A few friends on Twitter passed on suggestions for other novels I might want to pick up, and I thought I'd share my own list of favorite fictional alternate histories.
A pause for a funny story: Jon and I went to Powell's when we were in Portland, Oregon two years ago, and after we'd browsed through most of the sections I turned to him with a question. "Where do you think they keep dystopian fiction?" He looked at me like I was an idiot. (Well, you know. He lovingly looked at me like I was a lovable idiot.) "Science fiction, Betsy. It's called science fiction."
But I say "alternate histories" rather than "science fiction" because although the below books are, without exception, set in dystopian worlds, they're not all about technology nor do they all take place in the future. Some imagine a different past and some, like the Black Mirror TV show, weren't written to predict what could happen if we continue on this path or that one; they warn us that these things are coming regardless of how we might now try to turn aside.
I can't rank them in order of preference because Fahrenheit 451 and The Giver would be tied for #1 and that feels like cheating, so instead I'll put them in chronological order by publishing date.
10 Favorite Works of Dystopian Fiction
1984 (George Orwell, 1949)
1984 is set in London, in what was known before the global war as the United Kingdom but is now called Airstrip One of the vast political entity Oceania. It follows Winston, an employee of the Ministry of Truth whose job it is to alter historical records to concur with current state policy. Big Brother is always watching, the Thought Police can practically read your mind, and the Party directs everyone and everything - the past, the present, and the future.
But Winston knows that the Party lies constantly to the people, persecuting individuality and independent thought to keep them under control, and when he embarks on an affair with a passionate dissident and defies the party he risks the only thing he has: his humanity.
With all the confusion about what constitutes real news, opinion writing, partisan spin, outright propaganda, and fake news - and the ultimate question of whether or not the public cares to know the difference - Orwell's prescience regarding thoughtcrimes, newspeak, and especially doublethink is astonishing.
Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1953)
Guy Montag is a fireman in a world where firemen start fires rather than put them out. His job is to destroy the most illegal of commodities, the printed book, along with the houses in which they are hidden.
Montag doesn't question the way things are, returning each day to his bland life and wife, Mildred, who spends all day with her television “family.” But then he meets an eccentric young neighbor, Clarisse, who introduces him to a past where people didn’t live in fear and to a present where one sees the world through the ideas in books instead of the mindless chatter of television.
When Mildred attempts suicide and Clarisse suddenly disappears, Montag begins to question everything he has ever known. He starts hiding books in his home, and when his pilfering is discovered, the fireman has to run for his life.
I love Ray Bradbury's writing - he's one of my favorite authors ever. (Imagine Kerouac, but drunk on life instead of high on drugs.) This book isn't subtle, but it is exquisitely precise in its warning to us, and its exhortation to never stop learning and questioning is vital, especially as we're faced with a president who not only doesn't read books but says with pride that he doesn't need to be advised by experts. “With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.”
The Stand (Stephen King, 1978)
A patient escapes from a biological testing facility, unknowingly carrying a deadly weapon: a mutated strain of super-flu that will wipe out 99 percent of the world’s population within a few weeks. Those who remain are scared, bewildered, and in need of a leader. Two emerge—Mother Abagail, the benevolent 108-year-old woman who urges them to build a peaceful community in Boulder, Colorado; and Randall Flagg, the nefarious “Dark Man,” who delights in chaos and violence. As the dark man and the peaceful woman gather power, the survivors will have to choose between them—and ultimately decide the fate of all humanity.
I read the unedited version and it gave me an even greater respect for editors than I'd had before. I recommend reading the edited version! Regardless, it's so engrossing to fall into the abyss of "what would you do after the end of the world?" I didn't expect such an exploration of biblical spirituality from Stephen King, but that was actually what I enjoyed most about this book.
The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985)
Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.
Offred can remember the days before, when she lived and made love with her husband Luke; when she played with and protected her daughter; when she had a job, money of her own, and access to knowledge. But all of that is gone now, destroyed by the religious totalitarian state that has assumed power to protect the people, and it is only by encouraging the humanity of those around her that Offred can regain her own.
I basically read this in one sitting - on the bus from NYC to DC, with a pause for a nap and another break to get from Union Station to my apartment before finishing it on the couch at home - because it's so good. There isn't much action, especially in the first half of the book, but the world that Atwood creates is so nuanced that you get hooked immediately. Like a lot of these novels, the ease with which we slide from protection to oppression is a major theme in The Handmaid's Tale and one that's all too familiar from real-life conversations about rape culture, sexuality, and women's bodies.
The Giver (Lois Lowery, 1993)
In a world with no poverty, no crime, no sickness, and no unemployment, and where every family is happy, 12-year-old Jonas is chosen to be the community's Receiver of Memories. Under the tutelage of the Elders and an old man known as the Giver, he discovers the disturbing truth about his utopian world and struggles against the weight of its hypocrisy.
Jonas struggles to understand how people might freely choose to give up their humanity in order to create a more stable society. As he gradually learns just how costly this ordered and pain-free society can be, he boldly decides he cannot pay the price.
We read The Giver in sixth grade, and I've picked it up again every few years since then, discovering new aspects to the story each time. It's definitely not just for children or young adults! (Surprisingly, I liked the movie. As long as you're not expecting it to mirror the book exactly, which I'd been warned not to, you'll find it a moving exploration of Lowery's main themes.)
