Review: Dystopian tales off the beaten track

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If you’re like me, and I know you are, then you’re as obsessed with stories of totalitarian regimes, post-apocalyptic nightmares, and genetically perfect super-societies as much as I am. But if I’m guessing correctly, you’ve read all the classics and are searching for more. If you haven’t already read them, though, then make sure to find a good armchair for novels like Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and maybe even Gibson’s Neuromancer. But beyond these staples of dystopian horror, there’s a whole terrifying world of novels, short stories, and films that don’t get the same kind of love.

First off, if you haven’t seen it, watch Brazil, a madcap dystopian fun ride from Terry Gilliam. Released in 1985, Gilliam’s tragicomic world mirrors 1984 but with a good spoonful more of ridiculous humor and a cameo by Robert DeNiro. Gilliam’s nightmare involves the totalitarian application of paperwork and the suppression of individual expression. Human life is boiled down into numbers and figures, and a good credit rating is worth immeasurable pain. It puts a smile on your face and a shiver up your spine.

Then there’s Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem. Written in 1995, this novel pays tribute to the great Philip K. Dick by exploring many different exoskeletons for the dystopian adventure, each a tried and true, and further advanced, exploration of Dick’s contributions to science fiction. There’s the search for identity, dreams in the face of apocalyptic society, lots of hallucinogens, and a dude that controls all the food. It’s pretty sweet. And also, try out This Shape We Live In. It’s wacky and takes place… well, I shouldn’t say. But totally read it.


Speaking of Philip K. Dick, don’t ever just read one or two. Anyone will tell you to read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, The Man in the High Castle, and A Scanner Darkly, but make sure to rock out with The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, Ubik, and Time Out of Joint, among others. For Dick, just go to the nearest bookstore, gather as much as you can carry, and read away.

And if you’re into the truly horrible pick up a copy of High Rise, J.G. Ballard’s 1975 nightmare novel about a mega apartment block where all life is contained in the single eponymous building. A million citizens relying on one building to govern their lives and give them everything they need? Nothing could go wrong!

I would be remiss if I forgot one of my old favorites, though, and that is R.U.R. Karel Capek’s play, full name Rossum’s Universal Robots, introduced the word robot into fiction more or less as it is used today, all the way back in 1920, for Czech audiences. Although it’s written for the stage, it’s damn good reading and is a simplified, elegant, and beautiful depiction of robots learning of their own consciousness, without any Hollywood jazz or ill-devised twists. This is robots before they became about the money.

And last is Harlan Ellison’s crazy-ass short story “Repent Harlequin!” Said the Ticktock Man. Although Ellison is the biggest jerk in science fiction (no seriously, he’s an ass-hat), his 1965 story about time being currency not only one-ups that dumb Justin Timberlake film, but also infuses the genre with seriously insane linguistic fun and some gripping, scary ideas.

If this list isn’t enough, then check yourself harlequin and look into Ursula K. LeGuin, Connie Willis, Kazuo Ishiguro, and maybe even a novel called Penguin Island by Anatole France if you’re feeling saucy.

Review: Dystopian tales off the beaten track 1 vote

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