I Saw the Mighty Skyline Fall*

What with recent events and world political developments, it’s not really surprising that there’s an interest in dystopian fiction. Sales of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and of George Orwell’s 1984 have skyrocketed, and those are just two examples.

Dystopian fiction can show us the selves we don’t want to believe could exist. And, when it’s done well, it can provoke discussion, and bring frightening possibilities to a very human level. Little wonder that it’s found a place in literature.

There’s an argument that The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 could ‘count’ as crime novels. Certainly, there are crimes committed in both. But dystopia figures into other novels, too, including novels more generally considered crime fiction.

For instance, Isaac Asimov created a short series of novels featuring New York homicide detective Elijah ‘Lije’ Baley. He lives in a dystopian society of the future, where the population has grown, and people live in huge, domed cities that are more like fortresses than today’s cities. Everyone is assigned living quarters and other resources based on status. Everything is scarce, though; so, although no-one starves, very few people live really well. There are communal areas for eating, hygiene and entertainment, so there’s also very little privacy. And the number of children any couple is permitted to have depends on that couple’s IQ ratings, Genetic Value, and employment status. Baley and his wife have a decent standard of living, because they have high IQs, and Baley has a job with some status. Still, life isn’t easy. It’s against this backdrop that Baley and his police partner, R. Daneel Olivaw, investigate crimes. If you’re interested, the Baley novels are: The Caves of Steel, The Naked Sun, and The Robots of Dawn.

Alex Scarrow’s Last Light and Afterlight tell the story of the Sutherland family. Andy Sutherland, his wife, Jenny, and their two children, are caught up in the global upheaval that results when the world’s supply of oil is deliberately cut off. When it first happens, the family happens to be scattered, and the members try desperately to re-unite. We also see how the family tries to cope in a world with no access to oil. Later, Jenny Sutherland becomes the leader of a small group of survivors who’ve made a home on a former North Sea oil rig. When the group learns that another group, living in London’s Millennium Dome, may have access to oil, it sets off a whole chain of events, some of them tragic.

Ben Winter’s The Last Policeman introduces police detective Hank Palace. In this trilogy (The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble), the dystopia has resulted from an impending collision with a large asteroid. With certain destruction in the offing, world economies have collapsed, infrastructures are crumbling, and there’s very little day-to-day government. Most people don’t see the point of living a ‘regular’ life, since the asteroid is expected to hit in six months. But Palace continues to try to do his job. In this series, it’s interesting to see how people respond to the imminent catastrophe. Many local governments have simply ceased to exist, and there’s not an easy way to get ‘normal’ things done. Even as Palace investigates, there’s the question of why to bother.

In Antti Tuomainen’s The Healer, we meet writer Tapani Lehtinen. He’s concerned about his journalist wife, Johanna, because he hasn’t heard from her in more than twenty-four hours. She was following a lead on a story, so at first, he wasn’t very worried. But now, a whole day has gone by with no word from her. Lehtinen knows he’s not going to get much help from the police, though. The Helsinki in which this novel is set has come close to descending into chaos. Climate change has meant that millions of refugees from other parts of the world have poured in. The police are badly understaffed, and can’t even do much to solve major crimes, let alone look for one missing person. In fact, the only real security comes from expensive and corrupt private security companies, which most people can’t afford. Gangs roam freely, and life has gotten so bad that everyone who can leave the city has done so, and moved north. With so little infrastructure, Lehtinen decides to try to find Johanna on his own. He believes that, if he follows up on the story she was investigating, he’ll be able to find her. That choice gets him into real danger as he uncovers the story she was tracking.

And then there’s A.R. Shaw’s Graham’s Resolution series. These novels feature former math professor Graham Morgan, who’s lost his entire family to a pandemic that killed all but 2% of the world’s population. In the first novel, The China Pandemic, Morgan is trying to cope with the loss of his family members, especially his father. He’s also trying to get and keep the basic things he needs to survive, without being killed by someone else who wants those things. Then, unexpectedly, he’s approached by a woman named Hyun-Ok, who’s near death from the illness that’s swept the world. She asks Morgan to look after her son, Bang, who seems to be immune. At first, he refuses, but she insists, and it’s clear that the boy has no-one else. Morgan finally agrees, and he and Bang set off to his father’s cabin, where he’s hoping he’ll be able to carve out a safer existence for him and the boy. With no infrastructure and desperate people, you can imagine that the danger they face doesn’t come only from the virus.

Dystopian crime fiction can take several forms, as authors explore different possibilities. Some novels have an added purpose of making a statement – a ‘wake up call,’ if you will – and some don’t. Whatever form a dystopian crime novel takes, it can invite the reader to reflect and think about human nature. These are only a few examples. Your turn.


*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Billy Joel’s Miami 2017.


Filed under A.R. Shaw, Alex Scarrow, Antti Tuomainen, Ben Winters, George Orwell, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood

29 responses to “I Saw the Mighty Skyline Fall*

  1. Great book, we’re back in 1984 now

  2. It’s odd because I would say I’m not into dystopian fiction and yet 1984 was one of the most powerful books I read as a teenager and one that I’ve re-read on a few occasions – not at all surprising with widespread political upheaval that people are reaching for these types of novels.

