The 10 Strangest Dystopias


Dystopias are everywhere these days. They’re in popular TV shows, video games, children’s novels, and—let’s be honest—the daily news. (What else can you call it when every other news story is about pandemics, environmental collapse, or ever-widening wealth inequality?) Dystopian fiction has a rich and long history in science fiction, and for good reason. By showing us the extreme outcomes, dystopian literature helps us better see the dangers of the paths we are heading down. At least that’s the hope.
Yet when the daily news feels dystopian, perhaps the standard dystopias start to feel a little tame. Perhaps we become inured to threats the books are exploring. So for this list I thought I’d write about strange dystopias. Ones that not only warn us of future dangers, but also inhabit that bizarre dreamlike space that lets our minds see more clearly. Plus, shouldn’t science fiction always be a little weird? Here are 10 of my favorite strange dystopian novels.

1. The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

Yōko Ogawa is one of my favorite authors of dark and strange stories—get Revenge stat!—and her foray into science fiction doesn’t disappoint. In The Memory Police, Ogawa filters Orwell through Kafka to describe a dystopian island nation where the secret police cause not only people but also concepts to disappear. Citizens might wake up one day and find that “hats” or “books” have been erased. Not just from the physical world. From everyone’s memories and imaginations. It’s a nightmarish novel in the most literal sense: strange, dreamlike, and unforgettable.

2. A Planet for Rent by Yoss (translated by David Frye)

The Cuban author Yoss has been writing excellent, weird science fiction for a while now. If you haven’t hopped on the Yoss train yet, then there’s no better place to start than his first novel translated into English, A Planet for Rent. In this novel-in-stories, Earth has been colonized by powerful alien races and turned into a tourist trap. Humans are desperate to escape on homemade rocket ships, and the ones who stay scrape out a living incubating alien grubs in their bodies or else taking on bizarre entertainment jobs like having your limbs and organs exploded on stage. The book’s critique of colonialism, capitalism, and communist bureaucracy are clear, but even at its most dystopian, the novel never forgets to be fun.

3. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

When one thinks about Margaret Atwood and dystopias, The Handmaid’s Tale is what comes to mind. And justifiably. But if we’re talking strange dystopias, then I have to plug her brilliant novel Oryx and Crake, which opens the MaddAddam trilogy. The novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where bizarre lab-created humanoids with blue butts move around the ruins of a plague-ravaged world. Much of the plot takes place in flashbacks to the time before the apocalypse, when corporations with whimsical names like Anooyoo and RejoovenEsense pacified the “plebs” with innovations like ultra-Viagra pills and transplantable organs grown inside hybrid pig creatures named “pigoons.” (In my novel, the government’s frog/eagle “freagles” are a little homage to Atwood.) The main character, Jimmy, must survive in the ruins of the world while his memories slowly reveal how he and his friends Crake and Oryx helped turn the dystopia into an apocalypse.

4. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro’s disquieting masterpiece makes the list for seeming so normal at first. At the beginning, you are tempted to think it’s a classic English boarding school novel. We follow Kathy and her friends Tommy and Ruth at Hailsham as they navigate the awkward and fraught relationships of teens everywhere. However, you soon realize that things are… not quite right at Hailsham. The teachers are called “guardians” and the ones who hint at the truth of the students’ lives are quickly removed from the school. I probably shouldn’t say anything more or risk giving away the novel’s haunting twist. Ishiguro’s famously taut and minimalist prose deftly moves the story from normal to strange.

5. Gun, with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem

Lethem’s reputation as a consummate genre-bender started with this debut novel. Gun follows a Raymond Chandler-esque private detective, Conrad Metcalf, trying to solve a murder in a futuristic San Francisco. Lethem throws a whole bunch of fun and strange concepts at the reader. There are “evolved,” talking animals everywhere (including in organized crime), technologically enhanced “baby-head” children who are smarter than adults, and karma debit cards. Oh, and handguns have violin soundtracks. It’s a wild ride with something surprising on every page.

6. Duplex by Kathryn Davis

Duplex is one of the most indescribable, bizarre, and unforgettable novels you’ll ever read. Is it dystopian? Science fiction? Fantasy? Domestic realism? It’s a bit of everything. The novel takes place in a kind of Twilight Zone American suburb where everything dark and unreal exists simultaneously. There is perverted sorcerer named Body-without-Soul, tiny robots that accidentally disintegrate schoolgirls, and inhuman Aquanauts. Nothing is what it seems in this surreal Americana tale. It’s one of those novels you will either love or hate, but if your tastes bend toward Surrealism then I highly recommend checking it out.

