Robert Collins is half-Brazilian and half-English and lives and writes in London. His first novel, Soul Corporation, is a fast-paced thriller set in a vividly realised not-so-distant future.
“Fictional dystopias are almost always cautionary tales – warnings of where our political, cultural and social surroundings are taking us. The novels here all share common motifs: designer drugs, mass entertainment, brutality, technology, the suppression of the individual by an all-powerful state – classic preoccupations of dystopian fiction. These novels picture the worst because, as Swift demonstrated in his original cautionary tale, Gulliver’s Travels, re-inventing the present is sometimes the only way to see how bad things already are.”
1. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
The dystopia to end them all. It’s no coincidence that Orwell’s nightmare has become such an ingrained part of our consciousness. More than any book in this list, it feels as though it’s not really an allegory at all, but instead a murky, half-experienced reality. From Newspeak to Big Brother to Winston’s sojourn in Room 101, Orwell’s last novel is a towering, sadistic, and tender portrait of humanity floundering in the ideological clutches of totalitarianism.
2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Do you want your future grimy and bleak, or shiny and clean? Huxley serves up the latter. For my taste, I’ve always felt this was a poor cousin to Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell is haunting because he paints the future through such a personal, terrifying ordeal, whereas Huxley is more a swaggering ideas man, warning us off “the horror of Utopia” by making it look so deliberately stark, sterile, and efficient.
3. Crash by JG Ballard
Ballard could create a dystopia from just about anything. Here, he depicts a modern world refracted through the lens of automotive desire: the car as a sexual fetish. Beneath the sleek, pornographic surface of modern machinery, Ballard uncovered his hallucinatory central idea – the fusion of human identity and technology.
4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Burgess’s cult classic lacks the all-encompassing political vision of Huxley or Orwell – it’s more a wild experiment in the extremes of adolescent dispossession and mindless violence, matched in horror by society’s retribution on the novel’s Beethoven-loving hero, who narrates his story in a dazzlingly invented vernacular. A malenky bit of the ultra-violent…
5. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
More teenage kicks in Golding’s ingenious castaway classic. Like the best books in this list, its potency and timelessness come from its carefully layered feasibility. After Golding’s childhood dystopia, being “civilized” would never feel quite the same.
6. In The Country of Last Things by Paul Auster
I love short novels like this, which seem to do all the work of a heftier tome. Auster evokes a strange, apocalyptic world, set in an indeterminate country ravaged by an indeterminate catastrophe. The result is dreamlike and beautiful. A short, lyrical, melancholic meditation on what happens when the trappings of civilization are suddenly stripped away.
7. Divided Kingdom by Rupert Thomson
I’ve always thought of Thomson as Auster’s British counterpart – their worlds are characterful, eerie, and utterly idiosyncratic. Here, Thomson imagines a totalitarian regime separating the citizens of the United Kingdom into four geographical quarters, depending on their humours: melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, or choleric. He has described this political fable as being set “five minutes into the future” – a perfect description of how fictional dystopias warp and re-interpret the present.
8. Planet of the Apes by Pierre Boulle
“Monkey Planet” (as it was first translated from the French) uses an exquisite device which the movies it spawned couldn’t replicate – the human narrator struggling to make himself understood to his simian captors, to prove that he’s not just a burbling primitive brute. Off-the-scale in terms of fantastical, topsy-turvy allegory. It shouldn’t work – but it does.
9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? By Philip K Dick
Dick definitely belonged to the grimy school of apocalyptic dystopias. His noirish detective thriller shares many themes with the other less typically sci-fi books here: the fusion of the human with the technological and, as suggested by the title, the nature of consciousness in an artificial world.
10. Idoru by William Gibson
I’ve often found Gibson hard to get on with: his narrative description can be as dense as computer code. But he updates Dick’s preoccupations to the cyberpunk era, and evokes the delirious intermingling of human consciousness with virtual experience, through the sprawling psychosis of the internet.