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MIND MELD: What’s Your Favorite Literary Dystopia?

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Jason Sizemore suggested a Mind meld topic on Dystopias. Wikipedia defines Dystopia as “an often futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian” – an idea that if often leveraged in science fiction. So what are some of the best ones to read? We asked Jason and this week’s other panelists:

Q: What’s your favorite Dystopia from literature? What makes this one stand out above others?

Here’s what they said…

Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi has been nominated for two Nebula Awards and four Hugo Awards, and won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best sf short story of the year. His debut novel The Windup Girl was named by TIME Magazine as one of the ten best novels of 2009, and also won the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Compton Crook, and John W. Campbell Memorial Awards. His short story collection Pump Six and Other Stories was a 2008 Locus Award winner for Best Collection and also named a Best Book of the Year by Publishers Weekly. His debut young adult novel, Ship Breaker, is a National Book Award Finalist.

Feed by M.T. Anderson. Genius, and devastating. It’s classified YA, but that’s only because it’s too smart and too on target to be sold as an adult novel. Most of the other contemporary stuff that gets classed as dystopia doesn’t really pass the sniff test.

Of course, there are always the old standards. Zamiatin’s We, Orwell’s 1984, Brave New World. Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale. Can’t go wrong with those. I like LeGuin’s The Disposessed, because of her nuanced view of two societies. It sort of rides the intelligent line between utopia and dystopia.

M.T. Anderson
M.T. Anderson‘s satirical dystopian novel Feed was a National Book Award Finalist and the winner of the LA Times Book Award. His Gothic historical novel The Pox Party won the National Book Award and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award for Fiction. His forthcoming book is The Empire of Gut and Bone, a murder mystery set in the internal organs of a giant, dead god.

My favorite dystopias are post-apocalyptic. There’s something uniquely moving about a played-out world that has come to its end. Far more frightening than zombie invasions are stories like John W. Campbell’s scenarios of future exhaustion and depletion – or like M. P. Shiel’s novel The Purple Cloud, which chills not through cheap scares and scenes of battle, but through relentless loneliness, as a man wanders through a landscape empty of the living, drunk on the power of his own princely solitude. (And perhaps most frightening of all is the idea that the final man alive might be as much of a whack-job as M. P. Shiel himself.)

So let me make three suggestions of series about the end of the Earth – all three placed so far in the future that there’s almost no hint of the history we know.

The first and best-known is Gene Wolfe’s four-volume Book of the New Sun, a masterpiece of post-apocalyptica that depicts a dying Earth so alien we often, as readers, can’t make heads or tails of it. The books are narrated by a professional torturer who conceals as much as he reveals as he processes through the cities, forests, and mountains of what may once have been South America. We, squinting forward through time, cannot make out the future with perfect clarity. That age is mediated through this swordsman who hides various secrets from us, and who often doesn’t understand what’s going on around him at first anyway. In the end, the books remain obdurate, hinting at things we can’t ever know.

Very different, but just as beautifully written, are Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books. Like The Book of the New Sun or Clark Ashton Smith’s Zothique stories, they depict a future Earth so changed that it’s essentially the landscape of fantasy, rather than sci-fi. But unlike those stories, there’s a tongue-in-cheek turn to the narration here. Two of the four books involve Cugel, a ne’er-do-well bastard low on morals and out of luck. He wanders through a fascinating countryside of weird rituals and odd customs, trying to screw everybody out of something … and yet somehow usually coming out on the bottom. The formal language is what makes this post-apocalyptic picaresque truly delightful. It’s impossible to flip open to a random page of these books without finding a great sentence. Here we go: “His worms appear sound.” Or: “Most odd! We must bring Weamish down from the roof, and at once.” Or: “At this moment, my wants are simple: an alcove, a couch, a morsel of food for my supper. If I am provided with these, you will find me benevolence personified; indeed I will assist you in your pleasures; together we will contrive stratagems to bait the ghoul.”

And so on.

Finally, I’ll mention Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles, about a ravaged Earth where cities rumble about on giant treads, eating each other – which they call Municipal Darwinism. Reeve’s clever plotting and his willingness to let characters die (upping the stakes) make these books a thrilling read.

For their ingenuity in thinking through unthinkable future societies, these are the books I’d recommend for those who are trying to decide whether it will all end with a bang or a whimper.

