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Five Wonderful Books About A Horrible Future

Who doesn’t like to gaze into the future and dream about how wonderful things will soon be?

Not these authors.  They are/were more interested in trying to figure out just how bad things could get.  And they each created at least one very specific vision of what that might mean.

1. Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut was the patron saint of anyone who thought the world was headed straight to hell.  But his own visions of what that might look like are so off the wall that they resist imitation.  Cat’s Cradle is about a new non-religion, a crazy island republic, a midget, a bunch of poems, and something called Ice-9.  Ice-9 was invented for the military, it sits in several little bottles, and ends the world in one of the oddest ways imaginable.

Rating: 90 skeins of thread.

2. 1984 by George Orwell

Read full 1984 book review here.  Absolutely perfect in a way that will make you shiver for a week.

Rating: 100 rusty cages of rats.

3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

In the future of The Handmaid’s Tale women wear weird little hats and red dresses.  Oh, and their ovaries are commodities, so the women are kept under lock and key so they’re always handy for reproduction.  Women who can no longer reproduce–or who never could–are not treated well.

Rating: 50 million reasons I’m glad I’m a man.

4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

In the too-near future, gangs of young thugs called “droogs” roam the streets killing, raping, and doing whatever they want.  They even speak their own language, a truly brilliant literary creation called “nadsat.”  The brutal leader of one of the gangs is captured.  He undergoes a scientific experiment that literally cures him of violent urges.  It also takes away his love for Beethoven.  A Clockwork Orange is a glorious, depraved must read.

Rating: 25 codpieces and false eyelashes.

5.  The Road by Cormac McCarthy

A depressing tale about a man and his young son, wandering down a freezing road after a nuclear winter.  Bad people are doing bad things so they can survive.  Nobody is safe.  Nobody is warm.  Author Cormac McCarthy spends a lot of time in dark places–The Road, in my opinion, is his most relentlessly bleak novel after the beautiful monstrosity of a western that is Blood Meridian. The movie for The Road is going to have Viggo Mortensen in it.  It opens in late November and will share the theaters will some movies that will be a bit cheerier.

I think Blood Meridian takes itself even more seriously than the Dune books, if that’s possible.

Rating: 100 bottles of anti-depressants and a warm sweater.

There are a lot more books about dystopian futures.  Let’s talk about your favorites.


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  • Chris Smith October 2, 2009, 1:23 am

    Great post. I’m always looking for something new to read. I’ve read 1984 and Cat’s Cradle. I love Kurt Vonnegut. Slaughterhouse Five is a great one if you haven’t read it. I’m going to have to check out the other 3.

  • Greg October 2, 2009, 4:51 am

    George Orwell I really enjoyed, but I just couldn’t get into Clockwork Orange.

  • Warren Talbot October 2, 2009, 6:55 am

    Any of these books would be a dark and twisted way to start your morning. I absolutely love that you chose them. 1984 is the best on the list, in my humble opinion.

    Happy Friday.

  • Casey October 2, 2009, 7:47 am

    We’ve discussed a few of these, so I’ll let my previous words stand.

    One of my favorite books (series)about the end of the world (or not since there is still something to write about) was “The Survivalist”. There is a limted nuclear war between the US and Russia and leaves a lot of survivors. The protaganist is a former doctor turned CIA agent, who is lost in the middle of it all.

    Guns? Check. Evil biker gangs? Check. Machismo filled lead charaters? Check. Impossible senarios? Check. Looking back I’m kind of embarassed about reading it, but as a 13year old they were awesome. However the series got long in tooth and well… strange.

  • Tim October 2, 2009, 8:53 am


    I love this post…thank you for sharing these books. Although it is not a book, I’m starting to see promos for the movie 2012. Since we only have a few years left and no long term future, it is time to take a trip around the world with the help of my credit card. Seriously, I remember I was a kid and heard that the world was supposed to end and I really freaked out.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 2, 2009, 8:58 am

      @Tim: what’s the first stop on your world tour?

