If the word “dystopia” broken down into its Greek roots literally means a “bad” “place,” what could be a worse place than the soul-sucking bureaucracy of a totalitarian state? Neil Sharpson’s debut novel When the Sparrow Falls (now available in trade paperback!) opens with StaSec (“State Security”) agent and cog-in-the-totalitarian-machine Nikolai South eking out a miserable existence in the Caspian Republic, where atrocities are mundane and fear the general state of being. The Caspian Republic remains the last bastion of “true” humanity in a world that has succumbed to the siren song of uploaded consciousness. Both Party ideology and South’s beliefs will be challenged when he is assigned to escort the lovely Lily Xirau, a recent widow of a virulently anti-AI journalist, for the duration of her visit to the Caspian Republic.
The first catch: both Lily Xirau and her husband are actually AI.
The second catch: Lily Xirau bears an uncanny resemblance to South’s own wife, who drowned twenty years ago.
As state secrets and South’s past begin to unravel with Lily Xirau’s arrival, South is forced to grapple with his beliefs and his grief as he helps Lily search for the truth behind her husband’s death. When the Sparrow Falls examines the question of what it means to be human through the lenses of AI, transhumanism, grief, and totalitarian dystopia, all buttoned up sharply in the suit of a Cold War-era spy thriller reminiscent of le Carré and Orwell.
Here are five more books about dystopian bureaucracies and the characters who make them work, and sometimes end up bringing them down.
By Yvonne Ye
Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
Autonomous explores another world where humanity is threatened by the acceleration of the various systems that govern it, though the forces in Autonomous are pharmaceutical and capitalistic rather than organic supremacist and dictatorial. The residents of Newitz’s world are trapped by a late-capitalistic regime where Big Pharma owns everything, from patents to people. The novel follows three primary characters: Jack, an anti-patent drug pirate on the run; Eliasz, a desperately fanatical and deeply damaged military agent hunting her down; and Paladin, a robot who is navigating his own profoundly human journey of self-discovery.
Both Nikolai South in When the Sparrow Falls and Eliasz in Autonomous struggle with their own humanity while working for profoundly tyrannical regimes that attempt to stomp the soul out of them. Trapped by the drudgery of work and the necessities of survival, South and Eliasz must grapple with their complicity in oppressive systems and the cost it takes to do the right thing.
The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi
The Oubliette could be a Martian paradise, if you only have the time. The currency of Rajaniemi’s world is measured not in dollars, but in seconds—and time can be stolen. In order to expose the hidden conspiracy of cryptarch governors in the panoptical society of the Oubliette, the mysterious Mieli calls upon gentleman thief Jean Le Flambeur. After all, who better to perform an impossible heist than a legendary thief?
While Rajaniemi’s world of constant surveillance in the Oubliette relies on high-technology to manipulate the fabric of human society, the Caspian Republic in When the Sparrow Falls uses good old-fashioned methods from the Cold War—bugs and brainwashing. South continually hears the voice of “the Good Brother,” an insidious mouthpiece of paranoia and party propaganda urging him to report his neighbors and deny the humanity of Lily, the AI he has been tasked to protect. Both Rajaniemi and Sharpson fabricate fantastically fanatical societies in visions of our alternate presents and alternate futures.
Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan
In Morgan’s cyberpunk future, human consciousness can survive indefinitely by being “re-sleeved” in new flesh bodies. Takeshi Kovacs, an ex-elite soldier turned criminal turned private eye, is hired to investigate the death of Laurens Bancroft, a wealthy man whose trail leads to a virus that has the potential to contaminate the cortical stacks that store human consciousness and cause permanent death.
Humanity in Morgan’s world happily re-sleeves itself in new bodies whenever death comes knocking, but the populace of the Caspian Republic has not yet attained the same blasé attitude about human existence. Both Lily Xirau and Nikolai South in When the Sparrow Falls grapple with the question of what makes someone human, and come to find that the answer has nothing at all to do with the body one wears, and everything to do with the heart one follows.
Infomocracy by Malka Older
Malka Older’s groundbreaking cyberpunk political thriller series begins with Infomocracy, set in a world where results of the upcoming election are poised to change everything. A powerful search engine called Information shapes every aspect of human life, from social interaction to research to political campaigning. While traveling around the world as a campaign agent for the idealistic Policy1st party, Ken meets and hooks up with Mishima, an operative of Information. Mishima fights—literally—to keep the search engine as accurate and non-partisan as possible. Meanwhile, the mysterious dissident Domaine pursues his own anti-campaign against the whole system of microdemocracy.
Nikolai South shares struggles with Ken and Mishima as agents of and players within a machine that is both personal and political. Whether the system will remain standing is an open question throughout both books—and whether these characters are the key to bringing the system down is another.
The Laundry Files series by Charles Stross
When IT tech worker Bob Howard accidentally stumbles across mathematical equations that can summon Lovecraftian monsters from alternate dimensions, he is forcibly drafted into the Laundry, a British government agency that specializes in dealing with occult threats. Between combating dimension-hopping terrorists, protecting lovely logic professors performing reality-bending research, learning the secret history of the world, and—worst of all—attending committee meetings, Bob Howard has his hands full with the fieldwork and paperwork required to defend the world from ancient, eldritch powers.
Spy thriller? Check. Science fiction? Check. Bureaucratic humor? Check. Nikolai South’s dry humor could give Bob Howard’s a run for its money, and the two of them could certainly share a drink (or five) over the dreary horrors of bureaucracy.