BOOK REVIEW: A dystopian novel that’s even more relevant than 1984!
“INDIVIDUTOPIA: A novel set in a neoliberal dystopia” by Joss Sheldon
Dystopian novels used to be so simple: There was a big state or dictator, who had subjected the entire planet. And there was the protagonist, the one person whose eyes were open, and who wanted to escape from this hellish future…
It was tried and tested. It worked for George Orwell, Ayn Rand and Aldous Huxley. Why change it?
There’s a simple answer to this question: Because our world changed. Over the last forty years we’ve seen almost all the big communist states fall, we’ve seen dictatorships replaced by democracies, and we’ve seen the rise of free-market fundamentalism in the West.
Dystopian novels, whilst set in the future, are designed to reflect the present. They offer a disturbing glance into a world that will come about, sooner rather than later, if we continue on in the direction we’re heading. When our world changes, so should the genre.
That’s why Joss Sheldon’s new novel, Individutopia, is so relevant. Unlike the great works that came before it, it doesn’t contain a big state or dictator. It’s set in a neoliberal dystopia; a world in which there is no such thing as society, no-one talks or looks at anyone else, and everyone competes to be the best. Everyone has become their own dictator. Everyone has created their own big state to suppress themselves.
The year is 2084, and every asset in the land has been monopolized by a tiny number of oligarchs. People have to pay to speak, walk and breathe. Workers rights and minimum wages have become a thing of the past. The population must compete, on a daily basis, to find whatever piecework they can, but the wages they earn do not cover their cost of living. And so they are caught in a never-ending spiral of debt, which keeps them subservient.
You can see this theme in our world today: Wages are stagnating and living costs are rising. Mortgages, student loans and credit card debts often force people to continue in jobs they dislike, for fear they might lose their homes and possessions.
And here comes another theme you might recognize: Even though the situation seems hopeless, people in Individutopia still have hope. They’re so in love with themselves, taking selfies at every moment, they believe they will repay their debt, buy a home and become rich, no matter how unlikely that might seem. In the shadow of an ever-present screen, which broadcasts their rankings in thousands of corporate charts, and cheered on by their avatars (reflections of themselves), they take antidepressants whenever they hear anything negative, and focus on the positive. They keep going, convinced they’ll succeed. They don’t try to break free or challenge the corporatocracy.
Now world building is one thing. All the great dystopian novels submerge us in a world which is both familiar and futuristic, relevant and disturbing. Individutopia does that too. But where this novel succeeds, where others may flounder, is in it’s ability to spin a riveting yarn. There are a couple of big twists you won’t see coming, and a couple of smaller ones which will probably take you by surprise. It takes a while for the reader to get to know the book’s protagonist, Renee Ann Blanca, but once we’ve immersed ourselves into her world the book really takes off. We experience a Kafka-esque slide into depression and anxiety, as Renee does battle with her mind. We learn to hate her, then love her, then question her, and then cheer her on as she tries to break free. It’s fast-paced — an adventure in its own right. It’s full of mental and physical challenges. And those twists! Well, they keep on coming.
As relevant as any dystopian novel before it, Individutopia is one of those books you’ll want to read again and again. You’ll take something new from it each time you do, scratch your head, and say “Oh… Yeah… Oh yeah!”