Jennifer Pelland
Jennifer Pelland is about to lose her second short story Nebula Award, probably to Harlan Ellison. Her short story collection Unwelcome Bodies was published by Apex Publications in 2008, and they’ll be publishing her first novel, Machine, later this summer. You can learn more at her web site,, which also has cat pictures on it if you’re into that kind of thing. Also, if you’re really clever, you can find a link to her belly dance web page from there.

This question caused me quite a bit of difficulty at first, because every time I’d think of a literary dystopia that I loved, I’d realize that it wasn’t technically a dystopia, it was just a bummer. But just as I was about to give up and hit Google, my brain finally spat out a genuine dystopia that wasn’t either 1984 or Brave New World. No, my favorite literary dystopia is the short story “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut.

I think I was maybe 10 years old when I read it for the first time, and just beginning my multi-year love affair with Vonnegut’s work (accompanied by the traditional experimentation with atheism, which in my case, became a way of life). As both a feminist and an American, I’d had the notion of equality preached to me on a near-constant basis from birth, but it was this story that clarified for me that “equal rights” and “equal” were two entirely different concepts that should never be confused. Mind you, there were plenty of junior high bullies who I would have loved to see weighed down with chains, but probably not at the expense of having loud noise blasted in my ear on a semi-regular basis while I was trying to read Childhood’s End.

I have no idea if the story would have been so powerful to me if I’d read it for the first time in high school, or in college, or yesterday, but it sure as hell blew the lid off of my 10-year-old head. I don’t think any other dystopia that I’ve encountered since has been quite so profoundly educational. And yes, I’m looking at you, 1984 and Brave New World.

Carrie Ryan
Carrie Ryan is the New York Times bestselling author of two critically acclaimed novels set decades after the zombie apocalypse: The Forest of Hands and Teeth (Delacorte Press, 2009) and The Dead-Tossed Waves (Delacorte Press, 2010). The third in the trilogy, The Dark and Hollow Places, will be released in Spring 2011. Her first novel, The Forest of Hands and Teeth, was chosen as a Best Books for Young Adults by the American Library Association, a Best of the Best Books by the Chicago Public Library and a finalist in the Borders Original Voices program.

There are so many phenomenal dystopias but one of my favorites has to be George Orwell’s 1984. It’s just such an iconic world that’s seeped into so many aspects of our everyday life — there’s even a reality show based off of it! I think one of the aspects so compelling about 1984 is how smooth the slippery slope to that world seems and how easy it is to imagine going down that path. Already we have the technology (I can’t be the only one who stares sideways at the xBox Kinect as I scuttle through the room in PJ’s).

Jeremiah Tolbert
Jeremiah Tolbert is a writer, web designer, and photographer living in Northern Colorado. His work has appeared in Interzone, Shimmer, and the anthology Seeds of Change. He is also behind the steampunk project Dr. Roundbottom found at

This is a tricky one. You don’t want to mention a famous title that someone else will mention (Fahrenheit 451)–then you’ll just seem unoriginal. But if you get really obscure and trot out something less well known (The Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy), you’ll just seem pretentious. You could tackle the question by demonstrating the depth of your reading experience by listing all the great dystopian novels you’ve read, from the dystopian-flavored literary novels of Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22 to more recent novels like Bacigalupi’s The Wind-up Girl. You could go populist and pick one from film–say, Gattaca. Plenty of movies made about dystopias–possibly more of that type of science fiction makes the screen than any other. And that’s not even thinking about comics, which are chock-full of dystopian ideas (V for Vendetta).

So my options are unoriginal, pretentious, show-off, populist, or comic fanboy? I don’t think I will stoop so low as to associate myself with any of that, thank you very much. I’m a zigger, not a zagger, you follow? No, my example’s going to be a video game!

The world of City 17 in Valve’s Half-Life 2 is one of the most vivid dystopias for me. The game begins with you taking control of the franchise protagonist, Gordon Freeman. You are on a train arriving in a strange European-looking place called City 17. When you arrive at the station, a run-down, grimy building full of litter, you see strange guards wearing creepy gas masks everywhere. Strange robots fly through the air and take pictures of you for unknown purposes. As you walk around and talk to people, you hear disturbing hints that this is not a nice place to live. A strange man in a doctor’s white coat talks from screens mounted on walls drones on and on about something also ominous. It builds this oppressive atmosphere slowly. Rather than sending you in guns blazing, you start the game as an immigrant to the city with no weapons.

