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6 ominous classics everyone should read

Fiction about the dark side of human nature and technology has important lessons for us, whether we’re studying to be writers, engineers, doctors, social scientists, or anything else
BY Uma Asher |   03-03-2017

Sometimes, it seems from the news headlines as though our world has far more Jokers than Batmen. While it’s true that technology saves lives, we need to understand how it also increasingly polarizes society, and sometimes brings out the worst in people. For example, here’s an interesting video on how minds can be shaped by the algorithm that powers Google Search.


If you suffer the occasional moment of gloom, don’t just wait until it passes – carpe desperationem! Seize the despair! It’s an opportunity to think about how you might help fight evil in this world. Here are six must-read books that are – how shall we say this? – not terribly cheerful.


1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

This 2008 novel, the first in a trilogy, tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl who lives in the nation of Panem. The country was established after an unspecified apocalypse destroyed North American civilization, and its wealthy capital now controls 12 poor districts. In an annual televised event in Panem, children aged 12-18 are made to fight to the death, until only one remains. The author has reportedly said she got the idea when she was flipping TV channels and switched from people competing on a reality show to footage of the US war in Iraq. The novel draws on themes such as poverty, oppression, and the effects of war, as its characters are repeatedly forced to make morally complex choices.

Here’s the trailer of the first film in the trilogy.



2. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

This 1949 novel imagined a dystopic future set in the year 1984. This is the book that gave us the term “Big Brother”. It describes a totalitarian society whose all-seeing government polices people’s thoughts and punishes individualism. It insists that “war is peace”, “freedom is slavery”, and “ignorance is strength”. Watching over all this tyranny is Big Brother, the leader of the Inner Party, who is worshipped like a cult leader. The protagonist, Winston Smith, an employee in the Ministry of Truth, is tasked with updating records to make the past fit the party line. It is part of his job to delete references to people who have been ‘vaporized’ (not just murdered by the state but also erased from living memory).

Here’s a 1983 TV ad for Apple’s first personal computer, the Macintosh, which refers to Orwell’s book.



3. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Published in 1932, this book also imagines a future totalitarian society, called the World State, set in the year 2540. Reproductive technology, sleep-learning, and psychological techniques have completely transformed life. Society has been engineered into different ‘castes’ that perform various levels of tasks. Bernard Marx, a member of the Alpha caste, works in the Directorate of Hatcheries. He gets mocked because he is a bit different from other Alphas. Things do not go well for him after he becomes the guardian of a ‘savage’ boy.

Here’s a song based on Huxley’s book (“You are planned and you are damned in this brave new world”).



4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

The book, published in 1962, is a crime story set in the near future in London. The protagonist, the 15-year-old Beethoven-loving Alex, and his ‘droogs’ (friends) hang out at the Korova Milk Bar, drinking ‘milk plus’, skip school, and commit violent crimes. Alex ends up in jail, where he becomes the subject of a ‘corrective’ psychological experiment that ‘cures’ him… sort of. Below is a trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s film A Clockwork Orange, originally released in 1972 (the film is not recommended for viewers below 18 years of age).



5. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This 1985 novel is set in what might be the year 2005. A totalitarian theocracy called the Republic of Gilead replaces the US government. Fueled by religious fanaticism, the new regime swiftly reorganizes society along militarized and hierarchical lines. The state is able to quickly take away women’s rights, because financial records are stored electronically and labelled by gender. The central character, Offred, is a rare exception in a society that does not allow women to read. She is a ‘handmaid’ – a woman whose task it is to bear children because they are fertile in an age when pollution and disease have lowered fertility rates. Offred ends up doing the unthinkable: developing what we in our world would call ‘relationships’.  

Here’s a short video about the Hulu series, which premieres next month.



6. The Lorax by Dr. Seuss

This book is for small children, so it does not seem as ominous as the others. But the story, written in 1971, is not cutesy either – it’s about economics, greed, and environmental destruction. A small boy living in a polluted area visits a strange old man called the Once-ler, and for the price of 15 cents, a nail, and the shell of a great-great-great grandfather snail, he gets to hear an astonishing story. The Once-ler tells of his arrival in beautiful valley full of fabulous Truffula trees. He chops one down and uses its foliage to knit a garment called a Thneed. The Lorax appears from the tree stump and speaks up against the Thneed and the destruction of the tree. But the Once-ler, who finds a customer, starts a Thneed business, and as it grows, the forest and its beautiful creatures disappear.

Here's the trailer of the movie released in 2012.



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