Call it morbid fascination if you like, but it’s hard to argue with the popularity of dystopian novels. The Hunger Games may be our current obsession, and 1984 the most lastingly famous, but there’s no shortage of gripping, terrifying—even poignant—stories of dark and twisted future societies. The books on this list are not only ingenious spins on the notion of a “world gone mad,” but also first-rate works of literature that will haunt you long after you’ve finished reading them.
Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
Of all the books on this list, Brave New World depicts what is perhaps the most eerily plausible version of our future. In the “World State” that Huxley imagines, everything that normally gives life meaning has been eliminated in the quest for a perfect society; culture, art, family—even free will and love—have been replaced by meaningless sex, drug-induced happiness, mindless entertainment and genetic engineering. Huxley’s masterpiece should be required reading; it’s impossible to read this book and continue to look complacently on today’s pop culture.
Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
There’s a lot going on in this little gem of a book, which includes everything from a masterfully executed use of unreliable narration to a fresh take on the age-old question of what makes us human. It would be a shame to give away the premise of the story when Ishiguro has developed it so cleverly over the course of the book, but rest assured that the novel is well worth your time; in addition to being a chilling window into a coldly scientific society, Never Let Me Go is also a beautiful and bittersweet story of star-crossed love—and one, moreover, that ultimately reaffirms the value of life and human emotion.
A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess)
Burgess may have lamented the fact that this novel remains by far the most famous of his works, but its reputation is well deserved. A Clockwork Orange is not an easy novel to read—and not just because of the made-up teenage slang that Burgess makes frequent use of. The nominal protagonist of the story is Alex, a teenage boy who engages in acts of appalling violence for sport. Nevertheless, his eventual capture and brainwashing at the hands of a totalitarian government is meant to elicit outrage; Burgess forces his readers to consider whether moral behavior can truly be termed “good” in a society in which free will has all but been eliminated.
The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)
There’s a famous feminist saying that “the personal is political,” and that is nowhere more evident than in The Handmaid’s Tale. This most famous of Margaret Atwood’s novels takes place in a society plagued by extremely low fertility rates. The population problem, however, is in Atwood’s story vastly overshadowed by society’s response to it: the establishment of an authoritarian theocracy that treats fertile woman as chattel valuable only for their reproductive abilities. Atwood’s vision of the future may seem far-fetched to some, but it’s worth pointing out that there are to this day extremist religious sects that hold views eerily similar to those found in this novel.
The Machine Stops (E. M. Forster)
If you thought Brave New World was frighteningly prescient, just wait until you read this little-known short story/novella by Forster. Forster describes a world in which humanity has become physically and mentally dependent on a godlike “Machine.” Even movement is unnecessary thanks to technological developments we would likely now term instant messaging and video conferencing. Nevertheless, the hero of Forster’s story begins to grow impatient with this life of indolence and ease, and ultimately ventures out into the world to experience life firsthand.
The Giver (Lois Lowry)
Like The Hunger Games, this is a novel written for young adults that can be enjoyed by people of all ages. In an effort to eliminate all pain and sadness, the community depicted in The Giver controls every aspect of life—marriages are arranged, children are assigned to parents, jobs are selected for the individual and sexual desire is suppressed through medication. It is only when Jonas, the novel’s protagonist, is chosen to take on the role of “Receiver”—a sort of human repository for society’s collective memories—that he begins to understand and long for all of the joy and beauty that society has left by the wayside in its search for perfection.
The Iron Heel (Jack London)
Those who know of London only as a writer of adventure stories will no doubt be surprised to see his name on this list. Nevertheless, the influence that this novel had on later generations of dystopian writers makes it a classic. Although elements of The Iron Heel—particularly London’s socialist views—may strike the modern reader as outdated, the book is well worth a read, both for its description of the robber barons who seize control of the United States and relegate the middle and lower classes to virtual slavery, and for its surprisingly touching tale of doomed love.
Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
Although Fahrenheit 451—a novel in which reading is outlawed and books are burned—is often read as a criticism of government censorship, Bradbury himself said that it is meant to show the consequences of a society that abandons literature and art in favor of television and “factoids”—statements presented as facts that lack evidence or context. With the recent advent of e-readers, a world without books—at least in paper form—seems more likely than ever. Although proponents of this technology would no doubt object that e-readers and the like aim to make literature more accessible, the fact that these tools often double as a gateway to pop culture (via the Internet) does make you wonder whether Bradbury was on to something.
The Chrysalids (John Wyndham)
The Chrysalids tells the strikingly unique story of a post-apocalyptic agrarian society that has adopted an almost Nazi-like intolerance for physical variation. Unexpectedly—though not implausibly—the society’s strict views on genetic mutation are the result of fundamentalist religious beliefs maintaining that all deviation from the norm is “blasphemous.” Accordingly, any individual who doesn’t make the cut is either banished, sterilized or killed. However, as David—the son of a religious leader and the novel’s protagonist—starts to show signs of telepathy, he also begins to question his society’s treatment of those who are different.
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