Diane Cook: What to Read When Dystopia Is the New Normal

Posted by Cybil on August 21, 2020
Author Diane Cook's debut novel, The New Wilderness, explores a mother's attempt to save her daughter in a world ravaged by climate change and overpopulation. 

Although the cli-fi dystopia novel was just published earlier this month, it's already been included on the prestigious Booker Prize longlist, and has gotten the attention of Hollywood with a planned TV series adaptation.

We asked Cook to recommend some dystopia novels that suddenly seem a bit more like fact than fiction.

What a world we’re living in right now, huh?

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Currently I’m in quarantine with my family before we visit Abuelita’s house for a couple of months. We’ve been planning on doing this since the pandemic really dug in, but we have a newborn and have been waiting for a time when it felt like we could make the trip. We packed a bag full of PB&Js and drove straight through, crossing a few state borders, stopping once for gas, but otherwise only pausing in empty parking lots to run our 2 and a half year old around, nurse the baby, and pee in bushes or hidden between the open car doors.

I remember how disoriented and disbelieving we felt back in March, how stuck we felt, and how wary of others. Now, as we hit the half-year mark of the pandemic, we are resigned, fairly angry, and acting like this is more or less normal. Because it is more or less normal now. We’re not watching the news with bated breath anymore. We’re not even watching the news.

People are going on vacation again, even as some places are surging. We’re arguing about mask wearing and freedom. The government says everything is going great and this virus will eventually just go away. We are taking all that the pandemic is hurling at us and none of it feels all that strange anymore. We’ve slipped into dystopian times.
When you are living in a moment, it is hard to get distance to see it for what it is. But there is something deeply cracked about our present time. This time is changing us as we wait for it to be over.

It got me thinking about the books that create a world where a dystopian aspect feels all too real—which is something I’m hearing from a lot of friends right now about every future-looking book they hear about. Or about books where something all too real is so alarming that it feels dystopian. Books that somehow touch a nerve about how we are living now. Reading them, it dawns on us that we are relating way too much to what is happening on the page.

Fiction is a mirror, and with these books we see how warped things have gotten. Below are five excellent books that present worlds we might have once called dystopian but now just seem like familiar new realities.

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This slim, electric novel presents a world sideways from our own, where people are born to do certain kinds of work, and our narrator is born to be a Temp. But as her temporary jobs become more and more surreal, all she wants is some stability, a sense that she is part of the world and of worth. This is a grotesque version of the gig economy that nails how absurd it can feel to be working for a living these days.

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The strange but very real influence of the internet and other technology on our lives is the compelling preoccupation of the stories in Mary South’s collection. In stories of being haunted by the past online and indoctrinated in our increasingly absurd realities, these scenarios become all too emotionally real. Unsettling and dazzling, this book pulls the curtain back and we see how dystopian our lives have become.

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Okay, this book is straight up science fiction meets fantasy, as our main characters are secretly a science whiz and a magic witch. But their complicated relationship must get parsed as they make very human mistakes and try to stave off the all too familiar catastrophes happening on the planet. Sometimes it can feel like other forces have run amok in our world, and this book activates that idea very literally. And it’s far too easy to wish that with a little magic we could just fix everything that is wrong. There are no easy answers here, just a fascinating, futuristic and very human adventure.

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In a future world ruled by technology, something happens and all the machines…stop. This is the dystopian world we need right now. Agrarian life is valued again. So are libraries and books. No more Twitter. Of course, there is an evil tech mastermind who must be stopped. But, honestly, if this is what the future looks like when everything goes wrong, then I don’t want it to go right.

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After a health crisis in her family, the narrator agrees to join a medical study to pay off her debts and gain that ever elusive and particularly American fantasy—really good health insurance. So good that she puts aside the nagging observation that the participants in the study are all people of color, while the scientists are white. Of course, this isn’t dystopian—it’s medical history. But retelling in the context of our more current world reminds the reader that for many people, life is always a kind of dystopia. It just depends on what side of the power structure you are on. Reading it during the pandemic, I couldn’t help but think of the first wave of people who will test the new vaccine against Covid-19. Would they be the haves or the have-nots? Would they be treated as guinea pigs or heroes?

