Why yes, I did wake up and choose violence today. Why do you ask?
Let me first say that for the time, place and the politics of its day, 1984 was brilliant. It contained very pertinent criticism of post-WWII European governments, strong warnings about government surveillance and police states, and it revolutionized social science fiction for all time.
But if one more person tries to tell me that 1984 is a perfect mirror of current politics or that Facebook is rife with Newsspeak or that *insert opposing politician and political/social stance here* is a textbook example of Big Brother and doublethink, or any other whiny, uncreative application of Orwell’s very specific dystopic vision to modern times I’m going to whack them over the back of the head with a copy of Animal Farm and wait for the Thought Police to come and get me.
Full disclosure: I’ve read 1984 twice. The first time I was a teenage super-nerd who naturally found my way to Orwell after reading copious amounts of Heinlein and Asimov. I found it disappointingly narrow and politically limited, even then. I also found Winston a thoroughly mushy and unrelatable character who was somehow disturbing for reasons that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time.
I re-read the book in 2017 when it suddenly became a bestseller again and every other social media post by a wannabe politico was an interpretation of how any disagreeable social policy was somehow the new Ministry of Truth. This time I instantly realized exactly what bothers me about this book. I simply cannot get emotionally, politically or intellectually invested in an imagination that sees the worst possible thing for humanity being the loss of the ability to do whatever you want to do, whenever you want to do it, when that’s the present reality for a lot of actual people. If your vision of the end of the world still includes stable housing, steady work, three meals a day, and entertainment, I really can’t take your dystopia too seriously. If the worst thing you can think of is a loss of freedom that doesn’t otherwise impede your physical quality of life, I find it difficult to be invested in your struggle. If you’ve never had to seriously consider how to get free, then pardon me if I’m not impressed by your bland fantasies of oppression. The world has already been dystopic for many of our ancestors. Some of us are living our great-grandparent’s post-apocalyptic dreams, so excuse me if I can’t get excited about a fictional world in which the revolution is dependent on a very mediocre white dude and the shenanigans his sudden discovery of genital feeling and decent books lead him to. (I could write an entire essay just on how offensive I find it that in certain imaginations, even dystopia has to dance off the end of a white dude’s dick, but because I’m only choosing partial violence today, I’ll save it for another time.)
Look, all I’m saying is that if Roots isn’t the definitive dystopic novel, neither is 1984, ok?
Enough about books I don’t like, however. One of the things I love about the current literary diversity renaissance is that even the beaten-down trope of dystopia is being re-examined, re-contextualized and rewritten to include different perspectives. There’s also a lot of writing about what it would be like to survive them–a lot of these are more utopia than dystopia, which is in keeping with the historical context that a lot of people of difference (for lack of a better term) are dealing with. For many of us, the recent past is full of stories of people just like us who didn’t make it to the present in one piece, even in memory. We got here by embodying the wildest hopes of those who came before us, and it’s fitting that a lot of these dystopias are really stories of how we may eventually reach a better future.
And yes, there’s a very valid argument to make that dystopia is right now but I chose violence this morning, not depression. We’ll have to talk about that another time.
One more thing before I get into the list; wiser heads than mine have talked about the presence of real modern-day and historical dystopia in the cultures of BIPOC, LGBTQ and disabled individuals before. If you’re interested, check out this article featuring Indigenous sci-fi writers thoughts on what it’s like to be part of cultures that literally survived the apocalypse and this short story collection disguised as a Harvard academic paper breaking down reasons why the Latino diaspora is a living dystopia. These are great resources. I, however, am not an expert, I’m just a lady on the internet who reads a lot and likes to write about it. As always, be nice in the comments. If you can’t be nice, be very, very smart. If you can’t be very, very smart, be humble and a good communicator. If you’re the kind of person who eats the bottom of ice cream cones first, the whole list is HERE so you can just jump ahead and take a complete look without reading the breakdown.
