Notes on Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list

Did you see Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list? I saw it this morning, and on the whole it ain’t half bad, despite including way too many novels from the past 10 years. Lists are stupid and maybe we already live in a dystopia, but our dystopia could be way way worse and lists are stupid fun…so—my stupid thoughts on this stupid fun list. (They organized it chronologically, by the bye)—-

Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift, 1726: Good starting place, although I’m sure you could reach farther back if you wanted—Revelations, Blake, Milton, etc.

The Last Man, Mary Shelley, 1826: Never read it. The listmakers seem to have skipped Voltaire’s Candide (1759).

Erewhon, Samuel Butler, 1872: Hey, did you know that Erewhon is actually Nowhere backwards? Ooooh…far out. I really don’t remember it but I read it in school. I’m sure I would’ve thrown it on the list.

The Time Machine, H.G. Wells, 1895: Great track. Some of the best required reading ever.

“The Machine Stops,” E.M. Forster, 1909: Never read it/never heard of it.

We, Yvegny Zamyatin, 1924: The list reminded me I need to reread this one—I read it twice—in my teens and in my twenties. Good stuff. (Also reminds me that I would’ve added something by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky to the list—like his collection Memories of the Future).

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley, 1932: This is the guy. I mean, I think Huxley got it right here, y’know? Not that a dystopian novel needs to predict, but…anyway. I actually had a student come by during office hours just to visit, and she asked for a novel recommendation, and I gave her BNW after she told me 1984 was the last great book she’d read. If I recall correctly, the Vulture list only has one duplicate author (Margaret Atwood), but I’d also add Huxley’s often-overlooked novel Ape and Essence.

It Can’t Happen Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis, 1935: I think this is one of those ones where I know the basic plot, themes, etc., but I’m pretty sure I didn’t read it.

Swastika Night, Katharine Burdekin, 1937: An entry that I’ll admit I’ve never heard of, the sort of thing that shows the value in stupid silly fun lists. I’ll search it out.

1984, George Orwell, 1949: I guess this one is the big dawg, but I never want to reread it (unlike Huxley’s stuff). Maybe I’m missing the humor in it. Maybe the most important novel of the 20th century, whatever that means.

Tales of the Dying Earth, Jack Vance, 1950-1984: The list may have been accused of overlooking pulp fiction until now.

Limbo, Bernard Wolfe, 1952: Never heard of it, but Tobias Carroll is the author recommending it, and I seem to recall he edited the reader that introduced me to Denis Johnson when I was 18, so…

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury, 1953: I’m going to sound like a total asshole if I say that this book is really really overrated so I won’t say that.

Lord of the Flies, William Golding, 1954: I don’t even know how to assess this one. I used to teach high school and I know the novel inside out. One of those books that’s so ingrained into our cultural imagination and cultural lexicon that it’s hard to actually see what might be innovative or radical about it—so much so that I (and I suspect many others) left Golding behind after high school. Thankfully, I ended up reading The Inheritors last year and it’s great. Maybe—maybe—the first novel on this list to substantiate “dystopian” fiction as a specific kind of adolescent fiction…?

The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester, 1957: Probably was amazing to read in the late fifties or early sixties. But the prose.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, 1957: When I was in the 8th grade a friend told me all about Marxism. I was thrilled. I explained it to my parents at dinner that night, my enthusiasm slowly stirring my father into a fucking state. He drove me to the Barnes & Noble bookstore a few miles from our house, bought me a hardback copy of Rand’s drivel, and made me read it and report on it to him. Years later the Objectivist Society offered to send me a class set of the novel, which I accepted. I took the class set to a used bookstore and traded them in for books by Zora Neale Hurston and James Weldon Johnson, which I gave to my students. Fuck Ayn Rand.

Inter Ice Age 4, Kōbō Abe, 1959: Never heard of it tbh but I’ll be picking it up the next time I head to a bookstore.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter Miller, 1959: Great great great novel—reminded me of McCarthy’s Blood Meridian some how. Also, a comment on the list—somehow they left off Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959)

The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard, 1962: What do you want me to do here? A great novel, but you could pick a whole gang of Ballards and stick them into this list. I mean, he could be the list.

A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess, 1962: Well, I was obsessed with it as a teen. Move along.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut, 1963: People sometimes use the adverb “arguably” in this ridiculous way to hedge their bets. This is not arguably Vonnegut’s best novel; it is his best, and a fantastic dystopian jam.

“I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” Harlan Ellison, 1967: It’s a great story (read it here), but its inclusion—the only short story, unless I’m mistaken [ed. note–see comments]—feels like a clumsy push to include Ellison.

Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner, 1968: Never heard of it, but again—the lists’s little blurb makes it seem worthy.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick, 1968: A choice indicative of the list’s general mode. I would’ve picked VALIS, a novel more attuned to postmodern America’s dystopia contours, or Ubik, a satirical riff on capitalism—but sure, pick the famous one. It’s good.

