Dystopian Science Fiction

Lately, I’ve been feeling kind of dystopian! Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m working on an anthology of dark science fiction with some fellow writer’s over at Goodreads (called Writer’s Worth). Or it might just be that this seemed like the next logical step in the whole “conceptual science fiction” thing. Regardless, when it comes to the future, sci-fi writers love to speculate, and it usually takes one of two forms. Either humanity lives in a utopian society, where technology, time, and evolution have ferreted out our various weaknesses. Or, we live in a dystopian world, where humanity has either brought itself to the brink of annihilation or is living in dark, polluted, and overpopulated environments, the result of excess and environmental degradation.

As with all things science fiction, the aim here is to use speculative worlds of the future to offer commentary on today. As William Gibson, himself a dark future writer, once said: “Science fiction [is] always about the period in which it was written.” So today, I thought I would acknowledge some truly classic examples of dystopian literature and the books that started it all. Here they are:

Earliest Examples

Dystopian literature, contrary to popular conception, did not begin in the 20th century with Brave New World. In fact, one can find examples going as far back as the Enlightenment when philosophers and scholars used fictional contexts to illustrate the weaknesses of society and how they might be reformed. And, in many ways, this form of social critique borrowed from Utopian literature, a genre that takes its name from Thomas More’s seminal book that describes a perfect fictional society.

But where More and earlier writers (such as Plato and St. Augustine) used perfect civilizations to parody contemporary society, this newer breed of authors used dark ones to do the same. In short, Utopian literature showed society how it could be, dystopian literature as it was.

A true classic, though it is sometimes difficult to classify this work as a true dystopian work of fiction. For one, it is set in the contemporary world, not in a fictionalized society, and revolves around the life of a fictional character who travels from one region to the next, seeking to answer the fundamental question of whether or not this is “the best of all possible worlds”. However, this book remains one of the principal sources of inspiration for science fiction writers when constructing fictional worlds for the sake of satirizing their own.

Published in 1755 by the critic and philosopher Voltaire, the story was inspired by the 1755 Lisbon Earthquake and the church’s and Leibnizian’s attempts to rationalize it. At the beginning, Candide – the main character whose name means “optimism” – lives a sheltered existence where he is busy studying and living with his friends and companions. However, this existence is quickly interrupted by the arrival of war, and Candide and his companions are forced to travel from place to place, witnessing all the problems of the world.

These include war, slavery, rape, imperialism, abuse of power, and exploitation, which they observe as the story takes them from Europe to the Middle East to the Americas. Eventually, they return home and reflect on all they have seen and whether or not this is “the best of all possible worlds”. They conclude that it is not, but offer a resolution by saying that “we must cultivate our garden”.

Gulliver’s Travels:
Another classic example that is often considered a combination of utopian and dystopian novels. This is because the plot involves the travels of one man – Gulliver, whose name is a play on the world gullible – whose journey takes him through many fictional worlds where life is either perfect or tragically flawed in various ways. However, since the purpose of these worlds is to parody English society in his day, it is often included as an early example of satiric literature that falls into the utopian, dystopian, and science fiction camps.

The story involves four journeys where Gulliver travels to several fictional societies and records what he sees for posterity. The first voyage takes him to the land of the Lilliputians, a race of tiny people whose morals match their physical size. After some rather brief descriptions of how these people select their leaders (limbo tournaments and other stupid games), we learn that they are a parody of the British system of parliament.

His second voyage takes him to a place that is the polar opposite of the first. Here, in the land of the Brobdingnagians, he is presented with giants whose physical size mirrors their moral outlook. They consider Gulliver to be a curious specimen, whose descriptions of his country disgust them. In the end, they consider him a cute sideshow attraction and refuse his offer of technological advances (like gunpowder). Gulliver then leaves, thinking the people are out of their minds, but ironically states that he withheld the worse about England out of a desire to save face.

His next voyage involves a little “island-hopping”, first to the flying city of Laputa, an island nation where technological pursuits are followed without a single regard for the consequences. He then detours to another island, Glubbdubdrib, where he visits a magician’s dwelling and discusses history with the ghosts of historical figures.

Then onto Luggnagg, where he encounters the struldbrugs – an unfortunate race of people who are immortal but frozen in old age, with all the infirmities that come with it. Gulliver then reaches Japan, which is in the grips of the post-war Shogunate period, where he is narrowly excused from taking part in an anti-Christian display that all foreigners were forced to perform at the time (stepping on the symbol of the Cross).

His final voyage before going home takes him country of the Houyhnhnms, a race of horse-people who see themselves as “the perfection of nature” and who rule over the race of Yahoos – deformed humans who exist in their basest form. Gulliver joins them and comes to adopt their view of humanity – that of base creatures that use reason only to advance their own appetites. However, they soon come to see him as a Yahoo and expel him from their civilization. In the end, Gulliver returns home to regal his family of his adventures but finds that he cannot relate to them anymore. His journeys have filled him with a sense of misanthropy that he cannot ignore.

Throughout the narrative, Swift’s point seems abundantly clear. Each voyage to a fictitious world serves as a means to parody a different element of British society and civilization in general. And ultimately, Gulliver serves as the perfect narrator, in that his ignorance and naivety allow him to absorb the lessons of the journey in a way that is both ironic and sufficiently detached. Can’t just hand the reader the moral, after all! Gotta make them work for it!