7. The Warren by Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson is a modern master of literary horror fiction and many of his works have dystopian and apocalyptic elements. This excellent novella is one of those, showcasing Evenson’s unique blend of existentialism and body horror in a post-apocalyptic setting. A being named only X thinks he is the sole survivor, yet he’s also unsure if he is even a person. His inquiries to the computer system only deepen the mystery. Scouring the poisonous landscape, he finds another being that is unlike him. His sense of reality destabilizes further as the reader is pulled deeper and deeper into the mysterious, shifting, and haunting world.

8. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

While most of the novels on this list are firmly science fiction, N.K. Jemisin’s stellar Broken Earth trilogy—The Fifth Season is the first novel in the series—is set in more of a fantasy world. In the continent of the Stillness, the earth itself is a danger. Plagued by earthquakes and deadly creatures like boil bugs, the people in the Stillness hate and fear and oppress the magical Orogenes, who have powers to control the land. And then the world literally begins to fall apart. The whole trilogy is a SFF masterpiece, which each entry winning the Hugo for Best Novel. If you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for?

9. Secret Rendezvous by Kōbō Abe

Kōbō Abe is such a foundational author for me that I even named the main character in my novel, The Body Scout, after him. Abe is sometimes called the “Kafka of Japanese literature,” which seems especially apt in this truly strange novel. A man’s wife is taken to a hospital. But when he tries to find her, he instead finds himself trapped inside an enormous, labyrinthine hospital. Kafka meets Dali as the man has to navigate demented, philosophizing doctors, impossible diseases, and a half-horse chief of security. Part satire, part nightmare, it’s a dystopian acid trip of a novel that won’t make you want to go to any hospitals anytime soon.

10. The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin’s best novel might be the more utopian The Dispossessed, but The Lathe of Heaven is my favorite of her dystopian visions. At the start of the novel, society is already in a bad place. The environment is collapsing from climate change and overpopulation. Wars rage around the world. Then, suddenly, reality changes. Then it changes again and again and again. The gist is that there is a man whose dreams can change reality and a mad scientist who seeks to exploit this to perfect the world. But it doesn’t always go right. For instance, when the scientist insists the man dream a solution to overpopulation, a plague decimates the world. When he makes the man dream of peace on earth, alien turtles invade, forcing humanity to unite against the threat. This novel, Le Guin’s tribute to the works of Philip K. Dick, is a true mind-bender and a good reminder that when you try to impose utopia, dystopia is often the result.

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

A Year in Reading: Lincoln Michel

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My first book, Upright Beasts, came out this year. As I answered the standard interview questions about influences, I realized that many of my biggest influences are writers whom I actually haven’t read in many years. So I decided to dedicate much of my year in reading to revisiting two authors who are central in my own personal canon: Italo Calvino and Kōbō Abe.

My Calvino revisiting was actually prompted by an article I was assigned, a reader’s guide to the great Italian fabulist for the (now sadly defunct) Oyster Review. Calvino is an author I read extensively in high school and college. He was one of the first authors who taught me that fiction could be both artistic and just plain fun at the same time. There were a couple of his works I’d never gotten around to, and this year I read them. The best of these previously unread books were Marcovaldo and The Nonexistent Knight. The former is a collection of interlinked stories about a poor laborer in an industrial Italian city. It features everything I remember loving about Calvino. The book is at times truly hilarious and at other times philosophical. His style is honed, but doesn’t overwhelm the stories. And the book is conceptual — the chapters are organized by seasons — without being gimmicky. Most of all, it was just a joy to read.

The Nonexistent Knight is a short novel that is sometimes grouped with two other short novels, The Baron in the Trees (my personal favorite Calvino) and The Cloven Viscount, as a book called Our Ancestors. All three are historical fables that take a simple but absurd premise and run with it until it becomes something magical. The Nonexistent Knight, as its title implies, tells the tale of a knight who doesn’t really exist, but appears in reality as an empty suit of armor out of pure faith in the holy cause of Charlemagne. This premise could be a great four-page Donald Barthelme or Jorge Luis Borges short story, but Calvino’s wizardry somehow makes it work as a novel.

