Utopian/Dystopian Book Reviews

by Mac Tonnies


"The Sheep Look Up" is a gritty and nastily prescient novel that forecasts a near-future of terminal pollution and environmental abuse. Brunner's searing depiction of a world on the brink of ecological apocalypse is nothing less than a rallying cry for environmental reform. Absolutely nightmarish and absolutely convincing, this book challenges its readers to prove Brunner wrong. This is one of the overlooked masterpieces of the 20th century.

John Brunner's "The Shockwave Rider," published in 1976, is a fast-forward glimpse of a 21st century that -- unlike the vast majority of SF written in that distant era -- predicts some of our worst fears and reasons for hope. "The Shockwave Rider" is perhaps best known for its eerily prescient rendering of a government-controlled Internet alive with "tapeworms": Brunner's equivalent to computer viruses. With its mechanized ambience and hacker protaganist, "The Shockwave Rider" is one of the principal "protocyberpunk" novels, predating Bruce Sterling's "Islands in the Net" by a decade. But computers are merely the surface of this book. Beneath the veneer of techno and inventive slang is a challenging utopian discourse as engaging as B.F. Skinner's "Walden Two."

Like "The Sheep Look Up," "The Shockwave Rider" deals unflinchingly with where we're headed as a species -- and how to know when to apply the temporal brakes. Directly inspired by Alvin Toffler's classic "Future Shock," Brunner's novel is a serious -- but spirited -- examination of transcience on daily life. In a world lacking nothing, Brunner laments our lack of purpose; he proposes that Western civilization, while saturated with intelligence, has forsaken actual wisdom, setting the stage for collective psychosis and a depersonalized ruling elite. Prefiguring the online free speech movement, Brunner shows how a technocratic society can use information for good or ill and, moreover, suggests ways individuals can make the future more user-friendly.

"The Shockwave Rider," lamentably not as well-known as "1984" or "Brave New World," is one of the central social thought experiments of the 20th century -- and an effective rallying call for sanity in a world that, now more than ever, often seems like so much digital putty.

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"Walk to the End of the World," "Motherlines" and "The Furies" comprise a disturbing and shocking dystopian milieu. Suzy McKee Charnas sets her world in an indefinite future devastated by war, famine and ecological disaster. Society has become correspondingly brutal, with women reduced to serving as sexual livestock. They are also feared with pathological conviction by their male overseers, whose plans for the future of post-apocalypse society have achieved a particularly insane momentum.

"Walk to the End of the World" tells the story of Charnas' dystopian setting mostly through the eyes of one of the subjegated women. "Motherlines," in sharp contast to its prequel, depicts women as resourceful and indepedent, ending just as a tribe of self-appointed Amazons prepares to descend on the city of its hated ex-masters. Throughout, Charnas presents the reader with novel and frightening scenarios. (Both "Walk to the End of the World" and "Motherlines" are available in the omnibus volume "The Slave and the Free," pictured above.)

In "The Furies," arguably the most brutal of Charnas's series, the women return to the decaying industrial complex where they were bred as selfless "fems" and overwhelm the unsuspecting male population. Having finally turned the tables, will the Free Fems make the same political blunders as the previous regime? And how to discern between selfish desire and genuine need? Charnas' answers are uncompromising, and her characters live and breathe.

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LeGuin's "The Dispossessed" is an exquisitely rendered portrait of two worlds: an Earthlike planet of environmental and material wealth, and its barren moon, where anarchists have established a troubled utopia. "The Dispossessed" is a challenging and mature work that consistently asks the right questions and has the courage to leave the answers to the reader. "The Dispossessed" is a central meditation on utopian thought, to be read alongside such works as "1984," "Anthem" and Theodore Sturgeon's gender-bending "Venus Plus X."

Alongside "The Dispossessed," "The Left Hand of Darkness" is probably LeGuin's most enduring utopian novel. First published in 1969, "The Left Hand of Darkness" takes place on an unforgiving planet where the human population can take on male and female forms at will (and you thought sexuality here on Earth was confusing...) A novel of friendship, loyalty and hope, "The Left Hand of Darkness" is well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable, if a bit dated.



Incomparably subtler, funnier and more terrifying than either of its film incarnations, Pierre Boulle's Swiftian interplanetary frolic remains one of the most clever dystopian satires evern written. Told from the viewpoint of a stranded astronaut, "Planet of the Apes" describes, with nightmarish clarity, an Earth-like planet dominated by intelligent chimpanzees, orangutans and gorillas; humans, like the "yahoos" in "Gulliver's Travels," have devolved into inarticulate savages. Boulle tells his story with candor, insight and humor. ("Planet of the Apes" ends with a surreal double-twist twice as shocking than those dished out by Rod Serling and Tim Burton.)



"Camp Concentration" is one of the great classics of speculative fiction, for very good reason. Disch's story is philosophical and engaging, capably depicting a near-future United States embroiled in an endless Orwellian conflict in which dissidents are used as subjects to biowarfare experimentation. In the "Camp Concentration" of the title, political prisoners are exposed to a pathogen that raises their intelligence to dizzy heights before inevitably killing them. Disch uses this premise to brilliant effect, resulting in a psychological thriller as relevant as "1984" and Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale."



Anthony Burgess' "A Clockwork Orange" is one of the most artfully crafted dystopian novels ever penned, rivaled only by Jack Womack's "Random Acts of Senseless Violence." Challenging both in its philosophical implications and linguistic playfulness, "A Clockwork Orange" is the first-person story of Alex, a juvenile delinquent incarcerated and willingly used as the subject in a behavior modification experiment. Alex tells of his ordeals in a rich, disconcerting slang, detailing a gang culture given to bouts of "ultraviolence." Burgess' acclaimed near-future tale is moving, comic and intelligently barbed.



