A Bunch of Dystopias [book reviews]

In the past couple of months I’ve read quite a few dystopian novels and am working on another presently. It is a genre of SF that I’m really fond of. I wrote a very long piece called Dystopia last year on my old blog and delved into the whole concept from both a psychological and Buddhist perspective. [there’s also a bit about Russian Absurdist and Futurist art movements tied in as well-smorgasbord of ideas as it were]

So this is perhaps an Afterword to that previous piece of writing. In any case if you are a fan of such books as 1984, Oryx and Crake, The Handmaid’s Tale, Animal Farm or the like perhaps you might find something interesting here. 

The Unincorporated Man – Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin

I’m tempted to call this one an economic dystopia. Everyone is their own corporation and a guy cryogenically frozen wakes up unincorporated. The chaos this causes in an completely economically regulated and connected society is massive. The first 50 pages or so were a bit rough and it took some time for the writing to hit the groove that a novel has to get into in order to move the story along. But once done-I’m glad I persisted with it-so many questions are presented from the issue of corporate personhood (or personal corporatehood) to the escapism of virtual reality to the nature of human life and its ownership.  I’m looking forward to getting the sequel The Unincorporated War whenever I encounter it.

Kraken – China Mieville

A giant calimari, I mean squid, becomes the object of religious veneration in a fantastical anarchic and magical version of London. Various groups from religious fanatics to scientists to criminal organizations attempt to gain control of the calimari (OK that’s my word not in the book) in order to stave off an apocalypse. I found the book entertaining, imaginative (as one comes to expect from a Mieville work) and a pretty good story. The only drawback I found was that in some parts the writing felt a little rushed, as if some portions were simply bridges to get to the next important scene and as such there were thin spots. It’s not a total dystopia but more of an alternate reality with some fairly gritty aspects but worth a read.

The City and the City – China Mieville

This is my second favorite Mieville work (after Perdido Street Station). A mystery involving a detective in a city that is within a city, but with a twist. Two cities exist in the same time and space however the inhabitants do not interact or even acknowledge each other. A kind of enforced social blindness ensues and the concept of boundaries on every level are explored as a police detective and his assistant attempt to solve a crime that reaches across both cities. It reminded me so much of the concept of “invisible people” in our own societies who we deal with daily or walk past on the street but never actually see. I read some commentary by the author on this book, because it impressed me so much, and he took his inspiration from physically divided cities like the old East/West Berlin or Jerusalem at present and brought out the more sociological and psychological elements of both conscious and unconscious boundaries within the same space. One could also take it as an examination of class and tradition as one city is modern and well off while the other is less developed and more traditional. It’s psychologically dystopic in that the kinds of mental contortions people have to do in order to ignore “the other” is like a self- and socially enforced mind control. I really enjoyed this one. And even if you don’t want to read it for the social commentary the detective mystery itself with the hard boiled world weary cop is a pretty compelling story.

Nexus:Ascension – Robert Boyczuk

People in cryo-suspension return home to their planet to find that the entire population is wiped out by a plague thought to have been manufactured by a distant group of advanced societies who want to bring every planet under their umbrella and benevolently (they say) dole out technology and help advance less technologically developed races. That’s quite a premise and it leads to quite an adventure. There are many long range ships carrying members of the population who are returning to the planet and two small groups of survivors join forces to try to get a cure from the dominant cultural group. In some ways there were reminders here of Lord of the Flies. People are rarely motivated by nobility even when their species is at stake. There are instances of betrayal, revenge, pettiness and stupidity that does reflect on what behavioral possibilities exist within desperate scenarios. This book didn’t leave me in any way happy, hopeful or viewing my own world in a brighter light as some dystopias do. It did make me look deeper into human motivation and psychological constructs of some very dark emotions. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I read it because it is a very different take on the social dystopia and reveals a lot about personal internal dystopian states especially from a psychological point of view.

The White Plague – Frank Herbert

This was excellent. Believable characterization, compelling story of a scientist turned misanthrope and myth and the incredible setting of Ireland during the times of the troubles. He really did his homework regarding the IRA and the situation in Ireland that spawned the protagonist’s angst and outrage. The descriptive portions of the narrative were almost cinematic for me. Felt like I was watching a movie as I read. The combination of folklore with the scientific and political and psychological is astounding here. The political sensibilities were really keen especially. Of course Herbert does that well in much of his writing ie Dune. The politics of science, including regarding things like recombinant DNA are also underscored. A real multi-layered piece of writing with human depth and great story telling.

