Imagine a United States in which the president has ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to scrub its website of climate-change content, his counselor and former campaign manager has deployed the phrase “alternative facts,” a list of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants is drawn up weekly and posted, and an executive order targeting Muslim travelers was issued. A sci-fi novelist could do worse than recruit any one of these plot points into a gloomy novel of the future—except, of course, they’re not plot points.
In light of these recent developments, it doesn’t take much effort to glean why George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is suddenly selling at a newsworthy clip. The story posits a terrifying authoritarian society—but it’s likely you already know that, even if you haven’t read a page of it. It’s the one with Big Brother, the Thought Police, doublethink, newspeak, the Ministry of Truth. It’s certainly not the only novel about the dangers of authoritarianism, but it has a monopoly on all the best iconic figures and phrases. Ironically, Orwell’s 1949 classic itself has become a kind of tyrant, glowering like Big Brother from the top of Amazon’s bestseller list.
However you feel about Nineteen Eighty-Four personally, there are plenty of other great speculative novels about authoritarianism, novels that are less iconic, but no less chilling. One in particular turned 40 this past fall to virtually no fanfare, while other books enjoyed a surge of interest. This lack of scrutiny was a shame because The Alteration, Kingsley Amis’s quirky 1976 foray into counterfactual science fiction, is a masterpiece—and more timely than ever. It posits a world in which truth is trussed up, and sexual identities are policed with horrifying consequences. But, unlike other, more aggressively grim dystopias, it’s otherwise a relatively pleasant world, whose horrors blink at readers from between the lines.