In my new book, Hell on Earth: What we can learn from dystopian fiction, I review 62 dystopian novels, nearly all of which I’ve read and reviewed recently. Over the years, the total number I’ve consumed probably approaches 100. So, I feel comfortable putting forward the list of my six favorite dystopian novels.
Here goes, in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names. If I’ve left out one or two of your all-time favorites, or if you simply detest one I’ve included, let me know. You can do so by using the contact form at the bottom of this post.
In M. T. Anderson’s terrifying future world, people access all their news, advertising, education, games, “m-chat,” and money through implants in their brains—not just embedded chips but multipurpose devices that are fully integrated into their nervous systems. This is the “feed” of the title. A powerful future version of Virtual Reality allows people to experience novelty and excitement at any time without special equipment—and without pausing for reflection. Corporations are the dominant force on the planet. Climate change, pollution, and overfishing have killed the oceans. Past wars have left a blanket of radioactive dust all across the surface. Human settlements on Earth exist underground under domes to shield people from the intolerable heat and unbreathable atmosphere. Massive numbers have migrated off-planet to the moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and nearby star systems. This is truly a dystopian society.
The frightening world depicted by Margaret Atwood in the MaddAddam Trilogy is the product of catastrophic climate change, runaway genetic engineering, and . . . something else that only becomes clear much later. Whatever it was that happened was so severe that Atwood’s protagonist in the first of these three novels, a young man named Jimmy who now styles himself as Snowman, believes he is the only human being left alive on Planet Earth. In Oryx and Crake, Book #1, we enter the future world of Atwood’s cruel vision shortly after the Waterless Flood, which virtually exterminated the human species. Climate change has wrought havoc on Planet Earth, confirming the most pessimistic projections of the early 21st Century. It’s not a pretty picture. Book #2, The Year of the Flood, takes us back to the years preceding the Flood, when the conditions described in Oryx and Crake came about. We learn the nature of the Flood, and how it came to be. Finally, in Book #3, MaddAddam, we encounter once again the principal characters of the first two books and follow them as the future grimly unfolds. Most of the action is compressed into a few months following the calamity of the Flood.
The Windup Girl is the first of (now) four novels in Paolo Bacigalupi’s Drowned Cities cycle. It was followed by The Drowned Cities, Ship Breaker, and Tool of War. These four outstanding novels depict a grim future long after the oceans have drowned many of the world’s great cities. Strictly speaking, only the last three constitute a series in a formal sense. But the scenario they illustrate is the same. In the first three books, most of the action takes place in and near Bangkok in the 23rd century; later, the action moves to the Drowned Cities of the North American East Coast. Sometime in the past, the oceans have risen 20 feet or more, and the city of Bangkok is just one of a handful of coastal cities that survive only because a visionary Thai king built an enormous seawall, dikes, and pumps to hold back the waters of the annual monsoon. Genetic engineering has run amok around the globe, and the Thai Kingdom is one of few countries, perhaps the only country, still resisting the “calorie companies,” powerful food-exporting corporations headquartered in the American Midwest and in China. Having killed off virtually all traditional sources of food—and hundreds of millions of people—with genetically engineered plagues to increase their leverage in the market, the calorie companies hungrily eye Thailand and its own independent success in creating new fruits and nightshades capable of resisting the ubiquitous plant-killers. In this grim environment, so long removed from the 21st century, one character “wonders if it was really better in the past, if there really was a golden age fueled by petroleum and technology. A time when every solution to a problem didn’t engender another.”
Centuries in the future, the people of Earth live under the control of an artificial intelligence called UniComp. The result is a worldwide society free of war, hunger, crime, and violence of any sort. “Hate” and “fight” are swear words. The world run by Unicomp is dedicated to efficiency above all else. The population of the planet is kept steady at eight billion through rigorous control of the birth rate and through emigration to colonies the Family has established on other planets. It’s inefficient to grow and prepare a variety of foods, so everyone’s nutritional needs are met through an unchanging diet of totalcakes. To suppress undesirable behavior, everyone submits monthly to chemotherapy “treatments”; otherwise, they will get “sick” and demonstrate aberrant behavior. This is the world Ira Levin describes in his superb science fiction novel, This Perfect Day.
Walter M. Miller, Jr. wrote scores of short science fiction stories but only one novel that was published during his lifetime. In fact, A Canticle for Leibowitz (1960) was a reworked version of three short stories that spanned thousands of years of human history following a nuclear holocaust. Divided into three parts, each corresponding to one of the short stories, the novel describes the efforts of the monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz to preserve scientific knowledge for use in the future once humankind is capable of understanding it once again. The monks worship Saint Leibowitz, a Jewish engineer working for the American military at a base in the Southwestern US. Leibowitz had anticipated all-out nuclear war and a return to dark ages by hiding books in safe places after the war ended. He was betrayed, martyred, and then eventually named a candidate for sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church. But about all that remains of Leibowitz’ life is a shopping list, which is treated as a holy relic by the monks. The books have been lost. Part One, “Fiat Homo” (“Let There Be Man”), is set in the 26th Century, when Leibowitz is canonized following the discovery of the shopping list and other handwritten notes. In Part Two, “Fiat Lux” (“Let There Be Light”), 600 years later in 3174, the new Dark Age is ending. A few scholarly residents of the region are beginning to recreate rudimentary electrical technology. Part Three, “Fiat Voluntas Tua” (“Let Thy Will Be Done”), is set six centuries later in 3781. Once again, humanity possesses nuclear energy and is now populating extra-solar colonies. Nuclear war threatens once again. Of all the science fiction I read as a boy, A Canticle for Leibowitz stands out most vividly in my memory.
In the post-apocalyptic world of this wonderful novel, a National Book Award Finalist, there are no functioning cities. A devastating disease known as the Georgian Flu has killed off nearly all the world’s people. Survivors have scattered over the countryside, some of them coming together in communities of at most a couple of hundred people. Someone has set up a Museum of Civilization in an airport lounge, displaying mobile phones, electronic games, credit cards, and other artifacts of lives long gone. This is a world fraught with danger. In the years immediately following the collapse, many survivors walk for hundreds of miles in search of food and other resources. Distrust leads many to kill anyone who approaches them. Meanwhile, feral humans rove the earth, preying on travelers unable to defend themselves. Soon, madness takes hold of many, and would-be prophets begin to collect followers, imposing their will through force on anyone they encounter.
You’ll notice of course, that the most familiar titles don’t appear on this short list. The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and other high-profile examples of the genre are a mixed bag. Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is excellent, though I found the world she imagined in Oryx and Crake (and the other novels in the MaddAddam Trilogy) to be more engaging and ultimately more thought-provoking. As I remember the other well-known titles, none of which I’ve read in recent months, I don’t think any of them is as evocative as the six novels I’ve listed above. And perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising: Brave New World was written in the early 1930s, 1984 in the 1940s, and Fahrenheit 451 in the 1950s. The authors couldn’t possibly have foreseen the world we live in today, much less how to write in a way that contemporary readers would find truly relevant.
Are the six books in my list the six best dystopian novels of all time? Of course, that’s a matter of opinion. Feel free to disagree with me.