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Top 5 dystopian novels, featuring Isaac Asimov and Iain M Banks

Bristol Big Issue seller Jack Richardson chooses his top five dystopian books, and explains why sci-fi isn't as frivolous as some may think.

Jack Richardson, Pitch: Bird and Blend Tea, Park Street, Bristol. Illustration by Joseph Joyce

Science fiction may seem frivolous but it has always been a place where scientists and sociologists make best guesses at the future.

Even if you go back to Nineteen Eighty-Four, the overall message that it’s actually very easy to manipulate the human psyche is pretty accurate.

There are often ways that free-thinking sociologists, scientists, dreamers and creatives can project forward from current trends.

Sci-fi offers us a real insight into society and sociological trends. If the books sell it means they’ve captured a particular psychological moment, they’ve captured a feeling. It’s like a window into the soul of the society that is making the fiction.

The best guess that psychologists have is that sentience – consciousness – is an emergent property.

I’m not scared of AIs people have created to do jobs, but I am rather nervous of an accidentally sentient machine. Can you imagine if Google went sentient? It would be the personality made up of the internet. It’d be sentimental and racist and it would love cats and it would be misogynistic. It would be scary.

The Caves Of Steel by Isaac Asimov. Cover: Waterstones

But before we all panic about a sentient Google, here are my top five dystopian novels.

1) The Caves Of Steel by Isaac Asimov

This is a good place to start. He’s got a world where you’ve got an elite class with robot slaves and underground cities full of people living on yeast extracts.

It poses a lot of interesting moral and sociological questions. The fact Asimov was a sociologist as well as a physicist gave him a unique perspective.

2) The Player Of Games by Iain M Banks

The Culture that Banks creates is really positive and forward-looking. But in The Player Of Games he gets sent out to a culture that essentially holds its entire, brutal war-like empire together with a game. It’s a fascinating concept and a fascinating book. It’s also a good place to start with Banks’s Culture.

3) Children Of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Another one that has a positive outcome but starts out very dystopian. Tchaikovsky is new to the sci-fi scene and he’s very good at getting inside the head of an uplifted animal.

If you took an animal with an unusual brain like an octopus and added lots of evolution until it was intelligent, he’s very good at getting inside the kind of psychology that would be created. There’s a lot of really good writing and the resolution is both artful and genius.

4) Horus Rising by Dan Abnett

A bit of pulp sci-fi here with Warhammer 40,000. It’s military sci-fi for proper nerds. It’s the most dystopian dystopia you can possibly imagine.

The human empire is the most repressive and tyrannical regime that has ever existed but because the alien threats are so horrific it’s literally the only way that humanity can survive. It really is grimdark, or unrelentingly miserable. In fact, the word grimdark actually comes from the introduction of the Warhammer 40,000. That’s pretty grim.

Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein. Cover: Waterstones

5) Starship Troopers by Robert A Heinlein

I’ll go with Heinlein for my last one, but he doesn’t actually present it as a dystopia. He presents it as this wonderful world.

In the book he’s essentially presenting a society where only people who’ve engaged in military service are allowed to vote or hold office and the whole society is militarised.

When they made the movie [released in 1997] they satirised the book essentially and had these little flashes of patriotic propaganda through it.

They did a really good job. His views in the original book may seem outdated today but he really is good at telling a rip-roaring yarn.

While he’s telling you about this wonderful society he’s actually showing you quite a horrific society without even realising it. An unintentional dystopia.

Jack Richardson sells The Big Issue outside Bird and Blend Tea, Park Street, Bristol

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