaceful and humans live simple lives, and there are moments, certainly in the first instalment The White Mountains, where our rebellious heroes are tempted by the safe, easy life of the Capped.
But the gifts of the Tripods come at a price: freedom. Humanity is imprisoned, with the Cap removing all capacity for challenging thought and creativity. Yes, this protects people from some of the worst excesses of our history, but in doing so it eliminates our innate curiosity, our imagination. The politics of our time is often shaped by a desire to return to simpler times, for a retreat from the complexity of the modern world – we have seen these in many of the arguments put forward in support of Brexit, Donald Trump and Marie Le Pen. In The Tripods, such a worldview is made literal; it is a society in stasis, with no desire or hope of progress. Of course, in the story the Cap is a crucial tool of control, but I wonder if the author hints at times that people actually prefer this life, and are happy to trade freedom for the safety and protection offered by their tyrannical rulers.
Even if the Tripods had a genuine desire to protect and support humanity, this is still a dystopian society, and without giving the whole story away, it becomes evident that the alien conquerors have plans for Earth that are not entirely benevolent…
The Tripods might be considered a minor work compared with the great dystopian novels, but as a young reader it started me thinking about questions of freedom and of the importance of challenging authority, even when (especially when) it conflicts with the entrenched views of those around you. This is made clear early in The White Mountains when Will thinks fearfully about his impending Capping Day:
“Only lately, as one could begin to count the months remaining, had there been any doubts in my mind; and the doubts had been ill-formed and difficult to sustain the weight of adult assurance.”
To escape the imprisonment of the Cap, Will must defy his family, friends, teachers and village elders – it is his courage in opposing all the people he has grown up with that marks him as a hero in the making. The society ruled by the Tripods is one of total obedience and Will cannot, even among friends and family, safely voice his concerns. And this for me is one of the fundamental lessons of any dystopian novel: a worthwhile society should expect, accept and absorb criticism, and any society that crushes dissenting voices is well on the road to tyranny.
The Tripods is undoubtedly an exciting story for young adults, with adventure and action aplenty. But its messages about freedom, and the need to find the courage to oppose orthodoxy, still resonate. I would argue freedom, questioning authority and the desire to travel are all human rights, and in this book all are denied by the alien rulers. We must be careful not to allow our own rulers to fool us into trading these precious rights for a feeling of safety from outsiders.
And, without giving away the ending, the trilogy finishes on something of a melancholy note, one that has always stayed with me. Suffice to say, humanity does not need aliens to cause strife and division in this world…
V for Vendetta - Alan Moore / David Lloyd
I came relatively late to the world of comics / graphic novels, and through reading works such as Maus and Persepolis, I swiftly realised I had been missing out! And one book that stood out for me was V for Vendetta – a powerful, savage indictment of right-wing power, inspired by the Thatcherite government in Britain.
The story depicts a near-future history version of the United Kingdom in the 1990s. A nuclear war has destroyed much of the rest of the world, and although the UK avoids being bombed (the government of the day having removed American missiles) it suffers from the environmental and economic chaos resulting from the conflict.
As a broken and heavily flooded UK starts to fall apart, the Norsefire party (consisting of fascist groups and the few remaining corporations) seize control and promise to restore order, which they do by exterminating opponents and implementing a police state.
The protagonist, V, an anarchist dressed in a Guy Fawkes mask, begins a campaign to both kill his former captors and bring down the brutal Norsefire regime. His actions ultimately inspire Evey Hammond, a young woman he saves in the opening scene of the story, to become his protégé. Evey begins the story as a victim at the hands of ‘The Finger’, the secret police, but soon finds her strength and realises the importance of V’s campaign.
As well as being a compelling story with rich, complex characters, V for Vendetta challenges the reader to consider the causes and effects of poor government, and our own weak record in selecting our leaders. As V rallies against Norsefire, he highlights the culpability of the wider population:
“We’ve had a string of embezzlers, frauds, liars and lunatics making a string of catastrophic decisions. This is plain fact. But who elected them? It was you! You who appointed these people! You who gave them the power to make your decisions for you!”
V is highlighting how our collective apathy, our willingness to pass on responsibility to others (however unsuitable) leads us slowly but inexorably to tyranny. We can be the makers of our own dystopia. The Norsefire government gained control because they made enough people feel safe in a chaotic time, and for this safety the people were prepared to give up their freedom and to turn a blind eye to the suffering of minorities, who were made scapegoats for problems facing the country. Tyranny rules because the population stepped back from responsibility, and to bring back any sense of justice, the citizens of the story must stand up against Norsefire. As Evey Hammond proclaims near the end of the story:
“You must choose what comes next. Lives of our own, or a return to chains.”
Reading V for Vendetta again recently, in the context of recent political developments, it still feels horribly relevant. The rise of right-wing governments, the demonization of minorities, the bombardment of ‘news’ – sometimes it almost feels as if a real-life Norsefire are just waiting in the wings, ready for the right moment to seize power. In the opening panes of the story we see surveillance cameras – there FOR YOUR PROTECTION of course. We are being watched.
Dystopian novels dare to imagine where the worst of our natures and weaknesses could take us – they show the traps that wait to snare us. I believe all five stories I have discussed in these posts help us to go forward with our eyes open and not sleepwalk into horrors of our own making.
Which dystopian books do you find most powerful? Add a comment and join the conversation.