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Dystopian science fiction examines social fears

I’ve always had a big empty space in my heart for dystopian science fiction. I love the feel of paper between my fingers as grimdark worlds of rusted metal and greenhouse gases rush through my mind. Maybe it’s a sign of my times, but for some reason I’m drawn to those run down universes with narratives of uncertain morals and dubious characters. Worlds of futile struggles against powers that have long escaped the grasp of humanity, or of technology gone too far. And here are some of my favorites:

1992’s “Snow Crash,” an awesome, whimsical, demented novel about a wakizashi-wielding Hiro Protagonist – and yes that is his name, not his trope. Well, his name and his trope. Sometimes taken as a send-up of the cyber-punk genre, Neal Stephenson likely drew heavily on the works of Philip K. Dick and William Gibson when writing this book. It features a pre-Matrix virtual reality world, where the plot is set into motion by the introduction of a fatal cyber-virus, the titular Snow Crash. The story touches on themes of religious and ideological indoctrination and programming theory. Oh, and Sumerian mythology. Set in an anarcho-capitalist North America after the downfall of organized government, much of the story has to do with overcoming the hurdles of living in a world where there are no laws, only contracts. Also featured are a punk skateboarder courier, a bunch of cyborgs, and a gun called Reason. Stephenson’s style is fast, punchy and absurdist. If you like this book, check out Stephenson’s “Cryptonomicon,” an elegant mash-up of a WWII historical fiction tale with a modern tech thriller.

William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” (1984) is in many ways similar to “Snow Crash,” with its depiction of virtual reality. But be advised, this is a much darker story than the last. It follows a strung-out hacker as he finds himself given a second chance at life by mysterious forces to partake in a complicated heist on a space station orbiting the Earth. Gibson’s version of dystopia is a definitive “cyberpunk” setting: the urban sprawl never ends, mega-corporations control every facet of life, and cybernetic modification is ubiquitous – one of the main characters possesses retractable claws in her fingers and enhanced optical lenses for eyes, for instance. Without revealing too much, I’ll say that the story deals heavily with issues related to artificial intelligence. This is a classic novel in the genre, and has become highly influential. “Neuromancer” is cited as the popular origin for such sci-fi terms as “the matrix,” “ICE,” and “cyberspace.”

Ian MacDonald’s 2004 novel “River of Gods” is another story about artificial intelligence, although in a completely different context than “Neuromancer.” Set in 2047 in an India which has fractured into numerous competing states, the novel takes on the perspectives of numerous characters throughout the disparate nation: a by-the-book AI-hunting cop; his wife; a surgically non-gendered soap opera producer; a prominent politician struggling to combat the worst drought in history; a pair of scientists working to simulate pre-historic Earth; a street thug with big dreams and Aj, a girl with mysterious powers over the world and the people around her. Also, there might be aliens and they also might have sent us a fun asteroid. It’s a winding, twisting and at times vexing yarn, but it pays off beautifully in a way you don’t quite expect until the very end.

Similarly set in a future Southeast Asia is “The Windup Girl” (2009) by Paulo Bacigalupi. The world has been beset by the ravages of unchecked genetic modification and the runaway greenhouse effect, with a small handful of biotech firms holding the keys to the food supply and health of the entire globe. Set in Bangkok, Thailand centuries hence, the city is threatened constantly with destruction as sea levels have risen nearly beyond the limits even of the enormous levies built around it. Meanwhile, a corporate agent searches for leverage over the city, and a “windup girl” – a genetically modified human analogue – struggles for freedom from captivity. This is perhaps the darkest world I’ve listed here: it touches on sex trafficking, slum living and the realities of a world choking on carbon and disturbing scenes of violence. Not a book for the faint of heart, but definitely a gripping and insightful look into what the world might become.

You may ask, “why read dark stuff? The world is already so dark!” And you have a point.

But I ask in return, why do we read horror novels? In many ways the answer to one is the same as to the other: because they touch on the things that we leave to the back of our minds, but refuse to tackle in the light of day. These books rip that scary science news headline you refuse to click on right from its page and go off running with it. And they take you places you didn’t expect to go, that were far brighter than you expected them to be. So I implore you to check these titles out. Call it an exercise in catharsis.