With the reemerging popularity of classics such as 1984 and BRAVE NEW WORLD, it’s safe to say that 2017 is the year of the dystopian novel. However, while great works from the 20th century deserve all the attention they’ve gotten, it should be noted that in the past few years there’s been an influx of great new dystopian fiction that imaginatively depicts contemporary society’s biggest fears.
One that has stood out to me is Edan Lepucki’s CALIFORNIA. The novel presents a stunning vision of a post-apocalyptic world decimated by climate change and the collapse of modern civilization as we know it.
Set in a near-future America ravaged by catastrophic weather events and earthquakes, CALIFORNIA centers on the experiences of Frida and Cal, a married couple who left behind the crumbling city of Los Angeles to live alone in the unnamed woods somewhere along the western continental U.S. Though they manage to maintain an idyllic, albeit lonely, way of life, Frida and Cal remain haunted by the world they left behind and the loved ones they lost.
Their seemingly peaceful new domesticity does not last long. When Frida discovers that she is pregnant, their reality again shifts dramatically. Aware of the possible complications that accompany a pregnancy, the couple decides to head east toward a fabled nearby settlement in hopes that they may be able to get better treatment for their unborn baby. But when Frida and Cal discover that the settlement is not welcoming to new members, the cost of survival soon threatens to break apart their little family for good.
Beyond the thrills and plot twists (which are electrifying in their own right), the true magic of CALIFORNIA remains in the way that Lepucki skillfully creates a rich, detailed alternative reality that is just as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. It’s all too easy to become engulfed within the dark woods alongside Frida and Cal, imagining whether you too would be able to persevere after the world you’re familiar with has fallen apart.
The novel gracefully posits questions regarding human nature and the need to conform, leaving open-ended to what extent compassion and love matter when everyone else is desperately just trying to survive. Lepucki demonstrates that in a world chock-full of hard decisions, the distinction between right and wrong is hopelessly blurred.
Though based in a post-apocalyptic world, CALIFORNIA exposes the interpersonal struggles innate to human life and society, ingeniously pushing these issues to the extreme in order to explore both who we are and what we can become.
In the end, as any good dystopian novel does, CALIFORNIA leaves you hyper-aware of the world we live in today, as well as the frighteningly possible future that awaits if we do not remain vigilant for one another.
Ruby Rose Lee is a perpetual publishing intern and currently studies English Literature and East Asian Studies at Barnard College of Columbia University.