      @Casey: I’m looking up the survivalist right now. Sounds awesome!

      @Warren: I agree on 1984.

      @Chris Smith: I’ve read everything by Vonnegut a billion times. You’re spot on with SH 5.

  • Positively Present October 2, 2009, 8:59 am

    Love, love, LOVE The Handmaid’s Tale. Everyone should read that book… It had me thinking and completely shaken up for days after reading it.

  • Hazra October 2, 2009, 9:15 am

    I love 1984; it’s one of my favorite books. Fahrenheit 451 is a great dystopian book too.

  • Johan Mares October 2, 2009, 10:54 am

    Thanx for making my to read-list longer. The only one I have read from your list is 1984 and I find the book, the movie and the music by the Eurythmics awesome. I read a lot of SF and in a lot of them the future of humanity isn’t that bright, but calling it horrible would be exaggerated compared to 1984.
    I thought of mentioning the Star Wars universe with all those nosy Jedi, but that was a long time ago.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 2, 2009, 12:03 pm

      Johan, that’s the first time I’ve ever heard the Jedis referred to as “nosy.” You made my day.

  • Tim October 2, 2009, 1:08 pm


    I would immediately head to London and then hit France and use some of the French language skills I used in college, then hit Italy, Spain, etc. I would visit a lot of the major attractions and hang out at a lot of cafes and search for the woman of my dreams.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 2, 2009, 3:20 pm

      Tim, maybe the woman of your dreams is reading this blog and the picture of the two of you will become the new logo.

  • Jon Owens October 2, 2009, 1:13 pm

    Great post Josh. My reading list just got four books longer. My humble submission would be “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson. I read this long before the movie came out and while I liked the movie for different reasons — shooting and blowing up vampires is cool anytime — the book really draws you in and gives you a glimpse of what being the last “normal” person on the planet would be like.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 2, 2009, 3:20 pm

      Jon, I LOVE the old Matheson stuff. I am Legend is fantastic, you’re absolutely right. I’m a Twilight Zone Fan–the old TZ–and Matheson wrote a lot of the classic episodes, like Nightmare at 30,000 Feet. The man is a genius. His most recent writing hasn’t been that great, but thanks for bringing this up, Jon.

  • Lori | Jane Be Nimble October 2, 2009, 4:52 pm

    Hi Josh,

    I come here for inspiration, life-pushing advice, and strong-man motivation, and I get this????
    (ha – I’m totally joking there…, did I get you?)

    Really, I loved this post. I’m glad you added “The Road” b/c I’ve been staring at that one, being on the fence, for a few months now. I’ll pick it up.

    As for doomsday-related reads, I can’t say I remember any good ones. I think I erased them from memory. Although, I did see a bumper sticker yesterday and thought of you:
    “Buckle up – aliens will have a harder time extracting you from your car.”

    • Josh Hanagarne October 2, 2009, 6:42 pm

      Lori, if I was fancy enough to have a bumper, I would want that bumper sticker.

  • Shane October 2, 2009, 10:12 pm

    Add “Alas Babylon” to the list.

  • G October 4, 2009, 6:46 pm

    Heinlein’s “Farnam’s Freehold” is not exactly cheerful, but certainly far less bleak than most post-apocalyptic fiction.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 4, 2009, 6:54 pm

      @G: Heinlein wasn’t very upbeat, was he? I’ll check that out, thank you. So far I’ve only read Stranger In A Strange Land and Starship Troopers.

