Saturday, 1 December 2012

20 Greatest Works of Dystopian Literature

Another example of my penchant for lists.  Dystopian or speculative fiction gives a view of where the author thinks society is heading, usually by depiction of the outcome in a futuristic setting.  The best enables us to look at our world in a new way.  A notable omission is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.

Once Sir Thomas More published his immortal Utopia in 1516, it was inevitable that someday the ideologies he promoted would later end up inverted by other writers. Enter dystopian literature. Though mainly associated with speculative and science-fiction, the portrayal of a bleak and utterly un-idealized society can nestle in nicely with other genres and subgenres as well. Nearly every school manages to slip at least one or two into an English class, but students (or former students!) hoping to explore dystopian tenets further have much, much more available to satiate their curiosity. Many other valuable works have sadly been left off of this list due to space constraints, though the extremely popular and influential ones listed here should make for a solid enough primer as opposed to a be-all, end-all resource. Books, as with all creative pursuits, are entirely subjective works of art, so please take no offense to any exclusions or inclusions. It is all a matter of opinion, not fact.
  1. Title: Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863)
    Author: Jules Verne
    Part of what makes Jules Verne and other speculative fiction writers from the 19th century so intriguing is noting any sociopolitical phenomena or technological innovations they accurately predicted. His tale of a 1960 Paris where science and industry reign supreme at the expense of all creativity may not have come to pass (thankfully!), but the ever-so-clever writer still foresaw air conditioning, calculators, television, the electric chair, the internet, skyscrapers, geometric architecture, cars powered by gasoline and high-speed rail lines. A fantastic read, many artistic types can relate to the fear of socially-sanctioned imagination squashing — a symptom of a dystopian world, indeed!
  1. Title: The Time Machine (1895)
    Author: H.G. Wells
    Much of H.G. Wells’ oeuvre can still inspire shockwaves up and down a reader’s spine. One of his most beloved works, The Time Machine, jarringly juxtaposes the leisurely, seemingly Utopian lifestyle of the Eloi with the grim, overarching reality of their hedonism. Even today, the cannibalistic Morlocks remain some of literature’s most horrifying civilizations, not to mention highly existential reflections on mankind’s duel propensity for good and evil. Wells was a consummate writer, and his gift for creating atmosphere and drama only makes this dystopian classic all the more chilling.
  1. Title: The Scarlet Empire (1906)
    Author: David MacLean Parry
    Though obscured in the minds of today’s general audience, The Scarlet Empire enjoyed a right fair amount of popularity in its day. A political satire, conservative readers embraced the book’s depiction of socialist ideology as dehumanizing and impersonal. They considered it a worthy antidote to the utopian novels denouncing capitalism as a means to societal, political and economic turmoil that sold well at the time. Interestingly enough, David MacLean Parry chose to represent the restrictive civilization as Atlantean rather than hailing from any terrestrial, then-known nations. This narrative decision gives it an otherworldly aura suitable for a dystopian story meant to scare and shock, yet its grounding in real-world politics gives it a relatable (for some) edge.
  1. Title: The Iron Heel (1908)
    Author: Jack London
    Literary critics consider Jack London’s The Iron Heel one of the earliest, most solid examples of 20th-century dystopian literature, popularizing many of the narrative elements utilized in later works. The author channeled his socialist ideals into the novel in a far more explicit fashion than his other works, simultaneously bucking convention by relating them through a female protagonist at a time when men dominated the literary scene (and pretty much everything else as well). At the top of the pecking order sits The Oligarchy, which creates a proletariat class by squelching medium and small businesses and subsequently exploits the displaced workers. London strikes a tone familiar to anyone who enjoys politically-charged dystopian books, but at the time experimented with some edgy new concepts.
  1. Title: We (1921)
    Author: Yevgeny Zamyatin
    Many contemporary readers who pick up We and read it outside of its historical and cultural context may think it a rather obvious copy of George Orwell’s far more visible Nineteen Eighty-Four. In actuality, however, Orwell considered this novel one of his strongest influences when penning his undeniable classic, and many of the parallels become obvious when one reads them in publication order. Rooted firmly in the Soviet experience, Yevgeny Zamyatin channeled the public’s fear of a totalitarian state into one of the quintessential dystopian novels of the 20th Century. So adroit was his skill at bottling up the overarching fear, he had the "honor" of becoming the first writer with a work nationally banned by the Main Administration for Safeguarding State Secrets in the Press (Glavit).
  1. Title: The Trial (1925)
    Author: Franz Kafka
    Few writers could peer into the uglier corners of the psyche as adeptly as Franz Kafka, and his talents certainly suit the dystopian genre well. Protagonist Josef K. finds himself arrested and drowning in veritable tidal waves of bureaucracy, attempting to maneuver his way out of a charge that’s never actually specified. Nor does even know who presides over the eponymous hearing! This deeply affecting, psychological novel stands as both an essential example of both dystopian and existential literature.
