Dystopias

An image of Metropolis.

Thea von Harbou.

Metropolis. NY: Ace, 1963.

In the year 2000, the wealthy ruling class lives in towering luxury skyscrapers, while slave laborers monotonously toil away far below ground level. In 1927, von Harbou wrote the novel and later the movie screenplay with her husband Fritz Lang. The movie Metropolis was a seminal sf movie, influencing films as diverse as Bride of Frankenstein, Blade Runner, and Dark City.


An image of Brave New World.

Aldous Huxley, 1894-1963.

Brave New World. London: Chatto & Windus, 1932.

This critique of increased industrialization anddeclining individuality is the most famous dystopian novel of the twentieth century. In this future world, humanity is carefree, healthy, and technologically advanced. Warfare and poverty have been eliminated, and medication keeps everyone permanently happy. This has been achived by eliminating family, cultural diversity, art, literature, science, religion, and philosophy.


An image of The Space Merchants.

Frederik Pohl.

The Space Merchants. New York: Ballantine Books, 1952.

In this future dystopia, the world is ruled by two rival advertising agencies. Space Merchants is a savage satire on the rise of advertising in mid-twentieth century America.


Richard Matheson.

I am Legend; cover painting by Stan Meltzoff. New York: Fawcett Publications, 1954.

The book takes place in the then-future of 1976-1979, and opens with the monotony and horror of the daily life of the protagonist apparently the only survivor of an apocalypse caused by a pandemic of a bacterium the symptoms of which are very similar to vampirism.

George Orwell.

1984. New York: Signet - New American Library, 1954.

Nineteen Eighty-Four as a cautionary tale against totalitarianism and in particular the betrayal of a revolution by those claiming to defend it. Concepts from the book including the "big lie", "newspeak" and "Big Brother" have become part of the language.

An image of A Clockwork Orange.

Anthony Burgess.

A Clockwork Orange. London: Heinemann, 1962.

A violent young gang member is arrested for murder and treated with behavior modification that turns him away from violence but also destroys his free will. Narrated by the anti-hero Alex, the book uses a slang dialect made up of modified Russian words, Cockney rhyming slang and words invented by Burgess himself.


Kurt Vonnegut.

Player Piano. New York: Avon Books 1967.

Originally published in 1952, Player Piano tells of a near-future society that is almost totally mechanized and automated, eliminating the middle class. This widespread mechanization creates conflict between the wealthy upper class of engineers and managers that keep society running and the lower class, whose skills and purpose in society machines replaced.

William F. Nolan & George C. Johnson.

Logan's Run. New York City: Dell, 1969.

In a world where population control requires euthanasia at 21, a policeman who hunts down runners who won't submit becomes an escapee himself. The novel became a popular movie.

Ira Levin.

This Perfect Day. NY: Random House, 1970.

Uniformity is the defining feature of this society; there is only one language and all ethnic groups have been eugenically merged into "The Family" and everyone is controlled by a central computer.

William Gibson.

Neuromancer. New York: Ace, 1986.

Gibson explores the dehumanizing effects of a world dominated by ubiquitous and cheap technology. He coined the term "cyberspace" and was the first to to refer to cyberspace as "the Matrix".

Alternate Histories

The ability to rewrite history holds a powerful attraction to science fiction writers. The concept of alternate histories allows for an infinite number of answers to the question "what if." The first modern novel to ask the question was Napoleon and the Conquest of the World, 1812-1823, published in 1836, which posited that Napoleon called a halt to his ill-fated invasion of Russia ahead of the onset of winter and was then able to conquer the world. Later authors considered the ramifications of Biblical Egypt being conquered by Canaanites, Lincoln surviving the assassination attempt, a victory by the Spanish Armada over England, and alternate endings to dozens of wars.

Similar to alternate histories are parallel universe stories in which an infinite number of possible worlds exist simultaneously, each unaware of the others. Characters in these stories travel to one or multiple parallel universes to experience multiple results of one basic history-changing decision.

Mark Twain.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. New York: Webster, 1889.

Twain's Yankee, Hank Morgan, transported to a filthy and barbaric sixth century Camelot, sets out to enlighten and industrialize England.

An image of Sidewise in Time.

Murray Leinster.

Sidewise In Time, And Other Scientific Adventures. Chicago: Shasta Publishers, 1950.

First published in Astounding in June 1934, this was probably the first time that the concept of alternate worlds appeared in modern science-fiction. Sidewise in Time ponders the concept of moving not up or down the stream of time, but across it, visiting alternate visions of the same time period.


An image of Bring the Jubilee.

Ward Moore.

Bring the Jubilee. New York: Ballantine Books, 1952.

The South wins the Civil War, leaving a weakened non-industrialized North.


An image of Lest Darkness Fall.

L. Sprague de Camp.

Lest Darkness Fall. New York: Pyramid Books, 1963.

A twentieth century American time travels to sixth century Italy, where he industrializes Rome and averts the Dark Ages.


Philip K. Dick.

The Man in the High Castle. New York: Popular Library, 1964.

Germany wins World War II and the United States is occupied by Nazis.

Connie Willis.

Dooms Day Book. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

A woman scientist travels back to a Europe ravaged by the Black Plague in this sensitively-written novel.

Harry Turtledove.

World War: In the Balance. New York: Del Rey Books, 1995.

The Second World War is interrupted by an alien invasion.

Ecological Disasters

An image of No Blade of Grass.

John Christopher.

No Blade of Grass. New York: Pocket Books, 1958.

A virus destroys plants causing massive famine and the breakdown of society.


J. G. Ballard.

The Drowned World. New York: Berkley Books, 1962.

Increased solar radiation causes melting ice caps.

John Christopher.

The Long Winter. Greenwich CT: Crest Book, 1962.

A modern ice age drives the population to Africa.

Brian Aldiss.

Greybeard. New York: Signet - New American Library, 1965.

In a world where a nuclear disaster has rendered everyone sterile and no more children are born, the youngest man left makes the last voyage of discovery.

An image of Make Room Make Room.

Harry Harrison

Make Room! Make Room! New York: Berkley Books, 1967.

Make Room focuses on the perils of overpopulation and pollution and was made into the movie Soylent Green.


An image of The Sheep Look Ups.

John Brunner.

The Sheep Look Up. New York: Ballantine Books, 1976.

A devastating portrait of the results of environmental destruction on the everyday life of the remaining inhabitants.

Michael Swanwick.

In the Drift. New York: Ace, 1985.

A meltdown in a nuclear power station results in a large contaminated area inhabited by the mutant descendents of the radiation victims.

Charles Pellegrino.

Dust. New York: Avon Books, 1998.

All the insect species on Earth die out, resulting in the rapid destruction of the earth's ecology.

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