The Time Machine:
Published in 1895, this science fiction novella inspired countless adaptations and popularized the very idea of time travel. In addition to introducing readers to the concept of time as the fourth dimension and temporal paradoxes, H.G. Wells also had some interesting social commentary to share. In this story, the narrator – known only as The Traveller – recounts to a bunch of dinner guests how he used a time machine to travel to the year 802, 701 A.D. where he witnessed a strange culture made up of two distinct peoples.

On the one hand, there were the Eloi,  a society of elegant, beautiful people who live in futuristic (but deteriorating) buildings and do no work. Attempts to communicate with them prove difficult since they seem to possess no innate curiosity or discipline. He assumes that they are a communistic society who have used technology to conquer nature and evolved (or devolved) to a point where strength and intellect are no longer necessary to survive.

However, this changes when he comes face to face with a separate race of ape-like troglodytes who live in underground enclaves and surface only at night. Within their dwellings, he discovers the machinery and industry that makes the above-ground paradise possible. He then realizes that the human race has evolved into two species: the leisured class of the ineffectual Eloi, and the downtrodden working classes that have devolved into the brutish Morlocks. In the course of searching the Morlock enclave, he learns that they also feed on the Eloi from time to time. His revised analysis is that their relationship is not a benign one, but one characterized by animosity and the occasional act of kidnapping and cannibalism.

Is there not a more perfect vision of industrial society or class conflict? Written within the context of turn of the century England, where discrepancies in wealth, class conflict, and demands for reform were commonplace, this book was clearly intended to explore social models in addition to scientific ideas. And the commentary was quite effective if you ask me…

The Iron Heel:
This dystopian work was written by Jack London, the same man who wrote the classic Call of the Wild, and was released in 1908. A clear expression of London’s own socialist beliefs, the novel is set in the distant future when a socialist utopia – known as the Brotherhood of Man – has finally been created. Overall, the plot revolves around the “Everhard Manuscript”, a testament that details the lives of the story’s two main protagonists and which takes place between 1912 to 1932 in the US. The work is known for its big “spoiler”, letting readers know outright that the protagonists die in the course of their pursuits, but that their efforts are rewarded by providing inspiration to later generations who succeed where they fail.

In the course of this speculative story, we learn that an oligarchy – the Oligarchs or “Iron Heel” – has seized power in the US by bankrupting the middle class and reducing farmers to a state of serfdom. Once in power, they maintained order through a combination of preferential treatment and control over the military. After a failed revolt (the First Revolt) takes place, preparations are underway for a second which is expected to succeed in restoring the Republic. Unfortunately, it too fails and the protagonists are killed. However, centuries later, when their Manuscript is discovered, the Oligarchy has been unseated and a debt is being acknowledged to these characters and their actions.

Thus, London speculates that a socialist society would someday emerge in the US, but only after centuries of dominance by oligarchs who would come to power by decimating the middle class, controlling trade unions, and transforming the military into a mercenary front. His main characters, though condemned to death in the present, will be vindicated in the distant future when humanity will, at last, overcome its greedy tendencies and usher in a state based on equality and fraternity. Apparently, this novel inspired such greats as George Orwell, but not in the way you think. Whereas London chose to offer his readers a sense of consolation by showing them everything turned out okay in the distant future, Orwell chose to take the hopeless route to make his point!

The story takes place in the distant future, roughly one thousand years after the One State conquered the entire world. After years of living in a perfectly synchronized, rational, and orderly world, the people of the One State are busy constructing a ship (the Integral) that will export their way of life to extra-terrestrial worlds. Published in 1921, and written by Yevgeny Zamyatin, the story was clearly inspired by life in post-revolutionary Russia, with its commitment to “scientific Marxism, but was also a commentary on the deification of reason at the expense of feeling and emotion.

The story is told from the point of view of D-503, chief engineer of the Integral who is keeping a journal which he intends to be taken on the voyage. As we learn in the course of the novel, everyone in the One State lives in glass apartments that are monitored by secret police known as the Bureau of Guardians. All sex is conducted strictly for reproductive purposes and cannot be done without state sanction. However, the main character soon comes into contact with a woman named I-330, a liberated woman who flirts with him, smokes, and drinks alcohol without regard for the law.

In time, he learns that I-330 is a member of a revolutionary order known as MEPHI which is committed to bringing down the One State. While accompanying her to the Ancient House, a building notable for being the only opaque structure in the One State where objects of historic and aesthetic importance are preserved, he is escorted through a series of tunnels to the world outside the Green Wall which surrounds the city-state. There, D-503 meets the inhabitants of the outside world – humans whose bodies are covered with animal fur. The aim of the MEPHI is to destroy the Green Wall and reunite the citizens of the One State with the outside world.

In his last entry, D-503 relates that he has undergone an operation that is mandated for all citizens of the One State. Similar to a lobotomy, this operation involved targeted x-rays that eliminate all emotion and imagination from the human brain. Afterward, D-503 informs on I-330 and MEPHI but is surprised how she refuses to inform on her compatriots once she is captured. People beyond the wall even succeed toward the story’s end in breaching a part of the Green Wall, thus ending the story on an uncertain note.

The Classics

And now we move on to the dystopian classics that are most widely known, that have inspired the most adaptations and sub-genres of noir fiction. Although updated many times over for the 20th century, these dystopian novels share many characteristics with their predecessors. In addition to timeless social commentary, they also asked the difficult question of what it would take to set humanity free.

