A brief guide to 15 important dystopian novels
Dystopian fiction figures prominently in the work of some of the world’s best science fiction writers. With Donald Trump in the White House, and an increasingly fearful public contemplating the possibility of the disastrous consequences that might ensue, The Handmaid’s Tale has been haunting the bestseller lists for months, and other dystopian novels have selling briskly, too.
Lately I’ve made a point of reading (or rereading) the best-known dystopian novels of recent decades. In a previous post, I reviewed two dozen such novels that were published in series. Among them were outstanding trilogies by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Blake Crouch, and Hugh Howey, and a connected series of three novels by Paolo Bacigalupi that was not marketed as a trilogy. Now I’m covering a total of 15 standalone works. These posts are a result of some of the research I’m conducting into the field of dystopian fiction in preparation for writing a book I plan to publish later this year. The novels listed here are arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names, and each is linked to the much longer review I posted earlier.
As you may notice, several of the most prominent dystopian novels do not appear on this list. However, that’s the case only because I haven’t yet read (or reread) them recently. These include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and, most recently, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Divergent by Veronica Roth.
In M. T. Anderson’s terrifying future world, people access all their news, advertising, education, games, “m-chat,” and money through implants in their brains — not just embedded chips but multipurpose devices that are fully integrated into their nervous systems. This is the “feed” of the title. A powerful future version of Virtual Reality allows people to experience novelty and excitement at any time without special equipment — and without pausing for reflection. Corporations are the dominant force on the planet. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing have killed the oceans. Past wars have left a blanket of radioactive dust all across the surface. Human settlements on Earth exist underground under domes to shield people from the intolerable heat and unbreathable atmosphere. Massive numbers have migrated off-planet to the moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and nearby star systems. This is truly a dystopian society.
Other than 1984 and Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale is probably the best-known of the growing number of novels written in recent decades that depict a grim future for humanity. The book’s fame is well deserved. The story is gripping, the characters easy to understand and believe, and the future scenario compelling. The protagonist, Offred, a Handmaid, lives in a house with the Commander (named Fred) and his wife; her job is to bear children for them — fathered by him, of course. Before the theocratic state came to power, she lived under her real name with her boyfriend and their daughter. Offred does not know where the little girl was sent when the (unmarried) family was broken up. Often called a feminist novel because it centers around the subjugation of women in a theocratic state, The Handmaid’s Tale in fact portrays the dehumanization not just of the women who serve as sex slaves and baby factories but of other women and the men as well.
Dystopian fiction too often aims to sketch out a possible future, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps on the canvas. The characters seem to exist merely to take predictable actions that cast a spotlight on just how bad things have gotten. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is different. The late-21st-century reality portrayed in this outstanding novel brings into high relief the consequences of climate change and the resulting water scarcity on the American Southwest. This sad, violence-ridden world is fully realized through the seemingly bottomless imagination of the author. In contrast to the bleak desert landscapes that dominate the story, this future reality abounds with colorful detail.
Although Ridley Scott based his classic film, Blade Runner, on Philip K. Dick’s novel, he took a great many liberties. In fact, the two differ in substantial ways. Scott’s future Los Angeles bears little resemblance to San Francisco in 2021 as Dick pictured it. Scott brought the sensibility of a science fiction fan to the crime genre; Blade Runner is all about action, mystery, and violence. Though the story in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? also revolves around bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s mission to “retire” (kill) the androids that have defied the law and returned to Earth from their work as slave laborers on Mars, Dick was more concerned about developing a scenario of a future following a devastating nuclear war. There are no crowd scenes in the novel, as there are in the film. Few people and fewer animals have survived the war and the continuing radioactive fallout. And, while there is a hint of Dick’s characteristic paranoia in the film, it’s a dominant theme in the book.
