THE BLOG
10/17/2013 09:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Evolution Of Dystopian Literature In 9 Books

The meaning of the word dystopia has changed since British MP John Stuart Mill first used it in 1868. Mill - who was also the first person in the history of Parliament, believe it or not, to advocate suffrage for women - coined the term to criticize the government's policy in Ireland: "It is, perhaps, too complimentary to call them Utopians, they ought rather to be called dys-topians, or caco-topians. What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favor is too bad to be practicable." Nowadays, we associate the word with any work of fiction that depicts a "bad place," typically set in the near future. Here's my roundup of books that help track the evolution of the "bad place" in literature, from Tudor times to 2013.


1. "Utopia" (1516) by Thomas More
It all began with Thomas More, advisor to Henry VIII and friend of the philosopher Erasmus. In 1516, More published "Utopia." The word was a neologism, intended to mean "good place"(although the English homophone means "no place"). The text is structured as a dialogue between the narrator - a fictionalized version of More - and a traveller named Raphael Hythloday, who hails from the island of Utopia, where "all men zealously pursue the good of the public' and 'every man has a right to everything." Still, this visionary society has its downsides: men and women have to see each other naked before they marry (which More thinks is hilariously "indecent," but Hythloday points out that you wouldn't buy a horse without having a peek under the saddle, "under which there may lie hid what may be contagious as well as loathsome"), internal travel is carefully monitored, and slaves are part of everyday life.


2. "Nineteen Eighty-Four" (1949) by George Orwell
Generally considered to be the classic dystopian novel. The last sentence haunted me for weeks after I finished it. Although the world Orwell creates remains both ingenious and culturally relevant, with its absent Big Brother and linguistic hygiene, it is his characters that make "Nineteen Eighty-Four" such a memorable novel. They turn on each other, they fear and weep and feel terrible pain. Winston Smith is not a hero. He is broken by Room 101 and finally indoctrinated by the system he has tried in vain to fight. His happy ending is his total surrender to Big Brother, and his emotional betrayal of his lover, Julia. Dystopian settings like Airstrip One force characters to their limits, allowing you to see sides of them you might never otherwise have seen - their weaknesses, their breaking points. They are always in extremis, always on the edge: of sanity, of safety, of survival.


3. "The Day of the Triffids" (1951) by John Wyndham
"The Day of the Triffids" is one of the earliest works of twentieth-century post-apocalyptic fiction. Wyndham envisions a world in which most of the population of Earth has been blinded by a mysterious green meteor shower, and only a fortunate handful have retained their vision. In the midst of the plague, triffids -- carnivorous, venomous plants of uncertain origin -- are overrunning Europe. The sighted survivors suffer almost as much as the blind; they are chained, used as guides, expected to be polygamous for the sake of repopulation, and forced to scavenge food and supplies from the dangerous, triffid-infested cities. Wyndham demonstrates not only how heavily we rely on what we take for granted, but how easily society can collapse. The triffids provide a backdrop for a deeply human story of survival, and explores how we might seek agency if we were no longer the dominant species.


4. "The Caves of Steel" (1954) by Isaac Asimov
I'm a huge fan of all of Asimov's robot stories - "The Complete Robot" was one of my most treasured books as a child - but "The Caves of Steel" is probably my favorite. It seems to have been a bigger influence on the 2004 film "I, Robot" than the collection with that title. "The Caves of Steel" follows Elijah "Lije" Baley, who is forced to work with a robot named R. Daneel Olivaw to solve a murder in a futuristic New York. Asimov envisions a claustrophobic, overpopulated Earth on which humans have settled in vast underground domes that shield them from the naked sun. All the buildings are connected by a transit system of moving walkways within these "caves of steel." What I particularly like about "The Caves of Steel" is that it is a hybrid of genres: part sci-fi, part crime novel, part dystopia. Asimov argued that science fiction was a "flavor" that can be applied to any work of fiction, and that it was compatible with other genres. "The Caves of Steel" proved him right.


5. "A Clockwork Orange" (1962) by Anthony Burgess
Burgess's ultra-violent world pulls no punches. Told in the near future from the perspective of a young sociopath, Alex, it sees him turn from out-of-control thug to government test subject to broken victim of society, all to the sounds of "lovely Ludwig Van." The Anglo-Russian argot used by certain characters - Nadsat - gives the novel a unique linguistic color, and challenges the reader to learn words by association. Nadsat provides a connection between Alex and the other members of his gang, making it all the more clinical when his doctors analyze his words -- they are pulling apart not only the origins of the slang itself, but deconstructing Alex's subculture. Burgess turns language into a living thing, and it is the novel's language that makes it so memorable.


6. "The Handmaid's Tale" (1985) by Margaret Atwood
This is the book that made me aware not only of dystopia as a genre, but of feminism. It was given to me by one of my teachers just before I left secondary school. In "The Handmaid's Tale," North America has been taken over by a military dictatorship with a strict caste system, based on the principles of the Old Testament. The narrator, Offred - literally "of Fred," belonging to Fred - has a voice that teeters between that of an impassive observer, forced into silence to survive, and the suppressed agitation of a prisoner. The Republic of Gilead, as it calls itself, is a truly frightening force: ritualistic, violent and misogynistic. The realism and detail of Atwood's world means Gilead is still the most terrifying dystopian setting I've ever encountered.


7. "Battle Royale" (1999) by Koushun Takami
I first became aware of "Battle Royale" after reading a review of "The Hunger Games," which was compared to Takami's ostensibly similar tale of children being forced to kill each other in a totalitarian world - this time in the fictional Republic of East Asia. What I particularly liked about Takami's version of the "death lottery" is the fact that all the young characters are taken from the same school, and consequently know each other before the game begins. The reader's knowledge of Class 3-B's existing rivalries, romances and friendships raise the emotional stakes in the game and keep the tension constant. We are also allowed into the heads of multiple characters. Almost every child in the Program - and there are 42 students involved - is given a voice and a detailed story. You really root for the main characters, Shuya and Noriko, who remain essentially gentle and level-headed in the midst of the Program's brutality.


8. "The Hunger Games" (2008) by Suzanne Collins
The novel that brought dystopia to a new generation of readers. As well as being a page-turner with a memorable cast of characters, "The Hunger Games" is a clever satire of Western obsessions: fashion, reality TV and the cult of celebrity, to name but a few. Set in a near future in the country of Panem, it follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen as she fights her way through the Hunger Games, a live TV show in which twelve boys and girls must fight to the death. Whilst the Games themselves are bloody and miserable, scenes in the Capitol - the capital city of Panem - border on the grotesque. The buildings are candy-colored, with rainbow glass, and the wealthy Capitol citizens dye, tattoo and wax themselves almost beyond recognition. Katniss observes that "they're so unlike people" that she can hardly perceive them as human, instead comparing them to "oddly colored birds."


9. "The Machine" (2013) by James Smythe
James Smythe's story of a woman struggling to reconstruct her husband is a claustrophobic modern dystopia. Set primarily on the Isle of Wight, it takes place in a near future in which climate change has taken its toll on the globe. London is divided by the Barrage, a concrete wall that protects the city from flooding, and severe hurricanes sweep New Orleans and Japan. These environmental hazards are a subtle backdrop for the story of Beth, who illegally obtains a Machine -- one of many the government banned due to their harmful side-effects -- and uses it to rebuild the shattered memories of her husband, Vic. Smythe's story shows that the modern dystopia doesn't always have to rely on intricate world-building; the "bad place" can exist in the smallest of spaces, or deep within the human psyche.

Samantha Shannon is the author of the new book "The Bone Season."