There is a moment early in the game when you come to a gate where a guard throws a pop can on the ground and instructs you to pick it up. This serves as a way to teach you a bit about the interface, but it also sets the atmosphere even further. You may be tempted to throw the can at the guard as a weapon, or refuse. If you do, he ignites his stun baton and proceeds to beat the crap out of you. As you recover, he laughs and tells you to get lost. You have no weapon with which to strike him. You’re left feeling hopeless.

This moment is so memorable for gamers that YouTube is full of cathartic videos of gamers modifying the game so that they can kill the guard instead of obeying. Hundreds of them! One of the ones I just looked at was set to scat music.

The internet is a weird place.

So, random beatings, armed checkpoints, Dear Leader’s voice echoing all around you? This is heavy stuff. So, I’d say that City 17 is my favorite dystopia–because I felt like I lived it. Of course, none of that could ever happen here.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my flight is boarding soon and the lines for the nude-ray machines aren’t getting any shorter.

Ekaterina Sedia
Ekaterina Sedia resides in the Pinelands of New Jersey. Her critically acclaimed novels, The Secret History of Moscow, The Alchemy of Stone and The House of Discarded Dreams were published by Prime Books. Her next one, Heart of Iron, is expected in 2011. Her short stories have sold to Analog, Baen’s Universe, Subterranean and Clarkesworld, as well as numerous anthologies, including Haunted Legends and Magic in the Mirrorstone. She is also the editor of Paper Cities (World Fantasy Award winner), Running with the Pack and Bewere the Night (forthcoming). Visit her at

I have two: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, and Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale (the new edition from Haikasoru is very pretty). I like Zamyatin’s book because it is such a wonderful blueprint for a dystopian novel: from numbers as names to love as a liberating force; it is however a true dystopia in that the protagonist does not survive the experience, even though the order of the totalitarian state is threatened at the end (although not overturned.) Moreover, Zamyatin wrote from the point of view of someone who had lived under an oppressive regime, unlike many Western writers who imagine how outrageous it would’ve been to do so.

Takami’s book is also refreshing because it is brutal and written simply, and, unlike its imitators, it is rather matter of fact about children fighting each other to the death. With dystopias, it is a common tendency to descend into tedious moralizing, when the author seems to constantly nudge the reader with “Isn’t it AWFUL?” In that sense, Battle Royale succeeds; it also does the minimum of set up for the battle itself, and the alternate history is barely sketched — again, neatly bypassing any political treatises.

Because ultimately, dystopias are about people maintaining (or trying to maintain, or regaining) their humanity under inhumane conditions, and they succeed when we care enough about the outcomes of these personal struggles. On the other hand, unsuccessful dystopias are the hand-wringing cautionary tales about what happens when [insert author’s least favorite political entity] gains control and will someone please think of the children.

John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), By Blood We Live, Federations, and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Barnes & named him “the reigning king of the anthology world,” and his books have been named to numerous best of the year lists. His latest books are Brave New Worlds, The Living Dead 2 and The Way of the Wizard. He is also the editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine, and is the co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

I hate to go old school and obvious on you here, but I’m going to have to go with either Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury or 1984 by George Orwell. Although both books are more than five decades old, they hold up remarkably well and are gripping reads. I think the greatest disservice one can do these books, however, is to assign them in English class; I don’t know about you, but every book that I was ever forced to read-and thus was considered Good For You-automatically became a drag. That actually happened to me with Fahrenheit 451, and when I read it in school (probably 8th or 9thgrade), I didn’t like it, probably because the teacher had me hunting around for trivia in each chapter to answer the stupid study questions. (How’s that for a dystopia: a world where oppressive rulers take all the joy out of reading!) Luckily, I later decided to give F451 another shot and devoured it in a single sitting.

In a cage match between F451 and 1984, I’d have to give the edge to 1984, mainly, I’d say because it’s a more complete dystopia, and also the ending is both astonishing and yet somehow also inevitable. Both are amazing works, though, and easily in the top ten of my favorite works of fiction of all time.

Normally, I’d also mention some short stories when asked a question like this, but since I just edited an anthology of dystopian fiction – Brave New Worlds – I think that can answer the question for me. The book contains 33 of the finest examples of dystopian short fiction, and also has a “for further reading” appendix where you can find other examples of dystopian literature.