  • Tracie Yule October 5, 2009, 4:55 am

    You’ve all ready mentioned my favorites, The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood gave me fifty million reasons to wish I was a man 🙂

  • Chris Baltzley October 5, 2009, 1:31 pm

    Take a look at series “Novels of the Change” by S. M. Stirling. They are set in our contempory world, but start with an event where EVERYTHING mechanized stops working at the same instant and “something” has changed physical reality so that combustion is impossible beyond a certain, weakened level, i.e., things will burn, but not explode (gunpowder just sizzles); steam can be produced, but will not build up much pressure, etc..
    There is a lot of well-researched detail of HOW the survivors actually get it together to grow crops, make things and defend themselves from the usual bullies and crazies, and some interesting comparisons of the differences in the way the pre-Change generation thinks versus their “changeling” children who are born to this world. And, of course, there is the “hero’s journey” and the “evil empire” that opposes him to make the books a good adventure story too. A little TOO much for me in the combat tactics and military strategy, but interesting enough to keep me engaged – cavalry on horseback AND bicycles, anyone?

  • TIC October 5, 2009, 1:47 pm

    To quote Homer Simpson, “What a bleak and horrible future we live in!”

    Brave New World really rocked my old world in college.

    Will you be watching The Road? I’m not sure I will. Always disappointed when I see films of great books I love.

  • Laurie October 6, 2009, 6:19 pm

    Hi Josh. I enjoy your blog.

    I’m currently in book 4 (of 6) of the Dune saga by Frank Herbert. While it mixes in some magical elements such as a “spice” that helps people see the future (melange) that comes from giant sand worms, and a few characters who are born with the consciences of their ancestors, it examines a universe where machanical computers have been outlawed (there are, however, human computers, or “mentats”), and how politics and religion can be exploited in the name of ruling.

    The words Herbert invents tend to have roots in our language and hint at “terranic” history. As the books progress, it becomes more and more clear that there is a common history back to the Earth that we know, which no longer exists when the story takes place. Some of the fun is trying to make sense of what has happened between the time the story takes place and present times, as well as the roots of words Herbert invents. So far my guess is that there must have been a war between computers and humans (the Butlerian Jihad), and humans won, but it was so bad humanity outlawed computers from then on. There is also a ban on “atomics,” so maybe that came into play in that same war.

    The books are still fresh even 46 years after book 1 was published (I think it was 1963). There are a lot of elements, particularly in book 1, that likely influenced George Lucas in the Star Wars epic (e.g., a desert planet with 2 moons (2 suns in star wars), a bad guy in the pedigree, “sandcrawlers,” and the primary weapons are knives rather than guns, and the little guy pitted against a corrupt empire.

    I guess I’m not reading the books for the lesson they may teach, but I’m thoroughly enjoying them and thought they fit into this category, and hope that you or other readers may enjoy them as well.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 6, 2009, 7:17 pm

      @Laurie: I tried the first Dune but am embarrassed to say it just didn’t happen. I couldn’t get into it. I’m usually able to force my way through just about anything, especially a book like Dune. It’s one of those that I “should” have read. I even want to read it, but…who knows why it didn’t work this first time? Maybe I’ll have to grab the audio.

  • Laurie October 6, 2009, 8:04 pm

    I almost didn’t start book 1, in large part because it has a glossary at the end to define terms in the book (which, as it turns out, is quite handy). That was rather intimidating at first, and I wondered what the point was. Might as well read about nuclear physics or a foreign language if you need a glossary. But my brother was into the books, and I was at his house, and I’d hit a dry spell in the novel dept….and then I got hooked.

    P.S. my wife is blown away by the fact that you responded. A user-friendly blog you run here. Thanks. LPC

    • Josh Hanagarne October 6, 2009, 8:12 pm

      Laurie, if I’m ever such a diva that I can’t respond to a comment, you are ordered to come over here and strangle me. I’ll send you my address when it’s time.

  • Johan Mares October 6, 2009, 9:07 pm

    Ah Dune. This is the book and series that got me hooked on science fiction. Read all 6 of them in a month more then 20 years ago. Have reread it twice in Dutch and once in English since then. The intriges, the plans behind plans, … His son and Kevin Anderson wrote 2 series. The first predates Dune and includes the Butlerian Jihad and how all the factions were formed. The other serie picks up where Dune Kapittel left of. I have read them, I had even bought them , but after reading I sold them. Included some really nice chapters, but even his son and Kevin Anderson cannot stand in the shadow of Master Frank.

