Within the Science Fiction genre I’m keen on dystopian fiction, especially the speculative fiction based on planet Earth! I compiled this list for The Huffington Post’s US edition (Things Could Be Worse: 12 Dystopian Novels) and it generated a huge debate with over 500 comments and 1500 ‘likes’. I quickly realized that the ‘standard texts’ are quite distinct on the two sides of the Atlantic.
The novels are listed according to publication date, to give a historical perspective.
I am adding more titles to this list as I come across new and interesting variations on the dystopian theme. Many thanks to all those readers who made great suggestions.
Where Utopia Distorts into Dystopia
Many people come to dystopian novels through film adaptations. In my own case, it was Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Here are some of my favourite dystopian novels in date order – written over the past 90 years – ranging from tales of totalitarian regimes set far in the future, to novels set in modern times. On my bedside table at present: Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor, Maggie Gee’s The Flood and Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days . . .
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, written in 1921.
New translation and introduction by Natasha Randall; with an introduction by Bruce Sterling. Modern Library Paperback, 2006.
We is the diary of mathematician D-503 who discovers love for another human being – an emotion long-forgotten within the world of One State. Beyond the glass wall boundary of One State lies the ‘irrational, chaotic world of trees, birds, animals’ and looking out one day into this green ocean, D-503 sees a savage. I was struck by the following lines: ‘But a thought swarmed in me; what if he, this yellow-eyed being–in his ridiculous, dirty bundle of trees, in his uncalculated life–is happier than us?’ It took many decades for this satire of totalitarian regimes to reach the reading public. An English translation (1924) existed but was difficult to find. A full Russian version was published in the author’s native country only during the glasnost era. George Orwell managed to get hold of a copy of We and wrote a review for Tribune in 1946. He judged it better than Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1932
Introduction by David Bradshaw, Flamingo Modern Classic.
Citizens of The World State seem to have it all – hallucinogenic drugs, recreational sex. Part of Huxley’s inspiration for this novel was in fact his fear of ‘Americanization’. During a visit to the States he was a tad upset to witness a gum-chewing, pleasure-driven, youth culture and so he wrote this dystopia as a forewarning of where consumer society could take mankind. In Brave New World, monogamy and natural reproduction are considered abhorrent. Humans are raised in hatcheries, genetically pre-assigned to castes based on intelligence. At the time of writing, Huxley was a supporter of eugenics but post-World War II he dropped these ideas. As in We, Huxley dwells on the lives of people living outside this supposed Utopia – in the Savage Reservations. Huxley denied that We had been an influence on his writing.
Anthem by Ayn Rand, 1938
Penguin Modern Classics
Ayn Rand packs her ideas into a short space. This novella, strong on imagery, presents the reader with a totalitarian society in which people no longer use the personal pronoun in the singular form, ‘I’. As a result, the writing style initially seems stilted. It’s unsettling to read a first-person narrative in which the main character states : Our name is Equality 7-2521 . . .We were born with a curse . . We remember the Home of Infants . . .’ and so on. However, it’s well worth sticking with. Ayn Rand’s pet hate is collectivism and she states in her forward; ‘Those who want slavery should have the grace to name it by its proper name.’ And taking the acid test, Anthem’s imagery lived with me long after I finished the book.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, 1949
This dystopia will remain the yardstick for all dystopias that place the role of the state at the centre of their narratives. What more can I say – newspeak, thought-crime, Big Brother and the title itself, 1984 – they’re all embedded in our language. The parallels between this classic and Zamyatin’s We are striking. But whereas Zamyatin’s imagined world is set in an unspecified location, at some unspecified time in the future, Orwell brings his dystopia uncomfortably close to home. So close to home, in fact, we feel we know it; that it’s already here.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, 1953
In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury reveals a shared concern with Huxley regarding American cultural values. More specifically, Bradbury feared that people were becoming intellectually lazy – preferring broadcast media to books. The main character in Fahrenheit 451 is a fireman but he’s not the type of public servant we are familiar with today. He burns books, which apparently combust at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. As in many dystopian novels, the main character finds himself questioning society’s norms in the wake of a major shock – in this case, the near death of his wife.
