10 interesting works of dystopian fiction that predate George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four
George Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is perhaps the most famous dystopian novel in the world, with the adjective ‘Orwellian’ being listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and the phrases ‘Big Brother’, ‘thoughtcrime’, and ‘newspeak’ being part of the language. But Orwell’s classic novel didn’t arise in isolation, and there were a number of earlier dystopian novels written before Orwell put pen to paper (or finger to typewriter). Here is our pick of the ten best early dystopian novels worth checking out. Okay, so they’re not all novels – there are a couple of short stories in here too. But then variety is the spice of life…
Samuel Butler, Erewhon (1872). The fictional land of Erewhon – almost ‘nowhere’ backwards, in homage to the origins of dystopian fiction in the no-place that is ‘Utopia’ – is the setting for this novel, often called anti-utopian but, we would argue, also one that qualifies for the label ‘dystopian’. Among the other things satirised by Butler in this book is the rise of the machines, which Butler argues will evolve at an ever-faster rate – along the lines of Darwinian evolution – until the machines eventually overtake humans. Before James Cameron came up with The Terminator, there was Butler’s novel, and it’s a hugely enjoyable read. We’ve discussed Butler’s Erewhon in a separate post.
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Coming Race (1871). In this novel – written by the man who penned the most infamous opening line in all of literature – a traveller descends into the bowels of the earth and discovers a race of angelic creatures (the ‘coming race’ of the title) who are possessed of superhuman strength thanks to a mysterious substance called Vril. The name of this fictional substance inspired the Victorian makers of a new beef extract to come up with the name ‘Bovril’ – after Vril, the fictional substance in Bulwer-Lytton’s novel with life-giving properties, and Bos, the Latin for cow/beef.
Anthony Trollope, The Fixed Period (1882). Published in the last year of Trollope’s prolific life and literary career (he wrote some 47 novels in total), The Fixed Period is set in the year 1980 on the fictional island republic of Britannula. The narrator, John Neverbend, is president of the island. He wishes to pass a euthanasia bill sentencing every citizen to death when they turn 67. David Lodge has written a detailed article about this little-read novel here and we’ve offered an analysis of its major themes here. (Fans of Trollope and Victorian literature might also be interested in our interesting facts about Anthony Trollope.)
Margaret Oliphant, ‘The Land of Darkness’ (1887). Published originally in the popular Blackwood’s magazine, this short story written by Queen Victoria’s favourite novelist tells of a hellish world modelled on Dante’s Inferno, with a bit of Victorian industrialisation thrown in. The narrator encounters the slave labour of men toiling away in furnaces before being shown what must be the first ‘robots’ in English literature. More about this curious story here.
Jack London, The Iron Heel (1908). Praised by George Orwell in 1943 for being ‘a very remarkable prophecy of the rise of fascism’, this novel is often regarded as the first properly modern dystopian novel, and was Jack London’s most clearly socialist work (though London himself maintained that his particular political outlook was ‘the socialism of the caveman’). London also wrote a post-apocalyptic novel in 1912, The Scarlet Plague, which is even less well-known now: in 2013, an epidemic wipes out much of the world’s population, and sixty years later one of the survivors tries to forestall mankind’s reversion to a primitive hunter-gatherer state.
E. M. Forster, ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909). This is another short story but is essential reading for any fans of early, pre-Orwell dystopian fiction. In the future, mankind dwells underground where they rely on a machine for all their needs. Like many other dystopian stories, Forster’s has gone on to influence popular culture in numerous fields (the pop group Level 42 even wrote a song about it) and it has been pronounced one of the best-ever science-fiction stories on several occasions. In his diary in January 1908, the year before the story was published, Forster wrote that ‘I have been born at the end of the age of peace and can’t expect to feel anything but despair. Science, instead of freeing man – the Greeks nearly freed him by right feeling – is enslaving him to machines…. God what a prospect!’ We should view ‘The Machine Stops’ as Forster’s imagining of a nightmare future in which this ‘prospect’ is realised. The story also anticipated some later technological inventions, such as instant messaging and video conferencing.
H. G. Wells, The Sleeper Awakes (1910). The title of this Wells novel echoes Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops’, and even if this is unconscious on Wells’s part, it is quite a nice fact, given that Forster had written ‘The Machine Stops’ as ‘a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells’ (possibly A Modern Utopia). The Sleeper Awakes was itself a rewriting of Wells’s earlier novel When the Sleeper Wakes (1899). A Victorian Rip van Winkle figure (called Graham) falls into a heavy coma and when he eventually wakes up over 200 years later, it is to discover that he has become the richest man in the world, thanks to the interest on his bank account. The future is Graham’s worst nightmare: although technology has advanced at a rapid rate in 200 years, mankind has not, it would seem, improved with it. We included this book in our pick of the best of H. G. Wells’s novels.
Yevgey Zamyatin, We (1924). Set in a future world largely composed of glass – so the ‘One State’ can spy on everyone more easily – this novel would later be a significant influence on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. As with Ayn Rand’s Anthem (see below), individuality has largely disappeared with everyone dressing the same and walking in step with each other. As with many great mid-twentieth-century dystopias, conformity is the watchword for the nightmarish world depicted in this Russian classic.
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (1932). Set in the year A. F. 632 (i.e. 632 years ‘After [Henry] Ford’), this novel is, like many of Huxley’s early society comedies (such as Antic Hay and Crome Yellow), parodic and satirical as much as it is grave and serious. An attack on Fordist capitalism and sexual licence among other things, the novel would prove Huxley’s most popular, and he would return to its treatment of utopianism in two later works: Brave New World Revisited (as we discuss in our post detailing some interesting Aldous Huxley facts) and his last, utopian novel Island (described by critic Frank Kermode as ‘one of the worst novels ever written’).
Ayn Rand, Anthem (1938). Although often derided as a bad novel, even by Rand’s admirers, Anthem is nevertheless an interesting book. This short novel, set in a new Dark Age at some unspecified point in the future, depicts a world in which all human individuality has disappeared. Rand wanted the book to be made into a cartoon film, and even approached Walt Disney about the idea, but the film was never made.
If you enjoyed this pick of the best early dystopian novels, you might also enjoy our fascinating facts about Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. We also have more dystopian fun in our collection of interesting Hunger Games facts and our fascinating facts about James Dashner’s The Maze Runner.