Summer Reads: Dystopian Dreaming (Mad Max-Inspired)

Some consider the original Mad Max films to be the originators of the current post-apocalyptic aesthetic that’s now a familiar theme in film, literature and video games: the world becomes a dirty, gritty place and the real villains are the humans running amuck in the wake of large scale catastrophe and institutional collapse. If you’re like me, the adrenaline rush of seeing Mad Max: Fury Road left you with the desire for more dystopian action and it’s going to be a long wait for Mad Max: Wasteland. Since you’ve probably already seen Divergent and The Hunger Games, let me humbly suggest another way to get your apocalypse fix: a few great summer reads that share in the Mad Max spirit by being gritty, raw, or beautifully self-conscious of their own genre (and all the campiness, hokeyness and playfulness that comes with along with it). What a lovely day!


1. If you loved the gritty, violent world of Mad Max: Fury Road:

City of Bohane

by Kevin Barry (Graywolf)

Post-apocalyptic wasteland fraught with feuding factions of dandies? A technologically retrogressive world full of violence, intrigue, and romance? A shit-ton of awesome futuristic sartorial choices? Check, check, and check. City of Bohane takes us through the lives of people in 2053 Ireland as they contend with their pasts while trying to carve out a future for themselves in the the barren city none of them can seem to escape.

Like Mad Max, the environment of this novel is bleak. Characters consistently refer to the Bohane river and the way it “taints” the city, suggesting that the book has major eco-critical potential. The novel is set in the fictional Irish town Bohane and follows the feud between the Hartnett Fancy and their rivals as they try to maintain control of the city. Logan Hartnett, leader of the Fancy, relies (at least superficially) on  his mother Girly to authorize the Fancy’s wargames, while actually relying on the murderous talents of three young possible successors, the galoot Fucker Burke, a lovestruck Wolfie Stanners and the fierce Jenni Ching. If you are into gritty, highly stylized, dystopian novels with a unique, rich, storyworld, then this is your new read.

Though he deftly uses description, the real meat of this novel is its unique dialogue, which Barry  has said he based on “working class speech in the cities I grew up in, Limerick and Cork”, noting that “Those kinds of voices have never really shown up before in Irish literature.” By combining Irish slang, new insults, slurs, and curses with the rhythm of the contemporary Irish accent, Barry has invented a new dialect that is at once completely understandable but also believably alien. Playing with the structures and functions of language seems to be one of Barry’s goals and he has commented that  “[The novel is] written in Technicolor…It’s intended to be a big, visceral entertainment as well as a serious language experiment.”

This is the debut novel by author Kevin Barry, who has also published two volumes of short stories and has been featured in the New Yorker and won various awards for his short fiction and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award for City of Bohane.


2. If you were interested in the way that the “half-life war boys” were used as disposable bodies to serve the greater will of “society,” (read: Immortan Joe)

Never Let Me Go

Kazuo Ishiguro (Alfred A. Knopf)

Time Magazine called this 2005 novel by Ishiguro (who already has a Booker Prize under his belt for The Remains of the Day (1989)) “the best novel of the decade” and it was a finalist for the Booker Prize,  Arthur C. Clarke Award and the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award (among just receiving general praise!).

*This section includes spoilers.

The novel tells the story of three friends growing up in a near-future dystopian England where humans are cloned so that these clones–who are not regarded as fully human–can donate their organs to increase the healthy life of the “real” humans. The novel explores the experiences of Kathy (our narrator and protagonist), Ruth, and Tommy as they pass from boarding school, to young adulthood, to “completion”. The novel transports us to their early days as they attend a boarding school that focuses on keeping them healthy and teaches them to produce art–which in this society can be used to denote the presence of a soul. Art, especially when created by those clones who will donate their organs until “completion”, perhaps not only indicates humanity, but also can represent a piece of the clone that lives on after they have “completed” (much like how George Miller has explained that “the “half-life war boys” who are doomed to die young, and they worship cars because “the machines endure when they know they themselves will not.”)

Critics have apparently debated what genre to put this book in, but I’m willing to side with horror writer Ramsey Campbell who said in an interview that this books is horrific precisely because the characters don’t see the horror of their situation. I think this sentiment also applies to Fury Road—part of the reason that Immortan Joe is so terrifying is because the half-lives don’t see their situation as negative, even though they, like the clones in Never Let Me Go, have no real agency over their futures. As the clones are told, “Your lives are set out for you. You’ll become adults, then before you’re old, before you’re even middle-aged, you’ll start to donate your vital organs. That’s what each of you was created to do. You’re not like the actors you watch on your videos, you’re not even like me. You were brought into this world for a purpose, and your futures, all of them, have been decided.”

3. If you were fascinated by the disgusting, yet powerful system of authority set up by Immortan Joe

Zone One

Colson Whitehead (Anchor Books)

There’s no way I could make a dystopian book list and not include a novel about zombies, since the undead often operate as a catalyst of the apocalypse. This setting asks us to observe the way that authority reasserts itself in times of disorder, be it through webs of interpersonal microaggressions and community organization or authoritarian or military-style takeovers. Therefore in a book list that is Mad Max-inspired, I would recommend Zone One, where the desolate wasteland is not a parched, stormy desert, but the empty and barren shell of New York City.

Zone One imagines the emergence of a post-apocalyptic dystopia in the portrayal of the American Phoenix government (located in Buffalo) which tries to use the symbolic capital of New York City to promote its own authoritarian ends. The novels gives us a personal account of trauma, narrated by a black man who remembers his life pre-apocalypse and continues to make cognitive adjustments to the new world as he realizes that his mediocrity in the old world makes him the hero of the new.