The Drowned World by J G Ballard, 1962
It’s not easy to pick a single book by J G Ballard because he imagined multiple dystopias over his illustrious career. The Drowned World, set in a future, inundated London, is recognized as his first major novel. It’s a surreal and disorientating read, transporting us to a world coping with environmental catastrophe. The imagery is so vivid that I sometimes wonder if I’m recalling a film version – but I know I haven’t seen one!
In this chronological listing, The Drowned World marks a shift: away from those dystopias engineered by the state to dystopias created by environmental disasters or unnamed cataclysms. These post-apocalyptic dystopias tend to dominate the literature today.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, 1985.
Atwood insists on categorizing The Handmaid’s Tale as speculative fiction as opposed to science fiction since she feels no technological breakthroughs are needed to make this story a reality. This book is a landmark in feminist dystopian literature and tackles the issue of religious fascism. However, I felt The Handmaid’s Tale required a greater suspension of disbelief than other dystopian stories in this list. Nevertheless, Atwood raises a spectre that sticks in the mind.
Blindness by José Saramago, 1995
Not for the squeamish; this is a visceral read. It’s not a book I’d recommend to my reading group, and they survived The Road (see below). Saramago’s dystopian nightmare conjures the breakdown of society as a virus causes blindness among the population. One character is immune to the virus and, in many ways, she suffers more because she bears witness. The first half of the book swiftly descends into a story of survival through brutality. The second half is more uplifting and left me feeling positive about human nature.
The Faber Book of Utopias edited by John Carey, 1999
Look no further than John Carey’s compilation of utopias/dystopias to gain a real appreciation of how this form of literature has obsessed writers over millennia. Yes, millennia! From The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor (anonymous, circa 1940 BC), Homer, Plato, Tacitus, Plutarch, Tao Qian through to Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Michel de Montaigne’s On Cannibals, Margaret Cavendish, Jonathan Swift, Marquis de Sade, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (a personal favourite), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kurt Vonnegut, Italo Calvino, Marge Piercy . . . . I have lost count of how many people have borrowed my copy and gone on to buy their own. Many small excerpts – excellent bedtime reading.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005
Ishiguro’s signature technique is to tell a story through an unreliable narrator. It works to perfection in this present-day dystopia. Kathy, the main character, recalls episodes from her childhood. The reader has to negotiate around her incomplete explanations until the central truth of her life is revealed about one-third into the book. Never Let Me Go is a close observation of childhood and a deeply upsetting book questioning what Ishiguro describes as the ancient question: what is it to be human?
The Road by Cormac McCarthy, 2006
The Road presents the ultimate post-apocalyptic nightmare. The pared-back writing style and staccato dialogue match the bleakness and brutality of the life in north America following an unspecified catastrophe. Was it a nuclear bomb, a meteor impact? We never find out. It’s a father and son story: the son wants to trust other survivors they meet on the road, his father does not. Don’t even consider reading this book at bedtime. At the time of reading, I thought: I hope no one ever makes a film of this. McCarthy, however, is generous in offering some hope of redemption, which might be picked up by some readers – those readers not desensitized by the preceding carnage.
World War Z – An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks, 2006
This book came highly recommended and I read it out of politeness! It’s way off my normal reading radar. It felt particularly inappropriate that I read this book over my Christmas break. However, in the weeks after finishing World War Z, I found myself quoting from it ad nauseam. The book is structured successfully as a series of short transcripts. Gradually, the reader pieces together how and where the zombie war began, how it spread and how individuals and armies devised strategies to combat the overwhelming menace. Maybe zombie aficionados would be less impressed but I enjoyed this freaky dystopian journey.
Since I compiled this list I’ve read the following, which I feel are excellent examples of the sub-genre:
Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M Miller Jr
The Flood – Maggie Gee
This Perfect Day – Ira Levin
The Holy Machine – Chris Beckett
City of Bohane – Kevin Barry
Bend Sinister – Vladimir Nabokov
Wool – Hugh Howey
Memoirs of a Survivor – Doris Lessing