The best dystopian books warn us of an undesirable future that seems far too likely for our peace of mind. The most famous examples are 1984 and Brave New World and while these are very important books, both have sexual content that make them problematic to discuss in a high school setting.
But there are fantastic alternatives that are every bit as challenging and thought-provoking and yet don’t bring in the sexual content. The most “explicit” of the three below is Time Will Run Back in which sex is mentioned but only in the context of the government mandate that no one can pair up for longer than a month, lest they form familial bonds that compete with the bonds they should have to the State. Nothing titillating here.
What we’re left with are provocative PG-rated stories and that’ll allow parents and teens to enjoy and discuss them together.
by Joseph Bayly
1981 / 216 pages
In this dystopian novel, Joseph Bayly takes us to a not-so-distant future in which abortion for disabled children is mandatory, euthanasia is compulsory soon after 75, and Christians are so confused about Romans 13 they think God wants them to submit to even these demands.
When Jonathan and Grace Stanton’s six-year-old son Stephen falls off his bike, they don’t know what to do. The fall was minor, but their son has hemophilia and he needs treatment. But the law says he shouldn’t exist: had his condition been diagnosed prenatally the State would have required that he be aborted. Stephen survived only because he mother never visited a doctor during her pregnancy, and when the time came a friend helped her have a home birth. Now the Stanton’s wonder what the State might do, even six years later, if they bring their son in to see a doctor. Do they dare find out?
Winterflight was written almost 40 years ago, but it got my heart racing – it all seemed far too probable for my liking. Abortion is already being used to “cure” genetic disabilities like Down Syndrome and while it isn’t mandatory, pressure from doctors and culture are such that in some countries 98% of Down Syndrome children are killed before birth.
When it comes to killing the elderly, we don’t demand their deaths at 75, but we are already exploring the cost savings that can be had from their early departure. In countries where euthanasia has been legal longer, there are regular reports of involuntary killings. In Canada, attempts are already being made to make involvement on some level mandatory for all doctors.
But what hits closest to home is Bayly’s portrayal of the confused Christian response to these government abuses. When Grace’s elderly father is told he must report soon to be euthanized, their misunderstanding of Scripture has them thinking that they need to obey the governing authorities even in this, since those authorities are appointed by God (Romans 13:1). But at the same time, in saving their son, the Stantons show that on some level they do understand we must sometimes defy the State.
Is their confusion realistic? We’d never march ourselves off to the local euthanasia clinic just because the government demanded it. But why would we resist? Do we understand on what biblical basis we could reject such demands from the “governing authorities”? During World War II there was confusion on this point among some good Reformed Dutchmen. Among those who joined the Resistance, some felt guilty about it because they were worried that in acting against the Nazis they were resisting God’s chosen rulers.
The confusion persists today. Even as we know the government shouldn’t mandate euthanasia – even as we recognize that there are limits to their power – many Christians will still turn to the government asking it to solve our problems. We understand the government has limits, and yet we’ll also ask them to do more and more. We are confused.
And that’s what makes this book such a fantastic read – the discussion it’ll prompt is one we need to have.
There are just a couple cautions to note. First, there is a small bit of language – I think “damn” might be used two or three times.
Second, without giving away the ending, when the book was first published some Christians misunderstood the ending as being prescriptive – they thought the actions of the book’s confused Christians were what we should do. So it’s important to understand that’s not so. These are confused Christians, under enormous pressure, acting in a confused way and the author is not endorsing their actions. In fact, the book is primarily about warning us not to do as they do.
This is a fantastic dystopian novel, as prophetic as they come, and certainly unlike any other Christian fiction you’ve read.
The topic matter is weighty, but because there’s nothing graphic this could be appropriate for as young as early teens. However the younger a reader might be, the more they’ll need a guide to steer their interaction with the story, and particularly the not-at-all happy ending. It would also make great book club material, with fodder for some fantastic discussions.
TIME WILL RUN BACK
by Henry Hazlitt
368 pages / 1951
As novels go, this is intriguing. As economics textbooks go it is downright amazing.
In Time Will Run Back author Henry Hazlitt envisions a future in which the communists won and have been in power for more than 100 years. As Henry Hazlitt himself acknowledges, his novel bears some similarities to 1984 (published two years earlier) since both take place in a dystopian future in which the government manages every aspect of citizens’ lives. But Hazlitt didn’t read 1984 until after he had finished the first draft of his own book, so no plagiarism was involved. Instead, as Hazlitt puts it, authors like Orwell, Aldous Huxley (and his Brave New World) and himself were:
plagiarizing from the actual nightmare created by Lenin, Hitler and Stalin….All the writers had done was to add a few logical extensions not yet generally foreseen.
In Hazlitt’s envisioned future the government has not only taken over the capitalist West, but they’ve wiped away any memory of capitalism, even editing Karl Marx’s books so that no one could deduce from them what sort of economic system it was that Marx was writing against.
Into this setting Hazlitt places the ultimate outsider. The world dictator’s son, Peter Uldanov, has grown up far away from his father, isolated on a Bahama island. When his mother and father split, he agreed to let her take Peter, so long as she agreed not to teach Peter anything about history, politics or economics. So when the world dictator calls his now adult son to Moscow and informs Peter that he is to succeed his father as dictator, father first has to bring son up to speed in these three key areas.
Peter’s education takes up the first third of the book, though there is some palace-intrigue as well: the second-ranking member of the ruling Politburo is eager to see Peter dead, but doesn’t want to be caught doing the deed.
