Dystopias Aren't Just Great Literary Fun, They're Excellent Social Barometers

Dystopias aren't just great literary fun, they're excellent social barometers -- the future we fear says a lot about the present-moment anxieties that plague us. And right now, we're really fond of dystopian tales -- think, or, or Chang-Rae Lee's new novel
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Dystopias aren't just great literary fun, they're excellent social barometers -- the future we fear says a lot about the present-moment anxieties that plague us. And right now, we're really fond of dystopian tales -- think The Hunger Games, or Divergent, or Chang-Rae Lee's new novel On Such A Full Sea. But there are essentially two kinds of dystopian novels: Novels of extreme order and ones of extreme disorder. And the one that's more popular at a given moment will tell you a lot about our times.

For the dystopia-of-order, think of, most famously, Nineteen Eighty Four, (published in 1948) or maybe Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (published in 1985 -- in fact, they make instructive bookends). In these tales, a totalitarian government or other ruling body has risen to rule the citizenry in its repressive iron grip. Society has gotten worse largely because of new, more arduous restrictions. It's no surprise these books enjoyed great popularity in the early part of the twentieth century, when the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany provided parallel examples of real-time dystopias -- enterprising authors could simply read the headlines and extrapolate from there.

But what's been popular, and resonant, in more recent years, dystopia-wise? That would be your second kind of dystopia -- the dystopia of disorder. In these tales, society hasn't become more restrictive; it's broken down completely. Some cataclysmic weather or political event has sent us reeling back toward a primitive way of life. These are often cautionary tales of consequence run amok: the super-virus that was unwittingly unleashed; the nanotechnology that slipped from our control.

These dystopias, I think, speak to a different kind of anxiety: Not one of widespread repression, but one of widespread helplessness in an unfathomably complex world.

The other change, of course, is that with many dystopias, we no longer need to think of them as taking place far in the future. My own novel, Shovel Ready, is more of a day-after-tomorrow kind of dystopia: a what-if? scenario about New York City in the wake of a dirty bomb attack. The setting may be in the near future, but the technology exists alarmingly in the present. Just as all these 11 classic dystopian tales have sought to taught us: The dystopia is now.

Logan's Run (1967) In an ageist future society both population and the consumption of resources are maintained by requiring the death of everyone who reaches a particular age. The story follows the actions of Logan, a "sandman" charged with enforcing these rule, tracking down and killing citizens who "run" from society's lethal demand--only to end up "running" himself. A canny distillation of sixties-era anxieties, in a post-"Don't trust anyone over 30" society.

Ready Player One (2011) It's 2044 and, like most of humanity, Wade Watts escapes his grim surroundings by spending his waking hours jacked into the OASIS, a sprawling virtual utopia that lets you be anything you want to be. A thoughtful and rollicking adventure about the allure of fantasy worlds -- many of which we might recognize as places to which we can already escape.

The Wind Up Girl (2009) What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits and genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution? Paolo Bacigalupi delivers one of the most highly acclaimed science fiction novels of the twenty-first century -- and that rare dystopia that you almost want to live in.

Caesar's Column (1890) by Ignatius L. Donnelly is one of the first major dystopian novels in the English language. Often described as "apocalyptic dystopia", its story follows the life of simple man from Uganda who comes to visit the futuristic metropolis of New York City. There he witnesses its great wealth, but also the pain of the labor class. Eventually, he escapes the city after the beginning of the open war between workers and aristocrats.

A Clockwork Orange (1962) is a dystopian novella written by the English author Anthony Burgess and made, of course, into a famous cult film by Stanley Kubrick. Often selected as one of the best novels of the 20th century, Clockwork Orange tells the tale of the dark dystopian nightmare future filled with violent gangs and ruthless "droogs," brilliantly tackling all aspects of good and evil, from social pathology to the meaning of human freedom.

Neuromancer (1984) The award winning novel that started it all (or at least a lot of it). Rightly celebrated as the birth of the cyberpunk subgenre, this revolutionary trilogy explored the connection -- and differences -- between humans and machines as we become increasingly interdependent. Also gave the world the term "cyberspace." And gave more than a few of us nightmares.

High-Rise (1975) is an intensely creepy science fiction novel by JG Ballard that describes the violent events in one luxury high-rise building. After being provided with all their needs, tenants of this building started reversing their social status to the point when they form violent mobs hell-bent on destroying "enemy floors". This dark tale is a perfect example of the dystopia-in-a-bottle: a microsociety that perfectly mirrors the tensions in our own.

Gun, with Occasional Music (1994) is an American science fiction novel written by Jonathan Lethem. This hardboiled detective tale describes the adventures of wisecracking private detective in the dystopian world filled with sentient evolved animals and society that is dependent on mind numbing drugs.

Super Sad True Love Story (2010) is the award winning novel by the American author Gary Shteyngart, and the a great example of a dystopia tale that smartly turns up current conditions to eleven. It describes life in a near future New York, where passersby can rate your attractiveness automatically and Staten Island is the hot new neighborhood in New York. All the scarier for being entirely believable.

Zone One (2011) Colson Whitehead's excellent novel of a post-apocalyptic New York is often described, somewhat simplistically, as a zombie novel. And, yes, there are zombies. There's also a poignant tale of love, loss, and isolation that will be familiar to any urban dweller, on the run from the undead or not.

Shovel Ready (2014) A hard noir tale with a dash of dystopia, "Shovel Ready" imagines an all-too-plausible near-future New York, in which a dirty bomb has left the city toxic and the rich have retreated to a fulltime virtual reality called the Limnosphere. If you can't imagine New York as a bombed out wasteland, don't look forward, look back -- to such 70s era classic tales of a very different idea of the city, such as "The Warrior" or "Escape from New York."

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