Whereas some chose to confront this question directly and offer resolutions, other authors chose to leave the question open or chose to offer nothing in the way of consolation. Perhaps they thought their stories more educational this way, or perhaps they could merely think of none. Who’s to say? All I know is their works were inspired!

In addition to parodying the worst aspects of scientific rationalism, imperialism and the notion of progress, the story also went on to inspire some of the greatest satires ever known. In addition, many of its more esoteric elements have appeared in countless novels and films over the years, most notably the concepts of encapsulating walls, secret museums, government-sanctioned breeding, and machine-based programming.

Brave New World:
There’s scarcely a high school student who hasn’t read this famous work of dystopian fiction! And although Aldous Huxley denied ever reading We, his novel nevertheless shared several elements with it. For instance, his story was set in the World State where all reproduction is carried out through a system of eugenics. In addition, several “Savage Reservations” exist beyond the veil of civilization, where people live a dirty, natural existence. But ultimately, Huxley’s aim was to comment on American and Western civilization of the early 20th century, a civilization where leisure and enjoyment were becoming the dominant means of social control.

This last aspect was the overwhelming focus of the novel. In the World State, all people are bred for specific roles. Alphas are the intellectuals and leaders of society, Betas handle high-level bureaucratic tasks, Deltas handle skilled labor, Gammas unskilled labor, and Epsilons menial tasks. Therefore, all vestiges of class conflict and generational conflict have been eliminated from society.

But to further ensure social control, all citizens are sleep-conditioned from a young age to obey the World State and follow its rules. These include the use of Soma, a perfectly legal and safe designer drug that cures all emotional ales, promiscuous sex habits, and “feelies” (movies that simulate sensation).

In the end, the story comes to a climax as two of the main characters, Bernard Marx and Lina Crowe, go to a savage reservation and find a lost child named John. His mother was apparently a citizen of the World State who became lost in the reservation and was forced to stay after she learned she was pregnant. Having experienced nothing but alienation and abuse as a “savage”, John agrees to go with Bernard and Lina back to “civilization.

However, he quickly realizes he doesn’t fit into their world either and expresses disdain for its excesses and controls. Eventually, the people who sympathize with him are sent into exile and he is forced to flee himself. But in the end, he finds that he cannot escape the people of the World State and commits suicide, a tragic act that symbolizes the inability of the individual to find a resolution between insanity and barbarity.

Overall, Huxley’s BNW was a commentary on a number of scientific developments which, under the right circumstances, could be used to deprive humanity of their freedom. In many ways, this was a commentary on how the expanding fields of psychology and the social sciences were being used to find ways to ensure the cooperation of citizens and ensure good work habits.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in factories and in the creation of “assembly-line discipline”, which was exemplified by how the people of the World State revered Henry Ford. In addition to performing eugenics on an assembly-line apparatus, the people worship Ford and cross themselves with a T (a reference to his model T car).

But above all, Huxley seemed to be asking the larger question of what is to be done about the process we know as civilization. If it was inimical to freedom, with all its rational, sterile, and domesticated luggage, and the alternative  – a dirty, superstitious, and painful existence – was not preferable either, then what was the solution?

In the end, he offered no solution, allowing the reader to ponder this themselves. In his follow-up essay, Brave New World Revisited, he expressed some remorse over this fact and claimed that he wished he had offered a third option in the form of the exile communities – people who had found their own way through enlightened moderation.

Ah yes, the book that did it all! It warned us of the future, taught us the terminology of tyranny, and educated us on the use of “newspeak”, “doublethink” and “thoughtcrime”. Where would dystopian literature be today were it not for George Orwell and his massively influential satire on totalitarianism? True, Orwell’s work was entirely original; in fact, he thoroughly acknowledged a debt to authors like H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. But it was how he synthesized the various elements of dystopia, combining them with his own original thoughts and observations, and crystallized it all so coherently that led to his popularity.

But I digress. Set in the not-too-distant future of 1984 (Orwell completed the book in 48 and supposedly just flipped the digits), the story takes place from the point of view of an Outer Party member named Winston Smith. Winston lives in London, in a time when England has been renamed Airstrip One and is part of a major state known as Oceania. As the book opens, Oceania finds itself at war with the rival state of Eurasia, though not long ago it was at war with Eastasia and will be so again. As a member of the Ministry of Truth, Winston’s job is that of a censor. Whenever the enemy changes, whenever the Party alters its policies, whenever a person disappears, or the Party just feels the need to rewrite something about the past, men like Winston are charged with destroying and altering documentation to make it fit.

Ultimately, the story involves Winston’s own quest for truth. Living in the constant, shifting lie that is life in the totalitarian state of Oceania, he seeks knowledge of how life was before the revolution; before the Party took control before objective reality become meaningless. He also meets a woman named Julia with whom he begins an affair and rediscovers love.

However, in time the two are captured and taken to the Ministry of Love, where they are tortured, brainwashed, and made to turn on each other. In the end, Winston accepts the Party’s version of reality, simply because he discovers he has no choice. His tragic end is made all the more tragic by the implicit knowledge that he will soon be killed as well.

For discerning fans of science fiction and dystopian literature, the brilliance of 1984 was not so much in how the totalitarian state of the future is run but how it came to be. According to the Goldstein Manifesto, which is the centerpiece of the novel, World War III took place sometime in the 1950s and ended in a stalemate, all sides having become convinced of the futility of nuclear war.

Shortly thereafter, totalitarian revolutionaries with similar ideologies took power all over the planet. In time, they became the three major states of Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia, whose boundaries were a natural extension of the post-war spheres of influence.

