Selected dystopias

As I’ve said before, SF is valuable for its freedom to conduct thought-experiments, which often illuminate our present by showing us futures which may arise from it. Utopias beckon us along a particular path, while dystopias hold up warning signs saying, “Wrong way – go back.”

In recent weeks I have read three new SF novels which offer such warnings. I will begin with the one whose setting is most distant from us in time.

Gwyneth Jones: Proof of Concept (2017)

Here’s the background:

Things weren’t going too well for life on Earth, in the Population Crisis – once known as the Climate Change Crisis, but population pressures driven by climate change had long ago become the really obvious issue. By the dawn of the twenty-third century … all the oceans were rated dead or dying, and a frightening global percentage of agricultural land was useless. Almost the entire human population lived packed into the surviving cities, remodeled and densely stacked: the crumbling “megahives.” … Outside them scavengers eked out short lives in the polluted “Dead Zones,” or in raft clusters on the acidified oceans.

Fortunately for the reader’s enjoyment, the book centres on a secret research project in a vast cavern beneath the mountains of Poland, not the devastated surface world. There’s a full review on Chicago Review of Books so I won’t say any more except I would have preferred the story at full (novel) length rather than sketched, as it is, at novella length.

Jeff VanderMeer: Borne (2017)

Borne is a far better book than Proof of Concept despite a similarly post-apocalyptic setting – a decaying city, in this case, isolated from the rest of the world. The implied time-frame is undefined but would seem to be 50 – 100 years in our future. Mass refugee movements around the world, driven by sea-level rise, are recent history; “biotech” is so common and so poorly controlled that it is a pollution problem; and the city has been split and ruined by two warring power blocs. The protagonist is one of the minority eking out a feral existence between the two, and precipitates their collapse.

The engineered lifeforms lend the novel a weirdness and intensity which reminded me of JG Ballard, but VanderMeer’s underlying vision, unlike Ballard’s, is positive: the slide into savagery can – just – be arrested and reversed. (Read more about it on Goodreads.)

Norman Spinrad: The People’s Police (2017)

Many years ago, I knew Norman Spinrad as a consistently readable SF writer overshadowed by giants such as Asimov, Heinlein, Herbert and Clarke. The People’s Police is better than anything of his that I read at that time, and better than most of what the giants were writing, too.

It is set in New Orleans, sometime around the middle of this century. The Big Easy has been transformed by climate change, in particular by sea level rise and a hurricane season which has become so reliably catastrophic that it has earned capital letters. The lowest parts of the city have been abandoned to the swamps, the very highest parts are still attracting tourists except in the Hurricane Season, and the remainder is seasonally flooded: the Swamp Alligators, the lawless underclass living in its stilt-raised shanties, get about in boats or on foot according to the water level.

A grim reality? Not in Spinrad’s capable hands. One of the commendations on the back cover calls Spinrad, “that most miraculous of creatures, a utopianist’s dystopianist,” and it’s a good description.

His narrator is a venal bordello-keeper, while one of his protagonists is a Swamp Alligator turned cop, and the other is a hippie chick who scraped a living as a busker before the voodoo gods chose to possess her. The People’s Police is a blackly satirical laugh-out-loud romp which cheerfully applies a blowtorch to every level of  government and big business, and puts community at the heart of a reborn city. Highly recommended.

Further reading and viewing

Michael Grunwald penned an entertainingly scathing environmental history of Florida when hurricane Irma was threatening to wallop the place last September. Read it here for the factual basis of Spinrad’s novel.

To see what the territory looks like, and catch a wonderful movie, track down Beasts of the Southern Wild. And for a series of gleefully gory Floridian crime capers, look out for Carl Hiaasen’s enviro-crime books. They are all good and they all stand alone although some characters do recur.

10 thoughts on “Selected dystopias”

  1. Here’s a fourth new sf dystopia: Our Memory Like Dust, by Gavin Chait. It is based firmly on the present reality of African climate refugees’ mass migration into Europe, fast-forwarded 20 or 50 years, and is a very good novel in which conflict between solar farmers in the Sahara, evil fossil fuel producers and an ISIS-like rebel army is crucial. It reminded me of Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife more than of anything else I’ve read recently but is much more positive in its outlook, showing that we can potentially solve the worst of our problems through a combination of engineering and government policy. Too optimistic? Perhaps; but we need optimism.
    For more about the book, see Goodreads; to sample it, visit the author’s site.

  2. Umair Haque argues convincingly on Eudaemonia that the US is already spiralling down into dystopian territory:

    … When we take a hard look at US collapse, we see a number of social pathologies on the rise. Not just any kind. Not even troubling, worrying, and dangerous ones. But strange and bizarre ones. Unique ones. Singular and gruesomely weird ones I’ve never really seen before, and outside of a dystopia written by Dickens and Orwell, nor have you, and neither has history. They suggest that whatever “numbers” we use to represent decline – shrinking real incomes, inequality, and so on – we are in fact grossly underestimating what pundits call the “human toll”, but which sensible human beings like you and I should simply think of as the overwhelming despair, rage, and anxiety of living in a collapsing society. …

    1. And again –

      “Managed retreat” is too technical for some and too defeatist for others. Proponents are starting to adopt other descriptions, including planned relocation and climate migration. Regardless of what it’s called, Dr Siders said more and more communities have considered some version of the idea, especially in the aftermath of major disasters such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012, which claimed 147 lives and left an estimated damage bill of more than $US70 billion ($98 billion). The concept “pushes us to do better adaptation,” she said.


      Other countries have already begun planning massive relocations, including Indonesia and the Marshall Islands. The process was “extremely complex, and there is a high risk that it leaves communities even worse off than they were before,” said Ezekiel Simperingham, global migration lead for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

  3. Fauna, by young Canadian author Christiane Vadnais, is a sequence of a dozen linked scenes in a world which reminded me of Vandermeer and Ballard. The mood is dark, phantasmagorical, even nightmarish. Nature invades the human world (our bodies as well as our civilisation) and everything is subject to corruption and dissolution, although there are avenues of positive change as well, as a young Canadian reviewer explains at

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