The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. LeGuin, 1971: Great jam. I reviewed it here.

The Lorax, Dr. Seuss, 1971: I won’t say anything mean about its inclusion.

The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman, Angela Carter, 1972: Another case where the list’s blurb is going to make me buy a book I’ve never read.

Motorman, David Ohle, 1972: Same note as above (I won’t even hold it against the blurb that it compares Motorman to Dhalgren).

Roadside Picnic, Strugatsky Brothers, 1972: The film adaptation of the Strugatsky’s novel Hard to Be a God is like the true perfect aesthetic of real dystopia.

The Girl Who Was Plugged In, James Tiptree Jr, 1973: Don’t remember reading it when I was 13 or 14, but I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) a couple of times and it’s a dystopia too. The editors also fail to mention Thomas Klise’s 1974 novel The Last Wetern—which is like a “real” dystopia, one that anyone who digs half of these novels on this list would fucking eat up if only it were in print.

Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany, 1975: I tried. I quit.

The Girl Who Owned a City, O.T. Nelson, 1975: Never heard of it. What about Barthelme’s “I Bought a Little City” though?

Woman on the Edge of Time, Marge Piercy, 1976. Again: I tried.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Kate Whilhelm, 1976: Never heard of it but that title is…bad.

The Twenty Days of Turin, Giorgio De Maria, 1977. Tobias Carroll’s blurb claims: “It’s a kind of metaphysical dystopia, set years after a series of horrifying events bedeviled the residents of the titular city.” Good title. Never read it.

 

The Stand, Stephen King, 1978: First attempted to read my mother’s copy when I was what, 10?—tried again throughout the years before finally giving up half way through an audiobook maybe nine years ago. King has gifts, but they aren’t for me.

 

Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban, 1980: Read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it read it (etc.). Riddley Walker was the first book I “reviewed” on this stupid website, way back in 2006.

 

The Shadow of the Torturer, Gene Wolfe, 1980: I think I tried Gene Wolfe when I was too young and then again when I was too old, whatever the fuck that means.

 

Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo, 1982-1990: Well of course. Kids, come to office hours and hear me rant about how hard it was to get manga in the U.S. in the early nineties. Great stuff. (And the first graphic novel(s) on the list).

 

Neuromancer, William Gibson, 1984: Great novel—the first three Gibsons are great. Some of the first stuff I wrote about on this stupid website.

 

The Handmade’s Tale, Margaret Atwood, 1985: Good jam but not my favorite Atwood—I think the list including her twice says something though. I reread it before the show came out.

 

The Postman, David Brin, 1985: Never read the book but I’ll watch the film with you if we’re hungover on your couch some Sunday.

 

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card, 1985: Why is this on the list though?

 

Watchmen, Alan Moore, David Gibbons, and John Higgins, 1986: For what it’s worth, I think that Moore’s earlier run on Swamp Thing (with Steven Bissette, John Totleben, et al) would’ve made a better inclusion, but I suppose that’s not as neat and tidy as Watchmen. I will not watch the film version with you if we’re hungover on your couch some Sunday. (From Hell is just as dystopian as anything on this list, proof that genre-labels are stupid and silly).

 

The Dark Night Returns, Frank Miller, 1986: I would’ve gone with Ronin. Frank Miller has awful opinionsThe Dark Night Returns is excellent. (Its sequel is garbage).

 

Journals of the Plague Years, Norman Spinrad, 1988: Never heard of it.

 

Skreemer, Peter Milligan, Brett Ewins, and Steve Dillon, 1989: I remember checking it out from the library maybe 12 years ago. Pass.

 

The Child Garden, Geoff Ryman, 1989: Never heard of it.

 

Judge Dredd: America, John Wagner and Colin MacNeil, 1990-1991: I was luck enough to spend a lot of my formative years abroad, reading enormous 2000 AD comix—I’ll take this inclusion as a sort of shorthand for that entire aesthetic.

 

The Children of Men, P.D. James, 1992: I love Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men so much that I tried to read James’s novel twice despite failing.

 

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson, 1992: Another dude—like Ballard and Dick (and the unlisted Pynchon and Burroughs!) who should rule this list. Exhausting/exhilarating stuff. I reviewed it here.

 

Parable of the Snow, Octavia Butler, 1992: I still need to read this.

 

The Giver, Lowis Lowry, 1993: Did I point out above that I taught high school for seven years? I missed any window to assess this beyond “Book a thirteen year old will say is their favorite book for up to five years.” Maybe I sound like a total asshole now. I’ve had some vodka.

 

The Yellow Arrow, Victor Pelevin, 1993: Never heard of this one, and the blurb doesn’t do anything for me, but who knows.