Also interesting is Orwell’s speculation on how these totalitarian ideologies came to be in the first place. In short, he speculates that dominance by a small group of elites has been an unbroken pattern in human history. In the past, this arrangement seemed natural, even somewhat desirable due to poverty, scarcity, and a general lack of education.

However, it was within the context of the 20th century, at a time when industrial technology and availability of resources had virtually eliminated the need for social distinction, that the most vehement totalitarians had emerged. Unlike the elites of the past, these ones had no illusions about their aims or their methods. As the antagonist, O’Brien, says “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake… Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship.”

This message still resonates with us today. Even though western civilization did technically dodge the bullet of WWIII and does not resemble the world of 1984 in the strictest sense, the cautionary nature of Orwell’s critique remains. Even if the particulars of how 1984 came to be didn’t happen, the message remains the same: human freedom – meaning the freedom to live, love, and think freely – is the most precious thing we have. Beware those who would deprive you of it for your own safety or in exchange for some earthly utopia, for surely they will themselves to be your master! There is also an ongoing debate about which came true, 1984 or BNW, with the consensus being that it was Huxley’s dystopian vision that seemed more accurate. However, the jury is still out, and the debate is ongoing…

Fahrenheit 451:
Here is yet another dystopian novel that has become somewhat of a staple in the industry. In Bradbury’s vision of the future, society is permeated by mindless leisure and decadence. Virtually all forms of literature have been banned, and local “firemen” are responsible for enforcing the ban. Wherever illegal literature is found, firemen are responsible for arriving on the scene and putting them to the flame. Yes, in a world where all houses are fireproof, firemen are no longer responsible for putting fires out, but for starting them!

In the course of the story, the main character – a fireman named Guy Montag – begins to become intrigued with literature and discovers a sort of magic within it that is missing from his world. In addition, Guy is told by his boss that society became this way willingly. Perhaps out of fear, perhaps out of sloth, they chose convenience, ease, and gratuity over subtly, thought and reflection. In time, Guy’s choices make him a fugitive and he is forced to flee and seek refuge with other people who insist on keeping and reading books. It is also made clear that nuclear war is looming, which may provide some explanation as to how society came to be the way it is.

In this way, the book has a lot in common with both 1984 and Brave New World. On the one hand, there is active censorship and repression through the destruction of books and the criminalization of reading. On the other hand, it seems as though the people in Bradbury’s world surrendered these freedoms willingly. It is a fitting commentary on American society of the latter half of the 20th century, where entertainment and convenience seemed like the greatest threats to independent thought and learning. This, in turn, could easily form the basis of dictatorship. As we all know, a docile, narcotized society is an easily controlled one!

The Handmaid’s Tale:
Here is another novel that few people get through high school without being forced to read, especially in Canada. But there’s a reason for that. Much like 1984, BNW, and F451, The Handmaid’s Tale is a classical dystopian narrative that has remained relevant despite the passage of time. In this story, the US has been dissolved and replaced by a theocracy known as the Republic of Gilead. In this state, women have been stripped of all rights in accordance with Old Testament and Christian theocracy. The head of this state is known as the Commander, the chief religious-military officer of the state.

The story is told from the point of view of a handmaid, a woman whose sole purpose is to breed with the ruling class. Her name is Offred, which is a patronym of “Of Fred”, in honor of the man she serves. Like all handmaidens, her worth is determined by her ability to procreate. And on this, her third assignment, she must get pregnant if she doesn’t want to be discarded. This time around, her assignment is to the Commander himself, a man who quickly becomes infatuated with her.

Over time, the infatuation leads to sex that is done as much for pleasure as procreation, and he begins to expose her to aspects of culture that have long been outlawed (like fashion magazines, cosmetics, and reading). She even learns of a Mayday resistance that is concerned with overthrowing Gilead, and that the Commander’s driver is apparently a member.

In the end, Offred is denounced by the Commander’s wife when she learns of their “affair”. Nick orders men from “The Eyes” (i.e. secret police) to come and take her away. However, he privately intimates that these are actually men from the resistance who are going to take her to freedom. The story ends with Offred stepping into the van, unsure of what her fate will be. In an epilogue, we learn that the story we have been told is a collection of tapes that were discovered many generations later after Gilead fell and a new, more equal society re-emerged. This collection is being presented by academics at a lecture, and is known as “The Handmaid’s Tale”.

In addition to touching on the key issues of reproductive rights, feminism, and totalitarianism, The Handmaid’s Tale presents readers with the age-old scenario of the rise of a dictatorship in the US. Apparently, the military-theological forces who run Gilead in the future seized power shortly after a staged terrorist attack that was blamed on Islamic terrorists. In the name of restoring order and ending the decline of their country, the “Sons of Jacob” seized power and disbanded the constitution. Under the twin guises of nationalism and religious orthodoxy, the new rulers rebuilt society along the lines of Old Testament-inspired social and religious orthodoxy.

This angle is not only plausible but historically relevant. For as Sinclair Lewis said back in 1936 “When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.” This is paraphrased from his actual, more lengthy comments. But his essential point is the same. If a  tyranny emerged in the US, he reasoned, it would do so by insisting that it was religiously right and that it was intent on protecting people’s freedoms, not revoking them.

In addition, the angle where an Islamic terrorist attack spawned the takeover? Tell me that’s not relevant to Americans today! Though written in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s dystopian scenario received a shot of credibility thanks to eight years of the Bush administration, a government that claimed religious orthodoxy and used security as justification for questionable wars and many repressive policies.

