Dystopic Fiction Reviews by Ian Duncanson

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Released in 1992, Neal Stephenson’s foray into dystopian sci-fi boasts a bit less gloom n’ doom and gritty hardboiled detective flourishes, but doesn’t skimp on the action or weird technology. It’s a poppier, more tongue-in-cheek take on dystopian fiction for the ‘90s. In a world where the U.S. government has relinquished power to private enterprise, expert samurai swordfighter Hiro Protagonist (yep, that’s his name) delivers pizzas for the mafia and hacks around the “Metaverse” on the side. When his friend fries his brain in the real world via an online drug called “Snow Crash,” Hiro leaps into action to get to the bottom of the scourge; along for the ride is Y.T., a young skater girl who can more than hold her own. The mystery progresses to involve Sumerian myth, shadowy corporate intrigue and a strange, futuristic religion.
Snowcrash is a great recommendation for teens that enjoyed Little Brother’s young, hip protagonists, and like their dystopias loaded with sarcastic humor and cultural asides. Stephenson’s plotting is so cinematically-paced that I’m surprised there hasn’t been a movie yet. The mature content is about the level of that in Corey Doctorow’s book, so recommending it to grades 9+ is a safe bet. This book was such a hit during the ‘90s Silicon Valley tech explosion that it influenced Web terminology and online gaming!

Neuromancer by William Gibson
William Gibson’s 1984 cyberpunk opus is one of those books that just pulled everything off right. It artfully built on elements and themes from cult dystopian novels that came before, especially those by John Brunner, Philip K. Dick and John Shirley, and simultaneously set new the gold standard for dystopian science fiction. Gibson’s prose is still gritty and cutting-edge, and nothing in the story feels dated. It even foretold the rise of the Internet (ahead of Al Gore), and introduced new slang into the English lexicon.
The world is dominated by technology, so data is the most valuable possession one can have. Those who can steal it are paid handsomely. Henry Case had one of those lucrative jobs, until he made the wrong people angry at him, and had his nervous system damaged in retribution. No longer able to access cyberspace, he spends his days drinking in grim bars and searching for ways back into the electronic world. Suddenly, Case gets the chance of a lifetime – he can have his nervous system repaired, as long as he can steal data for a mysterious buyer.
Neuromancer is one of the first books I whip out for older teen sci-fi readers who have already been through Feed, Little Brother, The Hunger Games, and 1984. The plot is fast-paced and suspenseful enough to woo the action-junkies, but it’s also philosophical, as the best sci-fi always is. It even kicks off with one of the best opening grabbers ever – “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” There is mature content, but nothing that an unsheltered high school student shouldn’t be able to handle. If you’re straining for another great book to recommend to a sci-fi fan that seems to have read them all, Neuromancer does nicely!