    • I know what you mean about 1984, Cleo. It really is a powerful novel, isn’t it? It’s certainly worth re-reading. It’s not surprising, is it, that people are interested in dystopia at this point, given what’s going on in the world. It’ll be interesting to see if it has an impact.

  3. The spectre of living in a dystopian world looms ever larger. Why are “leaders” so obsessed with power? The starving millions in Sudan and other cursed places are already living the horror. How can opposing warlords subject the common people to these horrid conditions? Where is the United Nations? Surely, with the BILLIONS they have, they could hand-deliver food, water, medicines, doctors, etc., while providing protection from the opposing warlords who steal the very food out of those poor starving children’s mouths. And if the UN won’t step in and stop this, then the organization should be disbanded. This is an unspeakable atrocity that defies logic!
    Sorry to get “political” here with this rant. It seems Orwell and others were as much prophets as brilliant writers.

    • You make a very salient point, Michael, about the plight of those who most need help. And Orwell certainly depicted the way that wealthy and well-connected leaders can become obsessed with power. There are desperately hungry people, everywhere, including in the US, who are at a serious disadvantage right from the beginning. To use an expression, the deck is stacked against them. And, among other things, Orwell shows how that works.

  4. All of these books sound good, Margot. I have read The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Also the series by Ben Winter. I will look out for the others.

  5. Thanks for the reminder of the Elijah Bailey books. I re-read and thoroughly enjoyed Caves of Steel a year or two ago, and really must get around to re-reading the other two. R. Daneel Olivaw is my second favourite android, after Commander Data…

    • Oh, I like Commander Data, too, FictionFan, very much! Olivaw, though, is an excellent character, and I always liked the way Asimov infused him with personality, ironic as that sounds. I do recommend the other two books in the Baley series when you get to it.

  6. What a terrific and timely post, Margot. Some titles for me to follow up here. To your list, I’d add Honey Brown’s debut novel, THE RED QUEEN. It’s a psychological thriller set in rural Australia after some unnamed catastrophe, and a gripping read.

    Also, I remember well the Billy Joel song from which your post title is derived. 2017 seemed like such a long time away back then 😉

    • Yes, it did, Angela… 😉 You know, I heard him do that song live last year at a concert I attended. It was almost poignant for that very reason.

      Thanks for the kind words, and for the suggestion of The Red Queen. I like Honey Brown’s work quite a lot (‘though I’ve not read that one yet). Seems I’ve something new to put on my TBR. It sounds like a really potent look at how disaster can lead to dystopia.

  7. I’ve been drawn to dystopian novels since high school, starting with Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. A good trilogy that combines dystopian, sci fi, and mystery/thriller is Warren Hammond’s Kop, Ex-Kop, and Killer Kop.

    • Thanks for the suggestion, Pat. It sounds like an interesting combination. And, yes, On the Beach is a great example of the sort of dystopian novel I had in mind. Thanks for mentioning it.

  8. Jan Morrison

    No dystopian mysteries spring to mind but another genre – futurian (okay, I totally made that up) – I’m thinking of the wonderful novel by Marge Piercey “Woman on the Edge of Time” . It presents both a utopia and a dystopia and is well worth a read. It also contains a mystery, but doesn’t every novel ultimately.

    • Thanks very much for the suggestion, Jan. It sounds like a great story. And you’re right; every novel has a mystery of some kind in it if you think about it. Oh, and I love that new word you made up!

  9. I think Handmaid’s Tale is one of the great books of the 20th century, and just thinking of it gives me the shivers. I recently read Ben Aaronovich’s Rivers of London which sort of fits into your category.

    • The Handmaid’s Tale paints such a stark picture of a dystopia, doesn’t it, Moira? I can see why you feel the way you do about it. And thanks for mentioning Rivers of London. I admit I’ve not (yet) read that one, but I’ve heard really good thinks about it. Something to add to the TBR, so thanks for the nudge.

  10. kathy d.

    Oh, gosh, I know sales of The Handmaid’s Tale are zooming, but the books will be read without me. Deprivation of women’s rights is unrolling right here; that book veers too close to reality for my taste. It is especially so for low-income women, immigrants, women of color, etc.
    If we ever get through this period with our rights intact, then maybe I’ll read it. Margaret Atwood is very talented and also outspoken. Years ago, I read some of her books, quite good.

    • Atwood is very talented, Kathy. I’m glad you’ve had the chance to read some of her work. And you’re right: deprivation of rights is a very real, timely topic.

  11. I can’t think of any other dystopian crime novels at the moment, but your examples rocked as always, Margot.

  12. Did I tell you my 11 year old just finished reading the Lija Bailey trilogy, and we have some intersting conversations at home around them! Never thought of it as a dystropian society, because I never knew the word till very recently, but they are stellar crime fiction!
    Some other great recommendations to check out too. Thank you

    • Oh, I think the Baley series is a fine crime series, too, Natasha. And I’m so glad your son’s been enjoying them. You know, that series has sparked some interesting conversations around our home, too!

  13. Col

    I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, not crime but dystopian never the less. I’m not a fan of this type of novel/sub-genre TBH.

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