The popular 1973 film Soylent Green was loosely based on science fiction writer Harry Harrrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room!, which had been published six years earlier — emphasis on “loosely.” Harrison did not envision a society fed with the products of human remains, as the Charlton Heston vehicle made clear. Soylent steaks consist of soybean and lentil. Nor did suicide parlors and euthanasia figure into his story; instead, the Eldsters constitute an aggressive pressure group often to be found demonstrating on the streets of the city. Harrison’s sole concern was overpopulation, a subject of intense public debate in those days — and his novel is downright preachy about the subject. (Paul Ehrlich‘s seminal work, The Population Bomb, was published just two years after the novel, further raising the profile of the issue.)
Critics today tend to group Brave New World with George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and other highly respected novels that depict a grim future for the human race. However, the books by Orwell, Atwood, and Dick appear to have been intended as social commentary, whereas Huxley’s is essentially a philosophical reflection on the human condition. As a novel, it’s far less satisfying. Also, Brave New World was published in 1932, and it shows. The novel is set in the 26th century (AF 632 or “After Ford”). Society is governed by the motto COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY, an ideal enforced by the universal use of a tranquilizing drug called soma and the encouragement of unrestrained promiscuous sex. Pregnancy and motherhood are crimes; babies are raised in “bottles” thousands at a time in massive creches. The story revolves around the relationship between psychologist Bernard Marx and a young woman named Lenina Crowne. Both work at the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Center. There, babies are born, “hatched” or “decanted,” and conditioned through sleep learning from childhood through adolescence in enormous numbers.
Centuries in the future, the people of Earth live under the control of an artificial intelligence called UniComp. The result is a worldwide society free of war, hunger, crime, and violence of any sort. “Hate” and “fight” are swear words. The world run by Unicomp is dedicated to efficiency above all else. The population of the planet is kept steady at eight billion through rigorous control of the birth rate and through emigration to colonies the Family has established on other planets. It’s inefficient to grow and prepare a variety of foods, so everyone’s nutritional needs are met through an unchanging diet of totalcakes. To suppress undesirable behavior, everyone submits monthly to chemotherapy “treatments”; otherwise, they will get “sick” and demonstrate aberrant behavior. This is the world Ira Levin describes in his superb science fiction novel, This Perfect Day.
In the post-apocalyptic world of this wonderful novel, a National Book Award Finalist, there are no functioning cities. A devastating disease known as the Georgian Flu has killed off nearly all the world’s people. Survivors have scattered over the countryside, some of them coming together in communities of at most a couple of hundred people. Someone has set up a Museum of Civilization in an airport lounge, displaying mobile phones, electronic games, credit cards, and other artifacts of lives long gone. This is a world fraught with danger. In the years immediately following the collapse, many survivors walk for hundreds of miles in search of food and other resources. Distrust leads many to kill anyone who approaches them. Meanwhile, feral humans rove the earth, preying on travelers unable to defend themselves. Soon, madness takes hold of many, and would-be prophets begin to collect followers, imposing their will through force on anyone they encounter.
Dystopian fiction seeks to illuminate the consequences of the bad choices we make today. Goodhouse follows in this tradition by extrapolating into the late 21st Century the intersection of two of America’s most troublesome present-day realities: our counterproductive criminal justice system, which does a great job training young people for lives of crime, and the hubris of a scientific community that seeks to predict human behavior by reading our DNA. As author Peyton Marshall reveals in the Acknowledgments, the “Goodhouse” where most of the action takes place in her novel is modeled on the notorious Preston Youth Correctional Facility, a juvenile rehabilitation center closed by the State of California only in 2011.
Sixteen years after a Plague has left all but a handful of people dead, small groups of survivors have created an eccentric society in San Francisco. Graffiti artists are painting the Golden Gate Bridge with designs in different shades of blue. A former school librarian runs a press by hand to publish an occasional newspaper. A young roboticist scavenges materials from around the city to create solar-powered metallic insects and other creatures that roam the streets. Then a young woman born in the year of the Plague arrives to warn about an “army” led by a self-styled general known as Fourstar who is planning to invade the city, as he has done in other Northern California cities, in hopes of recreating “America.”
