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
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,
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,
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
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.