Lately, George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 — which was originally published in 1949 and imagines a society under an authoritarian regime that polices and rewrites facts and truth — has ascended bestseller lists again. According to the publisher, ever since Kellyanne Conway coined the term “alternative facts” on Meet the Press, there’s been a 9,500 percent increase in sales for this novel featuring “newspeak” and “doublethink” as a means of “reality control.”
But although the novel is a worthwhile read and could very well give you a keener insight into your current reality, it’s not exactly sexy. You probably remember Orwell’s name from your high school syllabus, which might be a turn-off. So if you find yourself hungering to make sense of reality through a fictional lens, here are some dystopian and speculative fiction novels that are more current, pulsing with weirdness and adventure and the occasional sex with robots.
1. Crosstalk by Connie Willis
Crosstalk is more of a speculative fiction novel than a true dystopia, but nevertheless, its version of the future brilliantly satirizes corporate and tech culture. In this not-too-distant future, there exists a procedure to increase communication between partners through an operation on the brain. The heroine’s operation goes haywire, accidentally connecting her with a coworker she dislikes. The ensuing story involves a mixture of corporate espionage, shady business practices, and zany hijinks. This novel, which is fun above all else, shows that not all speculative fiction is dour.
2. The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is her most famous dystopia, and it, too, has garnered comparisons to the current American political climate. If you’ve missed it, it’s a must read, and it’s soon coming to television. However, if that’s the only Atwood title you know, you should also try The Heart Goes Last. It’s completely bonkers and off-the-wall. In between its commentary on income inequality and corporate corruption, it packs in sex robots, a torrid affair, ritualistic murder, a hint of bestiality, sex with inanimate objects, and Elvis impersonators. No one can walk away from this book with the notion that dystopia is just something you read in school and frown about.
3. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
This novel imagines a near future in which companies preside over the world and use bioterrorism, wars are waged for seeds, America is fractured into different republics, calories are currency, and not-quite-humans are used for the whims of the wealthy the way Westworld uses its hosts. It’s a grim but richly imaginative and provocative story.
4. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
This is a quieter dystopia about a couple roaming a drought-ridden version of the American West in the near future. Everyone but the misfits have left California, because of the lack of water. The central couple lives in a movie star’s abandoned mansion for a time — hence the title, as it describes the reasons people have moved to California and encounter a variety of oddball characters and scenarios, including cults. The prose is beautiful, the story well-drawn, and the tale is surprisingly intimate for a dystopia.
5. Not on Fire but Burning by Greg Hrbek
This novel is set in a version of 2038 after a terrorist incident known as “8-11” where Muslims have been rounded up to live on reservations. Terrorism, racism, and xenophobia are the main territories explored here, with some additional sci-fi elements.
6. The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman
In this future version of America, the population has been devastated by a plague that kills everyone before the age of 20. It’s a world of children, and the heroine embarks on a search for the cure. In that sense, it’s Logan’s Run meets The Road with a dash of Station Eleven and The 100 thrown in. A word of warning, though: this book isn’t for everyone, as Newman’s characters speak in an invented dialect.
7. The Only Ones by Carola Dibbell
This is another future in which the dystopian scenario is the result of a plague, but its focus is far more on genetics. The heroine is immune and thus becomes a test subject. There’s a hint of Children of Men, as she must protect a special child, and a hint of Gold Fame Citrus, as there are religious zealots. The story offers a surprisingly sensitive exploration of parenthood in the face of apocalyptic disaster.
You should still read Orwell’s 1984 and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, but if you’re in the mood for more modern renditions of the end of the world, there’s a host of them out there. The apocalypse can still be fun.