Nine Must-Read Dystopian Novels

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life meaning has been eliminated in the quest for a perfect society; culture, art, family—even free will and love—have been replaced by meaningless sex, drug-induced happiness, mindless entertainment and genetic engineering.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.

Image Credit: Artist.net

  • Jason Carr

    Let me know what books in the “Dystopian” genre you think should be added to this list and if there’s anyone that’s read most/all of these, I’d love to hear your thoughts on which one is your favorite. Thanks everyone!

    • Jay Hansom

      For years I have searched for a novel I read many years ago. I don’t believe it gained much fame, which makes finding it so difficult. It is Dystopia Fiction much in the vein of 1984. Beins with a car crash in present time…the male driver (protagonist) “dies”; is swept up in light; finds hislef in the future and is aided by a female. The topic that stands out the most is “suicide by police”. In this society, when one wants to commit suicide, they find the most public place they can and kill as many as they can before the police kill them.

      Seems a prediction that is coming true all to often.

      Thanks in advance if you can help.

  • http://jameswharris.wordpress.com Jim Harris

    I’ve read six of the nine, I’ve somehow missed reading the London, Wyndham and Forster, but I’ve often read about them. This is a good solid list if you include the two in your introduction. The Hunger Games is fantastic.

    I just finished reading The Last Starship from Earth by John Boyd, a dystopian novel from 1968. I don’t know if it’s worthy enough for your list or not. Some people love and others hate it. It’s an alternate history where Jesus didn’t die on the cross, but died in a battle attacking Rome. The Christian church runs a worldwide government in a power arrangement with sociologists and psychologists in a scientifically controlled society. The Pope is an AI machine. People are required to mate within their class, which are made up of genetic groups serving specific functions. The story is about a mathematician illegally having an affair with a poet.

    The ending is rather spectacular. I think The Last Starship from Earth is very creative, but I feel it doesn’t have wide appeal and it’s been out of print since 1978. I do think it would make a hell of a movie, especially if they could pull off the ending.

    • Jason Carr

      The Last Starship from Earth sounds fascinating! Thanks Jim…will check it out for sure.

  • martin

    I definitely have to read “Never Let Me go”, It has been on my to read list for a while. I’m currently reading the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov, i think they at least deserve an honorable mention.

    • Jason Carr

      I had to look up the Foundation series…looks amazing! Thanks Martin.

  • http://donthave Jan

    did you read Every Girl Dies by Cameron Jace?

    • Jason Carr

      Absolutely. Excellent series and something I see us moving towards today with social media and sites like Klout (and other ranking systems) in many regards. Excellent addition to our growing list here Jan. :)

  • http://jameswharris.wordpress.com Jim Harris

    Foundation isn’t dystopian. However, it’s a very popular SF series. Jason, The Last Starship From Earth sounds a lot better than it might be. Some people hate it. And you’ll have to work to get a copy. You’ll probably have to buy a used copy at ABEBooks if you actualy want to read it. It’s long out of print. I’ve been meaning to blog about it and ask if it’s worth reprinting.

    • Jason Carr

      Gotcha re. Foundation. That’s the mistake I nearly made by including Lord of the Flies…one of my favorites but certainly open to debate whether it’s futuristic or not. Interesting about Starship From Earth. I had never heard of it…now I know why. Thanks Jim!

  • http://dystopian-novels.blogspot.com.au/ Greg

    I’ve got to read Brave New World already, that and Fahrenheit 451 are practically on every single dystopian best of list. Never let me go I hear a lot of mixed reviews about, some people love it and some people hate it. And Clockwork orange, I personally loved the movie, but when I have to read a book with a lot of “slang” from the time in, it just really puts me off, which is why I hated Catcher in the Rye.

    • Jason Carr

      Agreed Greg. Many books are that way…some might loathe a particular work while others love it with equal passion. This is especially true with the dystopian genre I think. If you do read Brave New World please let me know what you think. I personally loved it but I know many others that disliked it greatly (perhaps because it’s feasible that it could perhaps come true some day).

  • Sherry

    Would Earth Abides belong to this catefory? I first read at least 30 years ago, and I still re-read every few years – good story

  • http://twilightstarsong.blogspot.com/ Annie

    My favourites from your list: Handmaid’s Tale and Fahrenheit 451 – classics both.

    I also like David Graham’s Down To a Sunless Sea (original version, before he re-wrote ending); and Earth Abides (mentioned by another commenter).

    Have just read A Canticle for Leibowitz but though I enjoyed the first part, I found the continual emphasis on Roman Catholicism a bit wearing and didn’t enjoy the second and third sections nearly as much…skipped parts I’m ashamed to say.

