Distopian classics?

TalkDystopian novels

Join LibraryThing to post.

Distopian classics?

This topic is currently marked as "dormant"—the last message is more than 90 days old. You can revive it by posting a reply.

Edited: Aug 26, 2006, 12:15pm

This message has been deleted by its author.

Aug 26, 2006, 12:17pm

I find I have quite a large number of distopian novels in my collection (which I will eventually get around to cataloguing).

But what are the "must-haves" for the distopian novel collector?

Brave New World, Animal Farm and 1984 are the no-brainers. Ditto Fahrenheit 451 and Lord of the Flies.

I've also got Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, and need to add A Canticle for Liebowitz (out of print but available used at Amazon) and The Sheep Look Up.

I would also include Drop City by T.C. Boyle as having some distopian elements.

Other suggestions?

Aug 26, 2006, 1:21pm

Stand On Zanzibar by John Brunner & The Birth of the People's Republic of Antartica by John Calvin Batchelor are two good dystopian novels.

4rglovejoy First Message
Aug 26, 2006, 3:23pm

Another fine dystopian novel is The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth. Along the same lines is a recent novel, Jennifer Government by Max Barry.

Aug 26, 2006, 4:03pm

I forgot Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.

Man, I love this Web site! In three hours I can accumulate a reading list guaranteed to keep me depressed for the next two months!

Aug 27, 2006, 12:43pm

Forgive me for being repetative, I'm cutting and pasting what I posted in the Collapse group a while back...

I'd generally recommend several of the later works of H.G. Wells and specifically recommend The Croquet Player. While Wells started out optimistic and full of Utopian visions, he lost heart in later years and his themes tended to be more about how everything was going to Hell in a handbasket and we were all doomed. Depressing reading at times.

The Croquet Player is the best of this group I've read so far. It actually deals more with what the stresses of our self-destructive civilization will do to the human psyche than the actual details of what civilization will be like. I found that to be a rather interesting angle.

I also really liked The Dream; A Novel but that one works a little backwards - It's a flashback story to when civilization totally collapses, but from the Utopia that exists after.

Aug 27, 2006, 12:58pm

The Croquet Player sounds interesting! I read Wells' History of the World, which is quite optimistic, rational and very naive.

He was right about religion in Europe, though. He argued that governments would eventually inculcate Christian social values, which Wells saw as largely socialist, and religion would be marginalized.

Tell us more about The Croquet Player, if you're so inclined. It seems to me that Brave New World and 1984 both look at how the dystopian world stresses the individual, especially the individual who "feels different," i.e., Bernard and Winston.

Noticed another "must-have" on my shelf, which is often found among young adult books, but is one of the best ones I've read: The Giver by Lois Lowry.

In that work, the seeming utopia is kept afloat by lies, which the "correctly" socialized children accept in order to maintain the "common good."

Aug 27, 2006, 2:33pm

It's difficult to discuss The Croquet Player further without spoiling it for people - It's a story with a snap ending which changes the whole focus of the book. If you are the kind of person who can handle spoilers though, I've written a review (go to the book's "social" page in LT.) Spoilers drive me crazy - I feel guilty for posting the review. :-(

The Outline of History (which led to A Short History of the World) is a work which must be taken with a grain of salt... Wells was *highly* biased against the church and this work was done with an agenda bordering on the fanatical. In addition, there are errors - Much of Wells' "science" is based off a scientific find which was later proved false. There are many essays available which discuss the controversy and fighting around this work that raged for decades and played a huge part in the final years (and outlook) of Wells.

It's been an embarrassing amount of time since I've read 1984 or Brave New World... I must go back to them some day... Yes, lots of great recs here I must follow up on!

Edited: Aug 27, 2006, 4:58pm

A "must have" no one has mentioned is We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. As a (sub)-genre founding work, it really stands the test of time.

