I’m a child of the Cold War. My formative years were molded in some fashion by numerous false prophecies of impending doom—religious, secular, and everything in-between. From duck-and-cover drills, to Nuclear Winter, to Silent Spring, to the Jupiter Effect, to several revisions of The Late Great Planet Earth, to Nemesis, to Nostradamus, to the Heaven’s Gate Comet Cult, I’ve heard it all at least twice. More recently, we’ve had annual predictions of “superflu” epidemics and the dire consequences of
Anthropic Global Warming Climate Change. Now, the Mayan Apocalypse.
Woop de doo. It’s hard to get very excited about apocryphal predictions from a dead civilization, spun into a doomsday scenario by modern conspiracy theorists, when you live in a world where the standard for credible prophecy is laughable and the consequences for false prophets negligible.
Is the world going to end? Yes. Someday. It could happen any day. The Bible and science are in perfect harmony on this issue. On a more personal level, it’s entirely possible that before I finish this article, I
Nope, still here. Apologies to both my critics and friends. The point is, I could die in the next five minutes, and at that moment, my world would end. I’m not guaranteed my next breath. From that perspective, running in circles screaming because we’ve reached the final pictograph on an ancient stone calendar seems a little silly.
Anyhow, somebody asked me a week or so ago about my favorite dystopic science fiction stories, and I promised to deliver them on the eve of the Mayan Apocalypse.
Because if I waited until after that, we might, well, you know.
Dystopias are a little different from doomsday predictions in that they don’t usually focus on an earth-shattering kaboom (which is exciting, but hard to stretch out to novel length). Rather, they describe human beings coping with, or failing to cope with, some global hell mankind has fashioned for itself via cultural corruption, planetary war, general shortsightedness, or science run amuck, amuck, amuck. Some folks might argue we’re living in a dystopia right now, but I don’t think a balanced view of history supports that idea. Another post for another day.
Let me say first off, by way of framing this list, that I hate dystopias. Real life carries sufficient suffering and disappointment to ensure I never feel the need to entertain myself with tales of mankind suffocating in its own effluvium, thank you. Besides, I’m an optimist. I’m not convinced it’s necessary or right to passively accept the wholesale slide of the handbasket into Hades without a decent fight.
So, it’s not quite accurate to say I like these stories. I admire them for their worksmanship, insight, and sometimes even an uncomfortable amount of foresight.
1984, by George Orwell – This classic story of a man slowly and agonizingly crushed beneath the boot heel of an all-seeing socialist dictatorship is unfortunately viewed by persons of a certain political bent as a manual of best practices for government rather than a cautionary tale.
With Folded Hands, by Jack Wiliamson – Mankind gradually, willingly, chillingly turns itself over to robotic caretakers, whose prime directive to protect human beings reduces us to a race of infants who spend our meaningless lives quietly squishing play-doh. Anything more would be dangerously stressful.
Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut – This one is an end-of-the-world story of science run quietly and unexpectedly amuck at the fringes of a human civilization whose soul perished long before, and it concludes with one of the most masterful depictions of hopeless desolation I’ve ever encountered.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (and its sequels) – One of the most recent entries into the immense body of dystopic fiction (and technically Young Adult fiction), I enjoy the author’s depiction of a society that has lost its moral compass. It also provides a rather insightful illustration of the costs and moral ambiguities inherent in a revolutionary movement, even one striving to throw off tyranny—and the difficulty of reclaiming lost freedom. Besides, archery is cool. For a less hopeful variation on this future, try Battle Royale, by Koushun Takami.
That’s my short list. It’s not comprehensive, and I’m not sure these are even my top four. Others will surely come to mind after I’ve posted this. Please chime in with a few favorites of your own if you’ve got the time and aren’t dodging death rays from Martian tripods. I’ll see you on the other side.