Jennifer Marie Brissett
Jennifer Marie Brissett is a writer, artist, and former independent bookstore owner. She is a graduate student in the Stonecoast MFA Program and her work can be found in Warrior Wisewoman 2, The Future Fire, Strange Horizons, and Thaumatrope. She is currently editing an anthology and working on a novel. Her website is

Asking for a single favorite dystopian novel is a tricky thing. But if I have to choose only one, I would have to say A Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. It is a story that froze my blood both as a reader and as a woman. I heard Atwood say on “Bill Moyers’ on Faith and Reason” that there is nothing in this book that has not actually happened somewhere in the world. And it does feel real, from the hypocrisy of the religious fundamentalist society to the control of women for their fertility, or lack thereof. It is must reading for any young woman.

I suppose I choose A Handmaid’s Tale over many others because it is one of the first speculative books that I’ve read where I felt forever changed after reading it. It made me think about the future in a different way. It is a book of ideas and politics, a book of warnings. This is how quickly your freedoms can go: someone somewhere reads that ‘F’ for female on your financial accounts (or whatever letter that the shameful society decides to discriminate against), flips a switch, and there goes your money-there goes your ability to make choices about what you buy, where you live, whether you stay or go. It is that dangerous to be unaware of what is going on around you. It can happen that quick in a state that has been pushed over the edge. Bam! You are a non-person. It’s that easy.

The story is about a woman whose world slowly closes in on her as a Bible reading religious group takes over America. Atwood never calls them the religious right but it is very easy to jump to that conclusion. One day the protagonist is a educated middle class woman with a job and family and the next she is running to get out of the country to Canada. She is caught and sent to a re-education center where she is trained to be a Handmaid, a woman who breeds children for childless wives.

And about half way through the book-to my horror-I began to recognize the setting of the book. It was my hometown of Cambridge, MA! The area where the main character shops is Harvard Square, the re-education center is Memorial Hall, the yard where the executions occur is Harvard Yard, and the wall where traitors are hung is right outside Harvard Yard where I used to wait for the bus to go home after school almost everyday.

Another thing that I noticed in the novel was that the men seemed so isolated. Even though the world of this book was clearly established for their benefit, the men seemed lonely and in deep need of female companionship. They have lulled themselves into believing that sex and food is all that women can provide. But in this situation, they find that it is a woman’s mind that they miss the most. It is not surprising that “the commander” calls the main character down to meet him secretly, not for sex-he is already getting that-but to play scrabble with her.

Margaret Atwood is so astute to remind us that men need women for our intellect as well as our bodies. Without women this is a very cold uncertain world. It is hard for some men to admit that it is these intangibles that they desire from women. It is a crass society that reduces women to mere flesh.

J. Sherer
J. Sherer has published short stories in a variety of publications, including two science fiction anthologies, Infinite Space, Infinite God I and II. Season 1 of his online time travel adventure series, Timeslingers, is available at, and will be available in e-book format later this year.

I have three that may not make anybody else’s list. Partially because I haven’t read some of the most popular options (I probably watched the movie instead — heresy, I know), and partially because others will likely have the popular options on their own lists.

At the root of the dystopian setting, nestled deep in the rotting soil, a diseased paranoia waits – an uneasy feeling that something lurks below the surface. The writer’s imagination becomes an isolationist’s nightmare and the characters get tossed in with no remorse. All three of my selections deal with that in one way or another.

First, I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson (I actually read the book this time around). The thing I loved about I Am Legend was how it portrayed a man surrounded by a world that had been turned upside down. As the walls of loneliness close in around him, he searches desperately for answers. But the more he searches, the less he seems to understand his new reality. Then, in the end, it’s not the world around him that’s strange and dangerous, it’s him. He’s the anomaly. He’s the demon. The supposed “dystopian environment” is turned on its head. Now, it’s not the world that’s dangerous, it’s the main character.

Second, The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. More than anything, this book showcases what’s it’s like to be yanked from everyday society and then replanted hundreds of years in the future. Discombobulated and removed from an ever-changing world, the main character struggles to retain some semblance of normalcy. The power of this book lies in Haldeman’s ability to take his own experience in Vietnam and interpret that in a science fiction context. It’s a powerful novel in that regards, and feels very real.

Finally, I’d put Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (haven’t even seen the movie, and honestly have no desire to) on the list as well. A dangerous, environmentally ravaged world, a powerful connection between father and son, and safety found only in a relationship that is bound to end, The Road puts the reader on path that will end with only memories. And those memories are what tie the “used to be” world with the new reality. A longing for what was utopia as the dystopian environment closes in.