And there is a well made timeline of dystopias and world events that have influenced dystopian writing and other media representations here:

Edited: Aug 28, 2006, 7:00pm

Lilith's Brood by Octavia Butler is a interesting albeit very sci-fi distopian novel. I second the notion that The Sheep look Up is one of the best distopian pieces out there. Especially since the technology advances in computers that Brunner conceived of actually came true. Plus, it seems to be our own distopian future if population and environmental policies continue on their current path.
I’d also recommend Woman on the Edge of Time, The Fifth sacred thing, and The Gate to Women's Country. Together they paint an interesting picture of societal eugenics and unlike many of the other distopian books (with the exception of M. Atwood) originate from a strong feminist perspective.

-the mistress

Aug 28, 2006, 8:09pm

I may be wrong, but I don't think so. It really irritates me when people say that Animal Farm was one of the top five dystopian novels of all time. Animal Farm was not a dystopian novel, it was a characterization of totalitarianism. Althgouh it eventually degenerated into a grisly 'animal society' it did not have the components of a classical dystopian novel i.e. a comprehensive conceptual framework that makes the individual critically analyze society. It's only a criticism of totalitarianism.

Aug 28, 2006, 9:37pm

Uh... it's a criticism of the Russian Revolution, as an example of a revolution that only turned the previous under-class into the new over-class. Yes, totalitarianism is involved, but the primary criticism is not of a particular system of governance, but rather of the dangers of becoming the monster you have fought, and of the hypocrisy of revolutionary leaders.

Aug 28, 2006, 10:50pm

The Russian Revolution created a totalitarian government, did it not? Orwell isn't criticizing democracy, is he? And even if he was he would only be criticizing it insofar as it started to take on the nature of a totalitrian regime. Any authoritarian government is a totalitarian regime, the two are inextricably linked. Moreover, Orwell is criticizing the aspect of totalitarian government, which creates hypocritical leaders. So, he's still criticizing totalitarian regimes more than anything. Furthermore, that still doesn't dispute the argument that Animal Farm is not a dystopian novel. When it is all said and done Orwell is criticizing totalitarian governments and not writing a dystopian novel.

Aug 29, 2006, 8:51am

Just to cloud the issue more--

I see Animal Farm as an allegory as much as anything, and this makes it a bit different from other dystopians.

Each animal group represents a different human social class or type. (I like how the cats are the fence-sitters who vote for both sides.)

To the extent that it is social criticism, and moves from dark to darker, and serves as a cautionary tale, it seems to have at least some dystopian elements.

Would you agree bigal123, and if not, check out and respond to the thread about what makes a dystopian novel?

Aug 29, 2006, 9:09am

Just noticed another dystopian on the shelf: A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess.

Aug 29, 2006, 9:25am

No, the Russian Revolution did NOT "create" a totalitarian government. They already had a totalitarian government. All that changed was who held the reins.

Aug 29, 2006, 2:43pm

Exactly, lohengrin, but that's the point of the criticism. There was no such thing as a 'Russian Revolution', at least in the true sense of the world revolution. A revolution is a change, which brings about an ideological and cultural shift with respect to the way people approach government and social institutions. However, this can never happen. Historically change doesn't occur through revolutions. Orwell is criticizing totalitarianism insofar as he's pointing out a cycle. The nature of totalitarian governments, or any oppressive regime, is that they have mock revolutions, which just reinstitute totalitarian ideals; this is the oppressor-oppressed contradiction that Paulo Freire talks about in chapter one of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Leaders of a revolution can't help but be authoritarian because they have to stop individuals from undermining their power and in the process force their former oppressors to adopt ideals of freedom. They do this instead of changing the way people think, which is distinctly different from a revolution.

