A good dystopian novel is also a cautionary tale. Imagine a not-so-distant future marred by environmental disaster. The country is run by religious extremists. Due to prison overcrowding, criminals are branded for their crimes by being injected with a virus that changes the color of their skin. This chilling future, created by Hillary Jordan in When She Woke (Algonquin, $24.95) does not seem so far-fetched. Hannah has been made a “red” after committing the crime of having an abortion. In a society of religious intolerance, her crime makes her both an outcast and a target. As Hannah journeys from good girl to criminal to fugitive, she is forced to reevaluate her life, her faith, and what kind of future she wants for herself.
Fans of zombie movies know that the genre is all about the breakdown of civilization. We’re riveted by the likes of George Romero, who takes delight in dissecting human interaction when the world literally goes to hell. Colson Whitehead delivers the literary equivalent with aplomb in his latest novel, Zone One (Doubleday, $25.95). His smooth narrative gives us the gory daily minutiae in a post-zombie, post-apocalypse Manhattan where an armed civilian team is sweeping through the city to rid it of the last vestiges of the dead. Our narrator, Mark Spitz, is a fascinating character, continually dodging death. Whitehead’s writing is cerebral, moving, and insightful. This is a deeply thought-out psychological survey of an everyman as the ultimate survivor, facing the wasteland.