Kōbō Abe is an author who utterly floored me with his existential and absurdist novel The Woman in the Dunes. It immediately became one of my favorite novels, and I also devoured the bizarre science fiction nightmare novel Inter Ice Age 4. This year, I read three novels — each unique and fantastic — by the author commonly dubbed the Japanese Kafka: The Box Man, Secret Rendezvous, and The Ruined Map. Like Calvino, I felt he held up, with one caveat: the female characters in those first two books were too often overly sexualized and underdeveloped. That problem aside, Abe’s novels really do have the dark humor and nightmarish reality of the best of Franz Kafka’s work. I was also impressed by the genre range that Abe displays across these three books. The Box Man is a philosophical mystery about a man who lives inside of a giant cardboard box before his box is stolen. It has an inventive metafictional structure where the words you read are allegedly written — in different pens and pencils — by the narrator…or possibly multiple narrators. Secret Rendezvous is the most straightforwardly Kafkaesque of the three, with a character trying to find his wife in a labyrinthian hospital controlled by an absurd bureaucracy. It also has some bizarre body horror elements, such as a man who turns himself into a horse by stitching another man’s legs and penis onto his body. The Ruined Map is a hardboiled detective novel, albeit one still taking place in an off-kilter, absurd world.

Both of these authors remind me that you can truly do anything in fiction as long as you have the willingness to let your eye look at whatever it wants to gaze upon, no matter how bizarre.

For contemporary books, I started the year reading the novel that was perhaps the best literary novel of 2014: Nell Zink’s The Wallcreeper. Zink’s prose is totally fearless and alive. I loved every page.

More from A Year in Reading 2015

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Avatar: Dances with Clichés

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Avatar tells the tale of injured soldier Jake Sully who travels to the forest moon Pandora and finds himself taken in by a race of primitive space furies called the Na’Vi. Unfortunately, the evil corporation he works for wants to bulldoze the sacred rainforest around the tribe’s Hometree and Sully—who has fallen in love with the chief’s daughter Netyiri—must become the sacred tribe’s greatest warrior, most brilliant strategist and most powerful spiritual leader in order to save the space natives from the powerful white/male/military/industrial/capitalist conglomeration of evil…and he only has three months to do it!

Of course, I might just have easily said the injured soldier John Dunbar, the forest moon of Endor, the sacred forest of FernGully, and the princess Pocahontas. Avatar’s story has allegedly been kicking around James Cameron’s head since he made his last feature (1997’s Titanic) yet the plot is a stale composite of clichés and borrowed elements that feels as if it was cobbled together in a weekend’s time. The minute you are introduced to The Native Princess, The Evil Military Man, The Greedy Businessman and the rest of the cardboard cut-outs that populate Avatar, you know the entire plot. In fact, you even know the exact words they will say. A great battle is about to start? “Let’s dance.” A villain returns for a final fight? “Come get some!” A new world is introduced? “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Here I was hoping for some character to raise their hand and ask, “Uh, sir, what is a ‘Kansas’ exactly?” “Geez, I’m not sure. I think it was a province a century ago when earth was divided into nation states before the great unification war? Not sure why I just thought of it.”)

I don’t mean to imply that Avatar is wholly unoriginal. Cameron does imbue his world with a New Agey environmental-mysticism that is capped by his aliens having USB cords in their ponytails. These fashionable cables can be plugged into various wild critters to brain-rape them into obedience. Surely a shrewd marketing move to capture the pre-teen female audience by letting them live out their fantasies of becoming one with a pony.

But perhaps storytelling, dialogue, and acting are not what you go to a sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza for. You go for the visuals, the epic scope and, especially with Avatar, the awesome special effects. And they are awesome. As mediocre as Avatar is on most levels, the visuals alone make the film worth viewing once—at least in theaters with 3D capabilities (it is almost criminal that some theaters are showing this in 2D.). Avatar is not the first film to effectively use 3D technology, but it is the first blockbuster to do so. No more sticks pointing out of the screen or freaky inhuman CGI characters—yes, Robert Zemeckis, I’m looking at you—Avatar keeps the 3D unobtrusive yet totally immersive. The CGI for the Na’vi and the flora and fauna of Pandora are wonderful, using the same performance capture technology that brought Gollum to life in Lord of the Rings.

A related area of success in the film is the world’s design. From the floating mountains to fireworks lizards and shrinking mushrooms, the world of Pandora is gorgeously designed and rendered. Indeed the Na’Vi themselves, with their glow-in-the-dark Smurf skin and necklaces that magically always cover their nipples to preserve a PG-13 rating, are the weakest element in a film that is otherwise flawlessly designed.

If this was a screen saver, you’d have to say James Cameron did one heck of a job. Unfortunately, it is a film and all the other aspects feel glossed over.

