Lists and Lists: The Best Dystopian Stories


Big news, friends: Deadline New York is reporting that director Ridley Scott will be filming a new Blade Runner movie in the near future. This might actually be bigger news for me than you, as I teach apocalyptic and dystopian fiction whenever I’m not making these *hugely* important lists for HEAVE. If you’ve forgotten (or missed it entirely), Blade Runner is Scott’s 1982 classic in which Harrison Ford tracks down “replicants” – or organic robots made to replace human beings. Based on a Phillip K. Dick story, the movie is awash in the moral ambiguity that Dick often explored, but I will always remember the film for its cinematography and lighting; the entire movie is painted in dark colors and shadows, but somehow looks sumptuous and full.

Which brings me to a larger point: More than a nostalgic revisitation to a science fiction classic, Ridley Scott creating a new version of Blade Runner is perfectly in keeping with a turn to dystopian themes that has become extremely prevalent in contemporary film and literature. Mainstream examples abound –from the surprising popularity of AMC’s serialization of The Walking Dead, to the giddy anticipation for the Hunger Games trilogy — but stories of apocalyptic disaster and widespread social decay have become points of serious academic study, too, in large part because their sudden prominence speaks to the social climate from which they emerge. I think that maybe the best description of a dystopian setting comes, ironically enough, from the book Shape of Utopia, by the literary theorist Robert C. Elliott: “To believe in utopia one must believe that through the exercise of their reason men can control and in major ways alter for the better their social environment […] To believe in utopia one must have faith of a kind that our history has made nearly inaccessible. This is one major form of the crisis of faith under which Western culture reels.”

If a utopian society is characterized by faith, than a dystopian one is marked by fear. The popularity of dystopian stories is a reflection of the anxieties endemic to the 21st century; movies and television shows in which disease and infection spread through urban communities (The Walking Dead, Stephen Soderberg’s Contagion, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later) speak to the fear of an outbreak of communicable disease, like H1N1 flu or SARS, and the threat of bio-terrorism. Stories of scaled physical destruction (Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jose Saramago’s Blindness) mirror the images we see in the attacks on the World Trade Center towers and in train bombings in Madrid and London. In essence, we live in a time when widespread destruction and terror are frequent features of our news cycle, where pandemics seem to loom large, and where fear is a political methodology. Dystopian stories offer an interesting juxtaposition: they give us an aesthetic and critical distance from these traumas, but also allow us to process the emotional and intellectual experience of a disaster.

So, with a mind to their popularity, here are some of the best (and sometimes underrated) contemporary dystopian stories:

Children of Men: Given the chance, I’ll talk anyone’s ear off about how Alfonso Cauron’s 2006 film is far and away the best film of the 2000s, and not just because of its stunning cinematography and the use of long, complex tracking shots. The backdrop of total human infertility and mass chaos and violence in major world cities is the mechanism for a story that highlights the fears of terrorism, global resource shortages and corrupted political ideals so common to the last decade. For repeat viewers it is the small touches that make it a masterpiece, like the main character, Theo Faron (played by Clive Owen), escaping the poverty and rioting in London to dine with his wealthy cousin, as the original version of Picasso’s “Guernica” hangs above the table: it’s a subtle reminder of the chaos that awaits when the meal is over.

(Warning: Below you can find the film’s opening scene; it contains some violent images):

The End of the Whole Mess: Stephen King is a master of the dystopian story, and his seminal (and best) novel The Stand is one of my favorite’s of the genre. But I enjoy this short story for two reasons: First, its prescience: It was first published in 1986, and the references to the Chernobyl disaster are obvious. But more than 25 years later, it seems to predict the same fears of a global pandemic that I mentioned above. Second, and more importantly, it is vintage Stephen King: funny, vibrant, and told from a completely fresh perspective. The payoff in the last three pages is powerful, as is King’s understanding of how language isn’t just a tool to communicate emotion, but intimately connected to how we experience and construct it. You can find an electronic copy of the story here.

28 Days Later / 28 Weeks Later: A number of film critics point to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later as the film that revived the zombie genre; nevermind that the rabid, infected people in the film are not technically zombies, the movie is really revolutionary for the way that it merges a horror story with a cautionary tale about an isolated group of survivors in a massive disaster. The sequel, which Boyle produced and which was directed by Juan Fresnadillo, expands on the question presented at the end of the first film: What’s to be feared more, the danger chasing you, or the authorities who are supposed to protect you from it?

Blindness You can bypass the subpar film adaptation and head directly for Jose Saramago’s 1998 novel, a story of how a plague of blindness precipitates the ruination of an entire society. Even more than most dystopian stories, Blindness serves as a parable. All of the characters are identified by their age or occupation, and the details of the society in which they live are general enough that it could be a reference to nearly any contemporary city. The absence of identifying details presses the reader to fill in what is left unsaid with their own experiences – to imagine that it could be our community. Amid questions about moral and religious decay in a crisis, Saramago constantly reinforces his conclusion: That the burden is on those who see the flaws in their world.

Connected: The dystopian turn in popular culture has also given rise to a number of short films that deal with post-apocalyptic worlds. One of my personal favorites is Connected, a 2008 Danish short that merges a disaster story with a Western. More than that, it communicates a series of conclusions — and then poses a series a moral questions — without a single line of dialogue and all in under seven minutes. You can watch the entire thing here.

What the Last Evening Will Be Like: Consider this poem by Chicago poet Edward Hirsch, who contemplates the end times not as a social collapse, but as an individual approach to mortality. Unlike a lot of dystopian literature, Hirsch’s poem illustrates a calmness amid solitude:

“You’re sitting at a small bay window
in an empty café by the sea.
It’s nightfall, and the owner is locking up,
though you’re still hunched over the radiator,
which is slowly losing warmth.

Now you’re walking down to the shore
to watch the last blues fading on the waves.
You’ve lived in small houses, tight spaces—
the walls around you kept closing in—
but the sea and the sky were also yours.

No one else is around to drink with you
from the watery fog, shadowy depths.
You’re alone with the whirling cosmos.
Goodbye, love, far away, in a warm place.
Night is endless here, silence infinite.”

The People of Sand and Slag: Dystopian stories are supposed to investigate worlds in which meaning and belief are waning or completely absent, and there are intellectual and aesthetic benefits to that. But occasionally a story stops you in your tracks because of how perfectly it is told, and because of how deeply it resonates. Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story The People of Sand and Slag begins as dense science fiction, and then morphs into something so much more layered and complex. This one sticks with you, I promise. You can read the entire story right here.

  • Bryan Chung

    Have you read Children of Men or is the movie better (that is, under the terms of this article)? I understand that they changed the novel a lot to make the movie, so I’m just wondering your opinion.

  • Chriso

    Children of Men-yes. 

  • Geimer7

    Could have picked a better list! Awesome!