All these novels follow characters struggling to deal with a changing world where masked and unmasked dangers abound. They’re not all traditional sci-fi, but they flirt with it, and all of them have strong characters. And all of them seem to hint that the world as we know it, despite all its flaws, is still better than it could be. And I guess that’s the question the writers and readers are asking: “what would we do if…” All these books have compelling answers.

Mary Robinette Kowal
Mary Robinette Kowal‘s short fiction appears in Strange Horizons, Cosmos and CICADA. She is the art director of Shimmer and a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary BootCamp. She is the 2008 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Her latest novel is Shades of Milk and Honey.

One man’s dystopia is another man’s paradise. One of the clearest examples of this is Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed although the subtitle is “An Ambiguous Utopia.” What is striking about the novel is that she shows two contrasting societies, Anarres and Urras, which could both lay claim to being a Utopia or a Dystopia. They have deeply contrasting values.

Anarres is an anarchic society with no central government and is run by cooperative effort. It’s also on a resource-poor world so there are constant privations. The political philosophy of the planet is that everyone shares equally.

Urras is more like our own world, with many different governments although the one we spend the most time in is capitalist, like the United States. It’s a resource-rich world but the wealth is split very unevenly. Depending on where you are in the class structure, it can either be a world of leisure or one of toil.

The thing that strikes me when reading the book is that in both worlds, bureaucracy evolves to maintain the power structure. Even on Anarres, inertia develops so that the supposedly anarchic governing structure is more concerned with maintaining things as they are than in following the ideals which created the structure. As a result it winds up doing things which are directly counter to the utopian ideals which founded the society.

Although Le Guin is describing ambiguous utopias, she could as easily be describing proto-dystopias

Brendan Connell
Brendan Connell‘s newest book is The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children, Chomu Press, 2011.

For me the most frightening Dystopia, in the sense the term is being used here, is that presented in The Sound of His Horn, a wonderful novel by Sarban. The reason this book works so well is firstly because he was a fine, restrained writer and understood as much what not to say as what to say. He doesn’t labor it with unnecessary details, but tells a simple fast-paced tale. The second is that the world he paints is not very far different from our own. It is a world that would have been had the Nazi’s won the Second World War. When the horrible Count von Hackelnberg puts the horn to his mouth and blows, the goose bumps rise on your skin, because the hunt is on, and you are the hunted. Published in 1952, I’d say this novel would hold its own against just about anything being written today.

I’d also like to break a little from the definition being cited, and mention one Dystopia from the ancient past rather than the future. This is from The Creation of the Gods. It’s a long, somewhat rambling Ming Dynasty novel by Xu Zhonglin that most people probably haven’t read. Though loosely based on history, it fully qualifies as a fantasy novel. Emperor Xin of Shang’s greed, lust and utter ruthlessness turn his kingdom into one of the last places you’d ever want to live. He floats about on a lake of wine, eating from a forest of meat, while watching his citizens cooked alive on a giant bronze pillar specially invented by his concubine.

The origins of science fiction Dystopias certainly are rooted in the past, whether it be Nazi Germany, or ancient China. I suspect there is little we could invent that could compete with the horror people have, at one time or another, already lived.

Will McIntosh
Will McIntosh‘s work has appeared in Asimov’s, Science Fiction: Best of the Year, Strange Horizons, Black Static, Interzone, and many other venues. He’s the recipient of both the Hugo and the Asimov’s Reader awards. A New Yorker transplanted to the rural southern US, Will is a psychology professor at Georgia Southern University, where he studies Internet dating, and how people’s TV, music, and movie choices are affected by recession and terrorist threat. Last year he became the father of twins. His new book is Soft Apocalypse

My favorite dystopia has to be North Korea. It’s as dark and bizarre as any created by a novelist, yet it’s real. You could actually visit. But I guess that’s cheating…

In terms of literary dystopias, I would have to say Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. I wasn’t sure if Never Let Me Go would count as dystopian because its world is not terribly different from our own, but Wikipedia assures me that it is. That’s what stands out for me: it’s chillingly close to a mundane world save for the people who are stashed away as spare parts. Dystopian works are usually intended as cautionary tales reflecting current society; with Never Let Me Go you barely have to squint to see the present. The dystopian elements aren’t created by some evil dictator; in fact Ishiguro doesn’t depict any characters who could be seen as the “bad guys”. The evil that creates this dystopia is disturbingly banal.

The other aspect of Never Let Me Go that stood out to me was understated nature of the “donors'” suffering. Because their life is the only one they’ve known, they don’t react the way someone who wasn’t born to be a “donor” would. They don’t understand just how horrible their world is, and especially their place in it, and witnessing that from the outside is unsettling.

