At the box office, dystopia remains one of film’s most compelling genres, wringing catharsis out of our world’s deepest fears. Entwined with the horror, there is comfort in watching it all explode: With the apocalypse comes the expunging of anxiety, the end of empathy and all it demands. In other words, the end of times can be euphoric, and the great dystopian writers capture this heady contradiction. As Ray Bradbury writes in Fahrenheit 451: “The city stood, rebuilt and unrecognizable, taller than it had ever hoped or strived to be, taller than man had built it, erected at last in gouts of shattered concrete and sparkles of torn metal into a mural hung like a reversed avalanche, a million colors, a million oddities.”
Creating a dystopia also means being able to choose from a near-infinite palette of cultural and social traditions. Author Ariel Djanikian’s does just that in her novel The Office of Mercy. The world Djanikian creates is America-Five, where denizens struggle to survive in a technology-centric society. Some characters benefit from “premiere bioreplacement care” while others are subjected to “‘sweeps,” or mass executions.
Every dystopian paperback features its own unique blend of civilizations, and on Earth Day, Pacific Standard reached out to Djanikian for her own recommendations. Djanikian tells me that dystopian fiction speaks directly to our sense of right and wrong:
Dystopian fiction tends toward big-canvased investigations of moral and ethical themes. They often gain their fuel from overarching ideas as much as from the smaller events taking place in their characters’ lives. What we call “literary fiction” has mostly moved away from that type of writing — which often comes off as heavy-handed in a contemporary setting. But there is still a hunger for big, moral, imaginative tales, and so the interest in dystopian novels keeps on.
Here are five dystopian novels to prepare you for the inevitable:
‘We,’ Yevgeny Zamyatin
“This is the great-grandfather of every dystopian novel,” Djanikian says. “Huxley and Orwell both cited We as a major inspiration, and the entire genre owes its existence to Zamyatin’s vision.”
‘1984,’ George Orwell
“I can’t imagine a time in which the eyes of ‘Big Brother’ will cease to be a powerful symbol of government overstepping its bounds. Also: O’Brien’s interrogations of Winston are some of the most suspenseful passages in all of literature.”
‘Oryx and Crake,’ Margaret Atwood
“A novel that follows income inequality, vapid consumerism, and a narcissist-enabling culture to a (scarily) sound conclusion.”
‘Parable of the Sower,’ Octavia Butler
“Los Angeles makes a particularly good setting for a descent into pyrotechnic-fueled chaos. This is a terrifying, large-landscaped novel of mass violence, and a heroine’s journey to escape the urban nightmare.”
‘The Stone Gods,’ Jeanette Winterson
“Dystopian novels tend to stay within the bounds of traditional narrative structures. Not Winterson’s The Stone Gods. This philosophical novel stands out for its multi-lensed approach to what the end-of-days might look like.”
Armageddon Awareness Day is Pacific Standard’s special report for Earth Day 2016, in which we confront our fears about the apocalypse while celebrating those things that make our planet worthwhile.