Recently, a guy called Peter Steinberg posted his Top 12 Dystopian Novels on the Huffington Post. After my quick surge of joy at having Dystopian fiction recognized as its own genre, I realized that Mr. Steinberg had chosen several amazing books (who could deny the iconic brilliance of 1984 or Brave New World), but left out a few gems I would rank fairly highly. The article has made me consider the books on the list as well as those that didn’t make it. What made him choose those over others?
His list begins with We, pretty much one of the very first pillars of all of dystopia and so provocative that the Russian government suppressed its publishing for decades. It includes the ubiquitous Ayn Rand and her Anthem, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Without these no Dystopian list could be complete, and yet where is Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!?
From Harrison’s book the world knew the terrible concept of “Soylent Green,” one of the ultimate horrors of a dystopian future. How can the eating of reprocessed human bodies not make it into the list? The familiar streets of the city and apartment life clashed with the reprocessed food and women as “furniture” to actually make me scared of ever having that society come to life. I guess that is the entire point of the genre, really. As one of the first dystopian novels I had the fortune to come across, and as the inspiration of a major film in the 70s, I’d say Harrison’s novel would make the top 12, if not the top 5. It is incredibly representative of its class.
Margaret Atwood’s story of The Handmaid’s Tale definitely earned its place on Steinberg’s list, as did The Faber Book of Utopias (though as a compilation of stories I’m not sure it really counts as a novel). Atwood’s story told from the perspective of a futuristic woman reduced to being a surrogate womb is thought-provoking, as all good dystopias are, and really allows you to identify with the narrator. We never learn her name, and far from being perfect, the woman in red’s past flaws and personality quirks truly round her out as a character. Though I haven’t read any of her other books, I would be very interested in seeing if Atwood’s engaging style continued. Coincidentally, there are a couple on the shelves here at Oxfam which I might just need to peruse.
Another book on the Steinberg’s list is Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. That one has a new movie out right now, though I heard that the film mostly focuses on the love story rather than the dystopia itself. I would hope, since it is on the list of dystopian literature rather than romance or general fiction, that the book had more of a base in the society itself. I also have a sneaking suspicion it was only put on the list for the current popularity of the film. However, since I have not read it I cannot say! Until I do, though, Id like to think that other novels would eclipse Ishiguro’s over the long-term.
Another few of his choices will make it onto my own “To Read” list, and I hope others’, and perhaps that was his goal. Give people some old favorites to show his taste, a couple of current popular names and then suggest some less well-known authors to broaden our horizons. Steinberg’s description of Blindness by Jose Saramago makes me a bit nervous (he uses words like visceral and brutality), but the concept of a blind world comprehended by the sole sighted person is intriguing. It’s a fairly singular scenario in dystopias, and I’m not sure I’d want to miss it because of a bit of nerves.
Shockingly, I have not yet had the pleasure of reading a Ballard novel, and I am assured that this needs to be rectified soon. He is a staple name in the genre, and has come up with lots of different worlds with lots of different quirks to get into! It’s definitely going on my list. Overall, I think Steinberg’s list of novels is a good start for those people just getting into dystopia but I would change a few things, personally. 1984 definitely needs to be ranked higher than 5th. It sometimes seems like half our vocabulary comes from his amazing vision of the future!
A few other staples I would have on the list (why have just 12?):
- Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
- The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
- Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
- Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged
- Lord of the Flies, William Golding
and probably I am Legend, because who doesn’t like a bit of zombies?