My personal favorite examples of novel-length dystopian fiction are 1984 and Fahrenheit 451—obvious classics, I know, but they’re classics for a reason! My favorite examples of dystopian short fiction can be found in my recent anthology Brave New Worlds, which collects 33 of the finest examples, from classics like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison®, to the best newer works that are destined to be classics in the future.
I asked the contributors to Brave New Worlds to name for me their favorite examples of dystopian fiction. Here’s what they had to say.
Adam-Troy Castro, Author of “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs”
A true dystopia is a world intolerable even if some of the people there have been fooled into believing that they’re happy. The world created in the course of Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands” is as nightmarish as any ever created, even though—as he takes pains to point out—it comes complete with a surgical solution that will force you to be happy even if that means you also lose everything special about you. (I’d probably take the operation, but that would be a form of personality suicide). Robert Silverberg’s orgiastic The World Inside is a dystopia that might actually be a blast, for a long weekend, though I understand why further exposure would be soul-destroying. Walter Tevis’sMockingbird and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are nightmares for the inveterate reader. I also have to mention George Orwell’s 1984, where life was not fun for anybody, and Harlan Ellison’s, “ ‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” for sheer passion.
S.L. Gilbow, Author of “Red Card”
Every story takes place in a society and that society falls on a scale somewhere between a utopia and a dystopia. Some of those societies fall so much closer to the latter mark that we tend to label them “dystopian.”
The first story I can remember reading (and actually liking) was Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” the mother of all dystopian short stories.
I’m a big fan of Jonathan Swift and believe much of his writing, to include large parts of Gulliver’s Travels, are dystopian as well as satirical (the two being difficult to distinguish at times).
I don’t believe the works of Flannery O’Conner are considered dystopian, but read “Good Country People” and “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and tell me those works don’t fall soundly on the dystopian side of the scale.
And of course my favorite writer, Kurt Vonnegut, has many works easily labeled as dystopian, “Harrison Bergeron” leading the way.
For me, the best dystopian works are strange and familiar at the same time.
Joseph Paul Haines, “Ten With a Flag”
Orwell, obviously. Particularly Room 101. No doublespeak could ever be as difficult to live with as a face full of rat. Harlan Ellison’s, “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Tick-Tock Man,” is another favorite of mine. You know the protagonist of the story has no chance in hell of winning, but you can’t help but be uplifted by his stubborn refusal to be a willing participant in the insanity. To me, that sums up all great dystopian visions: stubborn refusal in the face of insurmountable odds. We might not win, but we’ll be damned if we lose.
Alex Irvine, “Peter Skilling”
We, 1984, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang… Also Stan Robinson’s The Gold Coast, The Handmaid’s Tale…all of the ones you’d expect, probably. I like dystopias that aren’t just scenery—by which I mean I love the scenery, but the great dystopias aren’t about that. They’re trying to figure out what it would be like to live under certain circumstances, and by inversion to show us why we need to keep certain institutions in place. (Also, of course, all (or most) utopias turn out to be dystopias…)
Sarah Langan, “Independence Day”
Kafka’s The Trial, because it reads like I feel when I call Verizon, or try to get my health insurance to pay for a check-up.Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, because Philip K. Dick is the man, and he gets the human element of social collapse. Walter Tevis’ brilliant Mockingbird, because it gets everything right, and is a perfect book in every possible way. The Handmaid’s Tale, because it is both satisfying on a narrative level, and empowering for the ladies. Hunger Games—it’s Stephen King’s Running Man, only with more heart, and joy. Finally, Fahrenheit 451, because Montag is a very good name.
Heather Lindsley, “Just Do It”
You’re probably sick of hearing about these two, but when I was 15 I read 1984 and Brave New World one right after the other. Orwell builds his dystopia on deprivation, pain, and destruction, while Huxley starts with abundance, pleasure, and absorption. Reading them like that made it pretty clear dystopia can come from any direction.
Joe Mastroianni, “Jordan’s Waterhammer”
I can never forget reading Sheep Look Up by John Brunner as a teenager. It’s detailed. Precise in it’s motion. Logical.
You put down that book in 1972 and said to yourself, “Watch out. Could happen.”
Here it is 2011. Sort of is.
Kim Stanley Robinson, “The Lunatics”
My favorite dystopian fiction is the novel We by Yevgeny Zamiatin, because it is funny, beautiful, frightening, and thought-provoking in just the way one wants dystopia to be.
Jeremiah Tolbert, “Arties Aren’t Stupid”
It’s kind of hard to beat 1984. It practically established the dystopian subgenre. Another favorite is Charles Coleman Finlay’s short story “Pervert” because it subverts gender roles and sexuality in really interesting ways.
Genevieve Valentine, “Is This Your Day to Join the Revolution?”
There are some really amazing examples across the board, from Brave New World straight on through Little Brother, but my all-time favorite is still The Handmaid’s Tale. I read that when I was in middle school; scared me pantsless then, scares me pantsless now.
Carrie Vaughn, “Amaryllis”
Well, where to start? The classics are classic for a reason. Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis is still beautiful and terrifying. I love Huxley’s Brave New World for its sheer relentlessness—it has so much going on and there’s just no way out. The sucker-punch satire of Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” (I even liked the movie version starring Sean Astin.) I haven’t read a lot of current dystopian fiction, though I know there’s a ton of it out there.
I’m a fan of Paolo Bacigalupi’s work because a lot of it does what I like about good dystopian fiction—they’re cautionary tales, but the characters usually aren’t aware that they’re living in a dystopia. Part of the horror (for us, the audience) is that they’ve never known anything different, and to them this is just how the world works.
Matt Williamson, “Sacrament”
For capturing the horror, sadness, and absurdity of modern life, you can’t do better than the dystopian stories of George Saunders and David Foster Wallace. Saunders, in particular, seems to get everything: the way that isolated, onanistic, mechanistic pleasure-seeking has replaced human connection; the way that corporate values have replaced morality; the way in which our consumer preferences have come to completely define our identities; the way that marketing has perverted and corrupted language and culture, and pretty much rendered art itself meaningless; the profound hopelessness that you can feel while being entertained. That Saunders can write about this stuff and make you laugh is some sort of miracle.
John Joseph Adams is the bestselling editor of many anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead (a World Fantasy Award finalist), By Blood We Live, Federations, and The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Barnes & Noble.com named him “the reigning king of the anthology world,” and his books have been named to numerous best of the year lists. His latest books are Brave New Worlds, The Living Dead 2 and The Way of the Wizard. He is also the editor of Fantasy Magazine and Lightspeed Magazine, and is the co-host of The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. Find him on Twitter @johnjosephadams.