Dystopias have been around for a long time—one might even successfully argue since Dante’s Inferno, perhaps even the Bible or others canonical texts. Frankenstein is a strong qualifier, as is Gulliver’s Travels. But it remains the likes of Nineteen Eighty-four, Brave New World, The Handmaid’s Tale, and other such novels to represent the focus on oppressive systems and the potential misuse of technology and position for authoritarian means in the modern socio-political context. Orwell, Huxley, and Atwood’s novels garner the lion’s share of the attention (thank you high school required reading), but there remain numerous high quality dystopias on the market worth every bit of the same attention. From Ian Macleod’s The Summer Isles to J.G. Ballard’s High-Rise, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore to John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (or The Jagged Orbit, or The Sheep Look Up, or…), there are many other stories delving into the various ways in which humanity limits itself willing and unwillingly. Another such novel/collection to add to the list of must-read dystopias is Thomas Disch’s 334.
The number of an apartment block in near-future New York City urban conglomerate, 334 is less a single story and more story strands. Five novellas concluding upon a short novel that braids the novellas together, Disch remains focused on character throughout, highlighting the manner in which even the simplest change from our current system (or as it was in the late 60s and early 70s when Disch was writing the stories) can/will have widespread effect on social and personal standing for the ordinary Joe (and Josephine). Like Ian Macleod’s The Summer Isles, 334 is a subtle dystopia that the less discerning reader may have trouble parsing or appreciating.