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Incendiary stories of dystopian censorship

By Kobo • March 03, 2024Big Ideas in Books

Bradbury-inspired speculative fiction where reading is resistance and language is humanity's last hope

Since it was published in 1953, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (whose title comes from the temperature at which paper burns) has been inspiring writers to explore themes of censorship and book-banning in a variety of different ways, leading readers to ask challenging questions of themselves and society.

What are the costs of censorship to individuals?

How does censorship take hold, and can its grip be loosened?

What are the tools of resistance available to us, readers and citizens?

From first-contact stories to action-packed thrillers, these contemporary books wrestle with these and other issues, exploring the limits of what’s acceptable to know and say.

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey 

If the first words that come to mind when you think about dystopian literature are "bleak" and "depressing," you're not alone. While this alt-western about a group of radical queer librarians who travel the country distributing banned books certainly has its grim moments, it's ultimately hopeful. After fleeing an arranged marriage, and still reeling over her best friend's execution for being found in possession of censored material, Esther stows away on one of the famed underground book wagons roaming the country. She gets a crash course in political resistance, interpersonal relationships, first love, and a whole lot more.

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Amatka  by Karin Tidbeck

Set in a word defined by strict censorship, government surveillance, and soul-destroying bureaucracy, somehow the most remarkable feature of this strange dystopia is that things disappear unless they're named properly, and their names spoken aloud. Vanja is a government worker who arrives in a small town on a temporary assignment. She soon gets caught up in local politics, and realizes that most of what she believes about the world isn't true at all. This is a smart, eerie novel about how insidious and dangerous censorship can be when it's woven into the fabric of a place.

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Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn

This unusual novel weaves censorship into the structure of the book itself, to startling effect. The story follows Ella Minnow Pea, a girl living an ordinary life on a fictional island off the Eastern Seaboard. Her world is shaken by the island's new governing council, which has started banning letters of the alphabet. Ella tries to protect her home from the growing totalitarianism, but as more letters are banned, it becomes harder and harder. And as letters disappear from the island, the also disappear from the book itself, making for a memorable and moving reading experience.

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The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

This chilling dystopian thriller is set in a future where print has essentially disappeared. Books, bookstores, libraries, and newspapers are no more. And everyday life is ruled by devices called Memes. The story follows Anana, who works, along with her father, on the very last edition of the dictionary. When her father goes missing on the job, Anana sets out to find him—and gets into a whole lot of trouble. This is a love letter to books dressed in the plot of a twisty thriller. For book lovers, and for anyone who believes in the power of words and language, it's truly the stuff of nightmares.

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Lexicon by Max Barry

This fast-paced speculative novel is full of nefarious organizations, assassins, and hefty questions about censorship, surveillance, privacy, coercion, and the uses and power of language. It's set at a mysterious, elite school where students learn to become masters in persuasion. Graduates go on to become poets—assassins trained in wielding language for coercion in the service of a secret society. When a young woman living on the streets is recruited by the school, she soon gets pulled into a dangerous war of words.

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South by Babak Lakghomi

This novel is part fever dream, part contemplative character study, and part puzzle. B is a journalist who arrives in the South of an unnamed country to report a story about strikes that have been going on at an oil rig offshore. But he soon discovers that the country he's traveling though is one marked by extreme censorship and government corruption—and little of what he sees is as it seems. As he struggles to make sense of what he's learning, he must fight to stay alive in a strange and brutal world.

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The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow

Two years after an alien invasion, life has settled into a new normal, but one we wouldn't recognize at all. Because the aliens observed that strong emotions can lead to dangerous behaviour in humans, books, music, and art have been banned. Seventeen-year-old Ellie Baker is fighting back in her own small way by maintaining a secret library in her building. When one of the aliens discovers it, he knows he should report her. The problem is, he really loves the music he finds there. Together, he and Ellie must decide what really matters to them, and if there's any way for their two species to coexist peacefully. This YA novel blends romance and adventure with its weighty themes of censorship and surveillance.

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