Dystopian novels portray a society, usually of the future, that has arrived at the destination we’re all headed for if we don’t change now. The great dystopian novels and the scary developments they portray convince us of things that are all too possible in the society we live in, if we hadn’t spotted them for ourselves. The most shocking dystopian novel is the first one you read, when the whole idea of the arbitrariness of human arrangements comes over you, with the realization that the future is contingent on the present, and can be affected by something you do or don’t do now.
The review in question is of Chang-Rae Lee's On Such A Full Sea, which I haven't yet read but which I understand is in something of the same general vein as books like Cormac McCarthy's The Road — an ugly future as depicted by an author nominally best known for avowedly literary work. But this line from the review caught my eye, especially the bit about how the most shocking of dystopias is the first one we run into.
My first dystopia was probably Evgeny Zamyatin's WE, and it remains my favorite — not merely because it is stingingly funny and still terribly relevant, but because even at the tender age of ten-something I could tell what sort of heroic effort it was on the part of its author. What did it take to peer forward like that and see the things no one else wanted to see — well, no one else except maybe for the few that really did want to make such ugly things true? (To consider anything "unthinkable" is to automatically lose to those who have freer minds than you.)
As Susan Sontag once said, "Science fiction films are not about science. They are about disaster, which is one of the oldest subjects of art." The real question is how they are about the disaster, and what form the disaster takes. Not all disasters are about the world falling to pieces — although that's one of the easier, more familiar places to start. Just as long as that's not where you remain.