This book imagines a world where America is half underwater and under the constant surveillance of artificially intelligent internet. The upper caste, known as “Netted,” occupy the literal high-ground. The lower caste, “Surplus,” make their way in the swamps and on the water. When the government resurrects the game of a baseball, a pitching prodigy—and the daughter of a Surplus couple—sees a way out and up the insurmountable social ladder, but at what cost? The wry undertones and sheer plausibility make this well-hewn dystopian novel all the more unsettling.
Omar El Akkad
American War is a must-read. Set against the backdrop of the Second American Civil War, Sarat Chestnut has grown up in a world where drones fill the sky, oil is outlawed, and her climate change-ravaged home is partially underwater. When her father is killed and her family is displaced to a refugee camp, Sarat becomes a dangerous cog in the resistance movement, trading her humanity for vengeance in hopes of a better world.
Emily St. John Mandel
Kirsten Raymonde is a part of the Traveling Symphony, a nomadic troupe of actors and musicians making their way through the plague-ravaged remnants of the U.S. to bring music and art to a desperate people. When a cult led by a man simply called Prophet threatens the troupe’s very existence, Kirsten and her compatriots are pushed apart and struggle for survival and a safe haven. Through it all, a narrative thread from the past links the fates of these disparate people firmly together.
The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood’s haunting vision of a dystopian near-future is a masterwork of speculative fiction. The fact that it continues to remain so prescient is a comment not only on Atwood’s skill, but on how little actual progress we have made as a society. Atwood’s tale of a totalitarian, fundamentalist regime set in a time of declining birthrates and social inequality is as chilling today as it was thirty-five years ago—perhaps more so.
Rebecca cannot shake the feeling that the world around her is slightly off. Her husband, a renowned physicist, is busy at work on what most would call a time machine—although he and his team avoid that label. When a car crash, resulting from the failure of a self-driving car, ends in tragedy, timelines seem to converge and Rebecca begins to realize nothing is quite as it seems.
The Mother Code
In 2049, society is on the brink of collapse. In order to ensure the survival of the human race, a bold plan is enacted: genetically engineered children are to be incubated in cocoons inside of large robots and eventually birthed to be raised by their robot mothers. The robots themselves are unique, each programmed with the Mother Code to ensure they care for their charges. However, when the government decides the robots must be destroyed, a boy named Kai must decide if he is willing to lose his robot companion and caretaker, or if he will fight for the only mother he has ever known.
The End of October
In an internment camp in Indonesia, a dangerous hemorrhagic fever leaves forty-seven dead. Henry Parsons, a microbiologist investigating the incident for the World Health Organization, discovers a deadly virus set to sweep across the globe. Henry soon sets off with the hopes of quarantining an infected man making a pilgrimage to Mecca with millions of other worshippers, but this pandemic may have already been unleashed on a world unprepared for the looming catastrophe.
Ted Chiang’s short fiction is the essence of great science fiction—original, thought-provoking, and deeply human. With Exhalation, Chiang presents his latest collection of nine stories that focus on big questions—questions that make us reexamine our conceptions of time, free will, and what it means to be human. Chiang conjures worlds and situations that are illuminating, profound, and driven by a combination of curiosity and deep emotion. This work places Chiang in conversation alongside the likes Harlan Ellison and Philip K. Dick.
In the near future imagined by Joanna Kavenna, the Beetle Corporation has engineered a perfect world based on their visionary predictive algorithm—an omniscient presence known as “lifechain.” When Lionel Bigman is murdered by a robot, Beetle’s CEO insists the death was caused by human error. But was it? And if either eventuality is true, what does that mean for this so-called utopia?
The morning Calla wakes up with her first period, she knows what is to come. She understands, as everyone does, what the lottery is. If she’s given a white ticket, she will be married and bear children. If she receives a blue ticket, she will take on a career. Without the burden of choice, one can experience true contentment—or so Calla has always been led to believe. But what if the life chosen for her is not the one she desires? As Calla—who’s given a blue ticket—begins to question everything, she finds herself desperate and alone, pregnant and on the run, and in search of a life that may never materialize.
A Song for a New Day
In the world that Rosemary Laws and Luce Cannon know, there is only the Before and the After. In the Before, Luce was a rising music star—until the government banned concerts and large events amidst a spate of terrorist attacks and deadly virus outbreaks. In the After, Rosemary finds a new job facilitating virtual reality concerts. When Rosemary gets a taste of what the Before was like after a chance encounter with Luce, her life—and possibly the world as she knows it—may never be the same.
In this near-future thriller, Cloud is a monolithic tech company accounting for the bulk of the American economy—it’s Big Business meets Big Brother in sanitized box stores and sprawling live-work compounds. Working for Cloud is not the life Paxton imagined for himself, but it’s better than the squalor of the outside world. When he meets Zinnia, a woman who has infiltrated Cloud with the hope of exposing the company’s darkest secrets, Paxton is unknowingly swept into a plot that will shatter the carefully cultivated world around him and prove just how far-reaching Cloud really is.
The Last Day
Andrew Hunter Murray
In 2059, the world is on the verge of destruction. A solar event that occurred forty years ago brought the earth’s rotation to a halt, leaving half of the world in darkness. Humanity survives in a handful of habitable zones just outside the scorching sunlight and the frozen darkness. Ellen Hopper, a scientist working a derelict rig in the Atlantic, is called back to London and soon discovers a secret that could threaten whatever waning time humanity has left.
Greenwood begins in 2038 with Jacinta (Jake) Greenwood—a dissatisfied and overqualified tour guide in one of the world’s last remaining forests. What unfolds is a generational saga of a family held together by survival, remorse, and above all things, the forest. Spanning a gravely-injured carpenter in 2008 to a logger in 1934 who comes across an abandoned infant and sees his life forever changed, Greenwood is a sprawling clockwork of a family’s story.
Warcross is a global sensation. It’s the biggest multiplayer game in the world with millions of users logging in to play every day. Emika Chen is a teenage hacker who works as a bounty hunter, tracking down players who illegally bet on the game. When she accidentally hacks into world championships of Warcross and glitches herself into the action, she becomes an overnight sensation. When the billionaire creator of the game asks her to be his spy on the inside of the tournament, she becomes immersed in a world of fame and decadence beyond her wildest dreams—but also in a sinister plot with consequences far beyond the world of Warcross.
When we think of sci-fi, it’s easy to picture far-flung futures and space-faring adventures brimming with outlandish technology. While that branch of sci-fi certainly has its place, the more plausible—and often more sinister—imaginings of near-future sci-fi can make for challenging, page-turning reads. Building off of the world as we know it, there’s an unnerving, unshakeable sense of familiarity with dystopian reads. These are a few of our favorites.
Featured image: Kevon Nicholas