The Top 5 Dystopian Novels

Dystopian novels have been a staple of science-fiction since the birth of the genre. And while contemporary YA authors like Veronica Roth and Ally Condie have brought the concept of the dystopian novel back to the mainstream, many of the tropes of the sub-genre were established at the height of the Cold War, when anxieties over nuclear annihilation permeated mass media. And while some of the fine details might be different, many of the anxieties that the public felt back then are still relevant to modern readers. Here is a look at five classic dystopian novels which helped to shape the subgenre we see today.

I Am Legend – Richard Matheson

I am LegendThis 1954 novel is responsible for defining and extrapolating the idea of humanity being decimated by a worldwide disease in the near future. The premise of I Am Legend revolves around Robert Neville, the lone survivor of a plague which has wiped out humanity. The plague itself is attributed to chemical warfare and a spike in the mosquito population. Any humans left have not died, but rather have become what Matheson calls “Vampires” — although the beasts that he describes are more like today’s modern zombie. Neville has managed to hold up for years after the plague claims his wife and child, living in complete autonomy. Critical reception was mixed at best. Those who focused on things like character and plot called the novel dry and boring. Those who looked at it thematically, however, saw a novel that stunningly captured the true depth of human loneliness through its protagonist. The film has inspired countless film iterations, from The Omega Man to Night of the Living Dead to the more recent feature-length adaptation starring Will Smith.

Make Room! Make Room! – Harry Harrison

Make RoomThis 1966 novel extrapolates the negative consequences of population growth. Set in a then-futuristic 1999 version of New York City, the plot revolves around roommates Andy and Sol, and depicts the strains of overpopulation on the quality of life in America. Make Room! Make Room! was partly inspired by the volatile crime rate of New York City in the 60’s and 70’s. Food is scarce, and the government distributes small portions of the mysterious “Soylent Green,” which turns out to be…eh, we won’t spoil it for you. It was well-received in the literary and scientific community as a bleak warning on the dangers of overpopulation, particularly in terms of issues relating to denigration of the environment and the misallocation of resources. With these fictions, it almost always becomes a question of prediction versus prescription, and perhaps we live in a slightly better world because of specific anxieties expressed by this book (and by the film adaptation Soylent Green). Thankfully, many people in the United States are more conscientious when it comes to energy consumption (particularly in deregulated markets in the midwest where Ohio gas companies are working to boost alternative energy use, or in the state of Illinois, where the local Commerce Commission is pressuring utility providers to meet prescribed efficiency goals. In terms of food and agriculture, however…let’s just hope that Monsanto doesn’t adapt any more practices from the Soylent corporation anytime soon).

 Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

fahrenheit451This 1953 novel is widely regarded as Bradbury‘s best work. It has received countless awards including a 1984 induction into the Prometheus Hall of Fame. The plot of Fahrenheit 451 centers around the theme of book burning as a means to control the spread of ideas. It depicts a society in which books are outlawed and government employees called “firemen” are given the task of tracking the outlaws and burning their books.

Bradbury has stated the idea for the novel stemmed from his observations of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare, which was a political witch-hunt for anyone who may have any pro-communist ideas. Bradbury saw history repeating itself as control of books has always been a method of control used by those in power. Like Harrison, Bradbury was actively trying to effect change through his literature. He once quipped that he wasn’t interested in predicting the future, so much as preventing it. And to that end, he might have achieve some measure of success — he rallied against censorship, and his book is often cited when public intellectual express ideological opposition to censorship.

 A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess

ClockworkCovers_0006A Clockwork Orange has been recognized by Time Magazine as one of the Top 100 English-language novels written since 1923. It follows the anti-hero protagonist Alex and his gang as they commit acts of senseless violence for pure enjoyment. Over the course of the novel Alex is arrested and treated with a form of conditioning called “the Ludovico Technique.” This technique involves administering drugs which induce nausea to a subject who is forced to watch violent imagery. The treatment renders Alex incapable of even thinking about violence without becoming physically ill. The unintended consequence is that he could also no longer enjoy classical music, which was one of the few healthy joys of his life. It’s a novel that was inspired by the extreme conditioning techniques floating among psychologists at the time of its publishing, and it’s also partially reactionary to horrors that Burgess’ own family suffered during World War II (the writer’s wife was assailed by a gang of G.I. deserters). The book was ultimately adapted into a controversial film by Stanley Kubrick which saw release in 1971.

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

Brave New WorldBrave New World is perhaps the most famous dystopian novel of all time. This 1932 novel depicts a futuristic society which has completely eliminated the concept of free will. Religion has been disbanded, with the closest thing to God being Ford, the inventor of the modern assembly line. The Guardian has ranked Brave New World as 56 on the list of top 100 novels of all time. The plot is driven by Huxley’s idea to apply Ford’s assembly line to every aspect of human development. Humans are genetically bred to serve specific purposes in society and the complete lack of free will has everyone enjoying their place. To this day, the novel bears an eerie resemblance to the potential dangers of mass media and science as a tool of government control.

For those who have gotten into the dystopian genre through novels such as The Hunger Games, these five dystopian classics are a thrilling journey through the history of dystopian science-fiction. And as long as you’re catching up on these reads…maybe now is a good time to start stockpiling garlic (for the vampires) and non-perishable foods. Stave off extinction as long as you can.

About Brandon

Brandon Engel is a Chicago based blogger with a keen interest in technology, art, and gourmet food. Follow him on Twitter: @BrandonEngel2