Final Thoughts:
After years of reading dystopian literature, I have begun to notice certain things. For starters, it is clear why they are grouped with science fiction. In all cases, they are set in alternate universes or distant future scenarios, but the point is to offer commentary on the world of today. And in the end, utopian and dystopian satires are inextricably linked, even if the former predates the latter by several centuries.

Whereas Utopian literature was clearly meant to offer a better world as a foil for the world the writers were living, dystopian literature offers up a dark future as a warning. And in each case, these worlds very much resemble our own, the only real difference being a matter of degree or a catalyzing event. This is why there is a focus in dystopian literature on explanations of how things came to be the way they are. In many cases, this would involve a series of predictable events: WWIII, a terrorist attack, more overpopulation and pollution, an economic crisis, or a natural disaster.

And in the end, the message is clear: whether it is by fear, poverty, or the manipulation of critical circumstances, power is handed over to people who will deliberately abuse it. Their mandate is clear and their outlook is the exact same as any tyrant who has ever existed. But the important thing to note is that it is given. Never in dystopian literature do tyrants simply take power. Much like in real life, true totalitarianism in these novels depends upon the willingness of people to exchange their freedom for food, safety, or stability. And in all cases, they inevitably experience buyer’s remorse!

Quicknote: Since getting “freshly pressed”, a lot of people have written in and asked me about my thoughts on “The Hunger Games”. Sorry to say, haven’t read it so I can’t offer any commentary. I will however be commenting on a number of more modern dystopian franchises, specifically examples found in film and other media, in my next post. Stay tuned, hopefully, something you like will pop there!

118 thoughts on “Dystopian Science Fiction

  1. 1984 is an all time favorite of mine and my first introduction to Dystopian literature. It’s smart, scary, and unpredictable. I like this post! Looks like I have some reading to do!

      1. It was never required in Russia where I’m from (Zamyatin was), and never will be. I’m glad I had a chance to read it on my own.

        Thanks for following me, by the way! You’ve got a cool blog.

  2. I’ve been fascinated my Dystopian fiction . 1984 and Time Machine are my favourite . Even now when I read these novels , it sends shivers down my spine .Especially in 1984 , when he writes about people getting Vaporized ..

    I must make sure to read all the books mentioned here . Thanks for sharing 🙂

  3. You’ve got quite an exhaustive list here! I was glad to see you classified “Candide” as dystopian, as most people don’t think to go in that direction since it’s technically not set in the future or in an alternate time.

    Other good dystopian stories would be Alan Moore’s “V for Vendetta” and “The Watchmen.” While both are graphic novels, they’re excellent examples of dystopian tales dovetailing nicely with science fiction in a related medium.

    1. Haha, never had the pleasure. In fact, I hadn’t heard of Hunger Games until the movie came out, and now I can’t be bothered to pick it up because I fear that’d be such a predictable thing to do. Besides, that how I got started with Game of Thrones, and that series just never ends 😉

      1. game of thrones, isn’t that about king arthur or fairy tales? i’m so caught up with once upon a time and grimm i don’t want to get into anything else involving fairy tales unless it’s a japanese comic book.

      2. Dear God no! Game of Thrones is based on a medieval fantasy series by George RR Martin. It’s set in a fictional world and is probably the most realistic bit of fantasy out there. He’s called the “American Tolkien” but Tolkien’s work didn’t have a fraction of the sex, violence or swearing this guy’s stuff does!

      3. almost sounds up my alley. hey, if you like fantasy, you should read the age of misrule books. so good: all the gods and faeries and dragons and other magical creatures that once inhabited britain come back, and now 5 humans have to help humanity transition to this new age of no-reason, especially since the gods are at war with demons called the fomorii

  4. Holy crow, Matt! You pulled a Freshly Pressed! CONGRATS!

    Great piece by the way—very well-written and fully fleshed out with research. I enjoyed reading this and gaining a new perspective on some works that I’ve taught so often they’re old hat to me. I think it’s interesting that so many works for teenagers are falling into this category now. Ruling class, rogue teenagers trying to overthrow the system, rugged individuality reasserting itself (with a lot of female protagonists by the way)….very interesting sign of the times.

    The Hunger Games, Divergent, and so many other books like them are selling like crack rock to both teens and adults. I wonder what that says about us.

    1. Dystopian fiction is some of my favourite. 🙂 I had no idea Candide was included. And I’ve never heard of the Jack London title at all. Two more for the ‘to-read’ pile, eh? And curse you for having an interesting blog while I’m supposed to be writing a flash for Friday (shakes fist in the air).

  5. I love that you started the article with a pic from Brazil. Some of our great dystopian stories are told in film, and I think without exception they are classified as sci-fi just as these literary works are. Would love to see your list of “favorites”.

    I read 1984 in Jr. High (it wasn’t required reading in our schools, but was in an honors class I took which was harder than almost any class I ever had all the way up to the grad school level). We also read “The Lottery” in Jr. High and these two works had a huge impact on my life.

  6. I really enjoyed this list and will be checking out a few of those. I’m always impressed when writers can make an alternate society convincing and tangible, while holding a mirror to ourselves. I’m working on a longer dystopia story at the moment but if you fancy checking out a very short one I wrote a while back pop by my fiction blog http://hereisthemoment.wordpress.com/2011/03/31/the-mercy-pill/
    Great article! I enjoyed your concluding perspectives

  7. Thanks for reminding me of The Iron Heel. I read it when I was really too young to understand it, but I think it might have been one of the books that influenced my adult tastes. For what it’s worth, I’ve read all the books on your list, with the possible exception of We, and own most of them. Good post.

