My Seven Favorite Dystopias in Books and Film

Neue RegelMy new novel, The Revisionists, is set in contemporary Washington and steeped in post-9/11 paranoia. One of the main characters, however, is a time traveler from the future. His job is to make sure that a horrible event ensues in Washington as dictated by History, in order to bring about his own Perfect Future. Which, of course, turns out to be not quite as perfect as he at first believes.

In writing the novel, I took a second look at some of the great dystopias that have graced the page and screen over the last few decades. It’s surprising how much fun it can be to read about and view the end of the world, or whatever it is that comes after. Some of my favorites:

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell. Like my own book, only a small part of this is set in the future, but that section is intricately connected to this complicated novel’s other storylines. In addition to some narratives set in the past, Mitchell tells a story about a clone/slave in what sounds like a futuristic Korea, where people are bred for certain tasks and resistance is futile. Then another storyline takes us even further into the future, to a post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where mankind has been reduced to an almost Neanderthal state after some horrific disaster. Spooky, thought-provoking stuff.

Brazil and 12 Monkeys by Terry Gilliam. Brazil might be the best dystopian film ever made, and certainly it has the scariest appearance ever by a former member of Monty Python (beware of Michael Palin’s cheery grin). Big Brother is everywhere in this film, and our hero is sucked into The System simply because his name is mistyped on a government file. And even though 12 Monkeys is mostly set in the present, the time traveler from the future is so terrified by the world to come that his fear permeates every scene. We don’t even need to see much of his time to be scared of it.

Feed by M.T. Anderson. Okay, this is considered a young adult novel, but I loved it. It’s nearly a decade old and much of its predictions have come to pass, which makes it all the scarier. The teens in this novel have their brains constantly connected via a “feed” to an Internet that bombards them with advice on what to buy, where to go, who to sleep with. Except for one teen, a young girl who has rebelled, and who sees how crazy everyone else has become. Sort of a Brave New World for the Internet age; deeply moving and sad.

Selected Stories of Philip K. Dick. I knew that I had to better acquaint myself with Dick’s paranoid visions before I could attempt to write my own. Rather than picking one of his novels or stories to push here, I recommend tackling this wonderful collection of stories. Sure, he wrote too fast and didn’t seem to edit himself much, but the man had such a surfeit of ideas and crazy notions and wild existential questions that they carry us right along, happily smiling no matter how terrifying the world he creates for us.

Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. It’s impossible to pick one of these books without the other, as they each recreate the same dystopia, one brought about by our current addictions to consumerism, pharmaceuticals, and genetic engineering. One day not so far in the future, when the super-rich live in super-protected bubbles and everyone else festers in the “PleebLands,” an evil genius implants a disease in a drug company’s ubiquitous pills, wiping out nearly the entire human race.

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize; the critically acclaimed The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers; and his new novel, The Revisionists. His books have been named to Year’s Best lists by such places as The Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, The Onion, Atlanta Magazine, and