…and Screwtape Letters
This first third bears more than a passing resemblance to C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, with Peter’s teacher filling the role of the elder Screwtape explaining to his younger devilish charge why they do things the way they do them. For example, at one point Politburo member Adams and Orlov, the editor of the world’s state-approved and only remaining newspaper, explain to Peter how what is carried in the paper has nothing to do with the truth, but instead has to do with what is useful for the masses to hear. It turns out “what is useful” can be hard to determine.
“It is for the Politburo to decide, for example, whether we shall say that the production record is very bad, in order to exhort and sting everyone to greater output; or whether we shall say that it is very good, in order to show how well the regime is doing and to emphasize the blessing of living under it.”
“These decisions are sometimes very difficult,” Adams put in. “We often find that a zigzag course is best. For example, if goods are shoddy and fall apart, or if too many size nine shoes are made and not enough size eight, or if people cannot get enough to eat, there may be grumbling and complaints – or silent dissatisfaction. We must make sure that this unrest does not turn against the regime itself.”
“Therefore,” said Orlov, “we must lead the complaints. We must ourselves pick scapegoats to denounce and punish.”
In the middle third of the novel Peter takes on the role of the ultimate benevolent dictator. He wants to help his citizens, so he tries desperately to figure out ways to make socialism work. He has the help of his country’s greatest minds, and near absolute power, so he is in the best sort of situation to make it work. But try as he might, they can’t make it work.
The biggest trouble Peter keeps running into is trying to figure out the value of what they are making. They have no money (since no one buys anything, but is instead given what they need) so they can’t use price to calculate how valuable one product might be compared to another. And if they can’t calculate value, then they also can’t determine if the country is producing more overall this year vs. the last. Sheer tonnage is one proposed measure – that could use that to compare how much grain they grew from one year to the next. But even this falls short, because grain can come in different qualities. How then should they evaluate things if one year more grain is produced but of a lower quality, and in another year there is less but of a higher quality? Which was the better year?
After ruling out tonnage as a helpful means of measuring output, one alternative after another is proposed only to have the shortcomings of each then exposed. The alert reader will see where this is leading: what this socialistic economy lacks are markets in which the value of a product is assessed by consumers as a whole.
In the final third of the book Peter gets more desperate and more radical in his efforts to make real improvements and give citizens real freedom, and he ends up discovering some economic principles that really help: open competition, property ownership, and the rigorous prosecution of cheats and swindlers. To help his citizens he is forced to invent capitalism!
Though the book is most obviously about communism, the warning Hazlitt offers here – that freedom and prosperity cannot co-exist with an economic system that prioritizes equality of distribution – is directly applicable to communism’s democratic twin, socialism.
This book sat on my shelf unread for many years because I didn’t believe a world-renown economist could also be a credible novelist. I was wrong. There is a conversation here and there that gets bogged down by the economic lesson Hazlitt is trying to teach, but overall this is not just readable, but engaging and entertaining, able to stand up to comparisons with 1984 and Brave New World, which themselves are not read for their wonderful prose, but rather for their insightful investigations of human nature in the face of tyranny. So this is a readable, intriguing and important novel with a few slow bits. And as an economics textbook, there is none better – Hazlitt makes a strong and compelling case for the free market.
The e-book can be had for free here.
by Lois Lowry
1993 / 208 pages
The Giver is a book that is not specifically Christian, but has been studied in Christian schools and is stocked in our Christian school library. Why?
Lois Lowry’s novel is a brilliant dystopia – a vision of the future where things have gone horribly wrong. What makes it so brilliant is that in the brief space of a children’s novel, Lowry shows, as dystopian novels always do, how the desire to make a utopia leads to disaster.
The original Utopia (which literally means “no-place”), by Thomas More (an English Catholic writing around the time of the Reformation), is a vision of an ideal, perfectly regulated society, where people live their lives with leisure and work balanced, and the wealth is fairly shared among all. All these features are appealing, but given human nature, any attempt to build society through regulation will result in the stomping out of individuality and the oppressive power of whatever authority we trust to organize everything. Basically, there is a kind of idolatry of human systems and power. Of course, we know that idols always disappoint, and idols always demand horrible sacrifices.
That’s what’s going on in The Giver. Lowry builds up a picture of an ideal, well-organized society where everyone has his or her specific role set by 12 years old. All the angst of adolescence in our society has been taken care of through this selection of each person’s career by the community, as well as by the suppression of the disruptive disturbance of teenage hormones. The result is a village in which there is no significant crime; in which each person is given a specific role and, in return, has all his or her needs are met from cradle to grave by the community; and in which both the physical storms and emotional storms have been subdued by technology.
This “sameness,” as the narrator calls it, has been maintained for generations. Even the memory of the relative chaos of our own society has been wiped out, but the elders of the village have ensured that the past is not entirely lost, so that in the event of crisis, the elders can learn from it. This is where the main character, Jonas, comes in. At twelve years old, he is given the unique role of the Receiver of the community. What does he receive? The memories of the village before the “sameness” – from the Giver.
Jonas’s unique knowledge enables him to see what a terrible place our own world is – with war and other suffering – but also what emotional ties like family and romantic love were lost with the oncoming of the “sameness.” His own crisis comes when he sees what sacrifices his seemingly utopian village demands to keep its stability.
Why would Christians want to read this? The Giver shows us both the beauty and the cost of human emotion and desire, but also the foolishness of playing God in trying to wipe both out by human power. What we need is not liberation from our own humanness, but liberation from the sin which has corrupted our humanness – by the death of Christ – and the redirection of our emotions and desire – by the work of the Spirit. Lowry may not explicitly put us before God’s throne, but she does a fine job of knocking down one of the idols that serve as a stumbling block blocking our view of His glory.