    • Josh Hanagarne October 6, 2009, 9:35 pm

      Johan, give me the Dune appreciation class. How do I read it and enjoy it?

  • Johan Mares October 7, 2009, 4:01 am

    Appreciation class, never heard this expression before, but I will give it a try.
    Why should you read Dune?
    – SF classic
    – Is considered one of the greatest SF novels of all time
    – Space opera
    – the SF is just a setting, it’s about politics, intrigue, power games (maybe I should give Machiavelli a try), deceit, lies, destiny, …
    – and coming of age. The main character is trained to become a leader and warrior, but his upbringing is sheltered – political assassinations are not uncommon. His sheltered existence is about to end soon. No more training games … duels become fights to the death.
    – It is our future, but a lot has happened between the present and the events in Dune. You only get hints. So it is not fastfood like Star Wars, you have to take your time to appreciate and understand it. The difference between a Star Wars movie and Dune novel is like the difference between a James Bond movie and a Jack Ryan novel (by Tom Clancy). Sort of.
    – Messiah, a very popular theme … Dune, Star Wars, Matrix and the Bible.
    – Contains lots of good quotes, not only throughout the book, but every chapter starts with one. They are quotes from the Dune universe:
    Some quotes:
    – There is no escape–we pay for the violence of our ancestors. (maybe politicians should keep this in mind for the next Middle-East peace conference)
    – What do you Despise? By this are you truly known.
    – Deep in the human unconscious is a pervasive need for a logical universe that makes sense. But the real universe is always one step beyond logic.
    – If wishes were fishes, we’d all cast nets.
    – I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.
    – They tried and died. (eat this, Yoda)

    His son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson have written 2 trilogies that predate the Dune-series and several books that continue the Dune-sage – Chapterhouse Dune has an open ending, but unfortunately Frank Herbert died shortly after publication. Brian and Kevin can’t get enough of it, they keep on producing Dune-books, but none of them is a match for Dune. The prequels have some merit, but after that I stopped reading their work.

    How’s that as an appreciation lecture?

    • Josh Hanagarne October 7, 2009, 8:59 am

      @Johan: I am now begging for mercy and will try Dune again. You had me at “eat this, Yoda.”

  • Laurie October 7, 2009, 7:32 am

    Josh and Johan: My guess is that Dune, like any other story, either gets you or it doesn’t. Josh, if you like sci fi, I think it’s worth a shot. I really enjoyed the Harry Potter books, but, despite the general popularity (which initially put me off of them), I’ve still found some holdouts: people who have tried to read them and just can’t do it. There’s no shame in that. Thanks for the fun thread.

  • Johan Mares October 7, 2009, 7:55 am

    Despite being a huge fantasy fan I don’t like Harry Potter. I made the effort to try to read the first 3 books, but then I gave up, which is unusual because I am able to read and even enjoy (as something to pass time) Clive Cussler and Preston & Child. I tried to discuss this with Harry Potter fans, but it turned out that Harry Potter was the only fantasy they knew, which makes it difficult to have a meaningful discussion. They had never heard of the likes of Ursula LeGuin, Terry Pratchett, Raymond Feist, Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, … This inspired me to some witty remarks that they are fantasy illiterate but at family reunions I find myself outnumbered 6 to 1 on the subject of Harry Potter. The rest of the family stays on neutral grounds.
    PS: If you like Harry Potter that is fine, but when someone starts saying that Harry Potter is the best fantasy ever and it turns out they have never heard of the other authors I’ve mentioned … I just can’t help myself. 😉

  • Robert Mott March 10, 2011, 8:06 pm

    my favorite SF sometimes dystopian sometimes not is Robert Heinlein he does some amazing things