7 dystopian books with a difference
Books about bleak, repressive, and violent visions of society now sell by the bucket-load. It’s fair to say that dystopian literature has never been so popular.
The word dystopia literally translates as ‘a not good place’ and the genre’s holy trinity comprises the totalitarian nightmares of Zamyatin (We), Orwell (1984), and Huxley (Brave New World). But dystopias come in many forms. Here are a few examples – some of them weird, some of them frightening, some of them funny, but none of them ‘good places’.
There’s plenty of fiction chronicling the fortunes of mankind in the midst of environmental disaster.
Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! (loosely adapted for film as Soylent Green) is a nightmare vision of overpopulation, and John Christopher’s The Death of Grass posits a chilling version of the sort of society an agricultural catastrophe would create.
The sub-categorical standout however, is Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake; a world where multinational corporations and genetic engineering have combined to trigger a global pandemic.
Atwood’s vision, wryly fleshed out over the course of the MaddAddam trilogy, makes no prophetic claims but is a darkly comical vision of one future.
Over the course of his career, Philip K. Dick always gave humans great credit in their capacity as inventors. After all, he set his tale of high tech society and robots Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (filmed as Blade Runner), in 1992!
While much of his fiction hasn’t proved prophetic, his 1974 novel Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said hit the nail on the head. The story takes place in a grotesque society where pop stars form an elite groomed for life-long fame and power and everyone else is just a plain old unperson.
Jason Taverner is one such star, until the day he wakes to find he isn’t famous anymore. What happens next captures the precarious nature of fame perfectly. Taverner may as well be called Leon Jackson. Who? Exactly…
The road to dystopia
Emily St. John Mandel’s masterpiece Station Eleven is a leaner version of Stephen King’s The Stand, and arguably much better for it.
It’s set in a world where 99.99% of society has snuffed it thanks to an outbreak of flu, which is, admittedly, a plot you’ll find in several other apocalyptic books.
What makes Station Eleven stand out from the pack is the way the novel flits back and forth through time, folding into the narrative the months and years leading to the current nightmare, in such a way that really builds the dread and heightens the novel’s emotional impact.
From E.M. Forster’s outrageously prescient short story The Machine Stops through to William Gibson’s Neuromancer, dystopian fiction frequently concerns itself with the impact technology can have on our lives.
Unlike the two previous examples, Dave Eggers’ The Circle is extra terrifying for its utter and immediate plausibility.
Are we just a couple of altered privacy settings away from the world of the novel, where information is free, and sharing everything is the ideal? Read this book and you’ll never look at your Facebook feed, a Steve Jobs presentation, or a TED talk in quite the same way again.
The dystopia specialist
The books of J.G. Ballard really do spoil us for choice where dystopias are concerned.
The joy he took in dismantling and reordering society means the question is more: How you would like your dystopia? A world addicted to sex, drugs, or violence? Can do. A society crippled by terrorism, or eco-disaster? He’s covered that too.
Then there are all the accounts he gave of the end of the world itself. Be it by burning, drowning, crystallising, or drying up. But what makes Ballard’s many visions of the future stand out is the way he wrings every last drop of potential out of them (literally so, in the case of The Drought).
Ballard considers all the repercussions of life in the societies he writes about, and they resonate that extra bit more as a result.
The lighter side of dystopia
Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story contains all the trappings of a dystopian novel – a future where nations jostle for power, technological advance rattles along, and terrorist paranoia abounds.
Unusually, this is coupled with a laugh rate even Woody Allen would be proud of. This impressive achievement is perhaps explained by Shteyngart’s life story (chronicled in his marvellous memoir Little Failure).
Born in the Soviet Union before moving to America, in many ways Shteyngart bridges two traditions: The tragic Russian experience of tyranny, and the American humourist tradition of Twain, Bellow, and Vonnegut.
Originally published with the infinitely better title Monkey Planet, you’d have to concede that Pierre Boulle’s Planet of the Apes is probably a great place to live, if you’re a monkey. Unfortunately, the book’s hero Ulysse is a human, who sets off from earth in 2500 to explore planets nearby to Betelgeuse.
Dystopias often have an allegorical element, and perhaps it’s to be found here in the entitled arrogance of the Orang Outan political class, as well as the braying insanity of the simian stock exchange.
A ripper of a book that differs drastically to each of its adaptations, Planet of the Apes might also just change how you feel about animal testing.
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