NLMG is one of those novels that crept up on me; I didn’t realize how disturbed I was until I thought back on it months after finishing.

Alethea Kontis
New York Times bestselling author princess Alethea Kontis is the co-author of Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Dark-Hunter Companion, as well as the AlphaOops series of picture books. Her short fiction has appeared numerous magazines and anthologies, and she is the monthly book reviewer at Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. Her debut YA fairy tale novel, Sunday, will be published by Harcourt Books in Spring of 2012. Born in Burlington, Vermont and raised in the South, Alethea now lives in Northern Virginia with her Fairy Godfamily. You can find Princess Alethea online at:

My all-time favorite dystopian story is Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” It was an unassigned story in the back of my 12th-grade Literature textbook. God, that class bored me to tears. See, there wasn’t an Honors program for 12th grade English in my high school; your choices were either AP or College-Prep. I already had an AP courseload full enough to exempt my first year of college (which I did), so they stuck me in “regular” English. To add insult to injury, Mrs. Smith assigned me to a seat in the very front row, so I couldn’t spend the entire hour doing my Calculus homework, as I’d planned.

In retaliation, I became an overachiever. Every poem we were assigned to do I turned in at no less than four pages long. Every time she gave the class a pop quiz and then left the room for a smoke break, I happily shared the correct answers with my classmates. I was accused of plagiarism on my Chaucer essay because no 16-year-old had any business knowing the word “microcosm.” I read all the stories and poems in the book not assigned to us, including Eliot and Poe and Dahl…and Bradbury, whose story spoke to me on a myriad of levels. Here I was, a Harrison myself, rising above a sea of “regular” people, bucking the system and introducing chaos to my high school’s imagined utopia of the here-and-now. I was an overachieving smart-ass actress who sat in the front row and gave everybody the answers. But I would not remember these people, and they would not remember me when I left. I would just be a strange memory, changed to another channel.

I still have that textbook. It’s the only thing in my life I ever stole.

Jason Sizemore
Jason Sizemore owns and operates the science fiction and fantasy imprint Apex Book Company. When not publishing books and a professional fiction magazine, he writes creepy Apppalachian horror stories. For more information visit

My favorite dystopian novel has to be Lord of the Flies by William Golding. It’s a brutal novel that centers around a group of British school children lost on a deserted island. As a youth, it spoke to me via its deconstruction of the harsh class system that kids seem unable to avoid. I couldn’t help but empathize with Piggy and his struggles due to personal bias. During my adult years, I’ve grown to appreciate Golding’s portrayal of the dangers of ‘group think’ and the expectations often placed on culture based on the perception of those with power. It is unfortunate that the book seems to become more accurate with each passing year.

About John DeNardo (13012 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

21 Comments on MIND MELD: What’s Your Favorite Literary Dystopia?

  1. Victoria // April 6, 2011 at 6:46 am //

    Not mentioned but exceptional: “Wanting Seed” by Anthony Burgess.

  2. Wikipedia defines Dystopia as “an often futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian” – an idea that if often leveraged in science fiction.

    Plus, y’know, some hack columnist spent two weeks on this topic recently ::cough::.



  3. A recent one that really struck me was Atwood’s other dystopia: Oryx and Crake.  I thought it was powerful and all too possible.

  4. Children of Men.  Because its stunningly plausible. Nary a false moment in the worldbuilding of the film.

  5. Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo.

  6. Tim Standish // April 6, 2011 at 11:30 am //

    has anybody read DON’T BITE THE SUN and DRINKING SAPPHIRE WINE by Tanith Lee? You can have just about anything you want but a purpose.

  7. I was really impressed by how well constructed the dystopia in Matched by Ali Condle was. Most of the time I have a lot of trouble suspending disbelief when reading dystopias, but in Matched I could really see how each aspect of the character’s lives reinforced the dystopian system under which they lived. Days after I finished it some little detail would jump out to me and I would think “Aha! They use that to maintain control in this area!”

    The book isn’t perfect by any means, but the worldbuilding is superb.

  8. I have to agree with “Harrison Bergeron,” a story that I encountered in middle school and that in a weird way helped me find a path out of a existential fundamentalist quandry, and unknowingly conditioned me to seek out more weird fiction. I read 1984 a year later and I felt a connection between then that I could not articulate until later, when I became more immersed in SF.

