The Handmaid's Tale
Set in what was once the U.S., the Republic of Gilead is a military dictatorship that seems to have snuck up rather quickly and become the new norm far too easily. Offred (as in Of Fred, belonging to Fred) is a handmaid: a woman who is still fertile in a world where pollution and STDs has made fertility increasingly rare. In this society, which reverted to strict biblical ideals following a terrorist attack, women are allowed almost no autonomy. The novel follows Offred’s life as well as her memories of the time before.
On Such a Full Sea
This strange and gorgeous novel is narrated from the first-person plural perspective and told like a folktale shared among the people of B-Mor, implied to be Baltimore of yore. In this dystopian world, refugees from New China have come to the U.S. in droves, and cities are basically organized labor camps with multiple generations of families living in cramped spaces, with everyone employed by the city. First one member of B-Mor disappears, possibly to be experimented on, and then his lover follows him, wishing to track him down, and it’s through her story—not told by her, but by others—that we learn of the outside world and what it has come to.
While about half of Cloud Atlas takes place in the past, present, or in the fictional world of a series of novels, the middle portion of the novel is dystopian in two very different, fascinating ways. The bookends to the book’s middle look at a dystopic Korea where a “fabricant,” a being made to live in servitude and be happy about it, is helped to become self-aware. The exact center of the novel is set in a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where it seems society has reverted to customs we associate with times long past, inviting us to look at the idea of humanity as cyclical in nature.
World War Z
An incredibly intelligent take on the zombie apocalypse, World War Z is written as a series of oral histories from all over the world, each part of which was affected in one way or another by the zombies. The zombies are never “on screen,” as it were, as the interviews with various folks all take place after the world has settled somewhat, though zombies still exist in pockets. What Brooks focuses on is how various cultures and countries dealt with the epidemic: some areas of the world react with a coming together, others start to bomb one another. Brooks looks at the aftermath of the zombies themselves, but mostly at the dystopian future in which so many have torn one another apart, using the zombies as an excuse or a catalyst.
Never Let Me Go
Kathy is a carer—she takes care of donors, who are clones bred to donate their organs to other humans until their systems fail from lack of vital organs. But Kathy wasn’t always a carer. Once, she was a student at Hailsham, a boarding school where guardians (teachers) put an emphasis on health as well as learning. One of the guardians reveals the school’s and its students’ true purpose: organ harvesting. The students begin to have contact with the outside world only after leaving the school, and it’s there they also learn that they can defer their donations for three years if they can prove, through artwork, that they’re in love.
The Heart Goes Last
Atwood is featured twice on this list because she’s worth it. In The Heart Goes Last, a couple enters a kind of social experiment in order to escape the world that’s basically ours but just a little worse: there are no jobs to be had, cities are becoming chaotic, and everyone’s terrified of what comes next. The city and life the couple enter into has them living in a lovely house for one month and in prison the next. Both inside and outside prison they have jobs and a routine, and there’s nothing truly terrible going on, it seems, except that under the surface of the city and the prison, there’s a whole other ballgame happening, to which both couples living in this house are, wittingly or not, contributing to.
A classic dystopian novel that takes place in our current past, this is where the term “Big Brother” came from. Big Brother is always watching in Oceania, one of the world powers that exists in the world Orwell builds. People are constantly watched and must practice doublethink in order to keep opposing concepts about reality in their minds at the same time. There’s a perpetual war at place between the three world powers (Oceania, where the novel takes place, Eurasia, and Eastasia), which change alliances constantly. Winston Smith is the novel’s main character, a man who works at the Ministry of Truth, correcting and editing history. He secretly loathes the Party and begins a love affair with a woman who shares this loathing. But when your very thoughts are policed, you’re not allowed to hate your leaders.
The Children of Men
P. D. James
In this novel, James—who was typically a crime writer—establishes a world where men’s sperm count plummets and humanity is on the verge of extinction due to the inability to reproduce. There is despotic rule; the last generation to be born (dubbed Omegas) are unstable and violent; mass suicides (killings by the government, really) occur when people reach the age of 60, in order to not be a burden on the constantly aging society. But there are dissidents, as there always will be, and it is among them that a woman is found to be pregnant, for the first time in years.
An early 20th-century dystopian novel written originally in Russian, We takes place far in the future, in One State, thought to be Earth’s single government, which is building a spaceship to begin invading and taking over other parts of the galaxy. Society is meant to be extremely and perfectly logical, so when the protagonist, D-503, meets a woman, I-330, who flirts and exhibits spontaneous emotion, he’s overcome by his fascination. Buildings are all made entirely from glass and privacy is impossible—but there is one place, a single opaque building, where D-503 can meet I-330 privately. Here begins D-503’s reverse indoctrination and a discovery of a world outside One State.
From 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale to The Hunger Games and World War Z, dystopian novels have been and continue to be incredibly central to genre literature. In part because dystopian literature can include elements of other genres—sci fi, speculative, and others—but also because since the advent of dystopian literature, we’ve found it intensely appealing, terrifying, and most importantly: relevant.
It’s also an incredibly old genre that spans hundreds of years, all the way back to that ever-beloved period, Tudor England. Thomas More, Henry VIII’s right-hand man (until his head was lopped off), wrote Utopia, which is similar to what we consider dystopia today: a kind of thought experiment, the work describes an island where cities and households are deliberately and carefully controlled, there’s no private property, and every household has two slaves.
Like much dystopian literature, Utopia was meant as a critique of the society in which More lived. The same is true of today’s dystopian literature, which again may be why we find it so fascinating and disturbing. Take a look at the ever-popular trilogy The Hunger Games, for example. Its world is roughly North America divided into different districts, and it uses reality TV (a relatively new development) as its main point of horror. The Hunger Games is the biggest show to take place every year, and it’s used both to dominate the districts beholden to the Capitol’s support and to amuse the citizens of the Capitol, who live a life of opulence and ease.
Dystopian novels explore worlds that could be, and serve—sometimes overtly—as a warning to us. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale warns us of a future in which women are so severely oppressed that they won’t be able to control their reproductive systems or be allowed to read. Another of Atwood’s novels, also featured below, takes a hard look at the current financial crisis and a possible Silicon-Valley-mixed-with-Third-Reich kind of solution.
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Many dystopias are post-apocalyptic, but not all. This is where the most interesting dichotomy lies: is the dystopian future one that’s snuck up on people through changes in technology or the regular ebb and flow of world powers, or is the dystopia set off by a pandemic, a rebellion, a nuclear fallout, a meteor crash, an alien invasion? What much dystopian fiction shares is how eminently believable it is, how strangely plausible. This is partly what seems to draw us to it: we see our futures, or humanity’s future, represented in fiction, which either makes it seem more far-fetched or otherwise too close for comfort.
Maybe it’s this strangely close realism that makes dystopian literature fly under the radar when it comes to genre snobbishness as well. After all, Atwood isn’t considered a great genre writer but just a great writer. Chang-Rae Lee, who wrote On Such a Full Sea, is seen as a genre-bender rather than strictly writing dystopian literature or sci-fi. And Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is a considered a classic, and not just for genre-lovers.
It seems that with the rise of technology, the increasingly fast-paced news cycle, and the ability to see terrible things unfolding around us in real time online, dystopian literature is getting closer to our real lives—as well as yielding imaginative new books from the genre. Below, we’ve rounded up our favorites of the old and new.
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