Five Great Novels About Truly Terrible Worlds

As the recent blockbuster success of The Hunger Games proved the only thing people may like more than envisioning the perfect society is envisioning an imperfect one. In fact hellish landscapes and cityscapes have been a staple of speculative fiction for over a century.  Consider the following classic works.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895) One of the earliest entries in the genre by one of the founding fathers of sci-fi. Wells anonymous protagonist known only as the Time Traveler is a scientist and a gentleman inventor who travels hundreds of thousands of years into the future. Once there he finds that humanity has evolved into two separate species according to class divisions. The leisure classes have become the attractive but child like and helpless Eloi, while the working classes have become an underground ape like race known as the Morlocks. The Time Machine has spawned three film adaptions, two television versions, comic book adaptions and has been one of the most influential novels in its genre, inspiring countless other works.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935)  This semi-satirical novel was published during the rise of fascism in Europe, and Lewis speculated how similar movements could gain power in America. Berzelius “Buzz” Windrip is elected president on a campaign espousing patriotism and traditional values with the endorsement of a major religious leader. Once in office he consolidates power and establishes totalitarian rule along the same lines as Hitler and the SS. The novel’s protagonist Doremus Jessup tries to warn people every step of the way, only to constantly have his fears dismissed with the statement, “It Can’t Happen Here!” The novel inspired a hit play and is currently enjoying a massive resurgence in popularity.

1984 by George Orwell (1948) Set in Airstrip One (formerly Great Britain) in the super state of Oceania a society racked by never ending war, constant surveillance and public manipulation.  The main protagonist Winston Smith works for the Ministry of Truth actually the government’s propaganda unit only to begin an illicit affair with Julia who introduces him to the Underground Resistance.  Considered THE novel on totalitarianism and living in a police state, being the one that coined the classic phrases “Big Brother,” “Thought Police” and “We Have Always Been at War With Eurasia.”

A Canticle for Leibowitz By Walter M. Miller (1960) Set in a Catholic monastery located in what once part of the American Southwest and now a nuclear wasteland, the novels spans thousands of years.  The monks of the fictional Albertian Order of Leibowitz have the sacred trust of preserving the few remaining shreds of mankind’s scientific knowledge until man is ready once more to receive it.  But will mankind ever truly be ready?  It won the Hugo award in 1961 for Best Science Fiction Novel, and has never been out of print with over 25 reprints and new editions having been published.  It is thought to be the best novel ever written about nuclear apocalypse and is considered not only a masterpiece of science fiction but of literature period alongside the works of Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene.

The Handmaid’s Tale By Margaret Atwood (1985)  Set in the Republic of Gilead (formerly known as New England) where a massive drop in the white fertility rate has led to the rise of a totalitarian theocracy and the thorough subjugation of women.  The narrator Offred alternates between her current life as a ‘handmaid’ used to reproduce children for a Commander and his infertile wife Serena Joy, and her past which included a husband and daughter.  Along the way we learn of several classes of women under the new regime-none of whom have a very good deal.  This one’s become a staple of women’s studies classes and a new highly anticipated tv series will be airing on Hulu in April starring Elizabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Joseph Fiennes, Max Minghella, and Yvonne Strahovski.

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About Winnefred Ann Frolik (155 Articles)
Winnefred Ann Frolik (Winnie for short) was born and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She completed the International Baccleareate program at Schenley High School and then attended the University of Pittsburgh where she completed a double major in English Literature and Creative Writing. After graduation she spent a number of years working in the non-profit sector and it was during that phase in her life she moved to D.C.  Winnie co-wrote a book on women in the U.S. Senate with Billy Herzig.  She enrolled in a baking program in culinary school and worked in food services for a while. She currently works in personal services while writing for Woman Around Town and doing other freelance writing projects including feeble personal attempts at fiction. Her brother is a reporter in Dayton, Ohio so clearly there are strong writing genes in the family.  She lives in Pittsburgh, PA, with two demanding cats.