Classic dystopian novels forecast a bleak future — soon
New reprints of classic dystopian novels show that a bleak view of our future has enduring appeal. Seattle Public Library librarian David Wright rounds up titles by George Turner, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Russell Hoban and John Wyndham.
Special to The Seattle Times
Is it a sign of the End Times? The current craze for post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories such as “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” is made all the more disconcerting by just how unfazed we are by the prospect of the end of the world as we know it. The dying embers of society are so romantic.
Compared to many of today’s crowd-pleasing cataclysms, popular on both page and screen, these classic dystopian stories chill as well as thrill.
Published 27 years ago, George Turner’s “The Sea and Summer” (Gollancz, $15.95) depicts events commencing 27 years from now, making us wonder: Are we halfway there? “Climate creep” has led to increasingly extreme weather events, and flood tides nibble away at coastal cities. As debtor nations default, the global economy shudders toward collapse. Economic disparity between the haves and have-nots — “the Sweet” and “the Swill” — has grown insurmountably vast: in Melbourne 90 percent of the population dwells in hellishly overcrowded skyscrapers reminiscent of the vertical slums that are found in some cities today. As civilization slowly sinks beneath the dirty waves, our descendants distract themselves with TV soap operas, muttering that the end may well be coming, but surely not in their time.
Others have sounded these depths, most notably J.G. Ballard in his 1962 novel “The Drowned World” (Liveright, $15.95) with its haunting vision of London circa 2145, a steaming lagoon regressing to the Triassic era. While Ballard transfixes us by gazing on what savage heart of darkness mankind may someday slip back toward, Turner unsettles us with his clear vision of who we are now, and the all-too-plausible consequences of our current complacency.
Reading John Brunner’s 1968 novel “Stand on Zanzibar” (Orb Books, $19.99) feels like stumbling out of a time machine into the teeming clamor of a strange yet shockingly familiar world. Many of Brunner’s predictions for the year 2010 are eerily prescient: the information economy and biotech industry; frequent mass shootings; online avatars; interactive reality TV interrupted by ads for sexual-enhancement drugs; techno raves held in the ruined shells of Detroit factories. Ah yes, and President Obomi. Did Brunner have access to his own time machine, or to a very special batch of acid? Or was he just a wise man with uncanny insights into our decadent age?
Russell Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (Gollancz, $17.95) is easily one of the most ingenious novels ever written. Set during a distant Dark Age long after our current civilization has given itself to the fire, the entire narrative is rendered in a hyper-phonetic, punning version of devolved English. We riddle along with Walker as he grapples with obscure legends of our own bad times, including that particularly seductive myth: the myth of progress. Readers who get the hang of Riddleyspeak (it’s easier than it looks) are in for a profound, transformative journey into the human heart, where fires of creation and destruction are kindled.
John Wyndham’s “The Chrysalids” (NYRB, $14) anticipates and surpasses many of today’s dystopian thrillers. David Strorm is hiding a terrible secret. In a fundamentalist society where any sign of genetic deviation is eradicated as a shameful reminder of atomic Tribulations, David is a telepath, and he’s not alone. Their empathic clarity is a threat to the hypocritical state, so the mutants must flee for their lives, their only hope a vaguely sensed colony of telepaths on the far side of the planet. “The Chrysalids” explores intolerance and bigotry with satisfying complexity as it races toward an ending that is truly unpredictable.
David Wright is a reader services librarian with the Seattle Public Library. Get a personalized reading list from David and his fellow librarians at Your Next Five Books www.spl.org/yournext5