The best dystopian science fiction books to guide the way when the world is on fire

Gerald K. Lamb Author Of Filtered (Great Society Trilogy)
By Gerald K. Lamb

Who am I?

I have a master’s degree in history focusing on American imperialism, the rise of nation states, and the Holocaust. Studying some of the most painful parts of the human experience has colored my fiction and infused into it characters that aren't superheroes who can single-handedly change the world but people with strong convictions beset by monumental and overwhelming obstacles. I’m drawn to characters who persevere through worlds that aren't simply black-and-white, good-and-evil but complex, gray worlds where balancing what is best for yourself, and what is best for others, is often at odds.

I wrote...

Filtered (Great Society Trilogy)

By Gerald K. Lamb,

Book cover of Filtered (Great Society Trilogy)

What is my book about?

Filtered is a young adult dystopian science fiction novel set in the soot and ash chocked cities of the Great Society—an alternate reality America through the looking glass. At first glance, Filtered shares many of the trappings of the genre, but the story’s heroine, Evelyn, isn’t poised to save the world. Instead, hers is a journey of discovery and moral anguish. Born into privilege, Evelyn must grapple with the true cost of her luxury and the ignorance it affords her.  

Filtered is suffused with the differences and conflicts between history, the past, and memory. Evelyn embodies the struggle for truth when the “normalcy” you are told to embrace is literally poison.

The books I picked & why

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Oryx and Crake

By Margaret Atwood,

Book cover of Oryx and Crake

Why this book?

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood—and the MaddAddam trilogy it kicks off—is the distillation of a century of dystopian science fiction incorporating the strongest elements from Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and even a hint of Atwood’s own The Handmaid's Tale. The world Atwood conjures in Oryx and Crake is so vivid, sharp, and intoxicating that it has transformed how I think about science fiction. Out of the fiction books I've read in the last twenty years, Oryx and Crake has had the most profound effect on me and I couldn't recommend it more highly: Nose Cones, Pigoons, and ChickieNobs have worked their way into my daily lexicon.

Oryx and Crake is weird and graphic, but it's truthful, poignant, and its cultural indictments cut clean. I'm a huge fan of Margaret Atwood’s and, to me, this is her at her best.

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel,

Book cover of Station Eleven

Why this book?

I was unsure how I felt about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, but after watching the amazing HBO adaptation, it has solidified itself to me as a must-read dystopian novel. What makes Station Eleven really stand out is how the end of the world is depicted not as an end of all things, but a new beginning struggling to outgrow the weight of the damage. The apocalypse strips away all the unnecessary and corrosive elements of civilization and allows us to focus in on the nature of being human. And at the core of being human is dealing with the past. 

I recommend reading Station Eleven in concert with watching the HBO miniseries as a way to reflect on the medium of storytelling and what is lost and gained, in each version.

Fahrenheit 451

By Ray Bradbury,

Book cover of Fahrenheit 451

Why this book?

I have never reread a book as many times as I have Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. To me, it stands out among other classics in this genre because Bradbury leaves so much room for imagination. His style gives you space on the page for your own struggles to fill the gaps and to expand the world into something that changes and grows every time you read it. 

Everyone should read Fahrenheit 451 at least once, but my recommendation would be to pick it up every few years and see how time has changed its personal resonances while at the same time always feeling like it's stripped from today’s headlines. Fahrenheit 451 is a timeless warning about apathy, censorship, and fear but also a timeless beacon of hope that knowledge and imagination can offer a path towards a better world even as everything goes up in flames around us.

The Memory Police

By Yoko Ogawa, Stephen Snyder (translator),

Book cover of The Memory Police

Why this book?

What struck me while reading The Memory Police was the vitality of memory in keeping civilization—keeping humanity—intact. The apocalypse is often depicted as fire and brimstone—wanton destruction on a global scale. But The Memory Police offers a vision of a more personal apocalypse one where the world around you is stripped of its meaning. What I find equally fascinating and horrifying is that without meaning—without memory—the world is just as obliterated as if it were hit by an asteroid.

Yoko Ogawa offers us a way of looking at the end of one’s world, not as fire and brimstone, but as silent, empty spaces devoid of meaning or purpose. This strongly resonates with what I know of the realities of genocide and the eraser of cultural memory. If we stop remembering, and we prevent others from doing so, we are the harbingers of a silent apocalypse.

The Giver

By Lois Lowry,

Book cover of The Giver

Why this book?

As a historian, and someone who spends quite a deal of time dealing with the traumas and horrors of history, I really connect with The Giver and the burden of the past. How do you build a future free of prejudice and carry the past forward? Because the past is so easily weaponized into history and used, with good intent or ill, with unforeseen consequences I completely understand why a society searching for utopia would lock up the past like nuclear waste. I come back to The Giver time and again because I see myself vacillating between wanting its sanitized dystopia and wanting to smash it open to all the complexity of the past.

Particularly in the American consciousness of the 2020s, we are grappling with those same questions as we attempt to build a more perfect union. History can be silenced, but we can never erase the past.

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