With the recent resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid's Tale, including Atwood herself finally writing a sequel (The Testaments) and now the global disaster that is 2020, from out-of-control bushfires to a global pandemic that has already caused panic hoarding of toilet paper of all things, your minds might be turning to: what next? What else is coming? Well, while we all socially isolate, quarantine, work from home or whatever self or government-imposed measures we are taking, here is a reading list of my favourite literary dystopian novels that should be your go-to for how (not) to act.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Have you seen all the current hype going around for Mandel’s new novel The Glass Hotel? Well if you haven’t already, why not start with Station Eleven? Set in a world after the collapse of civilisation post a flu epidemic (sound familiar yet?) we follow a band of entertainers roaming around performing Shakespeare to the outposts of survivors just trying to get by in a vastly different world. Throw in a self-proclaimed prophet and you have one of the most well-loved dystopian novels of the last decade. What I remember loving from this particular dystopian read was that it seemed to hold a little more hope than most other offerings in this genre.
The Passage trilogy by Justin Cronin
If you have a fair stretch of time at home ahead of you and need something long and epic to sink your teeth into The Passage trilogy is the way to go. This trilogy is made up of three hefty novels which I can best describe as a contemporary, dystopian The Lord of the Rings. Think grand scale of time and scope, the exploration of complex layered themes and a great cast of characters with range for development. Don’t let the fact that there are vampires that take over North America make it sound lame, it is quite an underrated work of genius.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
The Power was popular several years ago when it won The Women’s Prize and all I can say is if you haven’t read it, it is time. I remember reading reviews suggesting some of the reactions within were unbelievable and now after the great toilet paper debacle of 2020 all I can think is no, no they were not. Panic is a disease that spreads quicker than any virus. The meditation between gender and power imbalances is fascinating and I loved the complex flawed characters that we are introduced to in a world where women suddenly develop a physical advantage over men and the world as we know it changes.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A classic well known by many, The Road may be a pretty bleak outlook at what happens when the world falls apart but it remains a quietly beautiful meditation on the relationship between a father and son. In true McCarthy style, the reader doesn’t know much about this new world where the darker human traits seem to rule the world but reading it was an experience I still remember. Just a warning that it is pretty dark and might leave you a little uneasy.
The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Sparse, lyrical, and questioning. The End We Start From is a dystopian novel in an all too easily imaginable future. After an environmental crisis, London is underwater and our protagonist gives birth to her first child. At barely more than a hundred pages, with short paragraphs, this book is over all too quickly, but in a good way. The prose is magical, poetic, and lyrical in its meagre words; the lines dance across your brain. A great book for when you want to consume something in a single sitting.
The Natural Way of Things by Charlotte Wood
Still one of my favourite novels of all times, if I had to describe The Natural Way of Things in five words it would be ‘female Lord of the Flies’. Two girls wake drugged and confused on a remote property in outback Australia, kept in by a monstrous electric fence. An urgent read that has excellent pacing, I promise it won’t take long for you to read this book cover to cover. Wood leaves the reader much to ponder within the conclusion of the story for the characters, as well as the larger themes of the book. This book will stay with you long after you finish reading the final pages.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Probably the most comparable to where the world is heading despite the fact it was written well over twenty years ago. Parable of the Sower is the first in a duology set in 2025 in California where humans live in walled communities, protecting themselves from scavengers and bandits. When her community is destroyed, our protagonist Lauren sets forth on foot into the unknown.
The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
What struck my fancy with The Book of M was the fascinating premise behind the novel. One day in a market in India a man’s shadow disappears and as it enters the news cycle becomes an obsession around the world. As more individuals are struck down it becomes evident that those who lose their shadow lose much more—their memories. The writing in this one was breathtaking and the plot urgent and compelling. I distinctly remember sobbing into my breakfast finishing up the final pages and recommend this one as a bit more escapist and fantastical, rather than a plausible reality.
Severance by Ling Ma
A popular read in 2019, Severance was scarily relatable, funny at times and another one that hits close to home. The world is living post-Shen fever, a fever that leaves its victims robotic shells that perform rote tasks over and over again until they die. Candace, the last survivor in NYC falls in with the last bastion of society—a group headed by a religious techie by the name of Bob. This book had a killer prologue that sucked me right in and Ma’s writing kept me engaged throughout. Fast-paced and consuming, I enjoyed the flashbacks into Candace’s life before the fever hits.
Clade by James Bradley
Clade is a climate fiction novel told in ten slices of life, vignettes of life in a specific time and place. We first meet Adam, a scientist, at the summer solstice on a beach in Antarctica as his wife, Ellie, is back in Australia awaiting their IVF results. We see slices of both their lives, together and apart, across years and countries as the world around them changes. A social statement about what we can begin to expect as our climate changes, sea levels rise and panic starts to set in, Clade is a powerful piece of writing that is increasingly urgent if we continue down the current path we are on.
Dyschronia by Jennifer Mills
Dyschronia deals with the disintegration of a seaside community from their highs and lows with industry and tourism and the havoc they wreak on the environment. The speculative aspect in this one is subtle, more subtle than I expected and yet it leaves the road open for Dyschronia to make a broad statement on the harsher aspects of small-town life, the desperation and optimism in equal measures that swing back and forth like a pendulum. I love Mills’ use of a collective perspective at times in this novel demonstrating the pack mentality and group rule that can happen in small, wary towns where life is harsh and survival paramount.
Buy it here - AUS.
All jokes aside, these are some great reads that are all compelling and at times funny, dark, thoughtful, and hopeful. In times of uncertainty and panic these stories can remind us to stay human, appreciate what we do have, look after each other and stay connected.
If you have read or plan to read any of these, let me know and let’s chat. Any further recommendations? Please send them my way. Let's all stay human and take solace together in books.