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NEW WELSH READERS' POLL 2019: BEST EVER DYSTOPIAN NOVELLA SOUGHT IN READERS’ POLL…

As well as looking for the best writing in the categories of dystopian novella and prose with a Welsh theme or setting, this year (there’s still time to enter - the closing date is 4 February 2019), we are asking readers to vote for their favourite dystopian novellas ever published in the English language in our New Welsh Readers' Poll 2019...

A longlist of 11 titles in this category was selected by judge Gwen Davies with nominations from the students of the Aberystwyth University and librarians across Wales. 

We are now open for public voting in both categories, below, until 19th March 2019. The shortlist will be announced online on 1 April 2019 and the winner will be announced at our event on 1 May 2019 at Aberystwyth Arts Centre Bookshop. Please vote to make your voice heard!

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The full longlist of titles in the dystopian novella category in the New Welsh Writing Awards 2019 Readers’ Poll is as follows:

DYSTOPIAN NOVELLAS

  •  Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut (Vintage Classics)

  • Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (Klett Sprachen GmbH)

  • Bad Ideas\Chemicals, Lloyd Markham (Parthian Books)

  • A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (Penguin Random House)

  • Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (Macmillan Collector’s Library)

  • The Time Machine, HG Wells (Macmillan Collector’s Library)

  • The Iron Heel, Jack London (Macmillan)

  • The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula le Guin (Avon Books)

  • Animal Farm, George Orwell (Penguin Modern Classics)

  • A Cool Million, Nathanael West (Covici Friede)

  • The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West (Random House) 

SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut Jr

Reviewed by Analicia Garcia Priego

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Kurt Vonnegut Jr sets out to describe the indescribable horrors of war, and in particular the Dresden bombing that occurred during World War II. He himself experienced it, he appears twice in the book as a character that the main character, Billy Pilgrim, doesn’t even get to meet. That’s all right by him, as Vonnegut himself would say, the story is not about him. A few times, the story doesn’t even appear to be about the war, or Dresden. The centre of the story is Billy Pilgrim and his ability to get unstuck in time. 

Billy Pilgrim travels back and forth in time in a zig-zagging way that would be very confusing were it not for the author’s ability to weave the storylines together in a coherent way. Vonnegut gives long, helpful depictions of Billy’s stay at Tralfamador, in outer space, and its zoo, conveying the way in which the resident aliens behave and the reasons for keeping Billy in a zoo away from Earth.

In contrast, the author does not expand as much on Dresden and its bombing. His explanations are not as detailed, and he does not dwell on the feelings of other soldiers or on Billy’s own feelings at the desolation he encounters. Yes, there are mentions of Billy crying and of him having seen things worth crying about, but Vonnegut makes it a point not to dwell on them. Perhaps this is due to Vonnegut’s deep understanding of language and its limitations. There are not enough words in the English language, or indeed any language, to adequately convey human despair and suffering. Silence is sometimes more eloquent than words, and Vonnegut punctuates this silence with his famous refrain of ‘so it goes.’ 

It is not only when speaking of the war and Dresden that the refrain becomes important. It also appears to punctuate every tragic event that Billy encounters. ‘So it goes’ takes the place of human resignation when faced with painful things that we have no way of changing. Billy Pilgrim can’t do anything to stop the war, cannot stop his mother or his wife from dying, or himself from being abducted by aliens and put in a zoo. Billy goes through life with the absolute certainty that each one of us has experienced at some point in our lives. There are moments that we can’t avoid, even if we want to. Our lives are peppered with tragic moments that later will become tragic memories that we will be ultimately unable to change. Billy is not spared a single tragedy, he has to live through them, process and accept them in the only way he can. 

Billy Pilgrim is not a hero by any stretch of the word, he is just a human being, navigating his life. He accepts everything that happens to him, from the war to being abducted by aliens. He goes back and forth in time and space and through it all he is still Billy Pilgrim, still a man, still unable to change destiny. All he can do is think to himself ‘so it goes’ at every unexpected turn his life makes.

Death is mentioned many times, not as something to be terrified of, but simply as a part of life. After all, Billy inhabits a slaughterhouse in Dresden in order to survive. In fact, both Billy Pilgrim and Vonnegut think that their epitaph should be the same: ‘Everything was beautiful and nothing hurt.’ Once again there are not enough words to describe death, but there is a wish that in death there will be no more tragedies to soldier through. If there is a lesson to be learnt from Billy Pilgrim, it is up to each of us to find it; I’m sure the lesson will be different for everyone.

FAHRENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury

Reviewed by Analicia Garcia Priego

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Ray Bradbury holds up a mirror to modern society and demands we gaze upon it. From the moment we openFahrenheit 451 we are plunged into a world so similar to our own that it’s chilling. With big screens and small ‘seashells’ in our ears, surrounded by information, seeking pleasure and avoiding the pain of life at all costs, we might think he’s describing the world of today. Books have been relegated to the background while screens are ever present in our lives.

