Today’s reading list features that stalwart genre of anxious times: the dystopia. I’ve tried to collect some newer and more unusual examples for this list, rather than the old standards that you see on every list. Not only are these novels prime escapist fare, but they serve as a helpful reminder that things could always be much, much worse.
1. The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood: Now may be the perfect time to finally get around to reading Atwood’s wonderfully bonkers trilogy — Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam — featuring genetically engineered animals, weirdo cults, and of course, the end of the world.
2. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi: This is a thriller wrapped in a dystopian setting. Near-future Phoenix is choked with dust and awash in brutality. Prostitution, torture, gangs, crazy guys with packs of hyenas as pets — all here. California state operatives bomb dams. New Mexicans string up Texan refugees as a warning. This vision of the United States is completely unrecognizable and yet seems all too plausible.
3. The Circle by Dave Eggers: Have you been living your life pretty much entirely on social media the last few weeks? This novel may well scare you out of it. The book is a dystopian view of a near future, a nightmarish outcome of current trends like posting everything we do on social networks and the resulting monetization of our every share, loss of privacy, and ultimately, loss of freedom.
4. The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: A Christian preacher travels to another planet, Oasis, to minister to the alien natives and finds himself becoming more distant from his wife, left behind on Earth where society seems to be collapsing. This was an absorbing, thought-provoking read, not so much science fiction as a novel that employs science fictional elements to explore human needs for love, faith, and something to believe in. It also adds an apocalyptic/dystopian element to the equation, raising the questions of whether our civilization can survive and how we might undertake building a new civilization completely from scratch.
5. The Children of Men by P. D. James: If you have only seen the movie version of this, you may be surprised to find how different the novel actually is. It takes place in a near future 25 years after people have stopped giving birth and are, as a result, facing the end of the species. The story is set in England, which has fallen under dictatorial rule in the name of providing the public with what they most want: security, comfort, and pleasure.
6. Embassytown by China Mieville: Avice is a human colonist on a planet at the farthest edge of navigable space populated by the Ariekei, sentient beings famed for their unique language. Avice returns to Embassytown after many years of deep-space exploration to find that she has become a living simile in the Ariekei language; the tenuous relationship between alien natives and human colonists comes crashing down when the Ariekei become addicted to a human ambassador’s way of speaking to them, sparking off societal collapse and war.
7. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: The story begins in 1984 England as 15-year-old Holly Sykes is running away from home. Holly’s strange and frightening visions signify that this is not the mundane world it seems, but a fantastical version of it where reality can be distorted. She witnesses a decisive battle in a war, an event that neither she nor the reader can comprehend. Each following section jumps forward several years and introduces a new voice, with Holly as the linchpin connecting it all. This episodic structure is reminiscent of Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, but with immortals, psychic vampires, and reincarnation.
8. The Dream of Perpetual Motion by Dexter Palmer: This novel takes place in a fantasy version of twentieth-century America, when the Age of Miracles is over and magic has been replaced by machines. Palmer has built a disturbing, surreal world in Xeroville, the major city in his alternate America.
9. Boneshaker by Cherie Priest: This is a steampunk novel set in an alternate Seattle in the 1880s. Leviticus Blue, a Seattle inventor, came up with a monstrous machine called the Boneshaker, but when he started it up, something went wrong and it tore a destructive tunnel underneath downtown. This released a trapped gas, later christened the Blight, that turned those who breathed it into “rotters” — zombies, effectively. Seattle had to be evacuated and a massive wall erected around downtown, keeping in both the Blight and the rotters.
10. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: In the near future, drought has rendered the southwestern United States nearly uninhabitable. A mountain-high sea dune called the Amargosa has spread over large portions of the Mojave Desert in Southern California. Most people have evacuated, but some remain in Los Angeles, living off rationed soda and scavenging from abandoned homes of millionaires. Ray and Luz are two of them, but when they take a two-year-old girl, they realize they need to give her a better life. They set out on a treacherous crossing of the desert, where they encounter a cultlike group surviving at the edges of the great dune sea.
11. The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara: Is this a dystopia? It is set in the real world, with only a few fantastical elements. On an expedition to a remote island in the South Pacific, a scientist discovers that the native people have significantly increased their lifespan by eating a rare turtle, but their immortality comes at the price of severe mental degeneration. The novel’s portrayal of humanity, both in the quote-unquote unspoiled natives and the relentless, invading Westerners who destroy everything they touch, is bleak and fatalistic — very dystopian, I’d say.