In "The Handmaid's Tale," Margaret Atwood conceives an oppressive near-future every bit as frightening as Orwell's "1984." An unflinching tale of gender politics, Atwood's first-person novel tells the story of Offred, a "handmaid" whose role is to reproduce in an effort to counter widespread sterility. "The Handmaid's Tale" is not so much a work of speculative feminism as a document of humanity at its sordid, desperate worst. Already a classic, Atwood's cautionary and deeply moving novel proceeds with a malignant believability.


1984 George Orwell

George Orwell's nightmarishly believable novel remains as as topically frightening today as when it was published. In Orwell's story, the world is divided among several "superpowers" whose agenda is utter control of their respective populations. Privacy is an antiquated notion, and Orwell prefigures today's electronic surveillance devices with the "telescreen," a TV capable of monitoring its owner's every move. Unwavering loyalty to the "Party" is, of course, obligatory, and citizens are trained from birth to continually rewrite their own memories to match the paradigm mandated by the government. Sound familiar?


VENUS PLUS X Theodore Sturgeon

Theodore Sturgeon was one of the most remarkable speculative writers of the century, and "Venus Plus X," with its transcending premise and mind-bending plot, is among the best of his visions. "Venus Plus X" describes a utopian society of hermaphrodites as seen through the eyes of an amazed 20th century Earth-human. Sturgeon's take on gender is unflinching and thought-provoking, elegantly using SF devices to make the reader rethink everything s/he knows about sex, society and morality. Sturgeon's disturbing (and funny) utopia is a marvel of intellect and imagination.



Consisting of the complimentary novels "Don't Bite the Sun" and "Drinking Sapphire Wine," Tanith Lee's hilarious and touching utopian coming-of-age drama tells the story of a far-future society where death is a minor inconvenience at worst, recreational sex-changes are the norm, and--for the sassy, troubled heroine--existential boredom has become an inescapable fact of life. Lee's decadent, machine-tended future is a riotous spectacle and her characters are delightfully quirky. "Biting the Sun" is provocative, colorful and raises deeply serious questions.


WE Yevgeny Zamyatin

"We" is the understated Russian masterpiece that inspired George Orwell's "1984." Surreal and uncompromising (citizens in Zamyatin's devoutly communist society literally live in glass houses), Zamyatin depicts the nightmare of a communal society in which the individual is an expendable cog in an epic bureaucratic machine. "We" is a magnificently crafted nightmare of a book that sees disturbing social trends to terminal extremes. Essential.



Huxley's insidious hive-society, grounded in genetic engineering and behavioral conditioning, is a model dystopian novel rivaled only by Orwell's "1984." "Brave New World" shows us a biological caste system in which everyone is happy. But when the definition of "happiness" is dictated by a technocratic collective, is life even worth pursuing? The life and times of Huxley's decadent and chilling future society are told with wit and intellectual fortitude. This is a cerebral funhouse of a novel, not easily forgotten.



Famed behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner's "Walden Two" is an engrossing treatise-as-novel that challenges essentially every Western conceit, and does so articulately and with surprising sensitivity. Skinner's novel has a simple but effective plot: curious visitors to a quasi-utopian commune are given a crash-course in alternative thought that calls all that they think they know into frustrating relief. "Walden Two" argues that wasteful, counterproductive traits can be engineered out of a population given appropriate modest resources. Among the benefits: infinitely better education than today's assembly-line schools, a balanced ecology, and immunity to the psychological illnesses of postindustrial society. The discussions and arguments in "Walden Two" are involving and reasonable, making this a must-read for any would-be utopian.


ECOTOPIA Ernest Callenbach

"Ecotopia" is a detailed model of one possible future, told from the first-person vantage of an journalist in a United States where California and Oregon have seceded from the United States to form an ecological utopia. Callenbach's future society is uncompromising and well worth the trip, even if "Ecotopia's" merit as a piece of literature is eventually overshadowed by its political trappings.


FAHRENHEIT 451 Ray Bradbury

Alongside "The Martian Chronicles," "Fahrenheit 451" is Ray Bradbury's best work. Set in an oppressive totalitarian state, reading is outlawed and trained "firemen" are routinely dispatched to incinerate overlooked texts. When the fireman protagonist begins to question the rationality of obliterating the written word, he finds himself a fugitive in a world increasingly out-of-kilter. Bradbury's near-future novel is a scathing and indispensable outcry against censorship, told with heart and humanity.



John Norman's "Gor" series is one of the most bizarre publishing phenomena in SF history. Beginning with "Tarnsman," "Outlaw" and "Priest-Kings," Norman's Edgar Rice Burroughs-style epic quickly succumbs to formulaic and dialogue-heavy treatises on female sexual slavery. Interestingly, Norman presents his "counter-Earth" as an essentially utopian world in tune with nature and "biological truths" that are artificially repressed in terrestrial society. (Compare Norman's presentation of a consummately male-dominated culture to Suzy McKee Charnas' "Walk to the End of the World" or Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale," above.)

Norman's sexual philosophy might be adolescent, but the first few installments in the "Gor" series are fun, action-packed adventures. The series' relentless attention to detail and sexual preoccupations have won Norman a massive, largely Net-based legion of fans, making "Gor" a genuine cultural phenomenon with apparent staying power.



Ayn Rand's cautionary Objectivist fable succeeds as a manifesto for individualism but falters as a work of literature. Preachy and obvious, "Anthem" is nonetheless an intriguing story that, like Zamyatin's "We," shows us the complete creative and intellectual stagnation of collectivist society.

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