Vurt (Jeff Noon, 1993)
A mad romp through a Trainspotting-like drug culture, Vurt features virtual-reality ‘feathers’ that take you to bizarre and forbidden worlds, shadow-creatures that exist in between this world and the virtual who can slip in and out of your mind at will, slobbering man-dog hybrids and cybernetic implants that can render a person more machine than human. All this, and an unexpectedly endearing – and disturbing – love story that lies at the centre of it all. Set in an inexplicably impoverished and environmentally degraded world, this masterful and truly strange work of dystopian science fiction leads readers on a freakish romp through the a world of dispossessed have-nots constantly seeking the next big score in a society were the virtual is much more emotionally satisfying that the physical.
Day of the Oprichnik (Vladimir Sorokin, 2006)
This bizarrely funny and disturbing novel by master Russian satirist Vladimir Sorokin has one numerous international awards but remains woefully under-read in North America, despite an excellent translation. Set in a post-communist Russia which has reverted back to its Tsarist roots, Day of the Oprichnik details a world absurdly mired in xenophobia, nationalism and hypocrisy; not to draw parallels to recent events is impossible. All this to say, the book is also hilarious, carefully cultivating a tone of reverent irreverence for a system and a way of thinking that is exposed as ludicrous but yet remains irrevocably in place; a sense of comical but existentially dreadful helplessness pervades. The novel is titled after the actual Oprichnik – a kind of medieval secret service used by Tsar Ivan the Terrible – which draws upon uncomfortable memories of the KGB and SS forces. Not for the faint of heart, this novel contains extremely graphic scenes of sex and violence.
1984 (George Orwell, 1950)
The Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 word of the year was post-truth, defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’. This idea (and even the structure of the word itself) bears such a striking resemblance to Newspeak – the language being created and taught by the government in George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 – that it’s a wonder it wasn’t pulled out of the plot of the novel itself. The book also features an oligarchy founded on ignorance, war and the eternal fear of an invisible but foreign enemy, a beloved dictator who maintains his position through threats, political back-dealings and meaningless appeals to a manufactured morality and a culture in which conformity is the highest virtue one can achieve, obedience is justice and ‘facts’ are subject to change when they become inconvenient. This powerful and political novel has sold thousands of copies in the last month and is a bestseller on Amazon (where it is currently out of stock) making Orwell a remarkably popular writer despite his notable handicap of being dead.