A Few Dystopias

I posted the following Wikipedia link to a list of dystopian fiction in response to a post about dystopian classics by Denise A.  on Facebook, and suggested some additional authors who weren’t covered in the list:

List of dystopian literature

Denise asked me which were my top favorites on my additional list. That’s a hard one, and I’ve had to reflect long and hard on the question to come up with an answer. Here are my additions, with a bit about each. I’d say they’re the most important dystopian works in the science fiction/fantasy genres that aren’t included in the above list. I’ve arranged them from most important/essential/whatever to least. Each title is linked to the Wikipedia article on the work for those who want to investigate further.

The most “traditional” dystopia with a message that can easily be applied to our current situation is Memoirs Found in a Bathtub; Lem was one of the greats of 20th century science fiction.  This is a truly frightening vision of what happens when bureaucracies run amok, and is a cautionary tale that seems especially valuable to us today struggling with issues of privacy and freedom. For that reason, I’m placing it first in the list.

Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, Stanislaw Lem (1961):

Polish science fiction author Lem is the author of Solaris, made into a motion picture by Andrei Tarkovsky then later remade by Hollywood, and The Stalker, also made in to a motion picture by Tarkovsky. Many of his novels jab at the Soviet bureaucracy. This is the ultimate bureaucratic nightmare: a bureaucratic agent is trapped in an underground military complex, where he is supposed to follow an unintelligible directive to “Verify. Search. Destroy. Incite. Inform. Over and out.”  Nothing is as it seems, all is ruled by paranoia, and to retain the remaining bits of his sanity the protagonist keeps a journal which is what’s found in the bathtub by a far distant future society. Lem said of his novel that everything we perceive can be interpret as a message, and that this perception may be exploited for political purposes only to run amok far outstripping the original intentions.

The closest things I can think of in cinema are Terry Gilliam’s dystopian film “Brazil”, or Kubrick’s “Doctor Strangelove”.  Or in fiction, Heller’s “Catch-22”. People who can make their way through it may find it brilliant, those who don’t may absolutely hate it. It’s boring … but that’s part of the point.


“I’ll tell you. You’re young, but you’re one of us, and I’m one of us, so I’ll tell you. Everything. Now, say someone’s one of us. . . but he’s also—you know—you can tell, right?”

“He’s not—one of us,” I said.

“Right! You can tell! But sometimes—you can’t tell. You think someone’s one of us, but they got to him and then he wasn’t any more—and then we got to him, and he was—but he still has to look like he isn’t, that is, like he only looks like he is! But they get wise to him and—now he isn’t again, but he has to look like he isn’t—or we’ll get wise—and that’s a triple!”

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe (1980-1983):

A tetralogy that is actually part of a longer series of 11 novels called the Solar Cycle. Set in a far distant future when the sun is dying, it’s the story of the journeyman torturer Severian’s journey toward his messianic destiny, which involves revitalizing the sun and saving the earth.  He is exiled from his guild for showing compassion to one of his “clients”. It’s a dense and challenging read full of allegory, and one of the literary masterpieces of 20th century science fiction.

Gene Wolfe is a Roman Catholic, and his Christianity informs his writing without being explicitly present — more of a Tolkien than a Lewis in that regard. Severian is a flawed “type” of Christ to use a Roman Catholic term.  Here is a good albeit flawed article on the Christian dimensions of The Book of the New Sun:

The Religious Implications of Gene Wolfe’s The Book Of The New Sun

Fans of Tolkien may enjoy reading Wolfe’s essay on The Lord of the Rings:

Gene Wolfe on JRR Tolkien: The Best Introduction to the Mountains

I’ve read all 11 novels in the Solar Cycle – most of them more than once. One scene in particular sticks out for me in one of the later novels in the Cycle, I think it is “In Green’s Jungles”.  In this unimaginably distant future, the descendants of a generational starship settle a watery planet called Blue; one character ends up on the twin planet Green, which is a jungle world. He finds a table built by the indigenous extinct species and is moved for some reason he can’t fathom to place his meal on it as a kind of offering — an inspired Eucharistic offering in a culture that has forgotten Christianity or how to pray.

A quote:

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard defining edges.

