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From political disenfranchisement to economic disaster to environmental panic, every generation feels like they're living through end-times.

It may be no consolation to say the anxieties of today are often echoes of the past, but revisiting books that tackled topics like the immigration crisis or rising social inequality in another era can be a way of getting a fresh perspective on today. 

Here's a selection of classic novels and non-fiction that offer just that. The best bit? They're all great reads to boot.

The threat of climate change

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Written in response to the rising use of pesticides in farming in 1960s America, Silent Spring was fiercely opposed by the agricultural industry when it was first published and is seeing a renaissance now as scientists warn us about the ever-tightening window to reverse the effects of climate change. The book goes beyond the specifics of the misdeeds of 1962, digging deeper into the state and industrial forces that suppressed information to drive profits at the expense of public health. It's been cited as the book that set off the modern environmental movement, and has influenced activists like Naomi Klein and David Attenborough.

 

Further reading: The World in Winter by John Christopher and Ice by Anna Kavan both see the world gripped by a mysterious ice age that has catastrophic consequences for the global population.

The growth of the surveillance state

True Names by Vernor Vinge

This brilliant 1981 cyberpunk nightmare is a must if you're a Black Mirror addict. Mysterious networks of nameless, faceless hackers eerily foreshadow organisations like QAnon, Wikileaks and Anonymous as Vernor Vinge's dark, rich universe also predicts the pervasiveness of AI in our daily interactions, and what can happen when dangerous technology is harnessed by the state.

Further reading: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill is an influential text that forms the cornerstone of the way human rights are defined today, while Areopagitica by John Milton is an impassioned defence of freedom of speech.

The rise of autocracy

The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt's exploration of the rise of Hitler and Stalin sketches out some terrifyingly familiar patterns: the media's attempt to handle floods of propaganda; truth bent to the will of whoever can most creatively wield it; economic inequality used to sow division and fear; and a state apparatus pushing the limits of its authority. This isn't an easy read. It's dense, and detailed, and it will freak you out, but you'll come out vigilant in the face of rising authoritarianism. 

 

Further reading: It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis and Devil on the Cross by Ngûgî wa Thiong'o are both sharp portraits of the way that autocracies creep up on us, and how paralysing they can be for the populations who live under them.

Race, and white supremacy

The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin

There are few writers as direct and incisive on race in America than James Baldwin. The Fire Next Time powerfully evokes the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the creative explosion of black artists in Harlem, as well as being remarkably astute about the symptoms of ongoing racial inequality, urging a nation to engage in some much-needed introspection and decrying the blindness that decades later allowed the media to hail the rise of Barack Obama as the advent of a 'post-racial America' - just before the country elected the most divisive president in living memory. 

 

Further reading: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Citizen by Claudia Rankine are arguably as influential as Baldwin on civil rights, each capturing the unsettlingly similar position of the African American in society over 60 years apart.

Rising inequality

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

OK, hear us out. Roald Dahl's books are all essentially about some form of power imbalance, as his heroes battle constantly against tyrannical adults. This one is a little different. For once the grown ups aren't malevolent, just players in an unfair system, with Charlie languishing in substandard education, his loving family fighting for survival on the poverty line and Willy Wonka - the arch-capitalist - presiding over a workforce of indentured servants, handing out favours to the masses while running his business with no oversight or regulation. For a precis on the flaws of unfettered capitalism, look no further.

 

Further reading: North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, The Affluent Society by J K Galbraith and The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell are all slightly less left-field takes on inequality.

The immigration crisis

The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon

The 'Windrush Scandal' in 2018 saw more than 80 British citizens wrongly detained or deported by the Home Office. Sam Selvon's novella is a timeless insight into the experience of many of that generation who arrived from the West Indies in the 1950s, changing British culture forever. This book is particularly about London, but it's also a brilliant telling of the immigrant experience at large, with our cast of characters navigating an exploitative system designed to extract maximum value from a population kept at the very edges of society.

 

Further reading: Child of All Nations by Irmgard Keun, Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, and Austerlitz by W G Sebald are all brilliant reads for anyone wanting to skip the scary headlines and put a human face on the immigrant experience.

Modern feminism

Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

Before Margaret Atwood came Marge Piercy, whose 1976 feminist classic deals with everything from sex work and reproductive justice to gender-nonconformity. Living in a neglected neighbourhood in Spanish Harlem, Connie Ramos's hardened attitude in the face of poverty and violence is read by society as criminal insanity, a long-standing interpretation of female anger that only hardened in response to the burgeoning of the #MeToo movement in 2017. This innovative polemic - which contrasts our heroine's lot against a speculative utopian future - is deservedly now finding a new audience.

 

Further reading: Lifting the Veil by Ismat Chugtai and Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi both document the private lives of women, finding room to carve out the existences denied them in public.

The threat of nuclear warfare

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O'Brien

With the popularity of HBO's Chernobyl mini-series, the recent anniversary of the Hiroshima bombings and the current escalating tension between the USA and Iran, the nuclear panic fiction of the Cold War deserves a new airing. Z for Zachariah sees 16 year-old Ann Burden trying to survive alone after a nuclear war before she encounters a man in a radiation suit whose past has lead directly to Ann's present. Weird, unsettling and precisely the vibe for this precarious moment.

 

Further reading: Chernobyl Prayer by Svetlana Alexievich, Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, and Command and Control by Eric Schlosser all provide really different perspectives on the risks of nuclear war and nuclear power.

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