This week saw the release of the brilliant Ariel Djanikian‘s debut novel, The Office of Mercy. Djanikian’s book drops you into a deliciously paranoid world that we’re confident will go down in history with the best of them, so we asked her to put together a list of her favorite dystopian love stories (just be sure to mentally add The Office of Mercy to her list). Here’s what she told us: “Dystopian tales seem to go hand-in-hand with scintillating, high-octane love stories: perhaps because dire circumstances have a knack of drawing people together, perhaps because claustrophobic repression makes the highs and lows of love affairs that much more potent. These ten books boast plenty of heart-stopping love triangles, as well as romantic pairings with some changes: robots, clones, and cyborgs get in on the action. They are love affairs that question how much feeling we have to offer, and how much trust we can risk in the face of political pressures. Love is never the cure-all for these characters, but it can be an intervention, as Jeanette Winterson says, against powers of destruction.”
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
Even clones have souls. And they definitely have complicated love triangles that persist from school days well into adulthood. Though Kathy and Tommy share a potent connection, Ruth and Tommy are the ones who end up in a long-term and stormy relationship. Years later, Ruth regrets coming between her friends… but Kathy’s and Tommy’s days are already numbered. Pity the grown-up Hailsham students for wasting precious moments of their too-short lives on jealous squabbles — and on filling their days with anything but love. Then close the book and pity ourselves for exactly the same reasons.
We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
This slim Russian novel lent its spark to nearly every dystopian story that came after: 1984, Brave New World, and for you Ayn Rand fanatics out there, the future-looking novella Anthem. D-503 is a self-satisfied engineer responsible for designing the impressive Integral spaceship. All’s well until he comes across the captivating and rebellious I-330, with her svelte figure and unforgettable “sharp teeth.” Despite his better judgment, and despite society’s apparent eradication of pesky, romantic feelings, D-503 experiences a “disagreeable effect… like an irrational component of an equation which you cannot eliminate.” In other words, he falls in love. The fix is simple: a short procedure that will eradicate — via X-ray — his imagination. Getting over a breakup was never so final.
Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
For a good portion of this novel, Lauren Olamina is too busy staying alive to waste precious energy on finding a boyfriend. Drug addicted, kill-happy “pyros” attack her family’s walled-in neighborhood, leaving her homeless and alone. She escapes L.A. on foot, with hordes of others walking the highways. It takes a good deal of trust for Lauren to open herself to an alliance with older traveler Bankole, but she eventually finds that there’s still love in this hot, violent world. With several other couples, friends, and children, Lauren and Bankole hope to create a new community on a plot of farmable land in the Pacific Northwest.
Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
With Doctor Manhattan out of the picture (he teleported to Mars to get a little distance from some serious accusations), and the world on the verge of possible nuclear war, Daniel Dreiberg and Laurie Juspeczyk remember the good old days of fighting crime. While their physical attraction never quite amounts to much, they both find themselves back in costume, reliving their crime-fighting pasts as Nite Owl and Silk Spectre. In the end, romantic love paves the way for the ability to survive a nuclear holocaust; not too shabby.
1984, George Orwell
They seem at first like an unlikely couple: worn-down Winston with his varicose ulcer, and youthful Julia with her Junior Anti-Sex League sash tied around her waist. Though Winston tells Julia that she’s “only a rebel from the waist downwards,” their commitment to each other runs deeper than mere sexual attraction. At the novel’s terrifying climax, when the pen of rats is clamped onto Winston’s head, and the partition is about to be raised, the question isn’t whether or not Winston will profess his love for Big Brother, but rather, whether or not he’ll betray Julia.
The Hunger Games Trilogy, Suzanne Collins
What more can be said of The Hunger Games? Baker vs. Hunter. Unconditional Love vs. Old Flame. A smart, confident, steely-eyed heroine at the center of it all. Jennifer Lawrence. Josh Hutcherson. Liam Hemsworth. Oh, it’s all delicious. Once you’ve finished re-reading, also check out the Matched Trilogy and Divergent.
The Stone Gods, Jeanette Winterson
Billie Crusoe is in love with a Robo sapiens named Spike, despite the fact that interspecies sex is punishable by death. Their story begins during the colonization of the new Planet Blue: with its “trees like skyscrapers.” The novel then jumps to offer variations on its theme: Billie and Spike are in 1774 Easter Island, then Post-WW3 England. Winterson’s prose shines throughout, as does the feeling that “love is an intervention” against the powers of destruction.
Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
In the hot, lonely afternoons, when Snowman has a break from fighting off wolvogs and looking after the innocent Crakers, he dreams about his earlier life: There was Crake, his genius childhood friend. There was the enchanting Oryx, a child sex slave who grows into a beautiful and mysterious woman. Snowman (once “Jimmy”) was more lover than fighter, and would have been happy to ride out his days cozily holed up with Oryx, ordering pizza delivery. Though the same cannot be said of the ambitious and diabolical Crake, who has set his sights on remaking humanity.
The Stand, Stephen King
As if there wasn’t enough drama in the virus-ravaged United States, add in a love triangle punctuated with an obsessively devoted participant. There’s the dashing Redman, the pregnant Goldsmith, and the noble outcast, Lauder. What we sometimes forget is that it’s not only the heroes who need to battle their way through dystopic nightmares with dignity, it’s also the sidemen. Not only do they need to face the horrors of imminent danger, they also have to cope with the heartbreak of not getting the girl.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick
In this dusty, future California, there’s a shortage of things to love. Rick Deckard’s wife is dialing for depressive episodes on her mood organ. People are fleeing from Earth to restart their lives on Mars, and World War Terminus has driven most animals into extinction — leaving many people to purchase electric substitutes as pets. Is it any wonder that Rick begins to long for beautiful Nexus-6 android Rachael Rosen? “Chickenhead” John Isidore experiences the same problem when he falls head-over-heels for cruel, cool, empathy-less Pris. The lesson here is a striking one: human beings need to love, whether or not the objects of their affection will love them back.
Ariel Djanikian graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2004 with majors in English, chemistry, and philosophy. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Michigan. Her writing has appeared in the L Magazine and the Paris Review Daily. She lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, with her husband and daughter.