Aug 29, 2006, 2:55pm

I would agree with you to a certain extent, nohrt4me. Yes, Animal Farm has dystopian elements, albeit indirectly, because it can be interpreted as a cautionary tale, but Animal Farm was never intended to be a dystopian novel. When you say Animal Farm moves from dark to darker you have to realize that you yourself are only characterizing totalitarianism. Orwell is not telling the reader how oppression starts, instead he shows the reader how oppression starts. Yes, Animal Farm has dystopian elements but we should not read it as a dystopian novel, for if we did we would be remiss in doing so because the reader would then miss how Orwell tracks oppression from conception to inception and its subsequent continuation. Animal Farm is not a vision of the future it's a window into the world, which Orwell was living in.

Aug 29, 2006, 4:43pm

So, as I understand bigal123 so far, he is grumpy about "Animal Farm" being on the list because:

a) It was not intended as a dystopian novel. (Just curious about whether this was drawn from something Orwell said, or just a conclusion based on the novels non-dystopian features?)

b) It shows rather than tells how oppression starts. (Not sure I understand this distinction, unless it's that dystopians usually open with the world already gone to pot. In "AF," the world is relatively normal and descends from there.)

c) "AF" is not a vision of the future, but a "window" on the world as Orwell saw it right then.

If that's so, then another book I am tempted to add, The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders might also fall, strictly speaking, outside the dystopian genre, though it has dystopian characteristics.

Aug 30, 2006, 9:37am

To bring clarity to this subject, nohrt4me, I came to this conclusion based on the non-dystopian elements of AF.

Secondly, showing refers to actions and telling refers to language. If AF was turned into a strictly prose writing of academic literature i.e. an essay, it would immediately cease to be dystopian altogether irregardless of whether or not it had dystopian elements. What is the difference between an academic book on the Russian Revolution and how oppression starts, and Animal Farm? I contend that there is no difference and because of this AF is not a dystopian novel. To sum it all up, instead of writing an essay on oppression Orwell decided to show us oppression in Animal Farm.

However, and I highly suggest that everyone reads this book to see where I'm coming from, Deschooling Society, written by Ivan Illich is a strictly prose writing but can be easily interpreted as dystopian book.

In fact, I believe that Deschooling Society is the theoretical framework behind Brave New World, even though it was written 30 years! later.

Although, I may be wrong about my argument in its entirety I sincerely believe in what I'm saying. However, this doesn't mean that I am not open to other interpretations of AF. In fact maybe someone else has a different take that may make me reconsider my position. I leave the discussion open.

Aug 30, 2006, 10:21am

On a different note, I think that my inability to see AF as a dystopian novel may be rooted in my definition of a dystopian novel or even in my distinction between a great dystopian novel and a classic, life-affirming, dystopian novel.

Even after reading what wikipedia has to say about a dystopian novel I still don't see AF as a dystopian novel because my definition is different. Wikipedia just lists the traits or elements of dystopian fiction, but never gives a thorough or lucid definition of a dystopian novel. That's like saying a democracy is characterized by certain liberties, certain rights, and equality. Those are the things inherent to a democracy but that's not the definition of a democracy.

From my point of a view a dystopian novel creates a vision of the future, which exposes or advances a certain view of human nature or culture of humanity that will be detrimental to the advancement of the human species. In conjunction with this a dystopian novel has a comprehensive conceptual framework that causes the reader to question whether or not this is the road that humanity should take. It does this by examining the world from every angle: epistemologically and ontologically with respect to truth and internal and external reality. This then leads to what Paulo Freire would call 'critical conciousness' whereby individuals critically analyze society in order to break down systems of oppression. A culture detrimental to the advancement of the human species is such a system of oppression.

1984, for example, does just this. The discussions between Winston and O'Brien are classic from a critically concious point of view. AF leaves it up to the reader to think or not think; 1984 forces the reader to think.

Edited: Aug 30, 2006, 3:54pm

2 books I find are too often overlooked in this genre - A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller and War with the Newts by the astonishing Karel Capek. (EDIT! Not sure how I missed Canticle being in the first post in the thread!)

And, of course, Player Piano.

Kudos to Aquila for We by Zamyatin. A great book.

