Nerd Culture

What Literary Dystopia Is Right for You?

Ready Player One is the '80s dystopia you always wanted.
Ready Player One is the '80s dystopia you always wanted. Warner Bros.
Is it really surprising that dystopias are all the rage again? It might be time to start planning for the end of the world as we know it.

Survival is the primary concern, of course, what with the police states, faceless technocracies, ecological disasters, and zombie apocalypses. And let’s face it, they’re all going to suck, so which would be most enjoyable? Let's take a look at some examples from the sci-fi bookshelf to find the one where you’ll feel fine.

Do you spend your weekends at the blackjack table? Try The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Phoenix is a parched wasteland as a result of an ongoing water war with Las Vegas in this nightmarish vision of life in the Southwest, post-global warming. Not only is Phoenix practically a ghost town thanks to the destruction of the Central Arizona Project, but it is overrun by fundamentalist Texans who believe the only answer to the ongoing drought is prayer. But Angel, the star of the novel, has life pretty good. He works as a fixer for Vegas, living in luxury and traveling the Arizona desert in a pristine Tesla automobile. So providing you can get in good with the leaders in Vegas, life won’t be too bad. At least until California decides it needs the water more than Phoenix and Vegas.

Are you a gardener? Try The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham.

Monsanto may be one of those evil corporations that is often the villain in a dystopian novel, but Wyndham’s 1951 novella is a great argument for keeping Roundup weed killer on hand. Best known from a line in the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s opening number, “Science Fiction Double Feature,” Triffids are giant poisonous and mobile plants — possibly alien, possibly some Cold War experiment gone awry. They are also possibly intelligent. They are kept under control until a passing comet blinds most of the population, and England is overrun by the walking flowers. So on the plus side, you can enjoy a bit of gardening, but  you won't be able to look at your beautiful, prize-winning peonies.

Can you recite Ferris Bueller’s Day Off from memory? Try Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.

Actually, unless you have a toxic aversion to all things geeky and '80s, Cline's future wouldn't be too bad. The economy is collapsed, the environment destroyed, and population has exploded. But everyone has access to "The Oasis," a virtual world created by James Halliday, an eccentric billionaire (and author insert) to celebrate his love for Star Wars, Pac-Man, Dungeons and Dragons, and Wil Wheaton. When Halliday dies, the residents of the Oasis search the virtual world for the clues to unlock his fortune, mostly by listening to Rush and playing old Atari games.

Can’t live without man’s best friend? Try A Boy and His Dog by Harlan Ellison.

But only if you have a strong stomach. Ellison isn't quite on Cormac McCarthy's level of ugliness in this novella, but that's not saying much. In his violent, misogynistic future, most of the female population has been killed and the surface of America is an irradiated wasteland filled with amoral gangs searching for women. The young scavenger Vic spends his time with Blood, an intelligent, telepathic dog. But when Vic meets the beautiful girl Quilla from the safe, but sterile, underground community of Topeka, he has to choose between the two.

Do you want your MTV? Try The Fireman by Joe Hill.

A global pandemic called “dragonscale” is causing people to self-immolate, but Martha Quinn is offering hope to the victims. Everyone’s favorite veejay from the halcyon days of MTV is leading a community of the infected on an island off the coast of Maine. So not only will you have some hope for a cure to the disease, but you can enjoy Hall and Oates and Dire Straits.

Enjoy the RV lifestyle? Try The Last of the Winnebagos by Connie Willis.

If you love pets, this might not be the world for you, however. In Willis’s future, a plague has killed all the dogs, and the government has been taken over by the Humane Society, who rigidly police any animal cruelty. Like The Water Knife, The Last of the Winnebagos is set in Phoenix, following a photojournalist haunted by the memory of his own lost pet, preparing a story about the titular truck, a traveling tourist attraction that has come to the Desert Botanical Garden. This heartbreaking 1988 novella won the Hugo and Nebula awards.

Are you a 4-H member? Try Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick.

You probably know this story as the basis of Ridley Scott’s magnificent 1982 film Blade Runner. But the book has a lot more than dreary L.A. skylines and poetic monologues from rogue replicants. In Dick’s future, almost all animals are extinct, owning genuine animals is a sign of status, and raising them is proof of humanity. But bounty hunter Rick Deckard is living off cop’s wages and can only afford an electric sheep. After “retiring” a few replicants, however, he purchases a genuine goat for his wife, hoping to spend the rest of his days tending the animal.

Are you waiting for California to fall into the ocean? Try While You Were Gone by Amy K. Nichols.

Tool sang about "Arizona Bay," the apocalyptic result of California falling into the sea; in Nichols’ tale of teen romance spanning alternate universes, it is a reality. Although its companion novel, Now That You’re Here, is set in a more familiar version of Phoenix, While You Were Gone is set in a totalitarian state where art is censored and everyone is under constant surveillance. On a positive note, however, California is an island and Phoenix has a beach, so at least you can enjoy the surf after a day of fomenting anarchy and avoiding the secret police. And what does it say that so many of these dystopias are set in Phoenix?

Do you spend too much time swiping left? Try All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders.

The founder of and geek culture commentator’s debut novel is set in San Francisco at a time when climate change is wreaking havoc across the country. Magicians and scientists are working to find solutions, most of which involve destroying humanity to save the earth. In the midst of it all, 20-somethings are enjoying life plugged into the new electronic device that uses social media to create seemingly coincidental romantic encounters.

Do you love theater? Try Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.

A superflu has wiped out 90 percent of humanity. What’s left is clustered in small communities lining the Great Lakes, trying to survive and hold on to the detritus of our civilization. But they still have culture. A traveling troupe of musicians and actors travels from community to community, performing everything from Shakespearean plays to episodes of Star Trek, accompanied by a makeshift orchestra.

Editor's note: This article originally ran in 2016.
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Michael runs the Sci-Fridays Book Club at the Poisoned Pen, and volunteers at local pop-culture conventions. He can be found at the occasional prog-rock concert.
Contact: Michael Senft