I could not help wondering where the James Cameron of the first two Terminators had gone, the man who could meld effects with imaginative storytelling and characters you could care about. Is there anything in Avatar that feels as fresh as the T2 liquid nitrogen scene? Any characters as kickass as Sarah Connor? Any one-liners that could hold up to “Hast la vista, baby”? For all of Avatar’s visual wonder, the film feels dreadfully lazy. Not just the plot and dialogue—which approach prequel George Lucas levels—but the staging, directing and world building as well. Yes, I know I just said the creatures are fantastically designed—a process Cameron apparently left largely up to his artists—but conceptually they are merely space versions of your local zoo population. The film does not succeed in transporting you to a truly alien world ala the Star Wars films. Couldn’t Cameron have made aliens that conjured aboriginal earth tribes without copying them wholesale? Why are these otherworldly beings wearing tribal beads and shooting arrows with feathered tails and rock tips? Is there nothing about their world that would provide unique weapons or clothing or at least alien-looking versions of earth items?

Visually the 3D graphics are overwhelming, but the scenes themselves contain little of interest. The final battle in particular is epic fluff. The tactics are nonsense (the Na’vi aren’t smart enough to drop logs into the helicopter blades so instead attack them with bow and arrows?) and the scenes are lazily staged. The closest thing to a visually arresting moment in the film is when a bunch of flying seeds collectively give Sully a planet-spirit hug while he stands on a neon log.

In short, we have the imagery but where is the imagination?

Unlike many sci-fi films, I would not say that there are any gaping plot holes that ruin the story. That doesn’t mean it makes much sense. What is the point of the entire avatar program? According to the film, the genetically-engineered bodies—which are controlled remotely by humans—are there to work diplomacy with the Na’Vi and convince them to leave their magic tree so that the “unobtanium” mineral beneath it can be mined. But why does an evil corporation need to spend untold billions creating human-Na’Vi hybrid bio-robots just to do a little diplomacy? The Na’Vi are aware that the avatars are not authentic and indeed the humans have avatar-sized human clothing (Sigourney Weaver dances around in short-shorts and a Stanford tank top) so why not just send some people out in mech suits to negotiate?

On that note, what kind of futuristic mercenary military outfits half its soldiers with powerful robot armor yet sticks Jake Sully in a 40 dollar wheelchair from Wal-Mart? They don’t even have some kind of Segway wheelchair in the year 2154?

And then of course there is the film’s politics, which are muddier than some critics seem to think. In addition to the inherent silliness of spending several hundred million dollars and creating your own digital cameras to critique technologically-driven capitalism, the film’s cultural imperialism has rightly been widely derided. Building a film around the idea that a native population is too stupid to take care of itself and requires a white man to save them is a problematic premise to start from.

And then again there is also the acting. Credit should go to Stephen Lang for pumping some life into the evil colonel, but Weaver is uncharacteristically stilted as the good scientist Dr. Augustine and Worthington is as animated as a mulch pile. Wooden acting is one thing when the characters are Terminator robots, but Sam Worthington’s Sully is supposed to be the character we relate to and his performance drags down the film whenever he is in human form or doing voiceovers (the latter of which are almost universally unbearable. Worthington lulls you to sleep with his dull monotone only to wake you with groan-inducing lines like “I hope this tree-hugging crap isn’t on the final exam.”)

I don’t think anyone expects a popcorn blockbuster geared towards younger audiences to have the wit of a David Mamet script or the imaginative directing of a Fellini film. But when you are announcing yourself as the future of filmmaking, you should be able to stand tall against the great blockbusters of the past or at the very least of the present. Compared to the well-conceived, engaging and imaginative action and kids films of even the past two years (The Dark Knight, Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, District 9, Iron Man, etc.) Avatar feels like a colossal underachievement in filmmaking as much as a colossal success in visual effects. When those visual effects become commonplace, what are we left with?

But one must give credit where credit is due. In making a film whose virtues are entirely wrapped up in the 3-D theater visuals, Cameron has succeeded in making the first film in some time which simply must be seen in theaters. You would get no enjoyment watching this film on your iPhone or bootlegging it on your laptop. (Remember how the visuals were mocked when the trailer was shown on TV and online?) So perhaps the hype about Avatar saving the industry is not entirely imaginary. Cameron has shown us that flashy special effects and marketing hype can still draw huge crowds to the theater. Here is to hoping those who follow in his technological footsteps bother to spend a little time on their scripts.