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The writer admits she is not particularly keen on dystopian novels, because they are a) depressing and b) fictional in a way that creates distance between characters and reader. (Distance that is welcome given these novels' chilling settings, but the writer likes to feel close enough to the characters that she could conceivably swap places with them.)

However, given the recent NSA document leak and its revelations about the organization's extensive, untargeted personal data collection habits, the writer is reminded that dystopian novels provide a public service. 

The writer feels the following are tops for Cassandra-style anti-surveillance state warnings. Read one if ever your skepticism and attachment to personal privacy begins to wane. 

5. A Wrinkle in Time

By: Madeline L'Engle

Deets: Social outcast Meg Murray, her younger, uber-precocious brother Charles Wallace, and her possible love-interest Calvin travel through space and time on a mission to find Meg's scientist father. The children are accompanied by another, supernatural trio, Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, former stars who combusted fighting The Black Thing, a massive, evil black cloud. The Mrs W's are capable of tessering, or wrinkling time, which is what Dr. Murray was researching when he vanished. After tessering to a happy planet, Uriel, where they see the Black Thing has partially covered the earth, the group goes on to planet that has been entirely covered by Black Thing. This planet is Camacotz, and it is ruled by a telepathic disembodied brain, IT. Thanks to IT's powers, everything and everyone on Camazotz is exactly the same--everyone that is except for Dr. Murray, who is being held prisoner in a transparent cylinder. Meg manages to get through to her father, and he tessers her and Calvin away to another planet, but Charles Wallace, who has already fallen under IT's reach, is left behind. In the end, it's up to Meg to use an innate gift to save her brother. 

The writer last read A Wrinkle in Time, oh, at least fifteen years ago, but man, the memory of Camazotz's creepy conformityville and that pulsating brain has stayed with her. 

Read it.


4. We

By: Yevgeny Zamyatin

Deets: Remember Camazotz? One State is like that, only with an evil governing body (the Benefactor) instead of an evil brain. Every action a citizen, sorry, number of One State might take is governed by the Table of Hours, resulting in a largely thoughtless e pluribus unum. While the Benefactor prepares to conquer outer space, the number D-503, an engineer in charge of building the spaceship, decides to document his thoughts on the days leading up to the launch. D-503 has been assigned a lore, 0-90, but he finds himself falling for the iconoclastic I-330. 1-330 takes D-503 to the Ancient House, a museum at the edge of the Wall that houses artifacts from long ago. The experience unlocks new feelings and thoughts in D-503, and he becomes unwittingly entangled in a plot to overthrow the One State. 

We has a lot of things going for it, particularly its mathematically-influenced, epistolary format and the naiveté of its narrator. It predates Brave New World by a decade, and as such is considered the grandaddy of dystopician fiction. 

Read it.

3. Neuromancer

By: William Gibson

Deets: Cyberspace is a virtual world of 3D data, which humans can legally jack in to and navigate. Case is a former database hacker rendered unable to hack after his employer injected him with a Russian mycotoxin as revenge for theft. A shadowy employer, represented by a frontman who goes by Armitrage, restores Case's nervous system in exchange for his hacking skills. Case, accompanied by mirror-eyed street samurai Molly, sociopath thief Peter Riviera, and Armitrage, follows breadcrumbs to an orbiting AI called Wintermute, which is the creation of Tessier-Ashpool, a super-rich dynasty who also built an second AI, Neuromancer, to get around the Turing Law Code. As it turns out, ol' Wintermute itself is Armitrage's employer, and it needs the ragtag gang to unite it with Neuromancer. 

Gibson's novel, fittingly published in 1984, is the first of the cyberpunk genre, and it predicted some cool innovations like the world wide web and cyberspace. It's not a surveillance state novel so much as a post-survelliance state one, in which corporations and cyberspace cowboys rule. 

Read it.

2. Discipline and Punish: the Birth of the Prison

By: Michel Foucault

Deets: Ok, this ain't no novel--though you're going to wish the opening scene were fiction. Foucault traces the changing attitude towards punishment, from public, physical spectacle to hidden discipline. One might think this shift is a positive (certainly seems better than drawing and quartering!), but it also renders punishment abstract, out of the public conscious, and thus frees justice from the responsibility of carrying it out and any ensuing repercussions. The whole of it makes for a very compelling argument against our current prison industrial complex (if you needed one), but I wanted to spotlight an architectural surveillance structure called the Panopticon, which is both reality and theory. First introduced by Jeremy Bentham, the physical Panopticon is a windowed tower that is placed in the center of a ring of cells, which have two windows that align with those of the tower, so that each prisoner is backlit and exposed in the watchman's periphery, but invisible to one another. Foucault's theory is that by decentralizing surveillance and making it constant, the Panopticon fosters a self-disciplining society. 

You can extend the physical Panopticon to other institutions where observation is needed; you can also extend Panopticism beyond the physical to the electronic and technological, which, one might well argue, is what PRISM represents. 

Read it.  


1. 1984

By: George Orwell

Deets: In 1984, the superstate of Oceania is ruled by a nearly omniscient government that keeps its people in perpetual states of warfare, hunger, torture, and deception under the guises of peace, plenty, love, and truth. Thanks to doublethink and fear of thoughtcrime repercussions, most citizens don't question the Party, but the novel's protagonist does. Winston Smith is a news revisionist for the state's paper, charged with rewriting news in accordance with the party line, and as such has insight into the true past. Eventually Winston's search for truth leads to he and his equally anti-party girlfriend's capture by the Thought Police, and after bouts of interrogation and torture, both denounce the other and accept the Party's definition of reality. 

Orwell's novel, published in 1949, is probably the best known and most read dystopic work of all time, and has enriched our lexicon with a slew of surveillance society terms like thoughtcrime, Big Brother, and doublethink. 

Read it.

 

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