No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s hard to take a look at the world around us—political upheaval, sweeping technological change, increasingly omnipresent surveillance, the ever-encroaching of climate change—and not feel like we’re living in a dystopian novel. For decades, science fiction and fantasy have primed us for a future that finally seems to have arrived. In an era where inconvenient truths can be dismissed as “fake news” by anyone opposite them ideologically and those in power build a case on “alternative facts,” these 12 books—and many more like them—are more relevant than ever.
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
The undisputed masterpiece of dystopian fiction, George Orwell’s soul-shaking contribution to our collective nightmares was first published in 1949, in the wake of World War II, as humanity tried to come to grips with what it had just allowed to happen—and, hopefully, figure out how to prevent it from ever happening again. As such, it’s not a subtle work in the least, but that’s part of its genius. In envisioning life is a fascistic near-future world in which government surveillance is omnipresent, loyalty to the state is prized above all else, and citizens are encouraged inform on anyone harboring as much as a subversive thought, Orwell put to paper a scenario so terrifying, so beyond the pale, that it’s impossible not to see it echoed in every small step we take toward that possible future. And what’s most critical to keeping Big Brother in power, you ask? The total control of information and an impressive ability to obfuscate it from the average good citizen—to mold history and stuff inconvenient information down the memory hole (of course, in the internet era, you hardly need absolute power to muddy the facts; a Facebook page will do). “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation,” Orwell tells us. “These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.” Making someone doubt the truth in front of their eyes is the first step to convincing them the truth doesn’t matter. Only power matters.
The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins
The grandmother of the recent boom in teen-friendly end-of-civilization fiction is focused on taking down a cruelly totalitarian government with a disinformation apparatus that does Orwell proud. The Capitol controls life in the 12 districts not only with the help of jack-booted, black-clad stormtroopers, but a total control of mass media, which allows them to twist every scenario to serve the status quo, a tactic that proves remarkably effective even when every single citizen fully understands they are being fed lies. Symbolic resistance is met with lethal force, the fallout reclassified as a response to terrorist acts. State-sponsored slaughter of children becomes celebrated entertainment; becoming the best child murderer of them all is reclassified an enviable honor. And when the rebellion does come, it turns out even the “good guys” aren’t above using the enemy’s most effective strategies, manipulating video footage to prop up a symbolic leader and engineering an act of mass murder to pin on the other side, thus winning adherents to the cause. There are no heroes here.
The Dagger and the Coin quintet, by Daniel Abraham
Daniel Abraham is one-half of James S.A. Corey, and this recently completed series on the fantasy side of his bibliography matches or betters the political complexity of that celebrated space opera series. While it’s a fascinating examination of the wheels that move the world on a lot of levels, most relevant to this discussion is the role played by Geder Palliako, a fragile-egoed, self-aggrandizing son of a wealthy man who, thanks to a lack of moral backbone and a case of right place, right time, unwittingly becomes the ruler of Imperial Antea, the largest and most powerful nation in the world. Though his misunderstood role in quelling a rebellion wins him popular support, his rule would likely have collapsed quickly, were it not for the Spider Priests—religious zealots, worshippers of a dead goddess, who hold within their blood a power to know when anyone is lying, and to have their words understood as absolute truth. Consequently, they quickly exhibit a skill for telling Geder what he wants to hear and getting him to do what they want him to do. Unfortunately, being the the devotees of an insane goddess, their “alternative facts” don’t always line up with reality, leading to devastating consequences for the perceived enemies of Antea, and indeed, the city-state itself.
Infomocracy, by Malka Older
It’s right there in the title, y’all: this eerily timely novel, released in the buildup to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, examines how technology and the control of information sway the actions of people and governments in a near-future landscape in which the democracy we’ve known and (mostly) loved for more than two centuries is gone. Nations no longer exist. Instead, people belong to units of government known as “centenals,” each 100,000 voters strong, that vote as one to elect a corporate-backed power for a term of global rule. The abolition of national borders in no way means a discontinuation of politics as usual, and indeed, the various political strategists, information-mongers, and dissidents that move the plot along exhibit skills at manipulating information and adding weights to their sides in the balance of power that would serve them well in 2017. At it’s core, this book is a clarion call to pay attention to what your government is doing—but that means doing the work, and figuring out what the information is, and what information you can trust.