 

Slow River, Nicola Griffith, 1995: Ditto above. Blurb uses the phrase “not-so-distant-future.”

 

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, 1996: Um. Where to start? 

 

Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson, 1997-2002: Never heard of it.

 

Brown Girl in the Ring, Nalo Hopkinson, 1998: From Tobias Carroll’s blurb: “At times, the setup for the novel reads like a half-dozen urbanist trends accelerated at a frenzied rate.” No idea what the fuck that means.

 

The Elementary Particles, Michel Houellebecq, 1998: This shit genuinely zapped me. In my review, I wrote I wondered: “Is it dystopian? I think that it posits the globalized, post-boomer world as a dystopia, as a place obsessed with aging and image, as a world of enslaved people who falsely extol their own freedom. But it works its way toward a positive vision of life.”

 

Post Exorcism in Ten Lessons, Lesson Eleven, Antoine Volodine, 1998: Fuck me I need to read this guy.

 

Battle Royale, Koushun Takami, 1998: Checked it out from the library and it was fine.

 

The Slynx, Tatyana Tolstaya, 2000: Yo I had this in my hands earlier this year or last year (or the year before) at a used bookstore and, having too many unread books, talked myself out of buying it which I regret (it was the title and cover and NYRB imprint that egged me on). Vulture blurb calls it “a desolate, grotesque postapocalyptic future that feels more like a demented version of the past: A nuclear blast has left society to decay, both figuratively and literally; nearly everyone but a lucky few are marred by genetic mutations and scrounging for mice to eat.”

 

Mortal Engines, Philip Reeve, 2001; Feed, Matthew Tobin Anderson, 2002: Speeding up a bit now—Hey, maybe these are great, who knows?—maybe I’ll know in 20 years.

 

Y: The Last Man, Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra, 2002-2008: Nope.

 

Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood, 2003: Great stuff. Year of the Flood might be just as good.

 

Super Flat Times, Matthew Darby, 2003: I meant to read this. Also, it’s short stories, reminding me that the authors of the list left off George Saunders…

 

The City of Ember, Jean DuPrau, 2003: Didn’t they make a movie out of this? With like a Bill Murray cameo? I think at this point dystopia had sort of become this adolescent genre, right—like a marketing genre with a set of conventions?

 

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro, 2005: I watched the move before I read the book and the book’s twist still delivered.

 

World War Z, Max Brooks, 2006: Young people may not realize but this shit was a big stupid hit last decade. It’s bad. (Not good).

 

The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist, 2006: It sounds….boring.

 

The Road, Cormac McCarthy, 2006: I would’ve picked Blood Meridian, the authentic American apocalyptic novel.

 

And then: 28 more novels. Fucking 28 more novels. Almost a third of the list is comprised of books that have been published in the last decade. Some look promising (Kang Young-Sook’s Rina), but a lot of them are just books that have been turned into bad movies (or will be turned into movies or teevee shows). The worst by far though is Gary Shteyngart’s awful dystopian sex and death and aging novel Super Sad True Love Story which I super super super hated.

 

Instead of the last 28, an incomplete list of writers of dystopian fictions not included in Vulture’s list:

 

Ishmael Reed

 

Nathaniel Hawthorne

 

Evan Dara

 

William Burroughs

 

Charles Burns

 

Charles Dickens

 

Thomas S. Klise

 

Roberto Bolaño

 

Jack London

 

Adam Novy

 

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

 

George Saunders

 

Atticus Lish

 

Don DeLillo

 

Helen DeWitt

 

China Miéville

 

Ben Marcus

 

Voltaire

 

Sam Lipsyte

 

Martin Bax

 

Thomas Disch

 

[etc. etc. until it all ends]

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8 thoughts on “Notes on Vulture’s “100 Great Works of Dystopian Fiction” list”

  1. Solid list. Zamyatin’s “We” is incredible; it’s final paragraph matches “1984” in power. (I think Jack London’s “The Iron Heel” should be on there.)

    “The Stars My Destination” is wild. The protagonist goes from total zero (and rapist) to God-like in less than 200 pages. It’s, uh, thought-provoking.

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  2. “The Machine Stops” is just a short story, but it’s worth checking out. Eerily predicts the isolation/connectedness of the internet.

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    1. My comment reads far snarkier than I intended it, I see now. I’m a fan of pulp fiction, and it was hugely important to me, especially as a young reader. It wasn’t my intention to dismiss Vance.

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  3. It didn’t read that snarky. I was just curious if you’d read him. And thanks for the fantastic blog, you’ve turned me on to some great stuff!

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  4. “Twenty Days of Turin” is beyond creepy. And it’s much more relevant now than 40 years ago when it was written. But it’s creepy, very creepy. A lot of people just sigh in relief when they finish it. A cursed book in many ways.

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