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Making peace with the end of the world like we always have — through stories.

February 25, 2011

Suzanne Collins -- prophet of doom?

Over at Huffpo this morning, Peter Steinberg offers a list of 12 dystopian novels for us to admire — or dispute. I also take issue with his reason for the enduring popularity of good books about a bad future, which he identifies as the consolation of knowing “things could always be worse.”

Thing is, wait a bit and they almost certainly will be. In a world where (as sci-fi has always known) the only constant is change, things are always getting worse for some and better for others. The horns that brought down the walls of Jericho heralded a utopia for the Israelites but the end of everything for the Canaanites inside the city.

That’s why anyone prohesying disaster has a better than even chance of being at least partially right. As Peter Kramer reports in his controversial book Listening to Prozac, clinical studies show that while people optimistic by nature are far happier, pessimistic people are better at predicting outcomes.

Another reason we read dystopian novels (or watch disaster movies) is related to why children love gross and scary tales. Fairy tales, remember, tend to deal with gross and terrifying tropes — cannibalism, child abandonment, dismemberment, slavery, imprisonment.

On the one hand, these are the very things children instinctively fear — being eaten, being abandoned, being abused. On the other, facing such horrors in the safety of stories prepares a child for the ultimate expulsion from the Eden of childhood into the frightening strife of adolescence and adulthood.

In the same way, as adults we discharge our anxieties by indulging in stories that present our greatest fears (or worse). At the same time, they may be preparing us for real challenges lying ahead as social and technological change roll implacably ahead of us.

This is always true, but never moreso than today, when we face the possibility of any number of apocalyptic possibilities: global warming and its manifold attendant catastrophies; potential world-wide water shortages; the possible depletion of oil supplies; the rise of pandemics from the tropics; unprecedented economic uncertainty. And so on.

Now that I’ve gotten you properly agitated, let’s consider Steinberg’s list. It is a good list, to be sure: We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin; World War Z, by Max Brooks; The Road, by Cormac McCarthy; Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro; The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood; Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury; Blindness, by Jose Saramago; Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell; Anthem, by Ayn Rand; and The Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard.

A few striking points about Steinberg’s selection. First, several of the books are of very recent vintage, published in the last decade. Second, it leaves out some very obvious choices, like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies — not a novel I care for, what with its sledgehammer symbolism, but still it’s surprising to see Rand or Brooks in his place. Finally, the absence of “real” science fiction.

Oh, and while I realize The Handmaid’s Tale is the better and more important book, I personally find Atwood’s more recent dystopia on the subject of genetic engineering, Oryx and Crake, far more disturbing — if only because its nightmare is likely to come to pass sooner. Like tomorrow.

In any event, here are some dystopian novels I say should also be considered:

Peace on Earth, by Stanislaw Lem. In a future dominated by artificial intelligence, war has been banished to the Moon, where it is fought by robots — until the Moon goes silent and no one knows what the AI’s are up to.

Why Do Birds, by Damon Knight. A man returns to Earth after being raised by aliens to warn the planet is about to be destroyed. Humanity can only be saved if everyone squeezes into a gigantic box for transport to a new home. This is one of the greatest and most enjoyable novels I’ve read in the past 20 years.

Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut. How any list of dystopian novels could leave off Vonnegut’s classic about the invention of Ice-Nine and the accidental destruction of the world is a mystery to me.

A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess. Ditto for Burgess’s masterpiece about a future world of social dislocation, delinquency and social engineering, with the amazing slang the author invented for his young hooligans.

Neuromancer, by William Gibson. Published in 1984, Neuromancer foresaw the implications of the digital revolution at a time most people still worked on IBM Selectrics. Gibson is the foremost of the Cyberpunks, and this is his first and best novel.

The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells. A 19th-century scientist builds a machine that takes him far into the future, where he finds what at first seems a green utopia, only to learn his simple, childlike new friends are cultivated as food for another population.

Valis, by Philip K. Dick. Almost any of Dick’s sci-fi novels qualify, but this one — possibly semi-autobiographical in a delusional kind of way — influenced the Wachowski Brothers’ film, The Matrix. Humanity lives in an imposed “meta-reality” under the control of unseen masters.

Bend Sinister, by Vladmir Nabokov. One of the master’s oddest novels, it’s set in a fictional European country controlled by acolytes of a new philosophy that holds everyone is the same in all regards. Of course, this gives rise to a police state.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. A ridiculously ambitious novel that entails six interlocking stories– from the 19th century to a far dystopian future. Mitchell is such a great stylist, he pulls it all together in what is so far his best book.

The Stand, by Stephen King. In one of the first modern pandemic apocalypses, God and Satan duke it out in a world where disease has slaughter 99 percent of the population. One of King’s densest yet most compulsively readable novels.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, and Little Brother, by Cory Doctorow. Some of the best recent dystopian fiction appeared as Young Adult titles. Collins sets her story in a North America where a centralized authority keeps the population under control with a series of lethal reality show contests. Doctorow’s angry book explores San Francisco locked down in a Homeland Security fascist state after a terrorist bombing. Both are excellent.

