Friday, April 30, 2010

The Dark Side of Perfection

I usually review books as I read them but I have been thinking about some past books I enjoyed so I'm going to group them by subject. Enjoy!

As long as people have been living together they have been trying to figure out the best way to govern themselves. And throughout all that time, they still haven't perfected it. Winston Churchill observed, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." Dystopias imagine possible attempts at perfect government and explore how they could go wrong. In these books, as in real life government, there is a struggle to balance the rights of the individual with needs of the communities. Dystopias often have a sci-fi bent but in the best ones, this blends seamlessly into the background and the characters take center stage.

Here are some of my favorite dystopias for readers of all ages. If you have a suggestion for one I should read, let me know in the comments!

The Giver, Lois Lowry (juvenile/young adult)
Jonas is an intelligent, thoughtful eleven year old who is apprehensive about his birthday. In his community, when you turn 12 you are assigned to the profession you will hold for the rest of your life. In a community where sameness is valued, Jonas doesn't know what to think when he is singled out to be the community's "Receiver of Memories," the only person who remembers everything that happened in the past. He meets an old man, the Giver, and learns that much of what he has been taught is not true and that there may be value in difference.

, Scott Westerfield (young adult)
I just read this first novel in a trilogy after hearing a lot about it, and the moment I closed it I was ready to read the next one. In this world, everyone receives plastic surgery when they turn 16 so that they are beautiful. Before the surgery they are "uglies" and after they are "pretties." Tally is a rebellious young ugly who can't wait to have her surgery. When she learns that her new friend Shay doesn't want the surgery and plans to escape, Tally can't understand why. She ends up having to make tough choices to protect her friend and in the process learns that there is more to the surgery than she ever knew.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (adult)
The story in Never Let Me Go unfolds slowly and deliberately, revealing its secrets in due time. It tells the story of Kathy, who at first seems a normal young girl at boarding school in Britain. Over time we learn that Kathy and the other children at her school are clones who have been created to be organ donors. Kathy and her friends struggle to live normally and find meaning in their lives. They are encouraged to create art and the best pieces are selected by a mysterious "Madame," who later in the story offers a unique perspective on Kathy's life. This novel is much more introverted and emotionally focused than some of the other action oriented books on my list, but it is more compelling because of that.

The Handmaid's Tale, Margaret Atwood (adult)
This is probably one of the most well known dystopias in English literature. Offred, the main character, is a handmaiden for a well placed commander and his wife in the Republic of Gilead (located in the former United States). She has this role because she is still fertile and as such is quite valuable. However, when she has a child it will belong to her mistress and be treated as though Offred had no relation to it. Offred remembers the time before the theocratic Republic of Gilead was formed, when women had rights. The commander remembers this time as well and begins to do forbidden things with Offred, such as playing Scrabble and taking her to secret parties. I remember the first time I finished reading this closing the book and simply sitting and thinking for quite a while. Margaret Atwood has written several other dystopian novels but this is by far my favorite.


Becca said...

Good list. I love The Giver and Handmaidens Tale. I understand there are actually two sequels to the Giver, but I've never read them.

Need me to bring in the rest of the Uglies series? I am looking forward to Westerfield's next series, which is an alternative steampunk style history.
Have you read Hunger Games yet? Another good YA dystopia.
Oooh, and the Sower series from Octavia Butler.

ACQ said...

I would love it if you'd bring the rest of the Uglies series. When I finished it yesterday morning I immediately went online to see if the next one was at the library! I read the Help too and it was fabulous, thanks!! I didn't realize there were sequels to The Giver.

Becca said...

Will do. I'll trade ya if you have a copy of Never Let Me Go..

Melissa said...

Kazuo Ishiguro is awesome. Love his stuff and really enjoyed Never Let Me Go.