  8. Now I have some exciting options for my reading list. I never knew what dystopian meant until I saw your blog. The books you mentioned here are the type of literature I enjoy reading. (Far better & enjoyable than Shakespeare).

    What makes these kind of novels so intriguing is that it questions the psyche of human thinking, behavior, looks at how they work as an organizational and almost mechanized system and the possible consequences of the fate of humanity through industrialization and scientific innovation. Moreover, I find it easier to relate with them because it’s my own field of interest. 😀

  9. I have read many of those titles and have always liked dystopian literature. But it was when I got to your overview of The Handmaiden’s Tale that I realized that some of the GOP’ers sounds a bit like the Sons of Jacob these days. Not just in the area’s that you mentioned, but also in their attempts at gaining more control of women’s reproductive options.

  10. Another one: Mary Shelley’s The Last Man (1826), about the aftermaths of a plague in the 21st century. She wrote this after the death of the husband, and based some characters on Percy Shelley and Lord Byron.

    Speaking of Lord Byron, I seem to remember a dystopian poem that he wrote – called “Darkness,” maybe? – in which the sun goes out and humans must burn the last scraps of civilization. Interesting that dystopian themes existed in the Romantic period, and indeed influenced later authors like Huxley and Wells.

  11. Wow, you did a lot of research on this. I’ve been really interested in science fiction and dystopian novels, so this was a very useful “guide to the classics” for me. Thanks!

  12. A mighty fine list you’ve crafted here! It may not have been the first of the dystopians, but true to form, Brave New World has always been a favorite–bloody good thing it’s taught in high schools, I say. Huxley’s certainly a fine way to break up any textbook monotony, after all…

    Fahrenheit 451 has always captivated me as well (perhaps it’s a writer’s nature to be attracted to it–or rather, repulsed by the future therein. Not the books!), and 1984, well, I mean, it’s pretty much the standard to which all others are held these days, is it not? Handmaid’s tale I must confess I have not read as yet, however…given how much I’ve enjoyed the other books on this list, though, it is perhaps a condition I should shortly remedy.

    It’s always interesting to reflect on how far back a genre stretches–the imagination has broken into the darker realms for as long as man has praised his imagination—and the tradition continues still. Great post, and congrats on the freshly pressed.

  13. I loved Fahrenheit 451. I’m not a huge sci fi fan in general, but as a book lover this story really took hold of me. Once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. Then I made my boyfriend read it and he loved it too. The movie was ok too, but the book was definitely better.

  14. Great read, I have read a few of these and have added others to my list. I got through highschool without reading ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ and didn’t read it until recently. As a 30-something mom to a daughter, it scared the CRAP out of me. So many alarm bells going off in my head.
    Congrats on Freshly Pressed. You’ve got a new reader in me!

  15. Excellent post. And I’m so happy you mentioned “We.” I read it as part of my required reading for a twentieth century Russian lit class, and I was shocked that I hadn’t even heard of it before. Like other commenters, I wonder about your thoughts on “Hunger Games,” since it’s exploding right now, and it also takes place in a dystopian future. I see that you haven’t read it – and it’s not a literary masterpiece like many of the novels you list here – but in many ways it’s much more horrifying. Anyways, thanks for the great article and some new books to add to my reading list!

  16. What a great list. There are quite a few of these I haven’t actually read myself, just second hand cliff-notes versions. I really ought to though, I think I’ll check them out. I could always use more books!

  17. Thoughtful, well-done piece, and I’m glad to see it Freshly Pressed. I recently reread “Fahrenheit 451” and was surprised at how well-written it was and at Bradbury’s prescience, e.g., the wall-sized tv screens with tv programs about people who are friends, watched by people who seem no longer capable of actual friendships. Yipes. Much food for thought here. I’m forwarding the link to a scientist friend who co-teaches a class in sci fi with someone from the English faculty at his school. Congrats again on being FP.

      1. His name is Steve Winters and he teaches at Holyoke Community College in western Massachusetts. He sent me a note that he really enjoyed your piece. We share an interest in dinosaur footprints, which were first discovered (in scientific terms) in this valley in 1835. Arthur C. Clarke has a great short story called “TIme’s Arrow” that is partly about dino tracks — not dystopic, but not a happy ending, either!

        I see you’re following my blog. Thank you!!

  18. Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed!!
    I feel a bit behind because unfortunatly in my High School we didn’t read any of the dystopian books mentioned in your post. 😦 That all started for me when I entered college, starting with the short story The Lottery. I’ve always stuck to reading the more modern dystopian books but I’ve lately had my eye on Brave New World because of the whole Hunger Games hype (which I haven’t read and don’t know when I’d start). But if your going to look into a modern dystopian book try Battle Royale or The Long Walk.

    1. I have not, though I do believe it was largely inspired by We, not to mention Ayn Rand’s notorious disdain for leftist ideals 😉 What was the problem with Altas, too long or too heavy?

  19. Extremely well researched! I loved how thorough you were in listing all these stories, both classics and forerunners. I admit not having read a lot of these books, so hearing that Gulliver’s Travels was in fact a dystopian sci-fi story was pretty interesting.