And finally, let’s not forget the scariest of all, the original Apocalypse — let’s give it up for The Revelation of St. John the Divine. This is Holy Writ for about a billion people, but I mean no disrespect when I say it can be read just for the vivid images of world-wide destruction and torment. It’s far more inventive than you can imagine.

Please, what’s your dystopia of choice?

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2011 1:47 pm

    Impressive list, Chauncey. Neuromancer surprised me, though. I remember it not for apocalypticism but its creepy blending of mechanics and humanity.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 25, 2011 3:48 pm

      Don’t make the mistake of equating apocalytpicism with dystopianism. All apocalyptic novels are dystopian, but not all dystopian novels are apocalyptic. For example, there’s nothing apocalytpic about Brave New World or 1984. The societies these books depict are functioning quite nicely, if in harsh and unfair ways.

  2. boneislandbooks permalink
    February 25, 2011 2:10 pm

    Anyone who’s into dystopian lit should check out the roster for the next Key West Literary Seminar in January 2012: http://www.kwls.org/lit/2012/

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 25, 2011 3:50 pm

      Oh, my God — what a great line-up! Thanks for sharing it with us. It reminds me I should have included Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story to my list. Fabulous.

  3. February 25, 2011 3:37 pm

    I like The Road as much as the next guy, but Blood Meridian is McCarthy’s dystopian masterpiece.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 25, 2011 3:53 pm

      Uh…I agree Blood Meridian is an important and potent piece of fiction, but what qualifies it as dystopian? It’s a historical novel and from what I know, McCarthy went to some trouble to ground it in historical fact, which would seem to disqualify it from the dystopian genre. But I’m not a great McCarthy fan, and I am willing to be schooled if I’m wrong on this point.

  4. February 25, 2011 8:03 pm

    Brave New World. The Chrysalids. Oldies but goodies.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 26, 2011 12:02 am

      Yes, indeed. Thanks for mentioning The Chrysalids. Wyndham is a writer who deserves to be remembered and read.

  5. PJ Parrish permalink
    February 26, 2011 12:58 pm

    Would you include Burrough’s “The Wild Boys”? I read it recently (well, skimmed it) for research and didn’t care for it. But I do have a soft spot in my heart for dystopian and apocolyptic books and movies. So thanks for the reading list!

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 27, 2011 4:24 pm

      I have not read The Wild Boys, but from what I know it should qualify. Naked Lunch was all the Burroughs I needed for a long, long, looooong time.

  6. February 27, 2011 9:42 pm

    Oryx and Crake for sure. 1984 without a doubt. Your choice of Gibson’s Neuromancer couldn’t be more spot on. PrimeTime by David Memmott is a novel that should be better known. It’s most obvious influences are P.K. Dick and Gibson but Memmott has the advantage of writing cyberpunk in the 21st century, his is a fascinating brain that makes mine feel like it belongs to a gibberish baby.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      February 28, 2011 1:14 am

      I would have included Neal Stephenson, who I think is the very best of the cyberpunk novelists, but I think he may be a little too optimistic about the future and about human nature. I’ve read only three of his books — Snowcrash, Diamond Age and the brilliant, too-long, infuriating Anathem — and none of the qualify as dystopic, more’s the pity. Snow Crash and Diamond Age are close, but no ceegar. Still, I highly recommend Stephenson. I’ll keep an eye out for Memmott.

  7. Sean Piccoli permalink
    February 28, 2011 5:34 pm

    I’ve recently read a few PKD short stories. One, “The Skull,” is a good example of a dismal future, vividly imagined, and I think it might have influenced “The Terminator” in its use of time travel as a weapon. But the twist PKD provides is creepier and more inventive – or at least it caught me by surprise. Your saw-this-coming-a-mile-away results may vary.

    The selections here are so comprehensive I can’t think of titles to add. So here’s a non-fiction book I just started about a potentially dystopian present: “You Are Not a Gadget,” by Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who believes we’re at a point now where our technologies are shaping us more than we shape them. The book is about why and how that all happened.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      March 2, 2011 1:12 am

      Great title, scary premise, and I am in complete agreement as to Mr. Lanier’s conclusions.

  8. Jesse permalink
    March 14, 2011 10:53 pm

    Wonderful list. I can’t say it fits perfectly, haven’t read it for years, but Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank has always stuck with me since sophomore year in high school English class. It fits into that sub-genre of nuclear apocalyptic dystopia so perfectly that it practically defines it. Something must be said for a novel that seems to linger in my head more than fifteen years later. Either that, or I haven’t read enough nuclear apocalyptic dystopian works.

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