The best dystopian sci-fi books

Prentis Rollins Author Of The Furnace: A Graphic Novel
By Prentis Rollins

The Books I Picked & Why

1984

By George Orwell

Book cover of 1984

Why this book?

1984 is the granddaddy and patron saint of dystopian sci-fi novels, period. I read it in 1984, shortly after seeing the film version with John Hurt, which deeply affected me. Written in 1947, it shows us London in 1984—but in an alternate reality in which the world has divided into three totalitarian superstates, in the wake of World War 2 and a small nuclear war in the early 1950s. Winston Smith is a mid-level party functionary in Airstrip One (formerly known as England), which is part of Oceania, one of the three superstates. Every facet of his life is scrutinized by the governing party and its dreaded Thought Police. He begins an illicit affair with another party functionary, and the two lovers begin to flirt with the resistance—with disastrous results. They are captured and subjected to the hellish, medieval, atomizing process of the State’s penal/interrogation system.

1984 is a relentlessly unhappy book—but for all the one of the most worthwhile books I could recommend. Orwell’s insight into the psychology of totalitarianism is astonishing, not least because totalitarianism still more-or-less had its baby teeth in 1947. He saw with blood-chilling clarity and precision the nature, logic, and inevitable outcome of the whole game, and not once did he pull a punch in laying it out for the reader. And needless to say, 1984 is a timeless piece of beautiful literature, and an astonishing feat of sci-fi worldbuilding. This is a must-read for anyone interested in sci-fi, history, politics, literature, and the interface of all these things.


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Make Room! Make Room!: The Classic Novel of an Overpopulated Future

By Harry Harrison

Book cover of Make Room! Make Room!: The Classic Novel of an Overpopulated Future

Why this book?

Written in 1966, Make Room! Make Room! was the basis for the 1973 film Soylent Green—it’s one of those great books that (like The Exorcist) was totally overshadowed by its equally great film version. It’s set in 1999, in a grossly overpopulated and polluted world in which people are scrambling for ever-diminishing resources. It mainly follows the life of NYC detective Andy Rusch and his elderly roommate Sol—who has finagled a bicycle-powered generator to run the TV and refrigerator in their small apartment. Rusch falls in love with Shirl, the young mistress of a rich man whose murder Rusch is investigating, but Shirl dumps him when she realizes she has better options with the rich rather than the poor.

Make Room! Make Room! is a cautionary tale about unchecked population, and it’s driven not so much by plot as by what Harry Harrison had on his mind: pollution, the problem of feeding teeming masses of people, dwindling educational resources, and the general degradation of the human spirit in crowded conditions. Funnily enough, the Earth’s population is now well in excess of the 7 billion that inhabit the world of Harrison’s novel—there are of course massive challenges facing us, but things aren’t nearly as bad as Harrison’s dark novel paints them to be. Still, this is a fascinating and moving book, not least because of the ways in which Harrison draws you into the lives of his struggling, desperate characters.


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Greybeard

By Brian W. Aldiss

Book cover of Greybeard

Why this book?

Late in the 20th Century, an ‘accident’ occurred whereby nuclear bombs detonated in orbit above earth—the resulting radiation has rendered mankind sterile. Algy Timberlane—aka ‘Greybeard’—is in his mid-50’s, a veritable stripling in an increasingly geriatric world. He, his wife Martha, and a few aging friends set off on an odyssey down the river Thames, to explore what’s left of their crumbling, dying world—and maybe find some spark of hope for the future.

Greybeard is a marvel to behold.  It’s one of the few books that’s not only about the hideous injustices of growing old, but also about a world that’s grown old and is facing death. What would people do if they knew that theirs was literally the last generation, that there would be no one to carry on their work? It’s an unsettling question to wrap your mind around—but Greybeard faces it without flinching, and with moving, thought-provoking effect. 


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This Perfect Day

By Ira Levin

Book cover of This Perfect Day

Why this book?

Ira Levin wrote 7 novels; I wish he’d written more. He was that very rare bird: a literary writer who wrote for readers, and not for himself. He’s all story, never showmanship—his beautiful flourishes are stunning because they’re so rare.  

This Perfect Day is one of his novels that hasn’t been turned into a film (the only other one is Son of Rosemary, his sequel to Rosemary’s Baby). This is a head-scratcher to me just because it’s easily his most cinematic novel—in the sense of lending itself to stunning visuals. It’s very much in the same school of dystopian sci-fi as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—both depict a futuristic, technological dystopia in which people are perpetually drugged into complaisance and compliance. In the world of This Perfect Day, races have been merged into one, there is only one language, and the world is run by a computer called Unicomp. In the course of the novel, Chip, the non-conformist protagonist, uncovers the real power structure of the world, and the ugly motives behind Unicomp and its still-living creator.  

This Perfect Day is not long on originality; Huxley said most of it before, but I don’t think he said it better. Levin’s book is a masterpiece of entertaining, page-turning suspense. It was the first Levin novel I read, and it’s a great starting point. Be warned: if you start with This Perfect Day, you will want to read the other six.


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It Can't Happen Here

By Sinclair Lewis

Book cover of It Can't Happen Here

Why this book?

Sinclair Lewis was master of the ‘diagnostic novel’—America was always his sick patient, and in many of his novels he diagnosed what the problem was. In 1935, the problem was that America, like so much of the world, was in danger of falling under the spell of fascist demagoguery.  

It Can’t Happen Here isn’t a sci-fi novel—but it is certainly speculative fiction, with resemblances to both 1984 and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It details the rise of populist demagogue Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, who is elected president after fomenting fear and promising a return to traditional values. With the help of well-placed supporters and his own version of the Nazi Brownshirts, Windrip becomes dictator; the constitution is abandoned, the 48 states are divided into three grand administrative regions, and rule of law comes to an end. All of this is seen through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, a traditional liberal journalist trying to maintain his commitment to the truth, and the safety of himself and his family, at a time when one or the other has to be sacrificed.  

In many ways It Can’t Happen Here is just as relentlessly brutal and insightful as 1984, which is preceded by 12 years—but the totalitarianism it describes has a restrained, American flavor. Orwell saw totalitarianism as the utterly new, deadly animal it was—committed only to power for its own sake, without prior loyalties to country, party, or faith. It Can’t Happen Here is an easier read due to the amiable humorousness of Lewis the man; this shined through in everything he wrote—even in this, his darkest novel. This was the first Sinclair Lewis novel I read—I’ve reread it several times, and can’t recommend it highly enough, especially given that the trends Lewis feared are as alive now as they were in 1935. 


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