Note: I posted this commentary in error on April 3, 2017. It’s incomplete. I’ll repost at a later date once I’ve completed it.
Dystopian fiction figures prominently in the work of some of the world’s best science fiction writers. With Donald Trump in the White House, and an increasingly fearful public contemplating the possibility of disastrous consequences from his policies (and his boundless ambition), dystopian novels such as 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale have crept back onto the bestseller lists.
Lately I’ve made a point of reading (or rereading) the best-known dystopian novels of recent decades. In this and in a following post I’ll list all those I’ve previously read and reviewed. Included is a total of 38 novels written by 17 authors. Among them are outstanding trilogies by Margaret Atwood, Octavia Butler, Blake Crouch, and Hugh Howey, and a connected series of three novels by Paolo Bacigalupi that has not been marketed as a trilogy. In my reviews, I’ve awarded almost all of them ratings of @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5).
As you may notice, several of the most prominent dystopian novels do not appear on this list. However, that’s the case only because I haven’t yet read (or reread) them recently. These include Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, and, most recently, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and Divergent by Veronica Roth.
This post is the first of two. Here, I’ll cover the 14 standalone novels. In a followup post, I’ll review the series.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
Other than 1984 and Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale is probably the best-known recent addition to the growing shelf of novels that depict a grim future for humanity. The book’s fame is well deserved. The story is gripping, the characters easy to understand and believe, and the future scenario compelling. Often called a feminist novel because it centers around the subjugation of women in a theocratic state, The Handmaid’s Tale in fact portrays the dehumanization not just of the women who serve as sex slaves and baby factories but of other women and the men as well.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Dystopian fiction too often aims to sketch out a possible future, allowing the reader to fill in the gaps on the canvas. The characters seem to exist merely to take predictable actions that cast a spotlight on just how bad things have gotten. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi is different. The late-21st-century reality portrayed in this outstanding novel brings into high relief the consequences of climate change and the resulting water scarcity on the American Southwest. This sad, violence-ridden world is fully realized through the seemingly bottomless imagination of the author. In contrast to the bleak desert landscapes that dominate the story, this future reality abounds with colorful detail.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick
Although Ridley Scott based his classic film, Blade Runner, on Philip K. Dick’s novel, he took a great many liberties. In fact, the two differ in substantial ways. Scott’s future Los Angeles bears little resemblance to San Francisco in 2021 as Dick pictured it. Scott brought the sensibility of a science fiction fan to the crime genre; Blade Runner is all about action, mystery, and violence. Though the story in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? also revolves around bounty hunter Rick Deckard’s mission to “retire” (kill) the androids that have defied the law and returned to Earth, Dick was more concerned about developing a scenario of a future following a devastating nuclear war. There are no crowd scenes in the novel, as there are in the film. Few people and fewer animals have survived the war and the continuing radioactive fallout. And, while there is a hint of Dick’s characteristic paranoia in the film, it’s a dominant theme in the book.
Neuromancer (1984) by William Gibson
Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Critics today tend to group Brave New World with George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and other highly respected novels that depict a grim future for the human race. However, the books by Orwell, Atwood, and Dick appear to have been intended as social commentary, whereas Huxley’s is essentially a philosophical reflection on the human condition. As a novel, it’s far less satisfying. Also, Brave New World was published in 1932, and it shows.
This Perfect Day (1970) by Ira Levin
It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis
Goodhouse: A Novel, by Peyton Marshall
Dystopian fiction seeks to illuminate the consequences of the bad choices we make today. Goodhouse follows in this tradition by extrapolating into the late 21st Century the intersection of two of America’s most troublesome present-day realities: our counterproductive criminal justice system, which does a great job training young people for lives of crime, and the hubris of a scientific community that seeks to predict human behavior by reading our DNA. As author Peyton Marshall reveals in the Acknowledgments, the “Goodhouse” where most of the action takes place in her novel is modeled on the notorious Preston Youth Correctional Facility, a juvenile rehabilitation center closed by the State of California only in 2011.
1984, by George Orwell
In 1984, George Orwell envisioned a future society modeled in part on the totalitarianism of the USSR under Josef Stalin but taken to an extreme with the most intrusive technology Orwell could imagine in 1947-48, when he wrote the book. Orwell relates the story of Winston Smith, a middle-ranking official in the all-powerful Party. Smith lives in London in what used to be called Britain. The country is now a small part of a globe-spanning empire named Oceania that is one of only three such empires. It’s in a state of total and constant war with either one of the others at any given time; they change sides frequently. The ruler of Oceania is Big Brother, whose greatly enlarged portrait appears on walls and in windows virtually everywhere. (“BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU.”)
Player Piano, by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart
Imagine the USA 10 or 15 years down the road. The dollar is pegged to the yuan, and a tyrannical right-wing government is in power. The divide between High Net Worth Individuals and Low is a chasm that cannot be spanned. The country is bogged down in a losing war in Venezuela. Everyone carries an “apparat”—an always-online device that broadcasts its carrier’s Male or Female Hotness, health and nutritional benchmarks, and provides access to intimate correspondence. Not only are there no secrets from the government. There are no secrets among the people, either. Even your credit rating hovers brightly in the air above your head when you pass a Credit Pole on the street. This is the USA Gary Shteyngart creates to showcase the truly sad love story of Lenny Abramov (Russian-American, age 39, depressive reader of books) and Eunice Park (Korean-American, age 24, anorexic, self-obsessed, and cruel shopaholic like all her friends). The tale of their troubled relationship plays out against the backdrop of a city (New York) and a country in the throes of total collapse. It’s not a pretty picture—but it’s extremely funny.
Robopocalypse, by Daniel H. Wilson
If you’re imagining ranks of humanoid robots marching in lockstep as they trample on humanity and all else that we’ve created, you’re on the wrong track. This is a science fiction novel, to be sure, and as the title suggests it depicts an apocalyptic future, but it’s a future with a difference. This is a treatment of robots and automation from an entirely different perspective. It’s engaging. And it’s very, very scary. The author comes to his subject matter armed with a Ph.D. in Robotics from Carnegie-Mellon University, frequently cited as the nation’s leader in robotics and artificial intelligence. The speculation in this novel is grounded in a genuine understanding of the world of automata and the possible futures they may create for us. Robopocalypse is structured as an oral history of sorts, a succession of vignettes from varying points of view about the origins and the progression of the “New War” between “Rob” and the human race.
Amped, by Daniel H. Wilson
Amped ventures into the near future—sometime around 2030, it seems—to depict American society in upheaval over the brain implants installed in half a million of its least fortunate citizens. The implants “amplify” the brains of the elderly and infirm, accident victims, and those with severe mental illness and mental retardation, allowing them to focus clearly and to make the most efficient use possible of their bodies. These “amps” are smarter, quicker, and stronger than the average bear—and the vast majority of Americans don’t like it one bit. They’re especially upset about the few amps who began with superior intelligence and outstanding physical abilities and have been turned into superbeings. Nobody likes a smartypants, it seems. In Amped, you won’t find lame dialogue used to “explain” and cardboard characters created for the sole purpose of illustrating different points of view. Amped is, instead, a skillfully written novel of suspense that charges ahead with breakneck speed.