Interface, by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George
Originally published in 1994, this political thriller, co-written by Neal Stephenson and George Jewsbury and originally published under a joint pseudonym (Jewsbury still uses one), has no doubt been trotted out during every subsequent election cycle as a prescient vision of “how we vote now,” and, well, I wouldn’t argue with anyone trying to make that case. When Illinois Governor William Cozzano suffers a stroke, a shadowy, corporate-controlled international cabal takes the opportunity to implant him with a mind-controlling microchip and engineer his candidacy for the U.S. presidency. Along the way, acts of fate, happenstance, and lurid mass media raise unemployed trailer park resident Eleanor Richmond to the position of Cozzano’s running mate. Through masterful manipulation of the media and a devious PR campaign, the conspiracy (known as the Network) seems poised to stage a coup in front of everyone’s eyes, and on national television. Sounds totally far-fetched right? R…right?
Distraction, by Bruce Sterling
Sterling picked up a double-handful of award nominations for this late-’90s take on what life in America was going to look like in the 21st century: the sweeping tides of social change, the rapidly diminishing right to privacy, the inability to filter facts from distraction. Amid the presidential election cycle of 2044, we follow Oscar Valparaiso, a political “fixer” and PR wunderkind who has just been granted a plum position on the Senate Science Committee. The gig takes him to small-town Texas and a think tank known as the Collaboratory, which turns out to be a hotbed of corruption and graft. His attempts to reform the organization against entrenched opposition form the spine of the book, but they are really just an excuse for detailed near-future worldbuilding: climate change has altered weather patterns to disastrous effect, China has obliterated America in the trade wars, the U.S. is in an “ecological cold war” with the Dutch, and the two-party system has collapsed into a 16-party free-for-all, with most actions carried out by decentralized “Emergency Committees.” The military is broke, the vast population of unemployed citizens live nomadic existences, and the real conflict is over control of information—constant surveillance is a fact of life, and email spam is used to engineer assassinations. Finding the truth in all of this, yes, distraction is near impossible.
The Space Merchants, by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
Advertising is the ultimate form of spin control, and this mid-century collaboration between two science fiction greats is as timely as the day it was written, even if the atmosphere sometimes feels like Mad Men in space. In our overpopulated future, corporations have replaced governments, and the corridors of power ring with ad jingles and cute copy intended to convince the public to consume, consume, consume. Advertising is everything; after all, it takes a lot of effort to get people excited about the next new thing and distract them from the fact that their lives are terrible. Doubly so, when the products in question make life demonstrably worse, and are addictive besides. The main character, whiz-kid copywriter Mitch Courtenay, is tasked with selling the public on colonizing Venus, an environment entirely inhospitable to human life, where settlers will be confined to miserable existences spent entirely underground as the planet is terraformed. When Mitch unwittingly crosses the wrong people, his identity is changed in the databases that run everything, essentially erasing him and replacing him with a new person, a poor working schlub on a one-way ticket to the second planet. Mitch’s trials expose him to the real corruption of the system he relied on to give him a comfortable life, and his loyalties change again and again as he comes to realize that the only reliable way to maintain control is to control the truth.
Lady of Mazes, by Karl Schroeder
The last election cycle featured a lot of mud-slinging about voters who were too trapped in their own “bubbles” to realize how “the rest of the country” actually lives. In Karl Schroeder’s brain-altering hard-SF-meets-space-opera grand opus (which is basically a 400-page political thought experiment on top of a gonzo SF mystery), the bubbles are literal: humanity exists almost universally within self-selected “manifolds,” virtual reality simulations that are based on a specific set of social values, with their resulting different levels of technology, the strictures and bylaws of each enforced by perception-altering brain implants. So, one manifold may be organized around the ideals of the Renaissance, for example, and everyone may live in fine homes draped in tapestries. Another may include those who eschew technology altogether, and live “off the grid” as hunter-gatherers. There’s even a manifold for those born with impaired mental capacities, which operates by its own sort of cartoon non-logic. Communication between the manifolds is nonexistent, and it is rare to travel from one to another—which makes it incredibly easy for a nefarious artificial intelligence to corrupt the system, deleting entire realities (and the people within them) right out of existence, their neighbors none the wiser. The book follows Livia, a diplomat who is one of the few able to perceive multiple manifolds, on an adventure that takes her beyond the confines of the worlds—both virtual and real—she knows and into an altogether more complex system of perception, and a political system with implications so mind-altering, I’m loathe to spoil them here, and not only because doing so would give away the secrets at the heart of this intricate, ambitious novel.