Divergent – Veronica Roth

Young adult novels are not usually something I read but Roth’s take on a Utopian/Dystopian society that is caste based is quite believable. There are the dangers of technology gone awry-a frequent cause of most dystopias and the redeeming human qualities of loyalty and love that attempt to overcome it. And there are the dangers of social and political  idealism gone awry as well. A hero’s tale to be sure with a young female protagonist. The intertwined love story is sweet but not sappy.  It was a pretty quick read but in some parts difficult to put down. The society was not as well developed as the Herbert novel for example, but it contained enough detail and nuance so as not to appear like a cardboard cutout behind the actors. The ending is begging for a sequel, which I understand may be in the works. I’ll read it too.

Robopocalypse – Daniel H. Wilson

I’m currently working my way through this book. About half way through and while the story is compelling, all our smart machines in the not so distant future revolt against their creators, the characters are not well developed nor is their perspective. There are a lot of technical details that distract from the narrative so I feel like I’m reading a primer on robotics more than a novel. Some on the blurb compare this work with some of Heinlein’s but that’s a bit of a stretch. The characters all speak with the same voice and I wonder if the author, a scientist, actually knows people from the working classes as they sound like stereotypes a lot of the time. I also don’t understand why Archos, the AI (artificial intelligence) suddenly goes berserk after being created in the first place. There’s very little motivation given. I am chalking it up to the supposed nature of machine intelligence but that is my own reading which I have to make because there’s not much else to go on. And when dealing with AIs the most interesting thing usually is the chance for the author to explore the nature of consciousness. There’s little of that here even with the human characters. Most of the book consists of reports from people as the Robopocalypse develops and carries on. It’s like a collection of short vignettes that show a few facets at a time. This is a tricky story telling device and one that writers should not attempt early in their careers. (It ain’t no Rashomon in other words) But it’s interesting enough that I’ll probably finish it, though I’m finding myself skipping ahead from time to time to check if it’s more of the same-not a good sign.


Dystopian novels are the most fun I can have without actually damaging anything. I find them cathartic for my more melancholy moments and often conversely uplifting in terms of my own society in that they provide motivation for a certain amount of gratitude as well as activist activities. Attempting to create change before the worst possibilities are realized in other words. I don’t like utopia-inspired visions much (like many fantasy novels) because they are unrealistic and escapist and don’t deal with real issues on the ground. Dystopias do that much better by taking them to the nth degree often so we must examine our ethical positions vis-à-vis the issues.

I’d rather face suffering in the present than dream of utopias or heavens or “enlightened societies” of the future because what we’re dealing with now is developing into something of a dystopia already. Dream-like idealism leads to far too many dystopias-Waco, Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, Aum-Shinrikyo and many more in development such as Dominionist Christianity and radical jihadi Islam.

At the same time too much dystopianism can lead to paranoia, distrust and despair if one engages them as believable escapes rather than as social commentary or simple stories. Perspective and grounding in the present are necessary for interacting with any imaginative creation whether it be novels, movies, games or a lot of the artificial and constructed scenarios we are faced with on a daily basis.

That’s it.

3 comments on “A Bunch of Dystopias [book reviews]

  1. When I was researching/writing for my noir cyberpunk novel, The A-Men, I read a lot of dystopian stories to get just the right balance of future world and collapsing society. I wanted to use the trope of the main character entering a riot-torn corporate-run city while mixing this with strong fantasy elements/stories.

    Gibson was an early influence for me… but the final list included:

    Cloud Atlas*
    Nineteen Eighty-Four
    Battle Royale
    Brave New World
    A Clockwork Orange
    Count Zero*
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
    Mona Lisa Overdrive
    Roadside Picnic*
    Perdido Street Station*
    The Running Man
    The Children of Men

    The ones with asterisks are my personal favourites.

    I haven’t read *any* China Mieville… looks like I need to now!

  2. He certainly shows that D&D isn’t all bad! I had a great group when I was in my teens and twenties. And writing seemed a natural extension.

    Will certainly continue through his work — as some of the novels sound fascinating and I live his style.

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