The tie-in to Mad Max is in the way that the powers-that-be hoard resources and modify/sacrifice bodies as a way to further their own authority. In order to earn their keep, survivors like our protagonist (Mark) are required to do some sort of work—for example, Mark volunteers to be on a sweeper unit to clear NYC of its last remaining zombies. “We make tomorrow,” says the American Phoenix  in a call back to the puritanical work “ethic” that is responsible for humans being seen only through the lens of their labor efforts. The authorities in Buffalo are always sending along new rules and regulations to the sweeper teams: looting for example, is prohibited.  Buffalo even tries to regulate the responses that humans have to the trauma of apocalypse, categorizing all of their sensible psychological reactions to trauma as part of the “Post-Apocalyptic-Stress-Disorder,” a disease that can and should be fought. Suicide is a forbidden thought—new empires need to find some backs to build upon.

The narrative oscillates between Mark’s past and present, spiraling around his telling, eventually giving us a full picture of him: his narrative constructs his being. While there’s a good deal of recounted action and moments of high drama that will pull on your heartstrings, what’s really significant about Zone One is the sophistication with which it handles its subject matter. Ultimately, its about the way that bodies (living and dead), institutions and the city interact as separate sites of power during the post-apocalyptic reconstruction, with a particular sympathy for the individual experience. Furthermore, the language is just gorgeous. Whitehead chooses to have Mark narrate in 3rd person–a jarring experience at first–but one you quickly get accustomed to since Mark is an entertaining, thoughtful, and powerful narrator.

4. If you were really into the way that Mad Max: Fury Road gleefully embraced the action genre while simultaneously doing critical work


Alan Moore and David Gibbons (DC Comics)

Watchmen is Alan Moore’s imagining of an alternative history where masked vigilantes work for the government. At once a powerful meditation on justice and power and a biting critique of the superhero, Watchmen is both action-packed and philosophically rich as it forces readers to confront questions about the duty of the citizen, the workings of power, and the value of human life. The narrative is told in a kind of zig zag, traversing both time and space as the now aging superheroes confront the actions of their younger selves.

This passage encapsulates the spirit of the novel–really the spirit of the aesthetic that this book list is built upon: “Existence is random. Has no pattern save what we imagine after staring at it for too long. No meaning save what we choose to impose. This rudderless world is not shaped by vague metaphysical forces. It is not God who kills the children. Not fate that butchers them or destiny that feeds them to the dogs. It’s us. Only us. Streets stank of fire. The void breathed hard on my heart, turning its illusions to ice, shattering them. Was reborn then, free to scrawl own design on this morally blank world.”

The character that utters these words, Rorshach, is complicated. In some ways we could argue he is the protagonist (if we can agree that Watchmen has a singular protagonist) because we have unfettered access to his mind through his detailed journal; however, this journal reveals the severity of his bigotry, but also his hopeless resignation in a world made dark by the threat of war. Rorshach’s staunch, legalistic moral stance seems to have been conditioned by his exposure to violence, violence that was then replicated in his behavior, making him too a victim of his dark world.

Admittedly, Watchmen is not without its problems. The novels shows us scantily clad female superheroines and uses sexual violence and abuses as a trope meant to signify that the world is corrupt; but both of these elements could be explained by the work’s inherent parody of the superhero genre. However, the fact that the female characters are not actualized outside of their relationships with men is less easy to write off. Despite these issues, Watchmen is still worth the read, mostly because of the grand scope of its critique. It explicitly asks us to consider whether the ends of peace justify even the most horrific means–a question that I still believe is relevant, nigh essential, for us to fully consider as we rise against institutions that disenfranchise its citizens.

Alan Moore has also written V for Vendetta (another great read if you’re into graphic novels),  From Hell (Jack the Ripper in Victorian London) and The Killing Joke (which apparently Heath Ledger used as source material for his widely acclaimed portrayal of the Joker in Nolan’s The Dark Knight).

5. If you were really into the feminist readings of Mad Max or the society of the Many Mothers

Egalia’s Daughters

Gerd Brantenberg (Seal Press)

I first read this dystopian critique/novel in a women and gender studies class I took while in college. If I am to be honest, I find it comically heavy-handed in its satire:  The world is populated by wim and menwim, the latter of whom are relegated mostly to the domestic sphere while the former tend to the affairs of state. A masculinist party forms and threatens the extant power structures of Egalia—but this is all a backdrop for the coming of age story of young Petronius, the son of one of the powerful wim, Director Bram. The book hits you over the head with its critique, and it’s more than a little silly, but as one reviewer put it, “If it takes this reversal of roles for men to finally understand how women feel, to walk a mile in our bruising, too-tight, ill-fitting, high-heeled stilletto [sic] shoes, then I implore every man to read Egalia’s Daughters twice. It’s a real eye-opener, and maybe then the sexes can finally reach an understanding and possibly even reach equality.” Though I agree that the novel certainly highlights inequities in society, its real work is in showing that the real problem isn’t gender: it’s the way the power uses gender to establish hierarchies.

When Mad Max returns to Furiosa and her badass companions as they begin their trek across the desert, he comes with a plan: escaping isn’t the best way towards lasting satisfaction, peace, or redemption. Those purposes are best achieved through elimination of institutionalized inequity, ie. taking down the Citadel. The catch of course becomes—aren’t all forms of power in some way abusive? For now, until a sequel tells us differently, we can live in the vague hope that the populist impulses Max and Furiosa bring back to Immortan Joe’s people will last. But I suspect we’ll get to see more intricate workings of power in the post-apocalyptic landscape in future Mad Max films.


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