The Plot Against America (Philip Roth, 2004)
In 1940, Charles A. Lindbergh, heroic aviator and rabid isolationist, is defeats FDR in the presidential election. Shortly thereafter, he negotiates a cordial “understanding” with Adolf Hitler and the new government embarks on a program of folksy anti-Semitism.
For one Jewish boy growing up in Newark, Lindbergh’s election is the first in a series of ruptures that threaten to destroy his small, safe corner of America–and with it, his mother, his father, and his older brother.
This was the first real "alternate history" I read and the anti-Semitism (obviously) hit close to home. It's scary to think how latent that hatred and fear still is today, just lurking below the surface of respectability, waiting for something - or someone - to encourage it out into our lives.
Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005)
As children, Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy were students at Hailsham, an exclusive boarding school secluded in the English countryside. It was a place of mercurial cliques and mysterious rules where teachers were constantly reminding their charges of how special they were.
Now, years later, Kathy is a young woman. Ruth and Tommy have reentered her life. And for the first time she is beginning to look back at their shared past and understand just what it is that makes them special–and how that gift will shape the rest of their time together.
Kazuo Ishiguro is one of Jon's favorite writers, and I picked this up from his bookshelf on a trip to Suffolk a few years ago. The world it's set in is very English but, as with 1984, it's accessible even if you're not familiar with the UK. If you like Black Mirror, you'll love this - it explores how the benefits of technological/scientific advances can be more sinister than expected when first pursued. How inhumane will we be to protect and preserve our humanity?
The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins, 2008)
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, "The Hunger Games," a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.
This trilogy needs no explanation. If you haven't read it yet... well, I hope the rock you've been living under has been comfortable! Ha.
The Dog Stars (Peter Heller) 2012
Hig somehow survived the flu pandemic that killed everyone he knows. Now his wife is gone, his friends are dead, and he lives in the hangar of a small abandoned airport with his dog, Jasper, and a mercurial, gun-toting misanthrope named Bangley.
But when a random transmission beams through the radio of his 1956 Cessna, the voice ignites a hope deep inside him that a better life exists outside their tightly controlled perimeter. Risking everything, he flies past his point of no return and follows its static-broken trail, only to find something that is both better and worse than anything he could ever hope for.
I read this while we were deep in the Shenandoah Mountains two summers ago and, in the middle of nowhere, I could almost believe we were lone survivors of a global pandemic. It's similar to Stephen King's The Stand but with less horror and more heart. (It made me cry.) Like many of the other novels on this list, it asks what our lives are worth - and how valuable they are compared to others'.
The Book of Strange New Things (Michael Faber, 2014)
Peter is called to be a missionary on a planet far from Earth and from his wife, Bea. Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC. His work introduces him to a seemingly friendly native population hungry for Peter’s teachings. But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasingly desperate: natural disasters are devastating whole countries and governments are crumbling. Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter. While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer, Bea is struggling for survival.
Their trials lay bare a profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.
Oh, I loved this book. If Fahrenheit 451 and The Giver are tied for #1 on this list, The Book of Strange New Things is #2. You'll enjoy this novel more if you're familiar with the New Testament, as Christianity is used as the lens though which our connections with our communities and with the individuals around us are explored, but it's not at all preachy (and, without spoiling anything, I can tell you that religion in and of itself does not turn out to be the answer to the book's questions). The novel is written in such a way that we don't see the twist coming; Peter's epiphany is the reader's, too, which makes it even more powerful. And yes, it made me cry.
Brave New World (Aldous Huxley) 1932
I have to admit that I haven't read Brave New World since it was assigned to us in the 10th grade. I loved it then and I'm sure I'll love it still when I read it again, but for now it's relegated to being an Honorable Mention as I don't remember it well enough!
The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury) 1950
Reading Ray Bradbury is like drinking the most intoxicating nectar, but The Martian Chronicles is in Honorable Mentions because it's a collection of short stories and most of them are pure science fiction rather than dystopian histories.
The Man in the High Castle (Phillip K. Dick) 1962
I liked The Man in the High Castle because it has a fascinating premise - what if the Axis powers won World War II? - but in the end I felt the book fell flat, plot-wise. However, I'd recommend reading the book if you've been watching the show, just to round things out.
Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess) 1962
I took an incredible class in my senior year of high school called Evil in British and American Literature; we ended the semester with Clockwork Orange. Like Brave New World, this is an Honorable Mention because I need to reread it, but it definitely made an impact on me.
The Andromeda Strain (Michael Crichton) 1969
One of Michael Crichton's early novels, The Andromeda Strain is a medical thriller documenting the efforts of a team of scientists investigating the outbreak of a deadly extraterrestrial microorganism in Nevada desert. Crichton always does an excellent job of explaining scientific details without dumbing them down, which I enjoy because it makes me feel like I'm actually learning something. (Everything I know about quantum physics came from his 1999 novel Timeline.) I'm including this in Honorable Mentions not because I don't like it as much as the others but because it's really more pure science fiction than a dystopian history.
On My Reading List:
Snowpiercer (Jacques Lob and Jean-Marc Rochette, 1982; English translation published in 2014)
Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood, 2003)
Children of Men (PD James, 2006)
The Road (Cormac McCarthy, 2006)
The Circle (David Eggers, 2013)
Station Eleven (Emily St. John Mandel, 2014)
What should I add to my list? What will you be adding to yours? (And please consider buying your books from an independent bookstore rather than Amazon!)
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