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Beyond 1984: 12 dystopian novels from the New East that are eerily relatable today

Beyond 1984: 12 dystopian novels from the New East that are eerily relatable today

Nearly 70 years after it was first published, George Orwell's 1984, originally written as a warning against Stalinist Russia and the rise of totalitarian police states, is more popular than ever. Yet the Soviet Union has its own legacy of dystopian novels, some even more twisted and prophetic

28 February 2017

George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) made it back onto the bestsellers lists earlier this year, exactly a week after Donald Trump’s inauguration. While some note that it might be wrong to evaluate real life through the prism of books written over half a century ago, with the White House shifting towards an administration led by “alternative facts” and Brexit looming on the horizon, it is no surprise that people are turning to dystopian novels to make sense of things. For those who want to keep riding the dystopian wave, or are desperate for a reality alternative to this one, the New East has various kinds of doomsday stories to add to your reading list, from dishonest alien regimes to a “great wall” dividing the world.

We (1921)
Yevgeny Zamyatin

The Penguin Classics edition of Zamyatin’s <em>We</em>” src=”” style=“width: 318px; height: 484px;” /></p>

<p><em>We</em> is a Russian dystopian classic — George Orwell praised the book in his 1946 review in which he argued that Aldous Huxley’s <em>Brave New World</em> was partly derived from Zamyatin’s novel. While Huxley denied this, it’s known that Zamyatin was inspired by H.G. Wells’s <em>The Time Machine</em> — he translated Wells’s stories and edited his books in Russian. Zamyatin wrote <em>We </em>within a few years of the Russian Revolution in 1917, but it’s easy to draw comparisons between the book’s plot and today’s world. The One State, a country-like city where the main character resides, is separated from the rest of the world by a wall, and the citizens’ lives are fully regulated, all the way down to bodily functions. The book was banned in the Soviet Union and was first published in English in 1924.</p>

<p><span style=1985 (1983)
György Dalos

The Pantheon Books edition of György Dalos’s <em>1985</em>” src=”” style=“width: 318px; height: 465px;” /></strong></span></p>

<p><em>1985</em>, as the name suggests, is a follow-up to Orwell’s <em>Nineteen Eighty-Four</em>, subtitled <em>What Happens When Big Brother Dies</em>. After Big Brother’s death, Oceania plunges into chaos, and this novel, written in the style of a historical essay, follows the country’s restoration to a normal life under a “thawed” regime, later revealed to be, in some ways, just as dystopian as before. Featuring guns that fire at people who don’t smile — a critique on consumer culture — the book is a dark but funny sequel to Orwell’s novel. György Dalos, who was a member of a movement opposing the Communist Party in his native Hungary, was banned in 1968 from publishing books there for 19 years.</p>

<p><span style=The Dictator: A Story of Ak and Humanity (1919)
Yefim Zozulya

<em>1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution</em> by Penguin Random House” src=”” style=“width: 318px; height: 488px;” /></p>

<p>This short story was published well before Zamyatin’s <em>We</em>, in a literary magazine in 1919. It features a city governed by a democratically elected Commission of Highest Determination, which one day announces that it will be verify which citizens have “the right to live”. Those who aren’t found “necessary” for life will have to appeal or “leave life” in 24 hours. A panic ensues over fundemental human rights while some people are happy to get rid of the “human garbage”. The story was translated into English and is included in Pushkin Press and Penguin Random House’s <a href=1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution.

The Letter Killers Club (1926)
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
The New York Review Books Classics edition of Krzhizhanovsky’s <em>Letter Killers Club</em>” src=”” style=“width: 318px; height: 517px;” /></p>

<p>Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky was born to a Polish family in Kiev at the end of the 19th century but spent most of his life in Russia. None of his books were published in his lifetime, however literary fame found him after his death and since then he has often been referred to as the Soviet Kafka or Borges. <em>The Letter Killers Club</em> is an absurd, phantasmagorical and paranoid tale of a group that is committed to the idea that words have too much power. Set in 1920s Moscow, the novella takes the usual authoritarian motivation behind destroying books and turns it inside out — to the members of <em>The Letter Killers Club</em> the alphabet and written word confine concepts and ideas, limiting knowledge to what we can write down. The book was published in English by New York Review Books Classics.</p>

<p><span style=Memories Of the Future (1926-30)
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

The New York Review Books Classics edition of Krzhizhanovsky’s <em>Memories of the Future</em>” src=”” style=“width: 318px; height: 525px;” /></p>

<p>Like <em>The Letter Killers Club</em>, <em>Memories of the Future</em> never saw the light of day during the author’s lifetime or even in Soviet times until 1989. The book, also published in English by NYRBC, is a collection of Kafkaesque tales, claustrophobic, philosophical, funny and sometimes painfully and metaphorically relevant even today: from twisted morals, to a “small person’s” helplessness in an authoritarian regime.</p>

<p><span style=Eden (1959)
Stanisław Lem
The Helen & Kurt Wolff Book edition of Lem’s <em>Eden</em>” src=”” style=“width: 327px; height: 499px;” /></p>