To add fuel to the fire of Animal Farm and the Soviet "revolution", I've seldom met a fan of dystopian fiction who wasn't impressed by Darkness at Noon - but I think Koestler's superior novel is Arrival and Departure - which I think is out of print. In any case, I've no doubt that the famous 2+2 scene in 1984 was an homage to Darkness at Noon .

Edited: Sep 10, 2006, 4:55pm

A few other overlooked dystopian novels:

* Karin Boye, Kallocain
* Katharine Burdekin, Swastika Night
* Jack London, The Iron Heel
* Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here
* Harry Harrison, Make Room! Make Room! (basis for "Soylent Green")
* Sheri S. Tepper, Beauty (and actually a number of her other works portray really dystopian worlds, although the focus is not on exploring the dystopia; see, e.g., The Companions)
* Ira Levin, This Perfect Day
* V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Jun 30, 2007, 9:23pm

Two newer dystopian novels that have appeared are The Pesthouse by Jim Crace which I have read and enjoyed. It is actually quite uplifting despite the topic and deals with American decline after an apocylapse.

Similar in theme is The Road by Cormac McCormac, which is on my TBR pile and deals with the same topic in a more violent manner - I think.

Anyone read these?

Jul 1, 2007, 1:57pm

Glad to see some activity on this thread again. I just read "The Road." A very grim read, but one that you keep thinking about.

Probaby worth starting a separate thread for this one.

Jul 1, 2007, 3:51pm

If you read The Road, you should pick up a copy of The Pesthouse. Jim Crace is a very talented British author.

Jul 3, 2007, 4:00pm

The Giver by Lois Lowry. One of my faves.

Sep 5, 2007, 4:59pm

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov is an unappreciated classic which most fans of dystopian literature will certainly enjoy.

Sep 5, 2007, 5:04pm

I wonder if LeGuin's The Dispossessed qualifies as a distopia. It's really (IMHO) about the need for a utopia to continually reinvent itself.

Sep 5, 2007, 5:47pm

Jim53: She did subtitle it "an ambiguous utopia" ... which just means "noplace", not "good place". Certainly I think one can look at the two planets and contrast them; some will find dystopian aspects in the capitalist planet.

Marge Piercy's Dance the Eagle to Sleep was (at the time) a near-future dystopian vision of where the generation gap was going: eating the young getting rather ugly. Suzy McKee Charnas' Walk to the End of the World's dystopia also picked up on the generation gap gone wrong theme.

Sep 5, 2007, 5:48pm

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov is an unappreciated classic which most fans of dystopian literature will certainly enjoy.

Sep 7, 2007, 11:29pm

Anything by Phillip K. Dick *worships*

Sep 8, 2007, 10:04am

The gates of ivory, the gates of horn by Thomas McGrath, good American version with strong McCarthy references.

Sep 8, 2007, 10:28am

My contribution to the thread: Uglies. It's a young adult read about beauty and perfection, but I enjoyed it. I also heartily recommend The Giver. I've got The Road, Fahrenheit 451, and The Handmaid's Tale all on my to be read list, so it sounds like I've got a few good reads in front of me!

Sep 16, 2007, 9:13am

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler seems not to have been mentioned yet.

Edited: Sep 16, 2007, 9:43am

A couple to add.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham a novel that focuses on physical human mutation, clash of unequal technologies, religious extremists and mythologization of the world as we know it now.
The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, which as I understand it is part of a series of 'end of the world as we know it' novels from this author. I've only ever read this one, though.

They both fall into the class of 'post-apocalyptic' type novels that I love.

Edited: Nov 22, 2007, 11:02am

I read kingdom come from ballard, which was also called a dystopian, but I didn't find the dystopian part in it. Didn't really like it either.

Also have the drowned world on my TBR pile, curious about that one too!