Do you have a dystopia novel to recommend? Share your pick in the comments below!

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Comments Showing 1-24 of 24 (24 new)

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message 1: by SAINTPERRY (new)


message 2: by Panchali (new)

Panchali Moitra Great list! Bookmarked most of them, thank you for sharing :)

message 3: by Richard (new)

Richard Dominguez very intriguing list, i love a good dystopian read

message 4: by Amy (new)

Amy Love the cover of The Arrest. Nice 50's-70's sci-fi aesthetic.

message 5: by Sophie (new)

Sophie Amy wrote: "Love the cover of The Arrest. Nice 50's-70's sci-fi aesthetic."

Agreed! I just added it to my TBR mountain.

message 6: by Rachel (new)

Rachel I really enjoyed A Beginning at the End by Mike Chen. I read it in February of this year right as the pandemic was ramping up. It helped me predict some of what was going to happen to our society and prepare for it,A Beginning at the End

message 7: by Monica (new)

Monica Station Eleven

message 8: by Lewis (new)

Lewis Ward I may read a few of these books. I would recommend Retrotopia.

message 9: by Jasmine (new)

Jasmine Brown Im pretty sure The Arrest is a response to The Machine Stops, an early dystopia text, so I shall add it to my list :)

message 10: by Noëlle D. (new)

Noëlle D. Lilley Anyone and everyone needs to read Parable of the Sower. Octavia Butler KNEW.

message 11: by Lewis (new)

Lewis Ward Parable of the Sower was a good read

message 12: by Roland Ratiram (new)

Roland Ratiram I hope I get to read fun stories about magic

message 13: by Jeffrey (new)

Jeffrey Gao Dystopia went out 31.459265358979323846264338 grades ago; Fantasy is superior!

message 14: by Satveer (new)

Satveer Kaur I hope to read some dystopian

message 15: by Holly (new)

Holly I'm reading histories of the English Civil Wars; I love the part where Charles II returns to take the throne and the Puritans get their well deserved comeuppance.

message 16: by Elizabeth (new)

Elizabeth The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells - start with All Systems Red and read them all. Good news is that there's a new Murderbot book coming out in 2021 - a long time to wait but you can always re-read the series. Definitely the must have companion for the new dystopian millenium. Intensely exciting story lines and unexpectedly poignant.

message 17: by Shira (new)

Shira Station Eleven, In the Land of Ice Cream Star, and Skin

message 18: by Gloria (new)

Gloria Wallace Migration. It confuses you, entices you, causes you to weep for Franny and leaves you hopeful. First book in a while that brought tears to my eyes. An amazing story maybe too close to how we all feel in a brief moment

message 19: by Hara (new)

Hara Zamyatin’s classic We and Chrostowska’s The Eyelid

message 20: by Torsten (new)

Torsten Schilinsky Perhaps it's too obvious, but I still hold Huxley's "Brave new World" in highest regard as a dystopian novel. Thank you for your list.

message 21: by Tasha (new)

Tasha Shira wrote: "Station Eleven, In the Land of Ice Cream Star, and Skin"

The Country of Ice Cream Star is so under-rated and under-mentioned! I love books with a heavy patois that force you to immerse yourself with language. Anthony Burgess's Clockwork Orange is like that too, as well as Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh.

message 22: by Carla (new)

Carla Tasha wrote: "Shira wrote: "Station Eleven, In the Land of Ice Cream Star, and Skin"

The Country of Ice Cream Star is so under-rated and under-mentioned! I love books with a heavy patois that force you to immer..."

When She Woke

message 23: by Marti (new)

Marti Dolata Lewis wrote: "I may read a few of these books. I would recommend Retrotopia."

There is more than one title, by which author?

message 24: by Marti (new)

Marti Dolata Shira wrote: "Station Eleven, In the Land of Ice Cream Star, and Skin"

Skin written by ?

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