    Thank you for sharing! I’ll make sure to check at least a couple of these.

  20. tired of the dystopian thing. been reading it since the 60’s. how ’bout something new? not from you, but “you” meaning authors.

  21. I love this list of books, almost all I’m sad to say I have yet to open. Probably the saddest thing is that none of the books on this list were required reading in my high school and I’m only now going back and reading classics like these. This list gave me a few more that I should probably look into to make up for lost time

  22. I’m a big fan of this genre! I’ve read all the classics you’ve posted on (and I’ve taught a couple, too). Looking forward to your modern examples!

  23. Oh my, Candide was so funny. Loved it. And I just finished reading 1984, didn’t like to ending all too much though.

  24. Great post! I’m a big fan of the genre, but I haven’t read ‘We’. I’m definitely going to be checking it from the library now.

  25. Enjoyed your post.

    Here’s a good read re dystopian science fiction — This Perfect Day by Ira Levin. It was published in 1970 and I read it sometime in the early 70’s. Great story.

  26. I’ve been trying to find The Iron Heel for months! Also, I’m thinking Logan’s Run will reprise as a hit dystopian once the movie is re-released in 2013 starring Ryan Gosling.

      1. Thanks so much! I’ve been looking for a hard copy for a while but if I can only get my hands on an e-copy it will have to do.

  27. When I saw the “Candide” map, my initial thought, given the topic of this post, was that you were writing about John Calvin Batchelor’s “The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica.” I consider it to be a later classic addition to the canon of dystopian SF literature, and highly recommend it, if you haven’t read it already.

  28. Great list, nice article… I like everything about it except the apostrophes. Sorry brother, but an apostrophe is never used to pluralize. Ex: All writers should know this simple piece of writer’s trivia. Oh, to be the voice of reason. Is that utopian or dystopian?

      1. I like that. And since I’ve started asking utopia vs dystopia questions, where do you place Kim Stanley Robinson’s work? I’m thinking particularly of the 40 signs of rain trilogy and Antarctica. Though the Mars series is up for judgment as well. And 3 Californias. It seems there are aspects of utopia and dystopia warring in his books. Thanks!

      2. Good question. I have yet to finish the Mars trilogy so I’m not sure, but I did note the presence of a certain utopian thinking followed by an eventual reality check in how the colonists went about establishing themselves on Mars. Will have to wait and see how it all turns out 🙂

  29. I have read three of those and watched two others as movies. I never thought of grouping them. I thought each had a good story and a good lead character and was a well thought and delivered work of fiction. I was left entertained as each offered a reality that wasn’t real and also wasn’t mine. Groundhog Day did the same for me. I think your were correct in not including that one in your post as it clearly did not fit the theme. I guess dark is colour of choice when some one wishes to make an important point. Nicely done. Well timed and presented.

  30. This is a brilliant post! Congratulations on putting together such a comprehensive, and insightful anthology. And your comments do a great job at zeroing in on each book’s main qualities. To your point, Voltaire’s “Candide” is an early example that doesn’t entirely match your definition, except for one part of the book, where Candide and his fellow travelers land in the imaginary society of “Eldorado”. It’s an utopia in full rights: the geographic location is undefined and it first seems to be a model society. Still, a closer look progressively reveals the dystopia that Voltaire actually intended to describe.

  31. I was surprised to see “The Iron Heel” included in this list. It is a little known dystopian novel – one of the first, at least of the modern era. I was dismayed, however, to see that in your synopsis of it the Working Class was not mentioned once. The demise of the middle class is of course chronicled in the book, but the real victim, and the eventual triumphant hero, of the work is none other than the Proletariat / Working Class who finally conquer the oligarchs and the middle class (who is complicit in their crimes) to create a Socialist society.

    Another important point to make is that George Orwell spent his days as a writer laboring for the victory of true Socialism. His work, “1984”, was not meant as a criticism of Socialism per se, as is often assumed, but instead was intended as a critique of Stalin’s corruption and betrayal of it.

  32. Thanks for bringing this topic to more peoples attention. I am very glad to see this genre making a comeback. My latest dystopian science fiction novel ‘Fringelords-Return to Gaia’ on Amazon may be of some interest to you.

  33. Nice post. And thanks for the follow. I have returned the favour and recommended your blog to a friend I think might like it.

    Candide has been on my bookshelf for a couple of years, your post has piqued my interest.

    Did you consider A Clockwork Orange for this list?

  34. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed. I’m a huge fan of dystopian science fiction — so many thanks for the recommendations. If I can, I’d like to add a few — both are by Ayn Rand. The first is “Anthem,” a quick but absorbing read,, and then her monumental classic, “Atlas Shrugged.” I find it amazing when I read older novels in this class and see some of their predictions coming true.

  35. Interesting. With “The Handmaids Tale” there is no problem with using such words like: religion, cross or christianity showing this ideas as a source of threat. But with 1984 there is only “totalitarianism” – never a socialism. I think that’s the main reason why I never liked Atwood’s book. It sounds to me not like a work of fiction but like an article from a modern political press. Very comitted press I should say.

    You wrote about an ongoing debate comparing 1984 and BNW. That reminds me of one very interesting book by Jonah Goldberg, “Liberal Fascism”. Goldberg is pro-Huxley (in this context), and he may be right. By the way – it’s fascinating how people from Free World (in the terms from the world before 1989) are susceptible to the charm of progressiveness, socialism or whatever you like to call it despite its agressive, totalitarian and unhuman nature.

