Alan Kovski © 2013 | All Rights Reserved
It is entertaining to imagine a terrible future, because of course terrible things are a heck of a lot more exciting and stimulating to the imagination than pleasant things. These days, novels of a dystopian future have become commonplace, a sub-genre that swamps a large part of science fiction. Quite a few book reviewers may not realize how repetitious this has become, so they praise the latest dystopian novel as a triumph of the imagination. Well, if you are new to the subject, maybe it seems so.
The Big Three dystopian novels in literary history are We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, and 1984, by George Orwell. There are others (The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, Metropolis by Thea von Harbou), but those three are the landmarks. Of the three, We is the most rooted in the past, in that it imagines the essence of brute domination. 1984 is the most rooted in twentieth century totalitarianism, whether the horror created by Hitler or the horror created by Lenin and Stalin. Brave New World is the most insidious, presenting a future not of brute force but seductive entrapping ease.
The course of literary history has taken us especially toward the American Dystopia, in which the writer—usually but not always a leftist—envisions a future America that is oppressive, often theocratic, often bigoted, always cruel. Typically, the evil awaits us because of our own flaws, either our lack of decency or our lack of wisdom. Here following is a partial list of what you can enjoy if you are attracted to the image of America the Terrible.
The Iron Heel (1908), by Jack London. It imagines a capitalistic oligarchic tyranny in the U.S., with much anti-capitalist lecturing by London via his characters.
It Can’t Happen Here (1935), by Sinclair Lewis. It dramatizes the rise of a U.S. president who becomes a fascistic dictator.
“If This Goes On—” a Robert Heinlein novelette published in Astounding magazine in 1940, revised and published at the length of a short novel in 1953. It portrays America as a theocratic tyranny in which women are victimized by the tyrants.
"There Will Come Soft Rains," a Ray Bradbury short story published in Collier's magazine in 1950. It describes the automated equipment trying to maintain a house, the last house still standing after nuclear war has reduced the rest of a city to rubble. The story does not say humanity has wiped itself out, but that is one possible inference.
“Coming Attraction,” a Fritz Leiber short story published in Galaxy magazine in 1950. It portrays a socially degenerate New York City during a time of ongoing war, part of the city uninhabitable because of radiation from a nuclear bomb. This story was something of a landmark in science fiction magazines for its mature unflinching pessimism.
“Sam Hall,” a Poul Anderson novelette published in Astounding magazine in 1953. It envisions an American totalitarian state with pervasive surveillance technology, computer storage of all data on everyone, periodic evaluations for loyalty.
A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959), by Walter M. Miller Jr. It is a post-apocalyptic novel comprising three novellas, its characters survivors in a Southwestern U.S. monastery after a nuclear war. A great many novels and short stories were set in a world devastated by nuclear war.
The Genocides (1965), by Thomas M. Disch. It portrays a Midwest where Americans are ruthless (and cannibalistic), with one town under the authoritarian sway of a Christian patriarch.
Make Room! Make Room! (1966), by Harry Harrison. It envisions a dystopian New York City that dramatizes overpopulation. It is one of many novels and short stories on the subject of overpopulation.
Camp Concentration (serialized 1967, book 1968), by Thomas M. Disch. It portrays the U.S. as a ruthless, fascistic nation.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), by Philip K. Dick. It is a portrait of a decayed America where almost nothing is natural and the environment is ruined. Many of its people are androids, and many animals also are androids.
Stand on Zanzibar (1968), by John Brunner. It dramatizes overpopulation, and despite the title it is set mostly in a dystopian America.
Path to Savagery (1969), by Raymond Edmond Alter. It is a post-apocalyptic novel that like many others is about survivors in lawless conditions after a global war. It becomes a well-written thriller.
334 (1972), by Thomas M. Disch. It dramatizes overpopulation in a dystopian America. Heard of that one before?
The Stepford Wives (1975), screenplay by William Goldman. A clever paranoid light horror movie about subjugation of women in middle-class America.
On Wings of Song (1979), by Thomas M. Disch. It portrays Midwestern U.S. police states where minor infractions get brutal prison terms and non-local newspapers are outlawed. At this point you are beginning to suspect Disch did not have a rosy opinion of the United States.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), by Margaret Atwood. A leftist feminist vision of America as a theocratic and sexist tyranny. It is strange how admired this novel is, given the lack of originality, following 45 years after Heinlein's "If This Goes On—" and after Disch repeatedly plowed this ground. Several years later she similarly followed the next dystopian trend, environmental catastrophes, and again she was lavishly praised by critics.
The Gold Coast (1988), by Kim Stanley Robinson. It is a portrait of ecological ruin in California, where capitalistic greed and the military-industrial complex are the roots of much evil. Robinson went on a few decades later to preach in several novels about climate change, with environmental dystopias set on the U.S. East Coast.
Parable of the Sower (1993), by Octavia Butler. It is set in a dystopian California where society has largely collapsed into chaos because of climate change, resource scarcity, poverty, growing inequality, and capitalistic greed, with much bigotry toward religious and ethnic minorities.
Toward the End of Time (1997), by John Updike. The blandest dystopia. Updike routinely wrote about sex and marital angst in the suburbs. In this novel of an America in social and economic disarray after a war with China, he finds ... sex and marital angst in the suburbs. Stick with what you know.
Parable of the Talents (1998), by Octavia Butler. A followup novel, it describes a community being overrun by right-wing fundamentalist Christians, and characters’ attempts to survive religious “re-education” in a future America.
The Road (2006), by Cormac McCarthy. It is a post-apocalyptic vision of America as a wasteland of social collapse, environmental devastation, and cannibalism. It won a Pulitzer for its lack of originality.
Little Brother (2008), by Cory Doctorow. A story of teenagers who are adept with computers and work to bring down the Department of Homeland Security in an America where the DHS has created a tyrannical security state. Leftist sermonizing aimed at teen readers.
The Hunger Games (2008), by Suzanne Collins. Ruthless gladiatorial games in a post-holocaust tyranny in North America, including Appalachia. Written for teen readers. Followed by two sequels.
On Such a Full Sea (2014), by Chang-rae Lee. A future America in which cities have become unlivable because of pollution, and sharp class stratification is the rule. The standard stuff. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote that readers will “perhaps find in it the fresh vision, the new take on dreary old Dystopia, that I could not.”