Dystopias rule our imaginations today — just ask Katniss Everdeen. But the dystopias that speak most powerfully to our world weren't necessarily created in the past decade. Here are 10 great dystopias that are more relevant to the real world than when they were first created.
Note: We didn't include 1984 or Brave New World on this list, because those are sort of the most obvious choices, and we wanted to give more space to slightly lesser-known works. We're happy to discuss how both those books are insanely relevant today, in the comments.
Terry Gilliam's classic movie is just jam-packed withwarnings about the world we live in now, from the overgrown security state to the prevalence of mindless consumerism and cosmetic surgery. Its Kafka-esque look at a bureaucracy that crushes the individual and executes the wrong person due to a clerical error will feel scarily relevant to anybody who's tried to navigate real-life bureaucracies lately, but so will its visions of a world so scared of terrorism that it gives up all liberty. Brazil feels not only prescient, but diagnostic.
The writer of A Passage To India also wrote this early piece of science fiction, about people living underground and rely on a great machine to supply all their needs. People never interact with each other in person, but instead only communicate via email (basically) or via video phone. It's a fable about over-reliance on technology, and a warning that using technology to replace real human contact can make us decadent and weak. Basically, Forster was warning us against Facebook and Tumblr. The whole text is here, and as the intro says, "Anybody who uses the Internet should read E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops."
This short story about a future where people are imprisoned for crimes they have not yet committed, based on the visions of "precogs" who can see the future (although they do not always see the same future), touches on themes that have grown only more relevant in the almost sixty years since it was published. As government surveillance technologies become more and more aggressive — such as the recently reported aerial surveillance equipment designed to impersonate a cell phone tower and collect the signal of every cell phone within its range — the question of what is acceptable government reach in the name of crime prevention becomes more pressing every day.
This novel was written right after the Russian Revolution, and could be seen as a protest against the rise of Communism. But as this essay argues, it's more of a general warning about totalitarianism, and the danger of reducing people to numbers inside a perfect system of conformity — and it's a great warning against the dangers of a world where people can be judged for thought crimes and non-conformist behavior. The novel takes place in the 26th century, after two centuries of war, when a "perfect" society has been created where everybody is watched and everybody is a number, and "the only way to rid man of a crime is to rid him of freedom." And now the perfect society is ready to go out and conquer space, spreading its perfection throughout the cosmos. Plenty of people have argued that Orwell borrowed extensively from this novel.
In this strange novel, creatures called the Makers come and install clockwork into some men's heads — allowing them to move throughout time and space at will, but removing their freedom at the same time. Meanwhile, women and a few remaining men are left on Earth, trying to create a perfect society. This early story about cyborgs who are uplifted in a kind of Singularity has a lot to say about how our smartphones and Google glasses control us, but also about our willingness to become a hive mind, not unlike the Borg. A lot of the themes that bedevil us today get their start in this novel.
Here's another early dystopian novel that's credited with influencing Orwell's 1984. London's book describes a tyrannical plutocracy that came to power between 1912 and 1932, and held on to power for 300 years. In an era where economists warn about the widening gap between rich and poor, and issues like net neutrality show the distorting effect of money on our political systems, this book's warning about "robber barons" who destroy the middle class and rule over everybody else seems more pertinent than ever.
Vonnegut's story of a world where everybody has to be equal, even at the cost of damaging or holding back people with extraordinary gifts, still provides a potent warning about conformity. Re-reading the story (which is online here) it feels particularly targeted at the "dumbing down" of pop culture and the rise of anti-intellectualism — the characters in the story, George and Hazel, are obsessively watching television instead of thinking for themselves. Like all the dystopias on this list, "Harrison" is taking things to a ridiculous extreme, but it's a salutary warning against trying to keep talented people from being themselves. Vonnegut has said he identifies with the people trying to impose hindrances on the over-achievers in his story, and the result is a look at what envy and insecurity can drive us to do to others. Image via Hey Apathy Comics.
One of the American Library Association's "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books" for both 1990-1999 and 2000-2009, Atwood's tale of a near-future Christian theocracy where women have been stripped of their rights, color-coded and ranked by their class and reproductive status, and even mostly forbidden to read seems to be especially close to the zeitgeist right now. With new laws regulating women's reproduction going on the books and women being prosecuted for "fetal homicide," people are inevitably pointing out the parallels to Atwood's book.
Not to be confused with Madonna's 1998 song of a similar name, Ballard's novel tells the story of a world transformed by climate change — it's set in London, for example, but the London of The Drowned World is a tropical lagoon. What with the United Nations saying that we have to get carbon emissions down to zero by 2100 to avoid "substantial species extinction, [and] global and regional food insecurity," Ballard's vision of a world overwhelmed by climate change seems more pertinent all the time.
And finally, there's a newer book that is still even more relevant than it was back when it was published — in Barry's novel, corporations have become so powerful that everyone's last name is the name of the corporation he or she works for. And the government is just another, somewhat weaker, entity, jostling for power — with Jennifer Government as one of its harried employees. Barry's vision of a world where Nike engineers violence over its shoes as a marketing tactic and coolhunters resort to crazy means isn't just a cautionary tale about corporate power — it's also fundamentally about how marketing can warp our worldview, that feels more pressing in the era of social media and viral advertising.