    There is an interesting broadcast of Melvyn Bragg’s programme about Huxley (In Our Time, April 2009), the opinion of one of his guests was that BNW is in fact an utopian. In other words – it was not a warning, it was an encouragement.

    And you know what is really funny ? If you read Thomas Moore’s Utopia, really read it, concentrate only on facts – then suddenly you realise that it is not utopian at all. It is 1984’s society seen through the eyes of it’s own propaganda.
    Dystopia – like 1984 – simply concentrates not on wishes – but on the results of puting good intentions into life. That’s why it is so scearingly real.

    1. I would tend to disagree, at least in the case of the United States (about it being susceptible to leftist ideas, I mean). In think there people are far more susceptible to ideas of the right, having been educated on the “evils of socialism” but never considering how fascism could just as easily take a hold of the country. I think if ever the US turns hard on the political sceptrum it will be towards the right, and that it will do so under the guise of protecting freedoms and restoring religious orthodoxy.

  36. Love dystopian novels! I could read Brave New World over and over, and never get sick of it. I had to read it in high school, and a lot of my classmates complained that they didn’t “get it”…

    But anyways, seems like these type of novels are making a comeback.

  37. Candide and Brave New World are two of my absolute favourite novels of all time. I think you just gave me a list of books I should check out; especially the Jack London book. Mayhap you (and the good people who Press Fresh) have earned you a new follower.

  38. What a fantastic list you’ve created here. Fahrenheit 451 was my first exposure to dystopian lit, and I think I’ve judged all futuristic fiction by it ever since. I have never read the Handmaid’s Tale, but your review has just put it at the top of my reading list! I noticed that at the end you responded to readers who asked you for a review of The Hunger Games. Here’s mine, if you’re interested (entitled “Why an English Teacher Enjoys The Hunger Games: Anachronism and Cultural Commentary”):


  39. Oh this is such a coincidence. I just finished reading ‘Brave New World’ today and I see this blog. Must be my lucky day! well, I first thought such a dystopian outlook on our society as how it is described in the book, was inhuman. I still do but somehow I can’t justify why. This book did make me think a lot and it will probably make me ponder about dystopian society for at least the next two weeks. Thanks for putting together such an awesome list. I’m looking forward to reading more on this from now on.

  40. Well done, and congrats on Freshed Pressed! I have read several of these (Gulliver, Time Machine, 1984, F451), and all for fun. Although it’s not a novel, Harlan Ellison’s “I Have no Mouth and I Must Scream” is an absolutely terrifying story.

    I would add a caution. Although you explicitly talk about the political right (Bush’s years) as a threat to freedom, I would suggest that the political left is just as frightening regarding imposing their viewpoint and taking freedom in the name of preserving liberty.

    In any event, well done, and congrats. Great post!

  41. I’d love to say I’m a fan of dystopia science fiction, except that I have never read any one on the list (quite a shame, actually). i agree that they are essentially the reflection of the time they were written, but it seems to me that there are repetitive theme of freedom lost, dictatorship, and separation between working class and the elites in most of them. I’d love to think that these warnings are the reason we never reach the point they portray. Only recently that I realize it didn’t happen because people are too rebellious to let them last for too long.

    I will be looking forward to your next post. Another request for ‘V for Vendetta’ if you please. 🙂

  42. Great Blog!

    Some of the titles you mentioned where new to me, so I know what to do for the next few weeks…read read read 😉

  43. Considering the fact that I read A LOT of fiction, I must say that this post gave me two titles I didn’t knew about: Candide and The Handmaids Tale. I just hope you will do more lists like that in the future, so I could never stop reading :). Nice and useful post like that I see rarely on a “typical” blog (most of them contain photography), so you have my respect for bringing one up.

  44. I wonder if books like The Book Of the New Sun and Songs of the Dying Earth are more fantasy or sic-fi and so if they should be in this list too, because they are certainly dystopian and Gene Wolfe is not so well known anyway. Consider similar list in the future, I would love to come back here.

  45. hi Matthew,

    This is a great overview of dystopian literature. As you suggest at the end, a similar overview of more contemporary dystopias would be particularly interesting.

    If you decide to do so, you might like to check out my funny dystopia, The United States of Air. You can find it in the usual places. It makes fun of the War on Terror / Drugs / other abstract concepts.

    Bonus: it’s free until Guy Fawkes Day, 2012. (Remember, remember…)


    1. Thank you, I shall check that out. But in the future, please don’t pitch to me here. This is not a forum for that and I don’t want people thinking there’s ads or pressure to buy stuff. You can email me for that, I’m always happy to look up new things.

      1. hi! I was going to email you but I couldn’t find an email address on your about page. If you want I can delete the comment…

        cheers j

  46. Hello,

    it was a really great list, I’m doing my Ph.D. on dystopian sci-fi. Could you please suggest good, contemporary sci-fi dystopias that I could use? Internet throws up a vast sea of names good enough to throw me in a mess of confusion… I’m familiar with the classics you mentioned, but not beyond them. I would particularly appreciate if you could suggest dystopias set on Earth (since I prefer to limit my research to that if possible), but even outer-space dystopias are just as welcome.

    Thank you…

    1. Well lets see. There’s Battle Royale, the story of youth being forced to fight it out on a remote island by Koushun Takami, which is believed to have inspired The Hunger Games. Then there’s the Giver, by Lois Lowry, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood, Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishigiro, and a slew of others. Good enough?

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