Ah, so much to read, so little time! I think I just might have to quit my job... ^^

Dec 12, 2007, 1:52pm

I'm surprised that no one has mentioned
Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley
Children of Men by P.D James
Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut

Mar 7, 2008, 6:19pm

since everyone here seems to like 1984 i thought i'd mention 1985 by burgess.

Mar 8, 2008, 4:31pm

#39/40, I've read all these but "Ape and Essence."

Had entirely forgotten about "1985" by Burgess.

Weener, what did you think of "Children of Men"? I have yet to rent the movie, but I thought the novel was a bit corny and preachy. I've heard the movie is better.

Mar 24, 2008, 8:56pm

I have just finished The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndman which is an excellent dystopian novel written in 1951 and which cleverly predicts the Cold War, feminism, ecological warfare, and ecological catastrophe. I really enjoyed it.

I remember seeing the VERY second rate movie - which really put me off. Such a shame that such a good book should be immortalized in such a shoddy movie.

Apr 9, 2008, 12:13am

I would consider The Trial by Franz Kafka, to be a profound dystopic novel.

Apr 9, 2008, 3:28am

#41: D'oh, way for me to not look at this thread when someone was asking me something. I really liked the movie Children of Men. They do this thing where they will do long scenes instead of constantly cutting from shot to shot, which works out really well. The way it looked was stark, bleak, and not unlike the way I imagine the not-so-distant future to look.

Apr 10, 2008, 4:28pm

weener, glad I'm not the only one who hates that frenetic cutting back and forth to closeups in movies, which makes you wonder why bother with set design and costumes below the waist. That and the fact that every movie now has some type of dopey musical interlude that is supposed to build "mood." Two signs that Dystopia has already arrived.

May 13, 2008, 10:29pm

I am in the beginning pages of A Clockwork Orange. It is certainly divergent from most books I've read.

May 25, 2008, 5:43pm

A couple that I don't think have been mentioned...
Harrison Bergeron (though it's just a short story)
The Traveller (kind of cyberpunk, but not quite-and it's not a classic by any means).
Lathe of Heaven-or at least, it's mostly dystopia

Aug 2, 2008, 9:54pm

What about Suzette Haden Elgin's Native Tongue series. It contains elements of both dystopia as well as possible solutions (not necessarily utopia). Elgin is a linguist, so linguistic theory informs this series. It's not a rigorous theory. The three novels might not be as interesting to read. However, she does take up questions about the way language can subtly and not so subtly exclude or include people. I think The Feminist Press has reprinted Native Tongue, Judas Rose, and Earthsong sometime around 2002 or so. I highly recomend it. I don't necessarily agree with everything she says, but the novel makes some interesting observations about language and culture.

Aug 2, 2008, 10:17pm

I don't know if anyone has mentioned Octavia Butler's Earthseed series as dystopian. I read Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and really liked them. It's been a while since I've read them but they seem to be of the same genre as Children of Men.

Aug 2, 2008, 10:27pm

The Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody (Obernewtyn, The Farseekers, Ashling, The Keeping Place). The next book is The Stone Key. In the USA the publishers have split up this book into two: Wavesong and The Stone Key. The last book should be The Sending. I don't have The Stone Key yet. Will soon have The Farseekers and Ashling, have read them several times, along with Obernewtyn.

Aug 3, 2008, 3:35pm

Almost forgot: The Wanting Seed is definatly a dystopia, though I doubt enough people have read it to make it a classic.

Sep 22, 2008, 5:37pm

Last year I took a course on dystopian novels and we read: Darkness at Noon, Nineteen Eighty-four, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm, and one that hasn't been mentioned yet, Bend Sinister, by Nabokov. (I guess my university sees Animal Farm as dystopian, despite what has been said here.)

I see the course is running again this term and the prof has added High Rise, by JG Ballard.

Nov 3, 2008, 7:31pm

I have just decided to take on the 999 Challenge with a category for dystopian novels. Thanks for the recommendations on this thread. I have a list and I'm off to the library.