In 1984, George Orwell envisioned a future society modeled in part on the totalitarianism of the USSR under Josef Stalin but taken to an extreme with the most intrusive technology Orwell could imagine in 1947–48, when he wrote the book. Orwell relates the story of Winston Smith, a middle-ranking official in the all-powerful Party. Smith lives in London in what used to be called Britain. The country is now a small part of a globe-spanning empire named Oceania that is one of only three such empires. It’s in a state of total and constant war with either one of the others at any given time; they change sides frequently. The ruler of Oceania is Big Brother, whose greatly enlarged portrait appears on walls and in windows virtually everywhere. (“BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”)
Imagine the USA 10 or 15 years down the road. The dollar is pegged to the yuan, and a tyrannical right-wing government is in power. The divide between High Net Worth Individuals and Low is a chasm that cannot be spanned. The country is bogged down in a losing war in Venezuela. Everyone carries an “apparat” — an always-online device that broadcasts its carrier’s Male or Female Hotness, health and nutritional benchmarks, and provides access to intimate correspondence. Not only are there no secrets from the government. There are no secrets among the people, either. Even your credit rating hovers brightly in the air above your head when you pass a Credit Pole on the street. This is the USA Gary Shteyngart creates to showcase the truly sad love story of Lenny Abramov (Russian-American, age 39, depressive reader of books) and Eunice Park (Korean-American, age 24, anorexic, self-obsessed, and cruel shopaholic like all her friends). The tale of their troubled relationship plays out against the backdrop of a city (New York) and a country in the throes of total collapse. It’s not a pretty picture — but it’s extremely funny.
Player Piano is the story of Doctor Paul Proteus, the wealthy and powerful manager of the Ilium Works, a sprawling automated factory in the town of Ilium, New York. The Works produce a multitude of products, as determined by EPICAC XIV, the computer that manages the economy with nominal human supervision. It’s one of a number of such facilities, all integrated into the economic machine that supplies everything anyone in the U.S. might need to live comfortably. The problem is that machines have displaced people from virtually all the jobs. Those who couldn’t compete economically with machines have their choice, if they have no source of income, of the Army or the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps (the “Reeks and Wrecks”). Engineers, managers, and bureaucrats are among the very few job classifications that remain open to human beings — but even they have little to do.
If you’re imagining ranks of humanoid robots marching in lockstep as they trample on humanity and all else that we’ve created, you’re on the wrong track. This is a science fiction novel, to be sure, and as the title suggests it depicts an apocalyptic future, but it’s a future with a difference. This is a treatment of robots and automation from an entirely different perspective. It’s engaging. And it’s very, very scary. The author comes to his subject matter armed with a Ph.D. in Robotics from Carnegie-Mellon University, frequently cited as the nation’s leader in robotics and artificial intelligence. The speculation in this novel is grounded in a genuine understanding of the world of automata and the possible futures they may create for us. Robopocalypse is structured as an oral history of sorts, a succession of vignettes from varying points of view about the origins and the progression of the “New War” between “Rob” and the human race.
Amped ventures into the near future — sometime around 2030, it seems — to depict American society in upheaval over the brain implants installed in half a million of its least fortunate citizens. The implants “amplify” the brains of the elderly and infirm, accident victims, and those with severe mental illness and mental retardation, allowing them to focus clearly and to make the most efficient use possible of their bodies. These “amps” are smarter, quicker, and stronger than the average bear — and the vast majority of Americans don’t like it one bit. They’re especially upset about the few amps who began with superior intelligence and outstanding physical abilities and have been turned into super-beings. Nobody likes a smarty-pants, it seems. In Amped, you won’t find lame dialogue used to “explain” and cardboard characters created for the sole purpose of illustrating different points of view. Amped is, instead, a skillfully written novel of suspense that charges ahead with breakneck speed.
I feel comfortable recommending all these novels, except for Harry Harrison’s, which is much too preachy for my taste. Though I didn’t especially enjoy rereading either Brave New World or 1984, both are seminal works and deserve to be read as the signposts they were for 20th century literature.