Dystopian novels are seeing a massive resurgence in popularity right now, due to the state of the political world we find ourselves living in. Novels written in the World War 2 era and during the Cold War have found relevance now more than ever before. We’re all digging out our old copies of Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid’s Tale, and finding ourselves struck by how they seem more like ordinary life than dystopian fiction. But the breadth of dystopian fiction goes way beyond Orwell, Huxley, Atwood, and Bradbury. There are authors from all across the globe (most notably East Asia) crafting their own takes on the dystopian novel.
The hypnotic thing about dystopian novels in translation, more than any other fiction in translation, is that these books are drawing from their own political histories, looking at how their unique politics, religions, laws, and customs could be taken to extremes very different from the ones envisioned by Orwell and Huxley. Translated literature is arguably at its most exciting and frightening within the genre of dystopian fiction. So, let’s take a look at eight of the best translated dystopian novels that are more relevant today than ever before.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Penguin Ed. translated from the Russian by Clarence Brown
Often Orwell is cited as truly carving out the genre of dystopian fiction, but he was in fact inspired by Zamyatin’s incredible Russian novel, We. Taking place a thousand years after the Russian Revolution, which Zamyatin had just lived through, trust in the system and the government is enforced by those known as The Benefactor and The Guardian, who liberally monitor ordinary citizens (sound familiar?). Taking this one step further, everyone lives in a home made of glass. Anyone who attempts to rebel through art or creativity is lobotomised by the government. We is a truly chilling tale and the true origin to the genre of dystopian fiction.
The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder
This brand new and thrilling Japanese dystopian novel by The Housekeeper and the Professor author Yoko Ogawa tells the story of an island where everything is at danger of disappearing. On any given day, something might disappear from existence – roses, perfume, ribbon, emeralds. And when they go, memories of them go, too. Those few people who can recall disappeared things are in danger of being abducted and killed by the mysterious and terrifying Memory Police. This book wonderfully and engagingly comments on the importance of remembering our history so that we don’t repeat it. Our memories and our history are what guide our futures. When they vanish, we become powerless. The Memory Police is pointing its finger at those nations whose governments control the media and what can be published, while also being a gripping and entertaining piece of translated literature.
City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun
Translated from the Korean by Sora-Kim Russell
In this best of the Korean dystopian novels, City of Ash and Red, the protagonist is quickly and inexplicably transferred by his company to a country only referred to as C. Upon arrival he finds the whole country drowning in disease and rubbish, with people being dragged into quarantine, and fear and distrust in the air. Any fan of Kafka will recognise parallels between this tale and more than one of old Franz’s, with the key link being an overwhelming feeling of confusion, fear, and frustration. Our protagonist seeks answers, but none are to be found. He wants to explain himself, but nobody will listen – nobody, in fact, cares.
IQ84 by Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Japan’s most beloved living author has here delivered his magnum opus: a giant epic usually divided into three books. 1Q84 takes its name from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (with the 9 switched for a Q because nine in Japanese sounds like Q – true story!) 1Q84 deals with some of the most harsh and unfair realities of our time: namely the abuse of women and children, and the prevalence, danger, and oppressive nature of religious cults. Murakami pulls no punches here in his long and detailed exploration of the evils of organised religion in the twentieth century, laden of course with his patented surrealism and distorted interpretation of reality.
The Day The Sun Died by Yan Lianke
Translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas
In The Day the Sun Died, Li Niannian is a fourteen-year-old son of a funeral director living in a village in central China. One night there occurs a “great somnambulism” wherein all the villagers begin dreamwalking, returning to work or acting out their fantasies in the dead of night. As seen from Li’s perspective, we the reader voyeuristically bear witness to the dreams-in-action of the individuals in the village. Darkly funny, darkly disturbing, Lianke writes with a hypnotic pace which maintains the tension that’s balanced on the edge of a knife.
The Last Children of Tokyo by Yoko Tawada
Translated from the Japanese by Margaret Mitsutani
In The Last Children of Tokyo, Yoshiro and Mumei exist in a Japan in which the cities have mostly been abandoned, ties with the outside world have been cut, all other languages are no longer taught or spoken. Many of the middle-aged people have moved to Okinawa, where they work on fruit farms which are almost completely the sole providers of food for the other islands of Japan. Tawada has, as all great dystopian writers must do, been true to her country. She has taken a real look at the trends, habits, and laws which define Japan, and she has bent and twisted them; not so far as to distort them, but far enough to see where they might lead if left unchecked.
The President’s Room by Ricardo Romero
Translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe
A delightfully eerie and Kafkaesque of dystopian novels, told by an unreliable narrator about a strange and uncanny place. In the suburb of a nameless town, every house has one room set aside for the president, if he comes to visit. Nobody can enter except the president – that is, if he ever visits. Our narrator is a small boy who questions this normality, but even he can’t be trusted. The President’s Room asks us to challenge the accepted norms when it comes to politics and our governments: the things expected of us, and the things we don’t question which, perhaps, we should. It’s a Kafkaesque story taken to a more heavily political and radical extreme, and a fantastic example of the breadth of incredible literature coming out of Latin America right now.
Edited by Basma Ghalayini
Palestine +100 is a collection of science fiction stories set around 2048, one hundred years after the Nakba. Unsurprisingly, all of them are heavily political, and each in its own way. The theme, subtext, and tone of each story is refreshingly individual, personal, and therefore refreshingly. Though time and again there’s a Black Mirror parallel to be drawn, what with every writer using the broad and interpretive basis of sci-fi to paint an often bleak, sometimes eerie, occasionally funny, and always clever vision of the near future of Palestine.
(The publishers of Palestine +100, Comma Press, also published the equally impressive Iraq +100)
Dark Constellations by Pola Oloixarac
Translated from the Spanish by Roy Kesey
Dark Constellations is one of those rare visionary dystopian novels that takes the genre to new heights, ultimately exploring and questioning humanity’s insatiable hunger for knowledge and complete control. It looks back at the 19th century golden age of scientific discovery, creates a time-bending science fiction tale which leads to a modern-day world of intense surveillance and control, as well as how science will ultimately advance the evolution of humanity itself. A book that almost defies genre, blending dystopian themes with science fiction and dark fantasy. Here, you’ll find elements of Aldous Huxley, William Gibson, Haruki Murakami and George Orwell, all merging together to create something larger than the sum of its parts.
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Further reading: The New York Times featured this engrossing story about how middle eastern authors are finding refuge in the dystopian novel.
Predominantly writes about the books of Books and Bao, examining the literature of a place and how the authors have used the art of storytelling to reflect the world and the culture around them.