Books for the Lockdown – Dystopian and Depressing

Another week of the lockdown passed. I’m sure all of us are getting a bit antsy by now. Hopefully, all of you and your loved ones are healthy and safe. Last week we looked at happy and funny books. This week we’ll take another tack – going down the dystopian and apocalyptic route. If you are prone to panic and depression, then probably you should use this list as a list of books to avoid in those dire times.

England, England – Julian Barnes

It is a book about what does it mean to be English, what is England. An absurd, sarcastic critique of it is unsparing. Towards the end of the book, as Barnes describes the fall of ‘Old’ England his observations feel almost prophetic, they so well match the current situation (the book was published in 1998). While it is not necessary a dystopian book per se it has the ‘end-of-times’ vibe. It is as funny as it is dark.

Frankenstein in Baghdad – Ahmed Saadawi

Is war equal to dystopia? Maybe not, but if certainly feel that way. Saadawi writes about war-torn Baghdad, a city that by now takes war in its stride. It became the new normal. People dying is not unusual anymore, the world is unhinged. And in the middle of all this Hadi, a local junk dealer, after his friend’s death, collects body parts of the victims of war. Making from them a creature, enlivened by a spirit of hotel guard killed in an explosion. The creature rampages the city looking to avenge everyone whose body parts it is comprised of. This shortly changes into a vicious circle as decay takes hold. At times the book is unbelievably funny with all the absurds of life in a city besieged by war. Other times it is really heartbreakingly sad showing the vicious circle from which there is no escape.

Never Let me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

The story is set in dystopian contemporary England, our protagonists are Kathy (the narrator), Ruth and Tommy. Kathy now works as the carer, but she knew Ruth and Tommy during her time at Hailsham boarding school, they were friends. Gradually we get to know that both Ruth and Tommy are now dead and Kathy at the end of the year will stop being a carer and will become a donor. Because in this dystopian world it is normal to clone people for spare parts if you can afford it. One of the books considering the question of humanity and its borders. What is it that makes us us? What makes us human? What makes us so special that we deserve to protect our lives at all cost?

Station Eleven – Emily St. John Mandel

This one feels scaringly timely, so do not read it if you’re in any way prone to anxiety. It will do you no good. A population decimated by a deadly virus. Within days all air travel stops to contain the virus, but the damage is already done worldwide. From then on civilization as we know it is effectively over. It vividly describes one of the darker scenarios of what may happen. It also is a very good book, that will keep you engaged and rooting for the characters.

The Absolute at Large – Karel Capek

An absolute romp of a book. Imagine if absolute or godliness, whatever you want to call it, could be machine produced. In a feat of absurd humor, Capek shows humanity devolving into chaos. A society where because of saintliness everything devolves into madness. One of those rare books that make you laugh out loud, but also think.

The Captive Mind – Czesław Miłosz

This one is what you may call a dystopia of the mind. It shows how the totalitarian regime terrorizes and captivates the minds of its brightest. Miłosz wrote this book for a foreign audience, he wanted the West to have at least a chance of understanding what was going on in the Socialist Republics and how it all happened. What he shows is four different mentalities, four different motivations that led four writers to conform with socialist realism. There probably were as many motivations as people succumbing to the system, but Miłosz’s analysis of those four already builds a compelling picture of a generation that emerged from WWII, split, broken and lost, desperately looking for certainties. It is a fascinating book, both as a historic document and as a warning.

The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

I read this one at the end of February, just as the situation in Europe was starting to get serious. Again, we have a disease that unravels social conventions. Everyone goes blind, apart from a handful of people who avoided the weird lights in the sky or slept through them. There also are walking, meat-eating plants. A book that shows how vulnerable we are while keeping good humor and offering hope. It definitely is less gloomy than current dystopian fiction tends to be.

The End We Start From – Megan Hunter

‘We are told not to panic, the most panic-inducing instruction known to man.’

As our main character gives birth to its first child the entire London is flooded. With her husband, she starts a long and arduous trip north. It is an apocalypse, but also as the title suggests the end we start from. The world does not come to an end. Because it never really does, does it? There’s always the next day, with or without us. It is an eerie book, very quiet, and actually quite hopeful.

The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

Society in a desperate state and a social experiment run by a corporation, what could go wrong? It was a book about how much we are ready to give up in exchange for safety and how easy it is for a human being to become desperate. All timely questions in our current situation. How much do we give up to protect ourselves from the virus and how much can we trust the governments not to abuse the power we put in their hands. What is a reasonable precaution and what is panic mongering?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to advocate defying the lockdown orders. I’m just saying we have to keep an eye on how far the governments are going and make sure we understand if it’s still justifiable. Do not put yourselves or others at risk, but at all times hold your governments accountable for their actions.

The Power – Naomi Alderman

The premise of this book is very simple, but it also unlocks fascinating possibilities – what if one day women were physically stronger than men? The main question is to what extent the features associated with women (being nice, sensitive, avoiding aggression etc.) are really just a cultural construct that justifies and enforces our weaker position, to what extent those would still hold if the situation changed. I have to admire what Alderman pulled off in this book, it reads like a fast-paced action thriller, but it touches or important topics, she managed to combine great entertainment with an important statement for equality.

VOX – Christina Dalcher

The idea of this novel is very similar to Handmaid’s Tale, just simplified. Distilled down to basics. Women are allowed to stay a 100 words a day. Any more than that causes an electric shock of increasing magnitude, administered by the bracelets/counters they wear on their wrist. The plot is a bit heavy-handed, but it’s not a bad one if you’re looking for a decent dystopian read. It may even make you eye your other half suspiciously but probably won’t change your life.

Books for the Lockdown – Happy and Funny

5 thoughts on “Books for the Lockdown – Dystopian and Depressing

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