The economy is tanking, we’re at war and the planet is getting hotter. But just how bad will it get? What if you could see the bleak future that you fear might be brought to fruition? Dystopic novels and stories offer the opportunity to explore such nightmares in waking time.
This subgenre of science fiction, fantasy and speculative fiction views human nature from completely outside of the exaggerated perfection of the Garden of Eden, while also accounting for current societal ills and postulating on what might occur in the near or distant future if these issues aren’t addressed. The utopian ideal of the genesis of humans is destroyed — obliterated, even — and the anti-utopia rises from the tangle and ash.
Often employing a startlingly bleak postmodernist view, the dystopic novel challenges the very core of what defines us, what we’re capable of and, often, how we’re inextricably linked to the physical world despite what virtually wanders around in our own minds. And where would we be if the postmodern wasn’t coupled with the existential, the questioning of a sense of self, identity?
Here are some of my favorites of the subgenre.
1. Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
Female authors address the dystopic universe and the issue of identity much differently than men do. Classic case in point: The anti-sexualization in Margaret Atwood’s 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale versus that of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which was published in 1932. In both novels, the men have access to and control of women’s bodies and their reproductive rights, but from vastly different perspectives and for equally polar reasons. Brave New World renders women little more than eager sex partners who pose no threat to “trapping” men through their desire for children and nuclear family.
Indeed, biological reproduction has been abolished entirely in that novel, while Handmaid’s Tale envisions a patriarchal theocratic country with perilously low birthrates in which women are chattel for breeding purposes. Atwood approaches the subject from an angle that appreciates what repopulating a ravaged world would entail, particularly with the shackles of unbridled authority binding women.
Don’t get me wrong; I love Brave New World. But Atwood plumbs the horrifying depths of sexual and reproductive subjugation in a way that resonates like a tolling bell. Often this is the case with dystopic novels written by women: The author doesn’t simply paint the postapocalyptic landscape and trot out the usual suspects, but delves into the underlying deep-seated fears that have led the characters to such a dark age. It’s not enough that we are here in this world, but how and why did the world become whatever it is that it is, and who am I in relation to it? What do we become when we’re robbed of hope?
2. Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Taking a different tack, Ursula K. Le Guin introduced an androgynous world in her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, in which the population spends 24 days out of a 26-day lunar cycle neither specifically male nor female, and then, in the last two days, are made one gender or another based on their exposure to certain hormones, rendering them capable of reproducing as either mother or father.
Le Guin herself has said the book is a “thought experiment,” but she found the ultimate result “dubious and uncertain.” The Left Hand of Darkness, a brilliantly conceived exposition, won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards after its publication. It’s not a quick read. Le Guin’s prose is dense; it demands your full attention. But if you yield to that demand, you’ll be rewarded with a story so intricate, so marvelous that you’ll come away feeling as if you have just glimpsed a possible world outside our scope.
3. Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents
I can’t write another word about women in the dystopic universe without mentioning Octavia Butler, winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. In her 1995 Parable of the Sower and its 1999 sequel, Parable of the Talents, we meet protagonist Lauren, an empath who lives in a crumbling 2024 society, straddling the fortresses of the rich and the ruthless chaos of the entirely impoverished. The middle class has been squeezed by the economic might of one and the desperation of the other. In Butler’s stark and realistic style, these works seem immediate, if not inevitable, especially given the religious fervor and rampant corporate greed that Butler couches within the story. Yet Lauren never loses hope or humanity, which speaks directly to how even in the face of dire circumstances and devilish choices, we truly do choose our own destiny.
4. Nicola Griffith, Slow River
As contemporary and pertinent as Butler’s work remains, it’s cyberpunk dystopia that personifies the dehumanization of the technological age. Nicola Griffith’s 1995 novel Slow River won both the Nebula and Lambda Literary awards, and deservedly so. Griffith perfectly captures the tone and psychology of both the loss of identity and the desire to shed one’s identity. Lore Van de Oest is a young woman raised in idyllic, isolated privilege on her family’s private island. But the world can’t be held at arm’s length forever, and Lore is kidnapped, humiliated, tortured and held for an ever-escalating ransom until she escapes. She escapes not just from her kidnappers, but from herself. What follows is one of the most compelling glimpses into the search of the sense of self that has ever been conceived on the page. While the narrative is nonlinear, which can be difficult to follow, Griffith never leaves the reader without a touchstone to the core continuity. Ultimately we’re left pondering how we define ourselves to ourselves and, by extension, the world.
5. Jennifer Pelland, Dazz
Another aspect of the cyberpunk dystopic ‘verse is the looming specter of designer drugs and the lengths to which a junkie will go to escape reality and procure his or her next fix. Jennifer Pelland’s short story Dazz is nothing short of horrifying. Would I even mention it if it weren’t? Jamie is an addict who sells herself in more ways than one. I’ll say no more and instead link to the story, with permission from the author. Enjoy!