Bleak and disturbing science fiction

When I was compiling my list of dark and disturbing fiction, I noticed that my sources consistently featured suggestions for works that can be broadly classified as science fiction. Because dark and grim sci-fi is quite possibly my favorite strand of sci-fi, I decided it deserved its own list.

For the past decade or so, I’ve been noticing something of a backlash against the strong doom-and-gloom current in contemporary science-fictional output, particularly the flood of various literary and cinematic dystopias. It has been pointed out that all these hopeless futures and doomed worlds appear increasingly cheap and tired, as they are frequently built from ready-made cliches; arguably, it is much easier to portray decay and hope rather than a convincing vision of flourishing and hope. Many people also argue that the real world is horrifying and depressing enough as it is, and that simply extrapolating its worst aspects into fictional universes is a sign of creative resignation.

Personally, I’m not a fan of what is commonly referred to as “grimdark”: a relatively recent style of fiction based on all-pervasive negativity that is exaggerated and aestheticized to the point of no longer being serious, while also espousing shallow moral nihilism. However, not all dark science fiction utilizes upsetting themes and storylines solely for the sake of set dressing or entertainment value! There is a long tradition of sci-fi books that describe particularly despressing scenarios in order to express anxieties about scientific and social progress. Works that fall into this broad category appeal to me much more. As trite as it may sound, I value them as a safe way for me to confront my own anxieties about the future.

Because “bleak and disturbing” is a tone rather than a subgenre, the titles that fit this description are diverse. The list forms an extensive catalog of various worst possible futures (and some worse alternative presents as well). Some recurring manifestations include:

  • Hopeless dystopias conceived from an anti-totalitarian, feminist, or environmental standpoint;
  • Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios;
  • Unsettling narratives that raise fundamental questions about reality and subjective identity, often evoking existential dread;
  • Intersections with horror fiction, in which advanced technology takes the place usually occupied by supernatural forces;
  • Accounts of more mundane type of misery, such as economic deprivation or the horrors of war, exaggerated through relocation to futuristic settings.

The list