    There are many dystopian novels that I love for different reasons (utopia/dystopia is a thing of mine), but top honors go to Vonnegut, and to Le Guin and Atwood. I also have a great fondness for Jack London’s The Iron Heel, and for a couple of the stories in John Joseph Adams’ collection, particularly Carrie Vaughn’s very subtle but affecting story “Amaryllis.”

  9. I find it interesting when people don’t draw a line between apocolyptic and dystopian fiction. The more dystopian works I read, the more the difference between the two is clear. For example, there’s nothing dystopian about The Road, although it’s a great apocolyptic novel. 

  10. Hank, since I’m the one that brought “The Road” into the conversation… 🙂 I think one could make the case for a broader definition (which is where I was going with it). It certainly doesn’t fit neatly into the classic dystopian example (or, rather, what immediately comes to mind), however, I still see the “apocolyptic” sub-sub-genre as fitting into the sub-genre of dystopian. According to Merriam-Webster’s definition: “an imaginary place where people lead dehumanized and often fearful lives.” I think “The Road” fits there. We are both in agreement that it’s an excellent read!

  11. John Joseph Adams // April 6, 2011 at 5:39 pm //

    Hank, I for one, do draw that distinction, and so I find that some of these examples given do not meet my definition of dystopia at all. To my mind, post-apocalyptic fiction cannot be dystopian fiction, because in a post-apocalyptic story society has been destroyed, and to have a dystopia you have to have a society. You can have an apocalypse in the distant past of a dystopian story, but only if it takes place at a time when society has been rebuilt from the ashes, or else some little pocket of civilization that otherwise remains. If you’re in the midst of a full-on apocalypse like in The Road, that can’t be dystopian–there’s no society left. If you use “dystopian” to describe anything that’s merely a dark future, or post-apocalyptic setting, the term loses its meaning.

    From my introduction to Brave New Worlds:

    The roots of the word dystopia—dys- and -topia—are from the Ancient Greek for “bad” and “place,” and so we use the term to describe an unfavorable society in which to live. “Dystopia” is not a synonym for “post-apocalyptic”; it also is not a synonym for a bleak, or darkly imagined future. In a dystopian story, society itself is typically the antagonist; it is society that is actively working against the protagonist’s aims and desires. This oppression frequently is enacted by a totalitarian or authoritarian government, resulting in the loss of civil liberties and untenable living conditions, caused by any number of circumstances, such as world overpopulation, laws controlling a person’s sexual or reproductive freedom, and living under constant surveillance.

    Whether or not a society is perceived as a dystopia is usually determined by one’s point of view; what one person may consider to be a horrible dystopia, another may find completely acceptable or even nigh-utopian. For instance, if you don’t care about procreating, then living in a world in which the birth rate is strictly regulated wouldn’t seem very dystopic to you; to someone who values that very much, however, having society tell you how, when (or how often) you can procreate would seem like something out of a nightmare. Or a person who doesn’t enjoy reading or intellectual thinking might not care if books are banned… or even hunted down and destroyed, as in Fahrenheit 451, whereas you, dear reader, would probably care very much.

    Many societies in fiction are depicted as utopias when in fact they are dystopias; like angels and demons, the two are sides of the same coin. This seemingly paradoxical situation can arise because, in a dystopia, the society often gives up A in exchange for B, but the benefit of B blinds the society to the loss of A; it is often not until many years later that the loss of A is truly felt, and the citizens come to realize that the world they once thought acceptable (or even ideal) is not the world they thought it was. That’s part of what is so compelling—and insidious—about dystopian fiction: the idea that you could be living in a dystopia and not even know it.

    Dystopias are often seen as “cautionary tales,” but the best dystopias are not didactic screeds, and the best dystopias do not draw their power from whatever political/societal point they might be making; the best dystopias speak to the deeper meanings of what it is to be one small part of a teeming civilization… and of what it is to be human.

  12. Interesting. I see your perspective. I don’t pretend to be an expert on the subject. My line of sci-fi writing lies on the “adventure” side of life. But, I enjoy the learning process, so it’s good to get other perspectives. It seems to me that the interpretation of the word as it’s commonly used in literature is at issue. The root word, as noted by John, meaning “bad place” seems like it would fit the environment of The Road. The other items we’re looking at, namely, “society,” “environment,” and even “oppression” seem to mainly apply, in your argument to “advanced societies.” In other words, only the advanced society oppressing its civilians would classify. And I think that’s the first thing that comes to mind.

