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When I read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World in high school, I hated it. Absolutely detested. The writing, the world, the characters, the ending. All of it. I had loved Thomas More’s Utopia, Charlotte Perkins Gilmans Herland, and George Orwells in 1984. Years later I realized that I hated it because it scared me. Elements of this seemed so much more plausible than the other books. And I reacted against it. His view of the economy and society seemed to be on my nose.
But in the past few years I have come across several books that contain other economic and cultural commentaries that are just as disturbing as Brave New World. Given the recent events with GameSpot and the stock market, the criticism of economic systems seems to be even more pronounced.
Here is my list of five dystopias that have produced far-reaching economic and political criticism. Two books appear to be the children of Brave New World, presenting futures based on wild consumption. The other three present criticism of work and bureaucracy.
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Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling
Imagine a world in which algorithms form the structure of society. Your ability to find work, find a romantic partner, your friends are based on your “number”. In this world, The Store, a company like Amazon, anticipates your needs and desires and sends you products without you having to order them. In addition, everyone’s last name is derived from their father or mother, depending on their gender. This is the world Peter Jobless lives in. He fixes “useless” robots, but when his score drops below 10 (on a scale of 1 to 100) his life becomes much more difficult. If he receives an item that he categorically does not want, he will go to return the item to The Store. It is a concise comment on a world based on algorithms and social points as an organizational principle. Here is my full review on Broad Street Review.
Basma Abdel Aziz’s queue
After a failed insurrection known as the “nefarious events”, the state has ordered that everyone must appeal to the gate on all matters. A line of people begins to form trying to get help with health care, housing, and more. But the gate never opens, so the line gets longer and longer. If Yehia is shot for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, he cannot have the bullet removed as there are no bullets for the state. So Yenia lines up to appeal to the state. The queue is a crushing indictment against the bureaucratic and oppressive state.
The resisters from Gish Jen
Gish Jen envisions a world organized according to production and consumption. At AutoAmerica, the Netted produce and receive all the benefits of living – dry land, university, and more. The surpluses live on marshland (or poorer water) and are expected to consume and earn points for more consumption. And the split “happens” accidentally on racist lines. The houses are equipped with Aunt Nettie, an Alexa against steroids who oversees everyone. The story centers on one family with surpluses: Grant, a former professor; Eleanor, a practicing lawyer; and her daughter Gwen with the golden arm. If her pitching talent is recognized, she will be recruited into the Olympics and enrolled at Net University. It’s a story parents need to learn to let their daughter make mistakes from home. It’s about generational conflict and resistance – Gwen wants to capitalize on high society as her mother made a career (and a life) battling the segregation and oppression of society.
Temporary by Hilary Lighter
A world is temporarily imagined in which workplaces become our identity. So when you’re a temp, like the nameless narrator, you’re constantly jumping from job to job and changing completely. The narrator finds herself in a multitude of professions, from window cleaning to assassin’s assistant to mother, in search of consistency. She learns to smoke for one job and knows that she has to unlearn it for another. It’s a commentary on gig culture and the role of women in US labor society.
The Hiroko Oyamada Factory, translated by David Boyd
The factory presents a critique of our collective working life. Three workers in a factory in an unnamed Japanese city have very specific jobs: proofreading, studying moss, and chopping. Soon their seemingly pointless jobs become more than just jobs as the factory expands and uses everything up. Where does work and where does other life take place?
Do you want more dystopias? Check out this Rioter’s list of eco-dystopias or this Rioter’s list of timely dystopias.