Paradoxically, when the state of the world leaves one feeling embittered, impotent, and laden with despair, dystopian fiction – for all its dramatized pessimism – is often the ideal balm. Chaos is endemic to human societies, but I think it’s fair to say that, over the last year or so, the political status quo has taken some especially ominous turns.
As such, it’s possible that avid readers of the anxious variety – readers who read with therapeutic intent – have exhausted their existing stores of classic dystopian fiction. Don’t despair: consider reverting to these five, oft-overlooked dystopian classics when you’ve memorized 1984 and A Brave New World’s getting old.
1. Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler (1998)
All I need to mention to convince you to read Octavia Butler’s fierce appraisal of religious fanaticism is that, in Parable of the Talents – the sequel to Parable of the Sower – the resident fascist dictator distracts the starving, disenfranchised American masses from his role in perpetuating their privation by touting the slogan: “HELP US MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”
2. Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick (1974)
In the totalitarian setting typical of – if not fundamental to – dystopian fiction, sci-fi virtuoso Phillip K. Dick (of Blade Runner renown) narrates the travails of Jason Taverner, a genetically-elite television personality who wakes up one morning to find that he’s lost himself – literally, and then existentially.
Unfortunately for the songbird Lothario, it’s illegal in the post-Second Civil War United States in which he lives to move around without proof of identity, and Taverner’s lost his documentation, popular recognition, and his biometric signature. The ensuing pandemonium is a sordid, psychedelic tapestry that never fails to entertain, even as one registers the unpleasant parallels between Taverner’s world and our own.
3. It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935)
Sinclair Lewis’s brilliant black satire enjoyed a considerable spike in popularity after Trump’s election, and it’s hardly challenging to decipher the correlation.
It Can’t Happen Here introduces a fictional malefactor to American history, and Franklin D. Roosevelt loses the 1933 presidential elections to one Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip, a self-serving, pseudo-traditionalist who woos the masses with the prospect of economic reform only to emerge as a brutal plutocrat.
It’s an ingenious indictment, not only of fascism, but also of popular complacency; and, aside from the fact that it’s a tremendously intelligent pastiche of fiction and history, it’s really very funny.
4. The Magic Christian by Terry Southern (1959)
The Magic Christian is like a perverted fairytale: it’s genuinely comical, but it intermittently inhibits comfort by hitting too close to home. Guy Grand – capitalism’s answer to John Doe, perhaps – is an eccentric tycoon with a penchant for practical jokes. He especially delights in testing the limits of people’s appetite for money; and while some of his pranks are fairly benign, others reveal the terrifying magnitude of the power at his disposal, as he continues to debase and humiliate people on an ever-enlarging scale. Southern’s barbed farce transcends a perfunctory rendering of greed, as he evaluates the precarious interplay between money, power, and rationality.
5. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)
Frightening and wonderful, The Lathe of Heaven features the luckless George Orr, whose dreams alter the makeup of reality. Orr uses drugs to keep keep this disorientating effective facility at bay, but when he is forced to confide in manipulative therapist William Haber, the latter forces Orr to modify reality according to his therapist’s ideals.
Initially, Haber’s adjustments are altruistic; but, predictably, he begins to use Orr’s faculty to supplement his wealth and status as his appetite for power compounds. In keeping with Le Guin’s typical genius, The Lathe of Heaven is a complex, intriguing interrogation of the ways in which we construe – and construct – our own realities.