<p>Written by the Polish author of <em>Solaris</em>, <em>Eden</em> is a chilling space exploration novel about a dystopian and unknown world. The main characters of the book are aboard a spaceship that crashes onto a strange planet that’s home to an alien world, which the crew struggles to make sense of. The alien authorities are anonymous and deny their own existence, and are thus invincible — you can’t place blame on a regime that isn’t there. The authorities’ lies, fear-mongering and genocide are all central themes, and many say that Lem drew the inspiration from his own experience of living under the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland and the Nazi occupation for the book’s plot.</p>

<p><span style=Chevengur (1928-29)
Andrei Platonov
The Ann Arbor: Ardis edition of Platonov’s <em>Chevengur</em>” src=”” style=“width: 318px; height: 501px;” /></p>

<p>The novel is set sometime in the 1920s in the south of Russia, in the fictional town of Chevengur where citizens are convinced that a communist heaven is about to descend. Because of that, no work is being done in the city as the citizens forage for food in preparation for the imminent proletariat paradise, as the “enemy elements” of the bourgeoisie are destroyed “both mentally and physically”. <em>Chevengur</em> and <em>The Foundation Pit</em>, another classic dystopia written by the author, combine elements of social realism, surrealism and dystopia. Platonov published his works during his lifetime and was heavily criticised by Stalin who, upon reading one of Platonov’s short stories, called him “a talented writer but a bastard”.</p>

<p><span style=War With the Newts (1936)
Karel Čapek

Czech writer Karel Čapek is one of the country’s most acclaimed science fiction writers. In War of the Newts the author satirically explores every sphere of human civilisation, including colonialism, racism, capitalism and fascism, through a story centred on the discovery and subsequent enslavement of an intelligent breed of newts. One of the book’s obvious, and some say painfully relevant, messages is that humanity itself instigates the downfall of the human race. Čapek, who has been nominated for Nobel Prize in Literature several times, is internationally recognised as the writer who initially popularised the use of the word “robot”. The novel, first published in 1937, is considered a science fiction classic, and is published in English by S.F. Masterworks and Penguin Modern Classics.

The Absolute At Large (1922)
Karel Čapek

The Bison Books edition of Čapek’s <em>The Absolute at Large</em>” src=”” style=“width: 318px; height: 484px;” /></p>

<p>Another satirical novel by Karel Čapek, <em>The Absolute at Large</em> looks at the ethics of human progress, mass production and nuclear energy. Set in 1943 (it was written and published in 1922), the novel follows the story of a brilliant scientist who invents a source that produces large amounts of almost-free energy by annihilating matter. However, it also releases “the absolute”, a by-product with unknown consequences, into the world. The absolute drives the world population into a religious and nationalist fervour, forcing humanity into an absurd world war. It also produces material goods in excessive amounts, dropping the price of everything to zero and sending the planet into economic collapse. </p>

<p><span style=Squaring the Circle: A Pseudotreatise of Urbogony Fantastic Tales (1969)
Gheorghe Săsărman

The Aqueduct Press edition of Săsărman’s <em>Squaring the Circle</em>” src=”” style=“width: 318px; height: 411px;” /></strong></span></p>

<p>This unconventional collection of short stories, which takes the form of a travel guide to imaginary cities, is a sharp social commentary. Although the format might remind some readers of Italo Calvino’s<em> Invisible Cities</em>, Săsărman said in the introduction to the French edition of <em>Squaring the Circle</em> that he started writing his first stories before Calvino’s novel was published in 1972: “It was the autumn of 1969, a year after the Russian tanks invaded Prague, an invasion openly condemned by Ceauşescu, a time when many people, not only in Bucharest, believed (what a mistake!) that Romania was evolving towards democracy.” </p>

<p><span style=The Old Axolotl: Hardware Dreams (2015)
Jacek Dukaj

The Allegro edition of Dukaj’s<em>The Old Axolotl: Hardware Dreams</em>” src=”” style=“width: 318px; height: 426px;” /></p>

<p>Published just two years ago, this post-apocalyptic novel by Polish writer Jacek Dukaj became every sci-fi fan’s favourite practically overnight. It is set in the future when all living things on Earth have died as a result of a mysterious cataclysm, save for a handful of humanswho have only managed to survive by making digital copies of their mind and uploading them onto hardware. Without physical bodies they can only exist by taking over other robotic forms — as medical machines, industrial robots, military drones and Japanese sexbots. The world populated by robots is ironically overcome with nostalgia for the humans whose minds they are controlled by. They create and destroy civilisations, come up with new ideologies and religions, all in a progress so endless that it turns into stagnation. </p>

<p><span style=Day of the Oprichnik (2006)
Vladimir Sorokin

The Farrar, Straus and Giroux of Sorokin’s <em>Day of the Oprichnik</em>” src=”” style=“width: 318px; height: 479px;” /></strong></span></p>

<p>The novel is set in 2028, a near future when the Russian Empire has been restored but is cut off from Europe by a “Great Wall”. The novel follows a day in the life of an <em>oprichnik</em> – a government henchman whose name comes from a violent <a href=secret police organisation founded by Ivan the Terrible. In the new Russian Empire, the brutal practices of the Ivan the Terrible period are performed with new technologies like rayguns, creating a unique dystopian reality that is also heavily seasoned with Soviet-era references. Day of the Oprichink is a relatively new novel – it was initially published in Russian in 2006, and in English in 2010.

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