So now onto our list of tales about the end of the world, and the five terrible minutes leading up to it…
Parables. Octavia Butler (Grand Central Publishing, 1993/1998)
This would hardly be a list of diverse dystopias without first paying tribute to the OG, La Grande Dame of Science Fiction herself, Octavia Butler and her masterwork duology, The Parables. The books, released in the mid- and late 90’s and set in 2025, were eerily prescient in some ways–there’s a businessman-turned-president who exploits white rage and Christian terrorism and uses the slogan “Make America Great Again”, income equality and prison industrialism are slowly making slavery legal again, and climate change has ravaged supply chains and food production. Where they aren’t being prophetic, the books are hopeful in a strangely cold, logical way, embodied in their pragmatic, hyper-empathetic cult leader protagonist Olamina.
I realize there are quite a few contradictions in the previous sentence, and I encourage you to read the books to find out what I mean and why they fit. If novels aren’t your thing, the first in the series has been made into a graphic novel that captures the essential desperation/hope dichotomy of the original. Find them HERE.
Moon of the Crusted Snow, Waubgeshig Rice (ECW Press, 2018)
The Parables are set less than five years in the future. Waubgeshig Rice’s slow-paced horror story about an Anishinaabe reserve cut off of from the rest of civilization feels like it might be set five weeks into the future. It’s a horror story about an old cultural menace in the body of a new interloper, who penetrates the isolated reserve’s fragile peace in a way that colonial history buffs will find sadly familiar. For all its horror though, this book has a remarkably hopeful resolution–although an unexpected one. Find it HERE.
Homecoming, Cheon Myeong-Kwan (Asia Publishers, 2015)
As I mentioned in my review of Sultana’s Dream, the West has a weird hubris when it comes to all things speculative fiction, especially dystopia. Other countries have their own literary visions of decay and decline, but they’re usually not translated often enough or accessibly enough, which is enough for some people to assume they must not exist. Fortunately, this novella by popular Korean novelist Cheon Myeong-Kwan is pretty widely available, and you can read the first 20 pages or so online(click the link). It’s a sad story set in a hyper-industrial future that stems from Korea’s overwork culture and impending underpopulation. Its wry ending will be very familiar to fans of Korean film’s trademark dark humor.
Lakewood, Megan Giddings (Amistad Press, 2020)
This book has the distinction of being one of only two medical dystopias that I know of.(The other is Neal Shusterman’s Unwind.) In an age where medical distrust and paranoia seem to be increasing, this is a chilling story set in the very near future about a young woman who drops out of college to literally sell her body for experimental use in order to financially support her family. The setup–a nice, smart girl from a good family forced to do this dreadful, dehumanizing thing–is a heavy, horrifying statement on the struggles young, talented BIPOC’s face when trying to get ahead following the rules of the American dream. The “Black tax” is real and so are other setbacks of historical, generational oppression–this is a dystopia far more plausible than some of the other ones on this list. Find it HERE.
Crosshairs, Catherine Hernandez (Atria Books, 2020)
Speaking of plausible dystopia, there are elements of this near future story that seem a little on the nose until you realize they’re grounded in present-day realities found in parts of the majority world. The protagonists, Firuzeh, Bahadur and Kay, are all the victims of a global domino effect–climate change leads to floods, which leads to homelessness, which leads to large numbers of domestic refugees. A conservative government takes the opportunity to round up people of color, disabled people, and LGBTQ+ people in camps to isolate them from the rest of the population, and like any good modern revolutionary story, an uprising by media is the key to changing the world. (Imagine if Cinna was the main character in The Hunger Games and you’ll have some idea how this goes.) This book has characters that are usually only in this genre as comic relief or noble sacrifices take front and center stage as heroes. The result is a strong, touching story. Find it HERE.
Patternmaster, Octavia Butler(Grand Central Publishing, 1976)
It’s rare that I feature two books by the same author on a list, and a lot of people would argue that Patternmaster isn’t dystopic. However, I argue strongly that it is–the regimented, hyper-talented world of the Pattern is a warning that we should never let the type of folks who are simultaneously on LLC Twitter, MLM Facebook and pledged to the Divine Nine take over, at least not without a fight.