The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin
The two societies presented in The Dispossessed are born from a revolution that occurred two centuries earlier, when home planet Urras sent anarchist revolutionaries to the moon Anarres with a promise of non-interference. As time goes by, the anarchist utopia of Anarres slowly begins to devolve, taking on power structures that previously didn’t exist and adopting a system of “newspeak” (inspired by Orwell’s own) designed to suppress the sense of the individual, while on Urras, the elite live in luxury, and in willful ignorance of the deplorable living conditions for the lower classes who toil in their service. After two centuries of separation, the two societies grow to distrust one another and an ambassador traveling from Anarres to Urras comes to realize that both worlds have turned a blind eye to suffering, and are, perhaps, both equally guilty of inhumane crimes. Le Guin posits not only that powerful ideas can sour over time, but that in order to advance, those ideas must be exchanged and allowed to cross-pollinate with those of disparate societies—sadly a revolutionary notion even today.
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Latro in the Mist, by Gene Wolfe
Our understanding of the world—our individual senses of self—is a castle built upon our memories. When memory fails, the castle walls come tumbling down. In Gene Wolfe’s Soldier duology, collected in one volume as Latro in the Mist, Roman legionary Latro has been cursed by the gods (or afflicted with a brain injury; take your pick) with an inability to form short-term memories. He wakes up every day a blank slate, relying on those around him and scrolls ostensibly written in his own hand to tell him who he is and communicate his purpose in life. He is a soldier because people call him Latro—which means “soldier.” In a world where we are less and less sure of objective truth, our belief systems and personal convictions exist at the whims of those who dole out the information we do receive. Just take a look at social media and try to figure out why half of the people you know see the world in an entirely different light; it probably turns out they are getting their information from somewhere else, and living a different kind of truth.
Player Piano, by Kurt Vonngeut
This early effort by Vonnegut owes a great debt to two influential dystopian works that should probably be on this list, Ayn Rand’s Anthem and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, but Vonnegut’s take is a lot more fun. In a near-future, post-WWIII America, humanity is struggling to orient itself in a new economy in which the majority of manufacturing tasks are now carried out by machines, leading to widespread unemployment. In one New York town, the elites—engineers and managers—live on one side of the river, while the displaced workers live out purposeless lives on the other, in an area known as “The Homestead.” One elite, Paul Proteus, son of a powerful businessman who once held more power than the president, lives comfortably, but in a constant state of unease, dimly aware of the injustice of the system. His rebellious behaviors start to arouse suspicion, and he eventually falls in with a splinter group known as the “Ghost Shirt Society” that wants to quite literally throw a spanner into the works. As they say, though, be careful what you wish for—forcing the public to recognize the system of lies they live within is no guarantee they’ll want to do the hard work of dismantling it.
Wool, by Hugh Howey
It’s difficult to discuss this one without spoiling (or at least hinting at) some very satisfying reveals, so be warned. That said, this self-publishing success story grabbed readers with its premise—in a post-apocalyptic future, all of humanity lives underground within elaborately refitted missile silos, unable to walk the surface of the (poisonous? irradiated?) Earth—but it grew into a word-of-mouth phenomenon because of the way it constantly shifts the ground under you, fundamentally changing your understanding of what is really going on. The cameras used to monitor the outside environment are constantly breaking down, and going out to clean them is a death sentence—so it is reserved as a punishment for subversive acts that upset the fragile balance of the community; we follow one so-condemned on a journey aboveground and see the scales fall from his eyes…or so we think. As layers of manipulation are stripped away, new ones are revealed beneath, and we learn the history the residents of the silo think happened doesn’t match up with the “alternative facts” that have sparked a rebellion—nor the true calamity that created the mess in the first place.
What books are on your “alternative list?”