Dystopian novels figure 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 erratic behavior, 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 works of recent decades. In fact, I’ve become so intrigued that I am now writing a book on the subject. Below, in the meantime, I’ll list all those I’ve read and reviewed here that are part of trilogies or other series. They’re arranged in alphabetical order by the authors’ last names.
Among the works included here 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 these books ratings of @@@@ or @@@@@ (4 or 5 out of 5).
The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood
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. (It’s not a sequel.) 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 Drowned Cities Novels by Paolo Bacigalupi
These three outstanding novels depicting a grim future long after the oceans have drowned many of the world’s great cities do not constitute a trilogy in a formal sense. But the scenario they illustrate is the same. Most of the action takes place in and near Bangkok in the 23rd century. Sometime in the past, the oceans have risen 20 feet or more, and the city survives 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.”
The Parable Cycle by Octavia E. Butler
In the two extraordinary novels that comprise the Parable Cycle, Octavia Butler posits a near-future United States in which a fanatical new President empowers a secret force resembling a cross between the Ku Klux Klan and Hitler’s SA stormtroopers. Unlike their antecedents, however, they set out to impose a brand of Christian fundamentalism that would put any contemporary sect to shame. As this frightening new force takes hold on the country, a young African-American woman named Lauren Olamina Bankole, the daughter of a Baptist preacher, crafts a new religion. Earthseed deifies change itself and foresees a future when the human race will populate the galaxy. This complex, sometimes puzzling new faith helps her survive in the face of constant, life-threatening adversities.
The Wayward Pines Trilogy by Blake Crouch
The far-future world of the Wayward Pines Trilogy comes into view only very slowly and is fully visible only in Book #3, The Last Town. You know the story, or at least you think you do. Our hero arrives in a small, out-of-the-way town in an unfamiliar part of the country . . . and everything seems off, just a little bit. There’s something strange going on, but it’s deep below the surface. Then the violence starts, and there’s no rational explanation. The suspense quickly becomes unbearable. I can’t reveal a whole lot more without spoiling the experience for anyone who later reads these heart-stopping novels. Suffice it to say that I found myself holding my breath at many points as I made my way through them.
The Sand Omnibus Edition by Hugh Howey
Sand consists of five short novels that together tell an unusually fresh and creative tale. The series is set in Colorado in the distant future when the state’s familiar cities—Denver, Colorado Springs, Pueblo—lie buried under half a mile of sand. On the surface of this desert a pathetic population of survivors ekes out the semblance of a living under the domination of a small group of powerful people called Lords who live in relative comfort in the lee of a massive wall which protects them from the steady accumulation of sand. Our attention is focused on two brothers and a sister in a family that was once among the wealthy but now lives in poverty, where life appears to be much as Thomas Hobbes described it nearly four centuries ago: “nasty, brutish, and short.”
The Wool Omnibus Edition by Hugh Howey
It is several hundred years in Earth’s future, and the surface of the planet has become unlivable. The remnants of humanity, mere thousands of them, live below-ground in a 144-story structure — the Silo — that is governed by a rigid set of rules, protocols, beliefs, and expectations. The inhabitants are divided into segregated, functional castes distinguished by color-coded overalls, monitored from above by a Mayor, a Sheriff, and the head of IT. This totalitarian order is intended to prevent the recurrence of an uprising that nearly destroyed the community at some time in the past. Then, the Silo’s chief law-enforcement officer, the Sheriff, challenges the most fundamental law of the Silo and opts to go to the surface to join the remains of his wife, who was banished into the toxic winds that howl overhead. The community’s belief system is shaken, opening up the possibilities of change.
Shift—the three books that together constitute the prequel to Wool—carries readers from the mid-21st century for several hundred years until its central character is about to cross paths with the principal actor in the future world portrayed in Wool. Along the way readers learn the grim explanation for the origin of the Silo.
Stay tuned for more on dystopian fiction.