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There was a time when post-apocalyptic fiction was all the rage, you have your Young Adult novels that imagined a world after a world-spanning disaster, the staple zombie flicks that can either be slow, clumsy, and mindless swarms or utterly frightening and near-indestructible runners. There’s also a couple of books and movies that tried selling a future where humanity lost, either to apes, to artificial intelligence, or to benevolent space-conquerors that simply wanted to help humans transcend beyond… but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The novels that we have now are those of a dystopian nature. Here, antagonists clearly show how right the protagonists were in revolting against them, or at least, attempting to. These novels were all set in authoritarian hellholes with governments that were as monstrous as they got.
If you were reborn into these dystopias, we’re pretty sure that you’ll have absolutely no choice but defiance even if it would mean your eventual imprisonment and/or death. Especially considering how inept, inutile, and evil their governments or ruling classes were.
If you’ve only watched the movies and skipped the books, we’d advise that you start reading them right away. While the movies were good, nothing would compare to the world-building that happens in the novels. Indeed, this is true for all novels with movie adaptations, some elements of the world-building get lost, leaving the viewers, especially those watching the series for the first time, a bit confused.
Anyway, the novels were set in a post-apocalyptic country, called Panem, which was divided into districts. We weren’t really sure what happened to the world before the creation of Panem but the country’s name is a bit on the nose – “panem et circences” is a Latin phrase that means bread and circuses, pertaining to generating public approval through food and entertainment or diversions. And that is exactly what happens during the annual Hunger Games – tributes from the subservient districts would be selected to literally fight to the death.
Imagine the dread of having to go through the “Reaping” every year, anyone between the ages of 12 and 18 can be selected. Their spots can only be taken by volunteers which is quite rare. It was also televised and watching was mandatory for everyone so you’d have to see on the big screen the horrors that the tributes (which may be someone you know) would go through. The first major rebellion was defeated and resulted to the institution of The Hunger Games to show the other districts that resistance is futile.
Quote: “For there to be betrayal, there would have to have been trust first.”
Animal Farm by George Orwell
A satirical critique of authoritarianism, this classic is a perfect example of how the formerly oppressed becomes the new oppressor once achieving absolute power. The downtrodden animals at the farm rose up against their abusive owner, driving him out of the farm and establishing a utopia for all animals. Sounds quite a happy ending right? Well, keep reading.
Once in power, the pigs reneged on the old tenets of “Animalism,” enjoying the perks of being in charge of the farm. The similarities were very uncanny for anyone familiar with the Russian Revolution of 1917 (the October Revolution, to be exact). The suddenly classless society was thrust with a new ruling intelligentsia – the Bolsheviks. In the book, it was the pigs that established themselves as the ruling class in Animal Farm.
Bit by bit, the pigs began changing the rules that were initially established, drawing an eerie parallel to the habit of oppressive regimes to revise history and gaslight their people. Were the animals better off after the revolution than before? Perhaps, perhaps not. Like what Benjamin, a donkey, said, “Life will go on as it has always gone on – that is, badly." It turned out that the animals just substituted another abusive ruler for another. However, life certainly couldn’t have been better for the ruling pigs.
Quote: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”
1984 by George Orwell
Honestly, this is probably the most terrifying of the lot. Every tiny bit of hope that the reader might have developed while reading the first few chapters got pummeled into oblivion with each passing revelation. It was like drowning but you can’t get enough of it, like Winston and Julia, you’d be hoping for something, anything at the end. Like them, you’d get none.
If you haven’t read the book yet, be warned, SPOILER ALERT. While Winston and Julia were eventually caught and were both tortured to breaking point by state agents (and betrayed each other in the process), and their supposed salvation in the form of the calculating O’Brien turned out to be nothing but a ruse, their fates were better than the numbing inertia that the majority of the citizens of Oceania were experiencing every day.
