What happens in a near future where corporate surveillance is ubiquitous and company towns have made a comeback? Alternately: what if you worked in a sprawling, high-tech warehouse that was also the place where you lived? Rob Hart’s The Warehouse focuses on two lives that collide in one such place—building on contemporary technology and offering a window into a more paranoid future.
At the heart of Juli Zeh’s Empty Hearts is what the future of Europe might hold—if the stability of the EU was disrupted, and the rise of populism led to a very different society within Germany. Blending satirical elements with harrowing descriptions of radicalism, Zeh’s novel presents a disquieting vision of what tomorrow might hold.
Self-driving cars could increase safety, we’ve been told; they would make transportation easier and less stressful, and usher in a calmer future. But what happens when this cutting-edge technology is hacked? Therein is the premise of John Marrs’s The Passengers, about eight people who find themselves at the mercy of an unknown presence who remotely hijacks their vehicles—and implicates the public in their fate.
A Song for a New Day
Sarah Pinsker’s A Song for a New Day is both a fantastic novel about the compelling power of music and an unnerving portrait of a society a few steps removed from our own. It’s a world in which security concerns have ended most public gatherings, and a place where conflicts over live performances can have severe consequences. Pinsker’s novel balances visceral thrills with complex themes, creating a deeply compelling read along the way.
More than a few dystopian novels place epidemics at the heart of their narrative: some explore the consequences of a massive reduction in population, while others focus on the bizarre effects of a disease. Rory Power’s Wilder Girls falls into the latter camp, and focuses on a trio of friends living under quarantine after a virus begins altering bodies around the world.
There’s something inherently uncanny about sleepwalking—especially in an instance where a sleepwalker continued on their way, unable to be awakened. That’s the central concept of Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, in which a widespread outbreak of sleepwalking transforms society in a host of bizarre and unexpected ways.
Marie Lu’s Legend, which kicked off an acclaimed series, is set in a fragmented future United States where conflicts between newly-formed nations is the norm. The novel follows two people from radically different walks of life, brought together by the fallout from a murder whose repercussions threaten the very foundations of their society.
Karen Thompson Walker
In Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers, one of the most quotidian activities ever—i.e. sleep—becomes something mysterious and haunting. An epidemic of sleeping, with no way of waking those who are dormant, spreads across the nation. As the title suggests, those who are sleeping are dreaming of something—and doing so on a level no one imagined possible.
Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel’s breakthrough novel tells the story of how a pandemic devastated civilization—and of the group of people who found a host of ways to keep the chaos at bay. The resulting work is a moving and insightful book—all the better to whet readers’ appetite for the forthcoming The Glass Hotel.
Cormac McCarthy’s novels frequently offer a bleak view of humanity and showcase conflict at its most visceral. The Road, about a father and son attempting to survive in a devastated world, features some of the most haunting imagery of his bibliography—and some of the most moving scenes he’s ever written.
In recent years, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale has taken on the status of a modern classic—unsettling in its depiction of a reactionary, misogynistic state. Now, with The Testaments, Atwood has returned to the oppressive near-future setting of her earlier novel, exploring the themes she raised in its predecessor in an array of new ways.
The Memory Police
Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police blends a vision of a totalitarian state with a dose of the surreal—think Borges, think Kafka. The society in which the novel’s characters live is one in which specific words and concepts are periodically banned, forcing the population to live an increasingly austere existence—even as they find they have less of a means of describing their condition.
The characters in Ally Condie’s Matched live in a society where a central government makes their decisions for them—including who to love. When the protagonist of Matched encounters a glimpse of another way of living, and must face the challenge that many a dystopian resident must: is it better to safely conform or risk the dangers of the unknown?
The Grief Keeper
In The Grief Keeper, Alexandra Villasante blends a surreal speculative concept with a movingly-observed take on class and immigration. The protagonist of her novel takes part in an experimental program wherein she houses someone else’s grief within her own body—an unexpected symbiosis that leads her towards a future she never expected.
R. A. Lafferty
The singular fiction of the late R. A. Lafferty often blended high concepts with knowing references to history. In the case of Past Master, that blend is literal: it’s set several centuries from now, and finds a time-displaced Sir Thomas More grappling with a flawed utopian society—or, perhaps, a dystopian one. One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia, after all—and in this novel, Lafferty takes the philosophical elements of this subgenre to their logical conclusion.
Some works of science fiction transport the reader to places that take their breath away: uncanny planets that offer a sharp contrast to earthbound life, or technologically advanced futures that can leave us inspired for what tomorrow might bring. And then there are dystopian books: tales set in a world where something’s gone wrong, where oppression or some other dehumanizing force is at work.
Dystopian fiction can be subtler than that, too. Some extrapolate contemporary concerns into unsettling narratives, while others go more abstract and venture into more philosophical realms. Some of these dystopian books offer a glimpse of a recognizable world, while others venture further afield. Whether you look upon them as cautionary tales or signposts on the way to an uncertain future, these books offer a glimpse at how life could go very wrong—and the people determined to set things right.
Featured image by @Nodar77 via Twenty20