Dystopian science fiction is a particularly affecting genre of fiction. It discards the starry-eyed optimism of some science fiction, depicting grim futures in which humans live possessing neither freedom nor fulfillment. The reasons a society may have been forced into dystopia are manifold in science-fiction – environmental disaster, political coup, technological disaster, etc. Regardless of the reason, dystopian sci-fi shows a world where freedom and truth are kept from humanity by the very society that is supposed to liberate them. Often prescient and thoughtful, dystopian sci-fi presents some of the most startling visions in fiction.
John Brunner – Stand on Zanzibar
Perhaps the most striking prediction in John Brunner’s 1968 novel ‘Stand on Zanzibar’ is that there would be 7 billion people on Earth by the year 2010. Science fiction has never been about exactly accurate predictions – indeed Brunner’s novel contains a lot of other predictions that have not come to pass – but Brunner was certainly looking in the right direction.
The sprawling novel concerns a 21st century world of substituted experience, mass overcrowding, restrictive governments, and international upheaval. The favorite TV show of Americans in this world is one featuring Mr and Mrs everywhere – viewers upload their image to a TV set which shows them having adventures that they would never be able to experience for themselves. A company run by a supercomputer is in the process of acquiring control of a developing nation – in a crossover of several disconcerting versions of contemporary reality. Governments are engaged in wars of genetic engineering, while pacifying and repressing their own citizens.
The specifics of Brunner’s predictions may not always be accurate – but his incisive portrayal of the world being increasingly subsumed by its own excess and carelessness should, without fail, cause its reader to stop and take another look at the world they live in. It’s not certain whether they’ll see much difference between it, and the world of ‘Stand on Zanzibar’.
Inverted World – Christopher Priest
The 1974 novel ‘Inverted World’, by Christopher Priest, paints a picture of a city that is dystopian in its very existence. The novel follows Helward Man, the inhabitant of a city called Earth on an unknown planet. A unique aspect of the city of Earth, however, is that it is constantly moving. Winched forward along giant tracks, the city must keep moving forward toward its ‘optimum’, or risk being destroyed by a steadily progressing gravitational field.
However, most of Earth’s inhabitants are not aware of this fact, not even knowing that the city is moving. Through Helward’s experiences joining the guild system – which is privy to this knowledge and responsible for the movement of the city – we see how the will of the population is subverted to a necessity that they are not even aware of. Earth must move, and everything else must be in service to this fact, even unknowingly. However, as Helward’s training with the guilds continues, he is increasingly thrown off balance by revelations about the world he lives in. Greater and greater mysteries abound until eventually, Helward discovers that the world, and the city, are stranger than he ever could have imagined. Priest’s novel is a masterpiece – featuring high-concept mystery, world-altering revelations, and the human desire to keep moving without knowing what lies ahead.
Arthur C Clarke – The City and the Stars
‘The City and the Stars’ presents its dystopian world as largely banal. The novel – published by Arthur C Clarke in 1956 – is set 1 billion years into the future. Planet Earth has progressively degraded – with most oceans dried up, plant life disappeared, and human life all but eradicated. The remnants of humanity live in Diaspar, a domed city that never changes. Every aspect of life is overseen by machinery, to the point that the human inhabitants of Diaspar have their bodies built by the machines, and implanted with their consciousnesses. When people pass away, their memories are stored once more by the computer.
As such, every inhabitant of Diaspar has memories of their past lives, save for the protagonist, Alvin. He is a ‘unique’ – a new person – which are made very rarely. Alvin is also different from the rest of Diaspar in his desire to go outside. The inhabitants of the city dare not leave due to the ruined Earth, and the fear of reprisals by a vicious species from outer space that has condemned humanity to Diaspar. However, Alvin’s desire for freedom cannot be quashed, and he looks for ways to escape. As he does, he comes to discover that Diaspar is far from all it seems, and that the world contains more mysteries than Alvin ever thought. A novel of yearning and exploration, ‘The City and the Stars’ questions the validity of a world so safe that it becomes stunted, and explores the irrepressible desire in humans for freedom.