Continuously lied to, manipulated, and under state surveillance and supervision for every second of their lives, the citizens of Oceania were nothing more than warm bodies that the government needs to throw into their never-ending wars with the other two oppressive superpowers, Eastasia and Eurasia. Records were periodically altered to reflect the present political reality, children were encouraged to denounce or spy on their parents, everyone was goaded, coerced, ordered, and brainwashed to profess their undying love to Big Brother.
Quote: “Until they become conscious they will never rebel, and until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
Fatherland by Robert Harris
This novel was what got us started on the genre of alternate history – an exercise in creativity and probability while imagining a different outcome for vital historical events. In this novel, Nazi Germany won the war in Europe while the United States still triumphed over Japan in the Pacific. The main character is a German police officer who gradually discovered the genocide or systematic and industrial murder of people of Jewish descent that Nazi Germany did in the war.
While March, the police officer, was investigating a couple of high-profile murders, it quickly became apparent that someone was silencing the men who planned the Holocaust. This was also in the backdrop of the first presidential visit of an American president to Nazi Germany, signaling a normalization of relations. This was similar to what President Nixon did in the 1970s with Mao Zedong’s Communist China. SPOILER ALERT, March was killed in the end but Charlie, the American journalist he was with, managed to smuggle the documents proving the genocide to neutral Switzerland. It was actually telling that March decided to make a last stand at the site of what was once Auschwitz.
The Germans were victorious alright but their victory was dampened by a never-ending war with the defeated Russians (like a Vietnam War-analogue). Caskets were flown in at night while the colonies that the Germans established in what was once Eastern Europe were always in fear of rebels and partisans who have nothing to lose. Everyone that was not “Aryan” or Aryan-looking were treated nothing more than slaves of the German master race.
Quote: “What do you do if you devote your life to discovering criminals, and it gradually occurs to you that the real criminals are the people you work for? What do you do when everyone tells you not to worry, you can’t do anything about it, it was a long time ago?’ She was looking at him in a different way. ‘I suppose you go crazy.’ ‘Or worse. Sane.”
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
A terrifying tale of an extremely misogynistic society where women are treated as nothing more than property, The Handmaid’s Tale is a lesson on a society’s complicity and the tendency of people, women in this novel, to accept oppression in return for tiny morsels of power that the state grants them. The women in this novel largely accepted the new status quo even though they are the most victimized, being reduced to vehicles of reproduction.
We were initially reluctant to include this novel because the main protagonist, Offred, was a passive figure, especially when measured against some of the secondary characters who were active members of the rebellion against the Republic of Gilead, the theocratic state that replaced the United States of America through a violent coup that left the former president and members of Congress dead.
Left with a dangerously low birthrate, the new authoritarian state wasted no time in cracking down on women’s rights, essentially stripping them of any. The few fertile women were classified as “handmaids” after the biblical story of Rachel and her handmaid, Bilhah. They were assigned to commanders to produce children for them. Their names were also from the men they were given to – of + name, like Offred (of Commander Fred) and Ofglen (of Commander Glen).
Quote: “We lived, as usual, by ignoring. Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it. Nothing changes instantly: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.”
While we can all agree that these protagonists or simply the people (or animals) living in these settings have nothing to lose, thus perfectly reasonable for them to revolt, we must keep in mind what led them to those circumstances. Greed and fear often lead to war, and with all the weapons of mass destruction in the world, the chickens are bound to come home to roost. Genuinely terrified citizens that think sacrificing individual rights on the altar of security and safety will later on find out that enabling a totalitarian regime will be the last mistake they’ll ever do in their lives. Vanguard groups seeking to correct social injustices can be as oppressive and monstrous as the former regime once given absolute power. The list goes on.
But still, we digress. The history of the human race is replete with the same story of oppression and revolution and counter-revolution. The only thing constant is resistance. No matter how powerful the oppressors are, how difficult the odds, there will always be a disparate group of people who are intent on changing things for the better. Or, at the very least, effect change. And if, once achieving change, they wake up one morning to a horrifying realization that the change they signed up for turned out to be inept, inutile, and evil, the cycle just continues.
Archieval Mariano is a self-styled digital storyteller.