"Big Brother is watching you. . . "
We've all heard the phrase, but who among us knows where it comes from? And of those, who has actually read the book? That's right, Big Brother is not just a reality show about losers doing . . . something . . . (I don't actually watch much reality tv.) It comes from 1984, George Orwell's grim, grim vision of life in . . . 1984. His prediction: constant surveillance by the minions of dictator Big Brother. People wearing shapeless jumpsuits and ugly, clunky shoes, endless war, disgusting food, and children informing on their parents!
The reality of Britain in 1984 was . . . Duran Duran and hot pink stretch pants. Sometimes together! The food was no worse than usual in England, although this was around the time the McRib was invented, so perhaps he wasn't too far off there.
But should we really mock Orwell for thinking that within fifty years the world would be as bleak and horrible as he thought? No! For he joins countless other authors in that grand, grim genre: Dystopian Literature! Hooray for Dystopia! It's science fiction, only politically charged, full of cannibals, everyone's really badly dressed, and it's all frighteningly plausible! It's like science fiction's mean older brother, the one telling you that if you did discover a new planet, it wouldn't be full of buxom green women, but probably toxic slime. And by the way, why are so worried about another planet, when the one we've got is already going to pot?
Dystopian literature is rarely very cheery, yet it sucks us in all the same. Perhaps because it is, truly, the Final Frontier, for several reasons. One, because it's our future, like it or not, and two, because we'll all be dead. Get it? Final Frontier?! (These are the jokes, people!) I actually went through a phase in high school where I read it all: 1984, This Perfect Day, Brave New World . . . great stuff! Filled me angst, and that's what every teenage needs, really! Then I went off the dystopia for a while, until a couple of years ago when a new crop was written, and Lo, I found that I could not look away!
Have you read this book?! Cormac McCarthy, he of the pretty, pretty horses, wrote a book so simultaneously gripping and awful that it was like, like, well, it was like nothing else, all right? I loved the review in Entertainment Weekly, where she admitted that it had been over a month since she read it, and was just barely able to review it. Also, she knows exactly where the book is in her office at all times. Yes. It felt like that. My friend Kyle Bishop, Professor of Zombiology, finished it late at night, then woke up his baby son so that he could sit and rock him for a while. Yes. It felt like that, too. I also demanded that my husband go out and buy a lot of food storage the next day. And he, freaked out by my freaked outedness, did.
*Warning: The Road is not for the faint of heart or stomach. Anyone under the age of 18, pregnant women, or anyone who has a problem with cannibalism, should totally avoid that book.
Then I discovered that dystopian literature was alive and well, in the YA section.
What?! Never say it's true!
Oh, yes, it's so true! And again, I couldn't look away. Horrible, terrifying, and yet magnificent. You've heard of them, I'm sure. You've read them, even. The two that stick out in my mind are The Hunger Games and Life As We Knew It, by Suzanne Collins and Susan Beth Pfeffer, respectively.
Now, the fact that either of these authors had written books like these threw me for a loop. I mean, they're great authors, always have been. But they've never done something like this before.
Suzanne Collins I had known and loved for the past four years as the author of the Gregor the Overlander books, a superb middle-grade series about a boy who follows his baby sister through a heating duct in their laundry room, and discovers an underground world of peril and talking bats, among other things. In that series she introduced us to possibly the greatest non-human character EVER: Ripred the amoral outcast rat. He was sarcastic, cunning, dangerous, a gifted fighter, almost always out for number one . . . if he hadn't been a rat he would have oozed bad-boy sexiness. As it was . . . well, I did occasionally forget he was a rat! Alas, the Gregor series came to a close, albeit a very satisfying one, and I wondered what Suzanne would do next.
What she would do next was shock and astonish the world with her vision of a future where the dictatorship ruling North America keeps the populace down through the skillful use of . . . reality television. The concept behind The Hunger Games literally took my breath away. It was bold and crazy, and yet I could see it happening! It blended Greek myths, Roman gladiatorial competitions, and a host of other things from cultures around the world. It's seamless, flawless, horrible, and riveting! And there's a sequel! And then there will be one more! And I can't wait while at the same time I can't believe I want to go back for more punishment!
Life As We Knew It is a simpler story, in which a catastrophe causes the moon to move just slightly in its orbit, creating tidal waves, earthquakes, and other natural disasters. The young narrator struggles with the sudden changes to her world, starting with irregular school schedules and ending with . . . well, just about everybody dying! It's not simply a page-turner, it's a keep-you-up-all-night-crying-and-reading-til-you-finish book. Prior to this, I had not read a book by Susan Beth Pfeffer since I was a wee lass, and the one I recall had been a gentle, sweet book about a timid young girl finding her courage.
A vastly different book, let me say.
As I write this, and once again it's taking me days, I realize that Lois Lowry's The Giver could be put in this category too. And so could Devil On My Back by Monica Hughes. This was a book I got from a school book fair, Lo, many years ago, and it may be out of print. But if you can find a copy, it's soooo worth it! It's about a futuristic society where everyone is divided into classes depending on whether or not they can tolerate the computer memory packs they plug into their brains. But is it really as wonderful as it's supposed to be? And why are there always a perfectly balanced number of lords, workers, and slaves? Will spoiled young Tomi find out? Does he want to? Ba ba BUM!
Good stuff, people!
So, to sum up: Big Brother is watching you!
No, sorry. What I meant to say is: sometimes its good to read something a bit shocking. Something that, much as I hate this phrase: Really makes you think. Even something that makes you a little bit bummed out. Because, Hey, maybe you can't afford those cool shoes you saw yesterday, but at least you're not crouched in a bomb shelter, wearing a baggy canvas jumpsuit and hiding from cannibals!
Well, I'm not anyway. . . I don't know what you guys do for fun. . .