One of my absolute favourite genres is dystopian or apocalyptic where either the world is ending or there is a terrible regime is in place. For some strange reason I feel most comfortable in a book where everything is uncomfortable. Where survival is everything, just being alive at the end of the day is an achievement. I’m pretty sure my first introduction to the world of dystopian literature was reading 1984 at school. It remains one of my favourite books. Orwell was able to succinctly create a world filled with horror and fear and a world that is possible. Certainly today. Always relevant. Dystopian fiction is often a warning of where we could be going. As Margaret Atwood said of The Handmaids tale, “One of my rules was that I would not put any events into the book that had not already happened… nor any technology not already available. No imaginary gizmos, no imaginary laws, no imaginary atrocities. God is in the details, they say. So is the Devil.”
Which ones do I therefore wholly recommend?
- 1984 by George Orwell – Big Brother comes from 1984… Winston spends his lonely life going from his blank apartment to his office desk where he re-writes history depending on the party’s stance at the time. If they were allies with people they’d previously been at war with then the history books, the newspaper headlines, are all re-written. If the price of chocolate goes up then previous records of the price of chocolate are edited to suggest that the price of chocolate has gone down. So what happens if you rebel? Go to the black market, fall in love? Room 101 is waiting for you. In the era of Trump, a president prepared to have his comments about Putin edited to show him saying what (he says) he meant to say, 1984 can not be more relevant. A must read for everyone.
- The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood. Another book I studied in English Literature at school in the 1990’s and a book that never goes out of fashion though is even more popular currently because of the tv show. The protagonist, Offred, is a young woman who lives with a well to do family as their handmaid, effectively the woman that will bear their child. Fertility is a huge problem and most women can not have children. Those who have therefore previously given birth are trained to be handmaids and allocated to families. Their identity is gone. Offred is the name given when the woman is allocated to the family of Fred. Offred lives a life heavily guarded with no knowledge of the whereabouts of her own child, from before. Every month she is subjected to rape at the hands of her “master” whilst lying in the lap of his wife. Women have returned to being second class citizens whether handmaids or not. Another world which feels eerily within grasp and another must read though the first season of the tv show, based on the book, is an excellent representation.
- The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Ellison. This is a recent addition to my list of favourites but is highly recommended. The Unnamed Midwife is working in a hospital in San Francisco when a virus strikes that takes the lives of women and new born babies. She gets ill but somehow lives and wakes to an empty city. Quickly she realises that she is not safe and disguises herself as a man to start her journey North. She isn’t going anywhere in particular she just feels that safe isn’t in the South. Judged by the situations she finds herself in. This is a good bit of apocalyptic fiction.
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. The author also wrote The Remains of the Day and recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Never Let Me Go is really hard to tell you about without spoiling the whole premise of the book but is about Kathy, she is at boarding school in 1990’s England. The book details her time at school and her relationships there. She knows that she is working towards a particular future as are those around her. They’re just normal children. Aren’t they? This is a wonderful book. I had absolutely no idea what was going on for the first half of the book and I think that’s how it should be. It was beautiful nevertheless and the characters are so fully formed that you genuinely care about them and what happens to them. Another book that is perhaps only a little way away from where we are or where we are going. There is a film of the book with Kiera Knightly playing Kathy. Compared to the book the film makes no sense at all!
- Death of Grass by John Christopher. This is apocalyptic Set in 1950’s England and written at that time this book has such an atmosphere to it. As the title suggests the grass is dead, the wheat is dead, food is failing around the world. How quickly does society break down? What do you have to do to survive? This book is clearly a bit marmite given the reaction of many people I have recommended it to. But I think it makes an excellent choice for a book club with so many things to discuss. Definitely a book to buddy read. Do you think society would implode that quickly? What do you think of the decisions made by the government? Do you think you would have behaved like that?
- On the Beach by Neville Shute. Shute is better known for A Town Like Alice and this book is not that well known at all. The premise is that a nuclear war has occurred in the northern hemisphere and there is a limited amount of time until the effects reach Australia. A morse code radio signal is picked up emanating from the USA and possibly indicating that people have survived. With that hope, one of the last American nuclear submarines, USS Scorpion, placed by its captain, Commander Dwight Towers, under Australian naval command, is ordered to sail north from its port of refuge in Melbourne, to contact whoever is sending the signal. In preparation for this journey, the submarine makes a shorter trip to port cities in northern Australia, including Cairns, Queensland and Darwin, Northern Territory; no survivors are found. Two Australians sail with the American crew: Lieutenant Commander Peter Holmes, naval liaison officer to the Americans, and a scientist, Professor John Osborne. Commander Towers has become attached to a young Australian woman distantly related to Osborne named Moira Davidson, who tries to cope with the impending end of human life through heavy drinking. Meanwhile Peter had his wife have recently had a child. This is a story about hope and living under a death sentence. It is of its time but still a great read.
- Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – A futuristic America where firemen make fires and chase down information from well meaning citizens who inform on the location of books. The firemen attend and set fire to the books and the houses they are in. Relationships are shallow and no-one is fulfilled or enthused. Guy Montag is the main protagonist and a fireman who is totally dedicated to his work though over time we learn that he has been taking and hiding books. Thus begins his downfall. A fascinating take on a world without books, what would that mean? What impact do books have on us, thinking about them, writing them, reading them, discussing them. Take that away, take away the reflection and recording. Where are we left?
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This is a post apocalyptic account of the journey a father and son take because the father doesn’t think they will survive the winter. Food is short and he is ill. He takes them towards the sea. On the way they meet other survivors who are so desperate to survive that they do the most horrifying things. This is a dark book and I have to say the film left me quite depressed for a few days. A not so rosy take on the job of surviving after the end of the world!
- Earth Abides by George R Stewart. Another apocalyptic account based in San Francisco which is more about the rebuilding of civilisation. I have very firm images in my head of moments in this book though I read it years ago. Many images of the San Francisco in my head are merged memories of visiting there and reading this book!
- Brother in the Land by Robert Swindells. This was a book I read in junior school and images of it, searching empty and formerly well to do houses, stuck with me so much so that years later I sought the book out. A great introduction to apocalyptic fiction.
- The Passage / The Twelve / The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. Another day another deadly virus. This one turns folk into vampires and the survivors not only have to find the food and medicine, rebuild civilisation but kill the vampires and try not to be killed / turned by them!
- The Stand by Stephen King. The master of horror even managed to write a phenomenal take on a post apocalyptic world. Another day, another virus and the human race is pretty much wiped out. The survivors start having dreams. Mother Abigail, a black woman aged over 100 and her group of survivors of the flu released by the government, must stand up to the bad man. Good vs evil. According to many the best thing King ever wrote and bearing in mind he wrote ‘Salems Lot that’s saying something (also fairly apocalyptic!)
- This Perfect Day by Ira Levin. Ira Levin wrote some rather marvellous novels, Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby, Kiss Before Dying. They are all tremendous but this is the one I love. Levin creates an amazing alternative reality where the world is all controlled by a computer and the inhabitants are all drugged to ensure compliance. Everyone wears an armband which tracks their whereabouts (ohh fitbit / apple watch much?) and the age of death is 61. Chip is a little non-conformist and this develops as he gets older and makes a break for it. Ira Levin has an exceptional imagination and his writing is creepy! Read them all!!!!
- The Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness. This is a YA series about a community of people who can hear thoughts. This is a virus (another day, another virus) that has killed the women and means the men all hear each others thoughts. Todd is due to celebrate the birthday where he becomes a man so his adoptive fathers pack him up and urge him to leave, run. Why, he does not know. He is the last boy in the town due to reach the age and everyone is waiting. Remember they can all hear thoughts! Just prior to leaving Todd finds a patch of silence in the swamp land just outside town. Highly unusual he investigates and finds a girl, Viola. Eventually they team up and run away together with the town in pursuit. The books are aimed at teenagers with teenage protagonists. Interesting exploration of grief, loss, tenacity and growing up. And the first film is due soon!
- The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick. Dick is one of the greatest sic-fi writers that has ever lived IMHO! I remember how shocked I was when I found out he wrote most of the books that inspired the films I love, like Minority Report, Blade Runner, Total Recall. I’ve read a couple of his books now and The Man in the High Castle is definitely my favourite. An imagining of how America would look if Germany won WWII. Terrifying and recently made into a Netflix series which was really well done.
- The Crysalids by John Wyndham. Tough to pick which one of John Wyndham’s books to put in here, Day of the Triffids? Midwich Cuckoos? Any of them could feature in this list to be honest. Short, pacy, accessible novels about any number of terrifying worlds. And I’m still not sure which one is my favourite.
These are some of my favourites, I have doubtless left some off but I absolutely know that there are plenty more out there. What’s your favourite dystopian or post apocalyptic novel? Do you prefer reality or hope? Have you read any of these? Would they feature in your list of favourites or is this actually a genre you totally avoid?