Is it possible for a book to predict the future? Speculative fiction has a long history of trying to. Many works in the genre take the conditions of today’s world — political, technological, social, environmental — and try to extrapolate where it’s all headed.
Whether set in the not-too-distant or far-away future, these stories imagine the potential implications of actions we are taking today and even the smallest decisions we make. These books can even reflect a different perspective on our current reality, or introduce us to issues we had never thought much about.
What would happen if climate change continues to run unchecked? What if technology becomes even more integral to our lives than it is today? What’s the world going to be like if we don’t solve our most pressing social issues? Whatever the questions being asked in these eight novels about dystopian futures, they force us to ask ourselves one more: What if these futures are not as far off as we think?
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Anchor 1985)
In 1985, the world created in The Handmaid’s Tale was an ominous warning of a future world destroyed by conflict, a battle of ideologies, and a social order that seemed too far-off to ever come into being. In Gilead, what remains of America has become a repressive and controlling society whose one goal is to force women into having children, dehumanizing them and taking their autonomy away. Following one such Handmaid, Offred, as she seeks to fight against this system of oppression, Atwood shows us that the path to this world is not so unlikely after all.
Flipping back and forth between the years 2015 and 2051, Followers follows three women — Orla, Floss and Marlow in their quest for internet fame. In 2015, Orla is stuck in a dead-end job. Then, she meets Floss, and they concoct a plan to launch them into the high-profile, internet famous lives they dream about. Fast forward 35 years, to a California village in which government-appointed celebrities live all day, every day on camera. When resident Marlow learns a world-shattering secret about her past, even her 12 million followers aren’t enough to stop her from dreaming of fleeing from her corporate sponsor-driven life. The search for the truth is too important to her, and the stories of Marlow, Orla and Floss all become connected. In this book about the dangers of our obsession with social media, it is easy to see how this future might become a reality. Read our full review here.
It Takes Death to Reach a Star by Stu Jones and Gareth Worthington (Vesuvian 2018)
After the end of the Third World War, when countries fought over oil, power, and religion, an epidemic struck, and within five years, the Earth was annihilated. The lone city that survived is starkly divided into two classes, and serves as a reminder of what has become of the human race. When two people from each class discover a sinister plot that threatens all the people that remain on Earth, they must work together to save their world, and stop a permanent extinction. Written before our current pandemic, the novel imagines how social divisions could deepen, even as we attain immunity. Check out this article for more information about the book, and look for the conclusion to the duology, In the Shadow of the Valiant Moon, on August 25.
Ella has powers. She can see things that haven’t happened yet, read minds and astrally project, and these powers have the potential to destroy her. Her story is intrinsically linked to that of her brother Kev, who is unjustly locked up for the crime of being Black in America. In this dystopian future, Ella and Kev’s lives are filled with danger, both overt and covert. Both siblings are trapped in their realities, and we experience this story from both of their perspectives. In this book that is both a family drama and a global dystopian narrative, it isn’t hard to see how our current reality could resemble Ella and Kev’s in the near future if systematic racial injustice persists.
A few years from now, an inventor named Pax comes up with a combination of augmented and virtual reality that renders all other personal technology obsolete. But when his goal to create an even more revolutionary piece of technology is upended, his plans begin to fall apart. In this cautionary tale about the evolution of the Internet of Things, a worldwide computer virus starts to attack people through the internet, and within days, the virus threatens to destroy civilization. He must join forces with another brilliant tech leader to deal with this crisis, but when she reveals a devastating truth about humanity, Pax must make a choice that will change the world as he knows it.
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead 2014)
In a far-off future, America has become a society filled with self-contained labor colonies stratified by class. Members of the labor class, descendants of those brought to America years earlier from China after its environmental collapse, provide produce to the small, elite villages outside the labor settlements. One of these laborers, Fan, leaves her home in what was once known as Baltimore when the man she loves disappears. She travels through the ruined country to a remote charter village, in a quest that will soon become legend and becomes a collective journey. With echoes of today’s immigration issues, this possible future takes us down a path we may already be on.
Global warming has destroyed most of the world but now a new crisis is here: The Indigenous people of North America are being hunted because their bone marrow carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream. A fifteen-year-old and his companions flee these thieves, struggling to survive the forces hunting them down. They attempt to find their loved ones and get away from the “recruiters” who are seeking them out in this story of connection and humanity.
What will happen in a future where the most essential part of being human — parenthood — is automated? That’s the premise of this novel due out on August 25. After a deadly agent of biowarfare spreads across the globe, scientists scramble to ensure the survival of the human race. They place genetically engineered children inside the cocoons of large-scale robots, who are to be raised by machines. These machines are encoded with a special artificial intelligence: The Mother Code. But as the children come of age, the Mothers change too — in unexpected ways. When the government survivors then decide to destroy the Mothers, these children are faced with a choice: breaking the bond with their Mothers or saving the only parent they have ever known.
Jane is a rising senior at William & Mary, where she studies English and Chinese, participates in the W&M Wind Ensemble, gives campus tours and volunteers at the local animal shelter. Her work has been published in Seventeen, Women’s Health, Small Business Journal, W&M Blogs, and W&M News. When she’s not reading or writing, Jane enjoys traveling, playing the saxophone, drinking matcha and exploring the outdoors with her dog.