Viriconium, M John Harrison (1971 – 1985):

A set of stories in the manner of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth (who started the whole dying earth meme in science fiction/fantasy), or Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, or Michael Moorcock’s or Cordwainer Smith’s stories. The nature (and even the name) of the city Viriconium changes and mutates from story to story (it’s a kind of subversion of the detailed and consistent worlds of other fantasy authors like Tolkien). It’s set on an earth far distant in the future, when many civilizations have risen and fallen so that there are deserts of the rusted remains of older civilizations where people find things like airships and energy weapons left by those long dead. It is a decaying future society living off the past, but a place where much beauty can still be found.  A poetic and sometimes disturbing portrait of a far distant future (or an extended dream of it). Here is a good review:

A Little Cryptic, A Little Proud, A Little Mad

A quote that gives a good feeling for Harrison’s style:

Rue Sepile; the Avenue of Children; Margery Fry Court: all melted down! All the shabby dependencies of the Plaza of Unrealized Time! All slumped, sank into themselves, eroded away until nothing was left in his field of vision but an unbearable white sky above and the bright clustered points of the chestnut leaves below – and then only a depthless opacity, behind which he could detect the beat of his own blood, the vitreous humour of the eye. He imagined the old encrusted brick flowing, the glass cracking and melting from its frames even as they shrivelled awake, the sheds of paints flaring green and gold, the geraniums toppling in flames to nothing, not even white ash, under this weight of light! All had winked away like reflections in a jar of water glass, and only the medium remained, bright, viscid, vacant. He had a sense of the intolerable briefness of matter, its desperate signalling and touching, its fall; and simultaneously one of its unendurable durability

He thought, Something lies behind all the realities of the universe and is replacing them here, something less solid and more permanent. Then the world stopped haunting him forever.

The Dying Earth, Jack Vance (1950):

The ancestor of all the other dying earth stories over the past 65 years.   The sun has ballooned into a red giant that is burning out, and societies have fallen into apathy and decadence, as they wait for a flickering sun to finally burn out. Magic has reappeared as a dominant force in these societies. One of his influences was James Branch Cabell. The stories have been described by some as picaresque.

A quote:

“What are your fees?” inquired Guyal cautiously.
“I respond to three questions,” stated the augur. “For twenty terces I phrase the answer in clear and actionable language; for ten I use the language of cant, which occasionally admits of ambiguity; for five, I speak a parable which you must interpret as you will; and for one terce, I babble in an unknown tongue.”

And another quote:

“What great minds lie in the dust,” said Guyal in a low voice. “What gorgeous souls have vanished into the buried ages; what marvellous creatures are lost past the remotest memory … Nevermore will there be the like; now in the last fleeting moments, humanity festers rich as rotten fruit. Rather than master and overpower our world, our highest aim is to cheat it through sorcery.”

Rediscovery of Man, Cordwainer Smith (1950s – 1960s):

Humans in a far distant future live an allocated 400 years of luxury while genetically engineered animals called underpeople do all the work and are treated as possessions. It is a morally sterile society ruled by the  all powerful and cruel Instrumentality, and the underpeople serve as the moral guides to their human masters.

Cordwainer Smith was Episcopalian and his faith informs his fiction in a subtle way. Here’s a good essay that touches on the theme of the Old Strong Religion in Smith’s fiction:

Cats, cruelty and children

When a Lord of the Instrumentality orders the dog-girl D’Joan to be burned at the stake for leading an uprising of the underpeople, he says,

“I am not a bad man, little dog-girl, but you are a bad animal and we must make an example of you. Do you understand that?” 

Her reply:

Joan commented, upon sentence, “My body is your property, but my love is not. My love is my own, and I shall love you fiercely while you kill me.”

Beasts, John Crowley (1976): 

Roving bands of genetically engineered human/lion hybrids are hunted down and eliminated by the humans who created them.  Some similarity here to the story behind Blade Runner (Philip Dick, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”). The least of Crowley’s stories, but still a good read. I wouldn’t call this an essential dystopian novel.

Two reviews:

Book Review: Beasts, John Crowley (1976)

InfinityPlus – Review, Beasts

A quote:

He (Painter)… asked Meric to overthrow the king within himself, the old Adam whom Jehovah said was to rule over all creation. For even in the Mountain, King Adam was not overthrown, only in exile; still proud, still anxious, still throned in lonely superiority, because there was no new king to take up his abandoned crown. That king had come.

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