  1. Title: Brave New World (1932)
    Author: Aldous Huxley
    Aldous Huxley initially conceived of Brave New World as a parody of H.G. Wells’ 1923 utopian novel Men Like Gods, later blending in elements of other influences (such as Yevgeny Zamyatin and D.H. Lawrence) and contemporary political, social and religious ideologies in spite of its futuristic, science-fiction setting. A drug called soma — redolent of today’s highly popular antidepressants — is distributed amongst the populace in a fashion referencing both Henry Ford’s assembly lines and the Communion tradition. This keeps them susceptible to hypnosis, and the government uses sleep suggestion to keep them corralled in their assigned sociopolitical classes.
  1. Title: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
    Author: George Orwell
    These days, most people immediately think of George Orwell’s prodigious Nineteen Eighty-Four as the quintessential dystopian novel, though it was not the first and it certainly wasn’t the last. He himself even toyed with elements of it in 1945′s Animal Farm, also a must-read classic. Building upon the precedent set by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Jack London, H.G. Wells and more, Orwell so painstakingly constructed concepts such as Big Brother, thoughtcrimes, newspeak and the oscillating wars between Eastasia and Eurasia eventually made their way into common parlance, among many others. Like Animal Farm, he dissected the tenets of totalitarianism with a critical eye and socialist sensibilities, exploring heavy themes of sexuality, free will, censorship and patriotism along the way. And the final sentence remains one of the most memorable and genuinely frightening in all of literature.
  1. Title: Player Piano (1952)
    Author: Kurt Vonnegut
    Beloved satirist Kurt Vonnegut launched his illustrious career with a dystopian novel he acknowledges as a blatant throwback to We and Brave New World. As the title implies, he intended the piece to parody mankind’s ever-increasing reliance on machinery to get jobs done. Though automation makes their lives easier, people tend to putter around aimlessly with little to engage mind and body alike. They exist in a deceptively perfect society, but one entirely sans any ultimate purpose or meaning. Like many other modern novels of its ilk, Player Piano‘s true enemy is the government — here so hung up on capitalism and progress that technology edges humanity into the margins. Steeped in ennui, they never honestly live because they go without hope.
  1. Title: Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
    Author: Ray Bradbury
    Fahrenheit 451‘s America lays in anarchic ruin, intended as Ray Bradbury’s commentary on how television grew to become the main source of information and entertainment in society. Books, considered an oppressive tool of big, scary intellectuals, have been outlawed to the point that anyone caught with one earns immediate legal punishment. Fireman Guy Montag, tasked with destroying any literature he comes across, meanders his broken world contemplating overarching themes of censorship and media-induced isolation. Here, however, a political regime cannot be held accountable as the ultimate culprit. Rather, Bradbury’s exploration of the hows and whys behind book banning and burning are solely the responsibility of the people.
  1. Title: Atlas Shrugged (1957)
    Author: Ayn Rand
    No stranger to dystopian literature, Ayn Rand’s first foray into the genre came in 1938 when she published Anthem – also a notable work, though fans and literary critics typically hail Atlas Shrugged as her greatest achievement. More mystery than science fiction, the author used the novel as a commentary on centralized government and a promotion of her Objectivist philosophies. The industrial infrastructure of society, she argues, flourishes when left largely untouched by the government. To Rand, dystopia settles in when Marxist ideologies begin influencing and regulating businesses.
  1. Title: A Clockwork Orange (1962)
    Author: Anthony Burgess
    Although Anthony Burgess later disowned A Clockwork Orange because so many readers (including director Stanley Kubrick, who helmed the film adaptation) interpreted it as a glamorization of sexual and violent misconduct rather than a condemnation. Deeply psychological, he wanted the novel to instead discuss the nature of free will. Audiences were meant to question whether or not the serial rapist and murderer Alex, the loathsome protagonist, went about "doing the ultraviolence" due to some sort of Pavlovian programming or because of an inherently destructive nature. Heavy questions indeed, and certainly never meant to excuse his abhorrent behavior.
  1. Title: Logan’s Run (1967)
    Authors: George Clayton Johnson and William F. Nolan
    Readers who want to see their dystopias swathed in a utopian veil should consider picking up the fabulous Logan’s Run as one of the essential examples. On the surface, the idyllic, permissive hedonism enjoyed by the titular Logan 3 and his peers seems enjoyable and leisurely enough. However, the government mandates the execution of every citizen on his or her 21st birthday — and they eagerly accept! Logan 3′s job description entails the capture and punishment of "Runners" who attempt to escape their fate, only to find himself pining to escape. The juxtaposition of the citizenry’s pampered lifestyle with its appalling ageist agenda definitely lends the book an effective narrative punch.
  1. Title: The Stepford Wives (1972)
    Author: Ira Levin
