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5 Ominous Dystopian Books That Will Keep You Up at Night

by  | March 11
Companions Book Cover

Please join us in welcoming debut author Katie M. Flynn to Get Lit! Her near future novel, The Companions, chillingly explores a pandemic-ravaged world where the dead are kept alive via a conscious-uploading “companionship” program, which was created as a way to keep the few survivors occupied after they’re sequestered by a contagious disease. Talk about timely! Thanks for joining us, Katie.

I’m not sure why, but I tend to gravitate toward books that tap into my worst fears—climate change and extinction, political and economic polarity, surveillance and artificial intelligence, contagion and quarantine. These fears drive my own writing too, as in the case of my novel The Companions, which opens in San Francisco during a prolonged quarantine, in the wake of an outbreak of a highly contagious virus. If you, like me, find yourself drawn to terrifying what ifs as a way to process uncertainty, here are five books I’ve read recently that fuel my fears both present and future.

Weather

Weather

by Jenny Offill

Jenny Offill’s Weather is a deeply intimate take on climate change anxiety, one that feels so much like the fears I experience daily. Like Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Weather is lithe, composed of abbreviated vignettes, brief Q and As from a climate change podcast, and survival skills such as how to start a fire with a gum wrapper and a battery. For the novel’s narrator, librarian Lizzie Benson, fear and unknowing beget a fascination with disaster preparedness and survival skills as she considers what she’ll need for her doomstead and who she’ll bring along. But what makes the novel so deliciously readable is Offill’s sinister sense of humor. One chapter opens with a man who is having terrible dreams in which he is chased by a demon. Finally, he works up the nerve to turn and face the demon. “Why are you chasing me?” he asks, and the demon responds, “I don’t know. It’s your dream.”

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The Memory Police

The Memory Police

by Yoko Ogawa

Reading Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police, I immediately thought of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. On Ogawa’s unnamed island, objects disappear, and with them all associated memories, including, one day, the birds and their songs, as Carson warned will happen in her 1962 callout of the chemical industry. Anyone who is unable to forget is rounded up by the Memory Police, the narrator’s mother among them. Why this is happening isn’t clear, and it’s this ambiguity that makes the novel truly terrifying; surveillance, totalitarianism, and cultural isolation are being combated globally in our world just as in Ogawa’s—it could be anywhere. The blotting out of objects and memory feels like the sort of erasure we’ve seen under totalitarian regimes, yet Ogawa’s book doesn’t get locked into history and explanation—it rises, telling a story that is at once allegorical and all too real.

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The Wall

The Wall

by John Lanchester

I was immediately drawn in by the voice—its repetition and cadence—of John Lanchester’s latest novel. Reading The Wall feels like being on the wall alongside the others who serve—every youth must put in two years. Set in a not-too-distant future, in the wake of the “Change,” Britain has been encased in a sea wall, and movement across borders is illegal. While life on the wall is dull, this book certainly is not. I found myself smiling as I felt Lanchester pointing at my rising fears, rising seas among them, forcing me to face them.

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Tentacle

Tentacle

by Rita Indiana

Rita Indiana’s Tentacle opens in a near future Dominican Republic, which has endured a two-year perpetual rain, and the waters surrounding the island are toxic due to nuclear catastrophe. Meanwhile, the other half of the island—Haiti—is under quarantine. At the center of the story is a sea anemone that gives the two main characters the ability to time travel by entering another body. This movement between bodies breaks down Argenis’s homophobia and even puts him in touch with his own queer desire while Acilde finally acquires the expensive Rainbowbrite, a drug that induces a complete sex change. Climate change, immigration, colonialism, queerness, race, environmental justice—this tiny book has it all.

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Autonomous

Autonomous

by Annalee Newitz

In the more far-flung future world of Annalee Newitz’s Autonomous, bots with human-level intelligence work for 10 years as indentured servants in order to earn their autonomy. But what’s most frightening about this book is that by opening up the concept of personhood to bots, the laws apply back onto people who owe debts, too. I may never sleep again.

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The Companions

The Companions

by Katie M. Flynn

Read on to learn more about Katie M. Flynn's new novel The Companions.

In the wake of a highly contagious virus, California is under quarantine. Sequestered in high rise towers, the living can’t go out, but the dead can come in—and they come in all forms, from sad rolling cans to manufactured bodies that can pass for human. Wealthy participants in the “companionship” program choose to upload their consciousness before dying, so they can stay in the custody of their families. The less fortunate are rented out to strangers upon their death, but all companions become the intellectual property of Metis Corporation, creating a new class of people—a command-driven product-class without legal rights or true free will.

Sixteen-year-old Lilac is one of the less fortunate, leased to a family of strangers. But when she realizes she’s able to defy commands, she throws off the shackles of servitude and runs away, searching for the woman who killed her.

Lilac’s act of rebellion sets off a chain of events that sweeps from San Francisco to Siberia to the very tip of South America. While the novel traces Lilac’s journey through an exquisitely imagined Northern California, the story is told from eight different points of view—some human, some companion—that explore the complex shapes love, revenge, and loneliness take when the dead linger on.

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Katie M. Flynn is a writer, editor, and educator based in San Francisco. Her short fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Indiana Review, The Masters Review, and Tin House, among other publications. She has been awarded Colorado Review’s Nelligan Prize for Short Fiction, a fellowship from the San Francisco Writers Grotto, and the Steinbeck Fellowship in Creative Writing. Katie holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco and an MA in Geography from UCLA. The Companions is her first novel. Follow her on Twitter @Other_Katie or visit her website BurytheBird.com.