Jokes aside, what this post-dystopia really looks at is a world where strict meritocracy is actually valued and instituted. It’s a much grimmer, far less utopic prospect than most people would imagine but I think Butler was on to something here.(She always was.) I often hear well-meaning people express the sentiment that things would be better if “the smart people” ran things, but is smart all it really takes to make a better world?
Patternmaster is part of a longer, very ambitious series that also looks at the consequences of genetic breeding programs, the capriciousness of natural chaos, and gender equality in megalomania, among many other things. Check them all out HERE.
Emergency Skin, N.K. Jemisin(Amazon Original Stories, 2019)
This novella is the only dystopia I’ve ever read that made me laugh out loud. It’s actually an unexpected bit of utopia disguised as dystopia, and so cleverly narrated and plotted that I wanted to cheer a little bit at the end.
There’s a pretty major twist that I think is critical to enjoying the book fully, so I won’t go into more detail. However, I will say that out of all the works on this list, this is the only one I’d tell everyone to buy ASAP and savor repeatedly. It gave me joy, a difficult and unusual thing for a dystopic story to do–so much so that I revoked my usual Amazon Clause for it. Find it HERE.
Futureland, Walter Mosely(Aspect, 2001)
Walter Mosely is well-known for his detective fiction, but he’s also the author of some of the grimmest, most incisive dystopic fiction I’ve ever read. Futureland is a collection of short stories, all interconnected and set in the same crapsack future plausibly built from our own hypercapitalist, racially unequal, globally unfair present. The stories are infuriating, thrilling, terrifying and darkly hilarious, sometimes all at the same time. Mosely is also remarkably sharp when it comes to geography, culture and global politics and like Butler, he can be eerily prescient at times. (When I first came across this news story, I immediately thought of several stories in this collection that feature this exact living arrangement, and how claustrophobic and miserable I felt reading them.) Mosely’s dystopic work is also notable because Black men are often the main characters, and a wide variety of Black men, at that–intellectuals, criminals, cowards, heroes, everymen, romantics. It’s rare that you see Black men written so thoroughly and diversely into dystopia except as muscle or sidekicks, and there’s a certain flavor that these characters bring into Futureland that is really worth spending a little time savoring. For some reason, the book is difficult to find in print, but check your local library or used bookstore. If you’re a member of Team Audiobook, you can find it HERE.
Tears of the Truffle Pig, Fernando A Flores(MCD X FSG Originals, 2019)
Full disclosure: I haven’t read this one yet. Reviews bill it as absurdist, but it seems to be about an alternate Texas where multiple border walls have been erected, extinct animals are brought back to life to entertain wealthy patrons, and narcotics are entirely legal. Sounds pretty dystopic to me. Everything I’ve seen and heard about this book make it sound like it brings the cultural joy and humor of Emergency Skin and mixes it with the clever commentary of The Sellout and Interior Chinatown. It’s a highly anticipated read for me, so I’m including it. If you get to it before me, tell me what you think. Find it HERE.
Somewhere in between politics and trendiness, the idea that a dystopian novel is meant as a warning to fix problems within society has been lost, I think. For all my ragging on 1984, it does expose social and political problems and warns against them quite well. So do the nine books on this list, with the added benefit of hindsight from historical and cultural dystopias and apocalypses and a few hopeful predictions for better futures, as well. See them all here, and may they inspire you to contribute to better futures in your own way.
(Beautiful people! It’s been forever since I wrote a booklist, but finally and at last I’m back on my grind. To see other booklists, click HERE. To support this blog, check out the Equal Opportunity Bookshop and consider making a purchase. Full disclosure–this blog has affiliate relationships with Bookshop and other sites. Any clicks and purchases you make from links you find here will result in a commission being earned, which I will promptly use to buy more books, so we all win, here. Peace!)
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