    Ira Levin’s absolutely horrifying domestic thriller The Stepford Wives was not his first attempt at a dystopian novel — that honor goes to 1970′s This Perfect Day – but it is one of his most recognized and studied works. Unlike most works in the genre, the dystopian setting is confined only to the fictitious town of Stepford, Connecticut, rather than an entire nation (or the planet). Through a feminist filter, one can easily interpret the novel as a condemnation of keeping women in perpetual submission. Even the term "Stepford wife" entered the vernacular as a criticism of females wholly dependent and kept in willing subjugation by her husband. And the blood-curdling twist launches the book into the realm of the veritably dystopian.
  1. Title: A Scanner Darkly (1977)
    Author: Philip K. Dick
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968) and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (1974) both preceded A Scanner Darkly in heavily influential science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s dystopian oeuvre. While the others still stand as excellent, essential reads in their own right, the semi-autobiographical, intense nature of his 1977 novel warrants inclusion on this list. The writer channeled his emotional struggles against substance abuse and schizophrenia into a heartbreaking, hallucinatory, high-tech tale of Bob, alias Agent Fred. Working undercover as a narcotics agent, he grows more and more dependent on a drug known as Substance D and discovers some incredibly dangerous plots helmed by the massive New-Path corporation.
  1. Title: V for Vendetta (1982-1988)
    Author: Alan Moore
    Artist: David Lloyd
    The graphic nature of comic books lends itself to the atmospheric portrayal of dystopian scenes in a way traditional novels cannot. Alan Moore intended
    V for Vendetta as a scathing commentary on Thatcherism, depicting the citizens of a post-apocalyptic Britain entrenched in a brutally restrictive totalitarian police state. Standing against the oppressive Norsefire regime is V, a Guy Fawkes mask-clad anarchist whose views starkly contrast with theirs and forms the central conflict of the story. Both sides go about their battles with equal amounts of ruthless passion, dragging the innocent and not-so-innocent in their wake.
  1. Title: The Giver (1993)
    Author: Lois Lowry
    Many of today’s readers were introduced to dystopian literature through Lois Lowry’s beloved The Giver, memorable for the vivid descriptions of how one would perceive the color red for the very first time. Young adult readers often gravitate to the novel because of its central theme of discovering individual identity in a world characterized by mandatory "Sameness." Every citizen of The Community has rid him- or herself from any need to feel emotion, with only one elderly man — who goes by the titular moniker — allowed to pursue any amount of greater knowledge. 12-year-old Jonas receives the assignment to inherit The Giver’s talents, learning some disturbing things about his seemingly perfect settlement in the process.
  1. Title: The Diamond Age (1995)
    Author: Neal Stephenson
    The "phyles," Neal Stephenson’s term for ghettos separated by religious, racial, political or ideological leanings, populating postcyberpunk masterpiece The Diamond Age must rely on the latest in nanotechnology to function. He uses these divisions to explore serious class issues, as impoverished protagonist Nell finds herself accidentally in possession of a wondrous educational tome intended for a wealthier young lady. As her intellectual prowess increases, she begins challenging prevailing social norms and expectations using the very same machinery they use to maintain the status quo.
  1. Title: Y: The Last Man (2002-2008)
    Author: Brian K. Vaughan
    Artist: Pia Guerra
    Yorick Brown miraculously survives an apocalyptic plague that kills everything with a Y chromosome on the planet, save for him and his pet capuchin Ampersand. Brian K. Vaughan dispels many of the ideas that believe the world would be a much more peaceable kingdom were women placed in more powerful positions. Among many, many other themes, he explores how people of all gender and sexual identities are equally capable of brutal, selfish acts — such behaviors are inherent to the entire species, perceptions to the contrary are mere social constructs.
    Y: The Last Man also comes peppered with some fantastic literary references as a bonus for bibliophiles who pick it up.
  1. Title: The Road (2006)
    Author: Cormac McCarthy
    Dystopian and postapocalyptic settings blur together in one of the ’00s most well-received (including a wee little award known as the Pulitzer) works of literature. Cormac McCarthy spares nothing in his intense novel of desperate people struggling to survive after an unspecified cataclysmic event kills off much of the planet’s life forms. A nameless father and son traverse a ravaged land in search of food, shelter and some semblance of healthcare, carrying around a revolver loaded with only one bullet, for emergencies only. With no governing or peacekeeping body, cannibals and murderers remain a persistent threat, powered even further by their seal to stay alive, no matter the cost to others.
Just because a dystopian work was left off this list does not make it an unworthy read. For those who find the pessimistic interpretations of Sir Thomas More’s idyllic settings scintillating, other relevant pieces of literature should be sought out and considered in addition to these. Doing so will only open one’s mind up to new philosophies regarding society, politics, economics and oh-so-much else.


  1. "A Canticle for Leibowitz" by Walter M. Miller
    "Wool" by Hugh Howie
    "Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Attwood

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