Right now, plenty of people have dystopia on the brain. That might come from popular culture: the first season of the critically acclaimed television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale recently concluded; a theatrical adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 just opened on Broadway. It’s also a logical response to what appears to be an increase in authoritarian governments and totalitarian practices across the globe.
Works of dystopia can take many shapes. They can turn up in highly advanced societies and in places where widely available electricity is a distant memory for many. They can be a pervasive presence in the lives of their population, or they can be subtler, a haunting reminder of oppressive societal constraints. Here’s a look at eleven different dystopian novels from writers across the globe. They span a wide array of possible futures, and range in tone from the futuristic to the familiar. But all of them raise questions and alarms about the present moment, and how certain familiar tendencies from right now can evolve into something horrifying.
Some dystopian fiction is set in worlds where technology has become immersed in every facet of everyday life, while other works that fall under this umbrella are set after a societal collapse. Out in the Open is very much in the latter camp. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with which it shares some thematic and aesthetic traits, Jesús Carrasco’s novel is set in a future where people are doing their best to survive in the ruins of the modern world. At its center is a boy who escapes horrific circumstances. This leads him to an encounter that might change his life, and allows Carrasco to ruminate on questions of society, violence, and morality.
Tatyana Tolstaya, translated from the Russian by Jamey Gambrell
Tatyana Tolstaya’s bizarre and compelling novel The Slynx is set hundreds of years after nuclear wars forever changed human society – and humanity – as a whole. Most people are born with bizarre physical characteristics, and small communities led by authoritarian types are scattered across the countryside. Tolstaya’s novel pushes the satiric envelope as far as one can go, exploring how certain rulers seek to control perceptions of history, even as she keeps the madcap imagery fluctuating.
Basma Abdel Aziz; Translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
There are plenty of echoes of the Arab Spring and its aftermath in Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue. It’s set in a state where the government has cracked down on its population after an unnamed societal schism, ramping up levels of bureaucracy and social controls to an absurd extent. (The novel’s title comes from a seemingly endless line for governmental services that only gets larger.) Aziz deftly juggles absurdism and genuine outrage, and the effect is decidedly haunting.
Andri Snær Magnason’s LoveStar takes our technologically obsessed culture and pushes it to its natural end point. In the near future of this novel, the titular corporation governs nearly every aspect of life, from matchmaking to genetic engineering to a computer program that assures people that every decision they’ve made was the correct one. At the heart of the novel are two lovers separated by corporate dictates; their story is juxtaposed with the tale of the final hours of the life of the founder of LoveStar.
Agustín de Rojas
In the world of Agustín de Rojas’s The Year 200, the struggle between communism and capitalism has long since been decided in favor of the former. Hundreds of years after that conflict came to an end, the victorious side is immersed in technological distractions and interactive entertainment. Soon, a revival of the old war seems imminent. De Rojas’s novel encompasses a host of genres, societal critiques, and more before reaching its resolution.
Ricardo Piglia’s novel The Absent City riffs on its author’s experience during the years that Juan Peron ruled Argentina and extrapolates that into a bizarre and haunting narrative where stories are nestled within stories. As the reporter protagonist of the novel tracks down a woman who appears to have become a computer, parallel narratives accentuate and counterpoint the story, creating a dizzying meditation on the stories we tell and the stories society tells us.
Sometimes a dystopia is in the mind of the beholder. The narrator of Kobo Abe’s The Box Man lives in a violent and oppressive society, where conspiracies abound and identities fluctuate and blur. That may simply be his perception of it, though – we’re not necessarily in the land of reliable narrators here. There’s also the matter of the narrator’s decision to live his life as one of many “box men” populating the city; in other words, he finds a cardboard box of a certain size, prepares it accordingly, and uses it as both shelter and clothing.
As its title suggests, Boualem Sansal’s award-winning 2084: The End of the World takes some of its inspiration from George Orwell’s 1984. Sansal keeps some of the details of his futuristic setting intentionally obscured until late in the book – this is a novel told from the viewpoint of someone who doesn’t necessarily start questioning aspects of the society in which he lives until he’s forced by certain events. And the slow revelation of a government blending religious fundamentalism, totalitarian omnipresence, and a willingness to alter history makes for an unnerving setting on several levels.
It’s tempting to use a funhouse metaphor when describing Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith – in part because the title character spends part of the novel working in a surreal, terrifying circus. But it’s also set in a world that feels like a strange reflection of our own, where a certain brand of American commercialism and militarism has been taken to bizarre and gut-wrenching ends.
As Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit begins, its narrator bids farewell to her house and her dog to move into what seems like a technologically advanced, luxurious community. There’s a more sinister side to it as well, however: In the future of The Unit, legislation has been passed forcing single, childless people over a certain age into these residences, where they’re subject to medical tests and donate organs until their death. It’s a haunting look at a society where a focus on youth and procreation has been taken a few steps further, and what effect that might have on its inhabitants.
Plenty of dystopian stories use the memory of past societies as a counterpoint to the horrors of their setting. In Fred Strydom’s The Raft, that simply isn’t possible: Before the novel opens, Earth’s population loses their memories under mysterious circumstances. Slowly, certain memories return – but are they returning to the right people? Questions of identity, memory, and control suffuse the narrative, even as the setting of Strydom’s novel becomes more surreal.