William Golding's Lord of the Flies is the kind of book that stays with you. Its dark and unsettling depiction of leaderless youths running around on an island still stands apart from most castaway stories — it's not exactly The Swiss Family Robinson, to say the least.
While Golding's most famous book is not exactly genre fiction, it has a lot in common with speculative fiction. Its focus on the darker side of human nature and its use of disaster to kick off its plot are things it shares with post-apocalyptic sci-fi, and its young protagonists and antagonists aren't so different from the sorts that populate our favorite sci-fi and fantasy novels. The same elements that make literary classics great are at work in fine sci-fi, fantasy, and horror, too. That's why today we're honoring nine terrifying sci-fi books like Lord of the Flies. From depictions of far-future space exploration to apocalyptic alternate versions of our present, these books explore what it means to be human — and what happens when society's most basic codes are broken.
Half Way Home
At first there are 500 colonists, each created to be the best humanity has to offer. Grown in a lab and designed specifically for the rigors of intergalactic settlement life, every colonist is kept suspended in a semi-conscious state on a ship hurtling towards an unexplored planet. At age 30, they are intended to wake and embrace the new world, fully-grown and primed for the challenges ahead of them. But something goes horribly wrong.
When a explosion kills the majority of the settlers bound for a new planet, the remaining 60 colonists barely wake from their induced-catatonia in time to escape the flames. Only 15 years old, the colonists are now awake long before they were trained to handle the future they were bred for. Terrified, the teenagers form factions to stay alive as they explore who they are now that everything has gone up in flames. Much like Lord of the Flies, the dangers they pose each other are more insidious than any of the threats lurking in their new home.
Written by the New York Times bestselling author of Wool, Half Way Home is a sci-fi thriller that leaves lingering unease long after the final page.
Lord of the Flies works in the way that it does because it isolates a group by age and gender. Without adults around, Golding is free to show how he thinks boys would act (which, it turns out, is not any better than the adults — who are at war, by the way, in novel). Graybeard also removes people of a certain age from the equation, but this time it's the kids who get the boot: Aldiss' fictional future has been destroyed by an "accident" that sterilized its males, leaving an aging and childless population to slowly die out.
A Boy and His Dog
There are indeed a boy and a dog in Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog — but things are bit more interesting than the title lets on. The dog, named Blood, is telepathic. The boy, Vic, has a mean streak that would put any of the Lord of the Flies kids to shame. This post-apocalyptic novella is a sci-fi classic.
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The Disappearance is another novel on our list that plays with the same idea that Lord of the Flies explored: What would happen if you removed a certain group of people from the equation? How would the remainder — kids, adults, or whatever other group is left — behave on their own? In The Disappearance, the universe splits along sex lines. Males end up in a world without females, and vice versa. As each sex faces their new realities, the sexism and gendered expectations of the old status-quo are newly exposed.
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If the part of Lord of the Flies that appealed to you most was the way the story cut itself off from the rest of the world, then you might like Annihilation. Jeff VanderMeer's novel follows a group of researchers into a mysterious overgrown zone called Area X. It's not just isolation and a lack of connection to the outside world that causes things to unravel in this tale — there's some strange power at work in Area X that makes things all the harder for the marooned expedition.
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The Road is a post-apocalyptic novel with the sense of isolation you'd expect from a good castaway story. With no societal structure or leadership, people in the future world of The Road fend for themselves — or gang up for sinister purposes. McCarthy is famous for his literary fiction, but this foray into science fiction seems completely natural for him. And why shouldn't it be? Stories are just stories. And if they can have cool and terrifying post-apocalyptic settings, well, then so much the better.
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Never Let Me Go
Never Let Me Go is easily as dark as Lord of the Flies, and both novels share a fascination with the ways in which kids and adolescents interact. Ishiguro's novel is more of a coming-of-age story than Lord of the Flies is, though, and is much more focused on how kids deal with adults than what kids might do without them. Never Let Me Go hits its readers with some very unsettling sci-fi twists, though the slow way in which they’re unrolled makes them feel more ominous than shocking.
There's more structure for the child protagonists and antagonists in Ender's Game than there ever was in Lord of the Flies, but the kids still manage to be pretty awful to each other. Maybe that's just what adolescents are like: violent, rude, cruel, and calculating. Even Card's protagonist, the titular Ender, has a violent streak — in fact, he's supposed to. He was only allowed to be born because the government needs him, and the role he was born for is as the destroyer of an entire race of aliens. Ender’s Game is an all-time classic in its own right, and a must-read for sci-fi fans.
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A Clockwork Orange
You want kids run amok? Then check out the disturbing future of A Clockwork Orange. Burgess made up his own slang for the strange and violent milk-drinking gang that rampages across the pages of this odd and unsettling book. The protagonist, just 15 years old, is as violent and vile as they come. Of all of the dystopian classics, this is among the weirdest, wildest, and most upsetting.
Featured image via the cover of Penguin Books' "Lord of the Flies" reissue edition.
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