The first time I read this book was ten years ago, when my experience of it was different. The world has changed; it’s a different world and yet it’s the same. Everything changes to remain the same, like Lampedusa’s The Leopard. A cycle that keeps repeating itself again and again. More screens, better screens but still screens. 

On the other hand, Bradbury’s book has not changed, it has the same words, and it tells the same story. The novella is written with short sentences, and an uncomplicated, easy to understand language. This might be due to Bradbury’s writing style, which he himself has described as ‘[writing] at the top of my lungs and from some secret motives within.’ He has been interested, since before the 1950s, in book burnings and those that try to preserve them. The underlying theme in his stories seems to be the destruction and preservation of books, and the knowledge they carry.

Reading Fahrenheit 451 for the second time I found myself thinking of the burnt books of the library of Alexandria, and the book burnings in fascist Germany. I also thought of the slow but unmistakable change that books are going through. Nowadays any one can be turned into a movie, its plot edited to fit into one of our screens. It is not the equivalent of burning a book, but the feeling persists that books are still being relegated to the background. 

From the moment I had it in my hands this second time I realised that Fahrenheit 451 was relevant to the political climate of today. This is not a time to remain immune to events, nor the time to hide behind our screens. As the protagonist Montag says to his wife: 

We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were reallybothered? About something important, something real?

And here is Bradbury, bothering us with something important and real. It’s like looking at an old friend who tells you that you can’t continue like you have before, you can’t ignore your pain, you can’t run away from your problems forever.

Bradbury presents a world at war, not only against the unseen enemy but against knowledge and truth. He presents a reality so dire that people seek to escape it in any way they can. There are subtle tragedies intermingled with the great fear of war and complete obliteration. The subtle tragedy of not knowing, not dying and not living. Bradbury presents each of these not like delicate photographs of a past long forgotten but as vivid reflections of a pain etched into the very fabric of the present. Montag plays the role of a hero doomed to failure, immersed in a world that is not his own anymore, in a place where he is supposed to fit in, but doesn’t. If that is not a picture of the world of today, I don’t know what is.

However, there is hope in Fahrenheit 451 as well. Hope comes after everything else is lost, it reminds us of the myth of Pandora’s box. Bradbury ignites a small, tender flame of hope in between these pages of subtle tragedies and doomed destinies. It is perhaps this hope that makes the book even more relevant to audiences today.

ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell

Review by Analicia Garcia Priego

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George Orwell tells a story we want to believe. He digs deep into the human soul and recognises the ever-present need to see ourselves in the stories we tell each other. Whether it is within a movie, videogame or a book, human beings always look for someone with whom to identify. We see ourselves in these fictional characters, our strengths, our weaknesses, our fatal flaws and redeeming qualities.

Animal Farm starts out as an idyllic tale of rebellion and success. We can’t help but find good qualities in the characters with whom we identify. Here we see courage, wit, kindness, patience, solidarity. We see raw humanity embodied in these beasts and realise that we are not as different from them as we thought. From the very beginning, we see their problems from their point of view, and, little by little their point of view becomes ours. 

Much like the fairy tales we were told as children, we hope that this story too will end in a ‘happily ever after’. George Orwell anticipates our feelings, he can guess at what the reader is thinking, but offers no reassurance of a happy ending. It is an innate human quality, I believe, to desire for things to work themselves out, and for the heroes of the stories we read, to come out victorious. Take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example. It’s a story we know, one which we have seen, and heard many times. There is a universal knowledge about how it will pan out, and yet when we encounter it again there is that small bit of hope that this time it will work out. 

It is that same hope which comes into play when reading Animal Farm. Orwell shows us a portrait of ourselves and for a few happy moments we are able to believe in a perfect, peaceful world. He paints this world close enough to be desirable but far enough that it is out of reach. And yet he compels the reader to reach for it. 

Orwell does more than to tease us with the image of an unattainable world, he delights in changing the rules of the game. He is the author, and by opening his book we, the readers, are agreeing to play by his rules in this universe he has created. At first the rules seem fair and straightforward, much like the seven commandments observed in Animal Farm, but the more we read, and the more the story progresses, these commandments and Orwell’s rules change. 

By the end of the book we might come to the realisation that we are not reading the same book we started. Changes in narrative and plot can be jarring and upsetting, but Orwell introduces them slowly, justifying each little change until we accept it as the new normal. 

This sentiment is best expressed by the narrator: ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.’ This changing of rules and swapping of places is poetry in itself. The rules have been changed again and again, but by the end it seems that we are once again in the same place where we started. Only it is a darker place, with new, and yet strikingly familiar, rules. 

We look from the beginning to the end, and from the end to the beginning again and again, and yet it is impossible to say which is which. The end might as well be the beginning for all we know, Orwell does not offer guidance in this respect. It is the reader and only the reader who must come to a conclusion. Indeed, if there is a moral to be found, it is the reader’s job to find it. The masterpiece is complete, and the author stands back and allows us to explore it at our leisure.