Where Utopia Distorts into Dystopia: Dystopian Novels

Many people come to dystopian novels through film adaptations. In my own case, it was Blade Runner, based on Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Here are some of my favourite dystopian novels in date order — written over the past 90 years — ranging from tales of totalitarian regimes set far in the future, to novels set in modern times. On my bedside table at present? Doris Lessing's Memoirs of a Survivor, Maggie Gee's The Flood and Michael Cunningham's Specimen Days...



by Yevgeny Zamyatin, introduction by Clarence Brown

We is the diary of mathematician D-503 who discovers love for another human being — an emotion long-forgotten within the world of One State. Beyond the glass wall boundary of One State lies the "irrational, chaotic world of trees, birds, animals" and looking out one day into this green ocean, D-503 sees a savage. It was in this scene that I was struck by the following lines: "But a thought swarmed in me; what if he — this yellow-eyed being–in his ridiculous, dirty bundle of trees, in his uncalculated life — is happier than us?"


Brave New World

by Aldous Huxley

In Brave New World, monogamy and natural reproduction are considered abhorrent. Humans are raised in hatcheries, genetically pre-assigned to castes based on intelligence. Citizens of The World State seem to have it all — from hallucinogenic drugs to recreational sex. Part of Huxley's inspiration for this novel was in fact his fear of 'Americanization'. During a visit to the States he was a tad upset to witness a gum-chewing, pleasure-driven, youth culture and so he wrote this dystopia as a forewarning of where consumer society could take mankind.



by Ayn Rand, introduction by Leonard Peikoff

Ayn Rand packs her ideas into a short space. This novella, strong on imagery, presents the reader with a totalitarian society in which people no longer use the personal pronoun in the singular form, 'I'. As a result, the writing style initially seems stilted. It's unsettling to read a first-person narrative in which the main character states "Our name is Equality 7-2521... We were born with a curse... We remember the Home of Infants..." and so on. However, it's well worth sticking with. Rand's pet hate is collectivism and she states in her foreward: "Those who want slavery should have the grace to name it by its proper name." And taking the acid test, Anthem's imagery lived with me long after I finished the book.

This book also appears on The Fiction of Ayn Rand


Nineteen Eighty-Four

by George Orwell, foreword by Thomas Pynchon, designed by Daniel Lagin

This dystopia will remain the yardstick for all dystopias that place the role of the state at the centre of their narratives. What more can I say — newspeak, thought-crime, Big Brother and the title itself, 1984 –— they’re all embedded in our language. The parallels between this classic and Zamyatin's We are striking. But whereas Zamyatin's imagined world is set in an unspecified location, at some unspecified time in the future, Orwell brings his dystopia uncomfortably close to home. So close to home, in fact, we feel we know it; that it's already here.


Fahrenheit 451

by Ray Bradbury

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury reveals a shared concern with Huxley regarding American cultural values. More specifically, Bradbury feared that people were becoming intellectually lazy — preferring broadcast media to books. The main character in Fahrenheit 451 is a fireman but he's not the type of public servant we are familiar with today. He burns books, which apparently combust at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. As in many dystopian novels, the main character finds himself questioning society's norms in the wake of a major shock — in this case, the near death of his wife.


The Drowned World

by J. G. Ballard

It's not easy to pick a single book by J. G. Ballard because he imagined multiple dystopias over his illustrious career. The Drowned World, set in a future, inundated London, is recognized as his first major novel. It’s a surreal and disorientating read, transporting us to a world coping with environmental catastrophe. The imagery is so vivid that I sometimes wonder if I'm recalling a film version — but I know I haven’t seen one! In this chronological listing, The Drowned World marks a shift: away from those dystopias engineered by the state to dystopias created by environmental disasters or unnamed cataclysms. These post-apocalyptic dystopias tend to dominate the literature today.


The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

Atwood insists on categorizing The Handmaid's Tale as speculative fiction as opposed to science fiction since she feels no technological breakthroughs are needed to make this story a reality. This book is a landmark in feminist dystopian literature and tackles the issue of religious fascism. However, I felt The Handmaid's Tale required a greater suspension of disbelief than other dystopian stories in this list. Nevertheless, Atwood raises a spectre that sticks in the mind.



by Jose Saramago

Not for the squeamish; this is a visceral read. It's not a book I'd recommend to my reading group, and they survived The Road (see below). Saramago's dystopian nightmare conjures the breakdown of society as a virus causes blindness among the population. One character is immune to the virus and, in many ways, she suffers more because she bears witness. The first half of the book swiftly descends into a story of survival through brutality. The second half is more uplifting and left me feeling positive about human nature.

This book also appears on Some Favorite Books of Gotham Gal


The Faber Book of Utopias

edited by John Carey

Look no further than John Carey's compilation of utopias/dystopias to gain a real appreciation of how this form of literature has obsessed writers over millennia. Yes, millennia! From The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor (anonymous, circa 1940 BC), Homer, Plato, Tacitus, Plutarch, Tao Qian through to Sir Thomas More's Utopia, Michel de Montaigne's On Cannibals, Margaret Cavendish, Jonathan Swift, Marquis de Sade, Samuel Butler's Erewhon (a personal favourite), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Kurt Vonnegut, Italo Calvino, Marge Piercy... I've lost count of how many people have borrowed my copy and gone on to buy their own. Many small excerpts — excellent bedtime reading.


Never Let Me Go

by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro’s signature technique is to tell a story through an unreliable narrator. It works to perfection in this present-day dystopia. Kathy, the main character, recalls episodes from her childhood. The reader has to negotiate around her incomplete explanations until the central truth of her life is revealed about one-third into the book. Never Let Me Go is a close observation of childhood and a deeply upsetting book questioning what Ishiguro describes as the ancient question: What is it to be human?


The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

The Road presents the ultimate post-apocalyptic nightmare. The pared-back writing style and staccato dialogue match the bleakness and brutality of the life in North America following an unspecified catastrophe. Was it a nuclear bomb? A meteor impact? We never find out. It's a father and son story: the son wants to trust other survivors they meet on the road, his father does not. Don't even consider reading this book at bedtime. At the time of reading, I thought: I hope no one ever makes a film of this (which, of course, they did). McCarthy, however, is generous in offering some hope of redemption, which might be picked up by some readers — those readers not desensitized by the preceding carnage.


World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

by Max Brooks

This book came highly recommended and I read it out of politeness even though it's way off my normal reading radar. It felt particularly inappropriate that I read this book over my Christmas break. However, in the weeks after completing World War Z, I found myself quoting from it ad nauseam. The book is structured successfully as a series of short transcripts. Gradually, the reader pieces together how and where the zombie war began, how it spread and how individuals and armies devised strategies to combat the overwhelming menace. Hardcore zombie aficionados might be less impressed but I enjoyed this freaky dystopian journey.