    I guess, to me, when you look at the environment of The Road, we’re looking at a society in ruin (not an advanced society by any means, though it appears as though it was advanced at one point). Oppression also appears in the form of anarchy rather than principled rules.

    It’s the “advanced society” piece that I think causes concern in my choice of The Road. At least some others agree with me: 🙂 (Note the use of dystopia and post-apocalyptic in conjunction)

    Fascinating discussion, gentlemen!

  13. Rick York // April 6, 2011 at 8:28 pm //

    From here in the People’s Republic of Portland, the closest I’ll ever get to Anarres, I want to thank Mary Robinette Kowal for her well articulated ambiguity.

    For Mr. Bacigalupi I have a question:  Which is the dystopia, Anarres or Urras?  I know  my answer, I’d love to hear his.

  14. Hank, J Sherer, JJA:

    I am with Hank and Mr. Adams on this one, because a lot of those definitions you linked to erase the distinction for their own purposes between dystopia and apocalypse, which are indeed two distinctive terms. I tend towards a slightly more political definition than Mr. Adams (as I think I showed in the columns), but his anthology is an excellent collection of diverse perspectives on the idea of dystopia. What struck me about Carrie Vaughn’s story was that it was so atypical, so subtle in its link to dystopia, that you need to think about how the world she has constructed fits with the definition. When compared to, say, Geoff Ryman or Paolo Bacigalupi’s stories, hers seems light, until you sit with it and realize that not all dystopias are violent or cacophonous or clockwork. But they do all depend on a social structure that attempts to coercively if not forcefully shape the lives of its inhabitants, and many of the stores in Brave New Worlds tell the tales of those trying to escape, oppose, or somehow live with those structures.  The Road is about responding to the unthinkable, the breakdown and dissolution of the human race. Certainly apocalyptic in both the story and the horrifying images that McCarthy inflicts on his characters and the reader.

  15. My own idea of a dystopia, would be simpy the opposite of a utopia. A really horrible community or society. Like North Korea or any very repressive place might be a dystopia. I don’t think they need be part of a science fictional setting.

  16. @Viti, I thought of selecting “Oryx and Crake” as my choice because there are elements of dystopia in it–the pleeblands, the gated communities and compounds, and such. But upon further consideration, the book seems more of a post-apocalyptic tale than a dystopian one. Or, at least it did to me. It is a wonderful book, though. I love the dark, almost Vonnegut, humor in it. Chicken Nubbins anyone? 🙂

  17. Dystopias are often seen as “cautionary tales,” but the best dystopias are not didactic screeds, and the best dystopias do not draw their power from whatever political/societal point they might be making; the best dystopias speak to the deeper meanings of what it is to be one small part of a teeming civilization… and of what it is to be human. 

    Thomas M. Disch : 334, On Wings of Song

  18. 1984 and Animal Farm by Orwell are both great dystopia’s, OK Animal farm isn’t about humans but if you want to read a novel about how societies can turn on themselves to the utter destruction of those within… I struggle to find a better example, well apart from 1984 that is…. but even then its a toss up.

    Children of Men is one of those movies I just can’t seem to stop watching… which is unusual for me. Highly believable, stunning cinematography and superb cast.

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    Interesting remarks about Vonnegut…


    Just a note to let you know about a book blog I’ve started with a different twist: “Writing Kurt Vonnegut.” Every Saturday, I post another excerpt from my notebook as Vonnegut’s biographer— profiles of the people I met, the difficulties encountered, and the surprises, such as finding 1,500 letters he thought he had lost forever. It’s a blog written in episodes about being a literary detective.


    Perhaps you’d like to give it a look at


    All the best,


    Charles J. Shields

    And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life (Holt, November 2011)

  20. I really got to read some Vonnegut, he’s been on the to do list for a few years now but reading this list has reignited interest. But read Brave New World the other day, awesome read.

  21. There’s a lot of good dystopian literature out there, but one of my favorites would have to be Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (a.k.a. Blade Runner); the society is so dystopian in a technocratic sense that you can’t even tell reality from (techno) fantasy.  Another one that is so dystopian that it confuses reality with fantasy is Gibson’s Neuromancer in which the very language itself create’s that confusion through its post-modern use of language, so that’s another favorite of mine.  One more I would have to name is one that I’m reading right now, China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, which takes place in an alternative universe’s Victorian London-like society that is so pollutionally industrial that it looks like Hell.  Nasty but well-written; as thick as the book is (over 500 pages) it’s a page-turner while yet holding a quality story line and characterization!  

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