Jul 2, 2009, 10:00pm

Wow, how could all of us miss this dystopian classic:

Hot, Flat and Crowded

Jul 4, 2009, 3:38pm

brave new world, orwell of course,
and one forgotten and very special piece
by - jule verne! paris in the 20th centry - completely different book from this author, you will be surprised how mature story it is...

Edited: Feb 24, 2010, 1:31pm

Just to throw in a couple of obscurities into the pile Year of Consent by Kendall Foster Crossen.
I also recently read a rather bleak short story by Brian W. Aldiss http://www.librarything.com/author/aldissbrianw (Sorry no Touchstone for some reason?) called Man on Bridge in New Writings in SF.
Not 'classics' I know so how about Man in the High Castle.

Feb 24, 2010, 2:33pm

After a quick buzz through the touchstone list on the right, I see no one has put forth Earth Abides by George R Stewart. It's not a pot-boiler, but it is a rather unique view of life after a cataclysm. I liked it for its unique voice and presentation.

Feb 24, 2010, 4:04pm

I remember not getting on with the actual film when I first saw it during the 80s; then last year I read the book, based on the screenplay by John Boorman, and liked it enough to immediately go out and buy the DVD. I certainly wouldn't have enjoyed watching it again if I hadn't read the story first though (kind of why I think the movie failed).
In case anyone is unfamiliar: its a dystopian story from the viewpoint of the immortal's own society and it's Renegades. Its also a quick read unlike Nineteen Eighty Four {SHUDDER} I still marvel at how they crammed so much ink on some of those pages in my old paperback?

Mar 7, 2010, 8:25pm

>57 Bookmarque: Earth Abides is on the top end of my top five books.

Edited: Apr 16, 2011, 11:50pm

I just finished reading John Wyndham's "The Chrysalids, noted in post 36 here. Here's my quick take on it, not an in depth review:

Re-Birth is the title given to the American edition of John Wyndham's science fiction classic The Chrysalids. The story was a very enjoyable read. Simply put, it is set in a dystopian future several centuries after an atomic war has devastated the world. A small settlement on Labrador struggles to survive in the "true image' of man by ruthlessly weeding out mutations. Deviants as they are called are banished to the fringes where mutations run wild, if they aren't outright killed. Beyond the wild country and the fringes there are plains of glass before other wild areas occur. A group of children grow up in Labrador in and around a community called Waknuk discovering that they have a hidden mutation, the ability to communicate telepathically. Later they find that there are others like themselves in a far away place called Zealand.

Much of the book covers about half a dozen years or more of the children growing up and realizing their abilities and the need to keep it hidden. The younger sister of the main character David seems to have a latent extraordinary telepathic power. Once the children are discovered a ruthless hunt and war entails to capture them.

Wyndham is a good writer and the story is well told. For a story first published in 1955 it has held up remarkably well. Recommended for fans of dystopian fiction.

May 14, 2011, 1:24pm

I'd like to add to this venerable list a most wonderful dystopian classic which I just happened to re-read: E.M. Forster's The Machine Stops
A beautiful slow decay of humankind's will. I do highly recommend it.

May 14, 2011, 1:34pm

Seconded, Kinos. I was taken aback by it when I first read it. I even have it on tape, strangely enough. Disturbing little tale.

May 15, 2011, 1:38pm

One of my favorites, Kinos. Does anyone know if there is a modern print edition of it? I read it in the Treasury of Science Fiction Classics anthology, but my copy's from the 1950s or '60s, I believe.

May 20, 2011, 4:24pm

I don't believe this one has been mentioned:
I Who Have Never Known Men by Jacqueline Harpman

May 30, 2011, 2:43am

People tend to disagree with me on this, but I consider His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman to fit into this category.

May 30, 2011, 9:47am

> 65: I think some of the societies were arguably dystopian, but not the trilogy as a whole.

> 64: I Who Have Never Known Men was such an interesting work. In my own mind, I think of it more as surrealist than dystopian.