There's only one thing we know for sure about the future: It'll be weird, and you can't really prepare for it. Just imagine trying to tell someone in 2000 how to prepare for life in 2011. But luckily, there's one surefire way to brace yourself for another round of future shock: by reading a slew of great satires, about people trapped in weird and incomprehensible worlds.
So if you really want to future-proof yourself, here are 10 satirical novels that could help.
Top image: Magrathea by Microbot 23 on Deviant Art.
1. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace's masterpiece takes place in a twisted dystopia where the calendar years are named after corporate products, and apocalyptic imagery is everywhere — including in Eschaton, a weird kind of tennis game that simulates nuclear war. Against this backdrop of oppressive weirdness, Wallace explores themes of addiction and self-destruction, including the novel's probable protagonist, Hal, who tries to control his marijuana intake but winds up becoming too addled to speak. (This is not a spoiler, it's in chapter one.) And then there's the Entertainment — a movie so entertaining that people watching it become unable to work or to do anything meaningful. It's one of those novels that's difficult to summarize, but when you become immersed in it, you emerge with a sense that you're staring into the heart of the intricate weird structure that wrecked Hal Incandenza. At the very least, you might finish Infinite Jest with a bit more heightened awareness of your own tendency to self-destruct in the face of all the strangeness.
2. Cat Country by Lao She
Lao She is arguably one of China's greatest novelists, although Cat Country is not his best work — that honor belongs to Rickshaw Boy/Camel Xiangzi. Still, Cat Country is often called the first Chinese work of science fiction, and it's got more than enough barbs and clever observations to make it worth reading. In a nutshell, Cat Country's narrator travels to Mars, which he finds inhabited by a civilization of cats, that's on the brink of collapse due to internal decadence and decades of abuse by outsiders. It's a satire on 1930s China, with its seemingly hopeless social problems and foreign depredations, but it's actually a pretty universal look at being on the receiving end of imperialism. And how people who are oppressed often make their situation worse with in-fighting and cluelessness, instead of fighting back effectively. (Oh, and there's a lot of stuff about why Chinese people choose to smoke opium, which was foisted on them by the British.) One especially trenchant part: A group of leftists want to found a new society based on the peasants and workers, "but they didn't have the foggiest notion of what agriculture was, or what work was."
3. Gridlock by Ben Elton
If you're an American, you might not know who Elton is — but you've probably admired his work, especially his writing on Blackadder. And his first three novels form a kind of satirical science fiction trilogy, loosely focused on environmental issues. Stark is about rich people plotting to escape an Earth on the verge of destruction, in a fleet of rockets. This Other Eden is similarly about everybody moving into airtight domes to escape from the environmental devastation. But the best of these environmentalist novels is probably Gridlock, which is about our propensity to solve the problem of traffic jams... by building more roads. A disabled inventor named Geoffrey has created a new kind of pollution-free car engine, and the car industry decides to have him killed before he can share it with anyone. These are not subtle novels — but they're more relevant than ever, especially since "surviving the future" is closely related to "solving environmental problems." And they're as funny as Blackadder.
4. Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
There was a lot of incredibly silly talk recently about how prescient this novel was, because it predicted stuff like transparent jeans and people being mean on Twitter. (Despite the fact that we already had transparent clothing and people being mean on Twitter, when Shteyngart wrote it.) Likewise, our economic collapse and the obsession with serving the needs of High Net Worth Individuals were already well underway long before this novel was published. But this novel does contain one of the best, and most darkly funny, accounts of economic self-destruction, and what people are willing to do to survive in the worst possible circumstances. And it really is super sad.
5. Make Room! Make Room! By Harry Harrison
Harrison's ultra-dark, way-depressing novel about an overpopulated future world — a world with 7 billion people in it! — became the basis for Soylent Green, but the novel is more about the problems of overpopulation. Including water shortages, pollution, rampant crime and riots. Not nearly as funny as some of the other books on this list, or as Harrison's other books, Make Room is still a great dark look at a world with too many people in it. For more on a world gone mad with overpopulation, and the subsequent oppression of the elderly, check out Boomsday by Christopher Buckley. For a more upbeat look at an overpopulated world, check out The World Inside by Robert Silverberg.
6. Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift
The original novel about culture shock, from the satirist who gave us "A Modest Proposal." (Yes, Jack Black's hideous movie was based on a book.) Lemuel Gulliver travels around the world, encountering tiny little people and giant people, and a floating city of highly advanced but impractical people, and finally, a land of horse-people. Along the way, he learns that human nature is inherently corrupted and that no society is ever perfect, and that everybody has their own weird beliefs and cultural disputes. Probably no other book can do more to prepare you for futureshock than Gulliver's Travels.
7. Bored of the Rings
One of the most successful parodies of all time, this Harvard Lampoon-authored spoof of Tolkien's Lord of the Rings remains in print decades later — and it's a great antidote to whatever the latest "struggle against ultimate evil" the people in charge want you to take part in. Just try thinking of your culture's latest epic heroes as being named stuff like "Dildo Bugger" and you'll quickly realize how silly the whole thing is.
8. Machine Man by Max Barry
Barry has made a career out of writing trenchant novels about the evils of capitalism and corporations that become like unto nation states, with books like Jennifer Government and The Company. But with Machine Man, he combines an evil corporation with another theme — our tendency to augment ourselves with technology. It starts with smart phones and ends with replacing most of our bodies with cybernetic spare parts — and Barry suggests that this technology may make us feel more free and independent at first, but eventually it'll make us the property of our corporate masters, unable even to move without their permission. Because technology can be taken away, or remote-controlled by those in power.
9. War With the Newts by Karel Capek
Like Cat Country, this is another famous satirical science fiction novel from the 1930s, and it comes from the man who gave us the word "robot." In War With the Newts, a sailor discovers a race of intelligent newts who can use tools and learn new tasks. He puts them to work shucking oysters, and soon they're being adopted around the world, doing more and more complex tasks, eventually leading to huge underwater building projects. The human race rushes to give the newts more complex tools and weapons — what could possibly go wrong? Some have described this book as a metaphor for the rise of Nazism, but it has broader applications... including a discussion of humans' tendency to believe we can get something for nothing, and our eagerness to destroy ourselves with the latest shortcut to wealth.
10. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams' masterwork starts as a satire on bureaucracy — Arthur Dent's house is going to be demolished by a hidebound council, and then the same fate befalls the whole planet, thanks to the hideous Vogons. But H2G2 becomes a much broader satire, coming to encompass the quest for meaning in the universe and the true randomness of everything. This is the only novel which tells you how to carry on after the destruction of the entire planet, which makes it immensely valuable for that reason alone. But like a lot of the books on this list, it's also a tremendous satire on human nature, exposing all of our pettiness and idiocy. This book (and really the whole series) shows how our lives and deaths are ultimately futile... but then reveals what happens to us if we embrace futility: we become like Marvin the Paranoid Android. And nobody wants that.
Additional reporting by Gordon Jackson and MaryKate Jasper.