    • Jason Carr

      Thanks for reading Annie! I haven’t read Down to a Sunless Sea…looks like an interesting book. :)

  • Cassandra Nilsson

    This list has definitely added some books to my “Must Read” list! However one dystopian novel that seems to be missing from many lists is We by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Surely one of the masterpieces of the genre!

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/We-Penguin-Twentieth-Century-Classics/dp/0140185852/ref=pd_bxgy_b_text_b

    • Jason Carr

      This one looks fascinating Cassandra. I love how the character (a mathematician) dreams in numbers! :) Great addition to our dialog…thanks so much!

      • Andre

        ‘We’ is also the one that influenced Orwell and Huxley.

        • Jason Carr

          Thanks Andre. I’ve ordered it but haven’t read it yet. I’m definitely looking forward to this one.

        • Aaron

          We is a great story. I found parts hard to follow, but overall I highly recommend. I have recently read We, Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, 1984, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and all three Hunger Games novels. We is definitely up there with those.

  • Glenn

    Jason, I’ve read 5 and just started Never Let Me Go. Try Forever War by Joe Haldeman, some would say it’s not dystopian, but I think it is.

    Correct me if I’m wrong but isn’t the picture at the top of the page from Blade runner? if so why don’t you have “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” on your list?

    • Jason Carr

      Hey Glenn! I’ve read “Forever War”…great story. I AGREE re Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep…had I done a top 10 list I think it would have made it. :) Let me know what you think of Never Let Me Go. Thanks Glenn!

  • Glenn

    I’m curious, why not 1984 or Atlas Shrugged?

    • Jason Carr

      Either of these two could easily have been added Glenn. I was primarily shooting for stories that many may have not read more so than those that I would consider my personal favorites or those that I would categorize as the top ones (this would most certainly include both of these…especially 1984). In fact, good ole’ Winston Smith is perhaps one of top 5 favorite fictional characters of all time. I think both books you mention should be required reading for secondary level students…for a number of reasons. :)

  • michelle

    in the novel Never Let Me Go how does Ishiguro use the book to question perceptions of religion and science?

    • Jason Carr

      Hi Michelle. My interpretation is that he questions the legitimacy of both without ever doing so directly. For instance he leads us to consider the ethics behind cloning but leaves it to the reader to determine how he/she feels about the topic. That’s why I find this book such a wonderful read…it encourages us to consider the implications of our actions today (whether religious-based or science-based) and how they may affect the future.

  • lindsay

    Again, this is meant for young adults but I am certainly not in that category :) and thoroughly enjoyed The Maze Runner series by James Dashner

  • lindsay

    Really showing my true colours here by only recommending young adult genre books! Maybe they are all my tiny little mind can take :) but I also loved the first 2 books in The Matched Trilogy by Ally Condie (not sure on the release date for the 3rd)
    Althought I have always loved Lord of the Rings and fantasy, I am new to dystopia and so I have taken 3 from your must read list – Brave New World, Never Let me Go and The Giver – so “Thank you” for those.

    • Jason Carr

      That’s fantastic Lindsay! I particularly think you will enjoy Brave New World but all of these are great for sure. And no worries re young adult genre books…some of them are often the best reading. :)

  • http://twitter.com/IreneZibin/status/248267596762316800/ @IreneZibin

    Nine Must-Read Dystopian Novels http://t.co/y1ZDddrc

  • http://www.squidoo.com/best-dystopian-novels Shane

    Great varied list of the dystopian genre. I thought I had a good handle on most of them, but there are a few here I haven’t gotten around to yet. One thing I find interesting is how many classic dystopian science fiction works can also be closely related to the post apocalypse genre.

    • Jason Carr

      Great insight Shane regarding the post-apocalypse genre…they are indeed often used synonymously. Please let us know your thoughts on any new ones you read in the future. Thanks for visiting WiredCosmos Shane. :)

  • Hannah

    I have read all but two of these; one I do believe would absolutely fit on this list is When She Woke by Hillary Jordan, which does bring in aspects of The Handmaid’s Tale as well as The Scarlet Letter, and has become one of my favorite dystopian novels! I highly recommend it.

    • Jason Carr

      Awesome Hannah! I’ll check out When She Woke for sure. Congrats on reading so many of these…I hope you’ve found them as amazing as I have!

  • Yannis

    Great list on the genre, i have read 5 of them and will be ordering The Crhysalids and Never let me go tonight! I just finished reading ‘War with the newts’ by the czech Karel Capek and would definitely include it in my list:

    http://theasylum.wordpress.com/2010/06/10/karel-capek-war-with-the-newts/

    I would also recommend:

    Welcome to the monkey house (short stories collection) by Kurt Vonnegut
    The Disposessed by Ursula Le Guin
    The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess

    Thanks for all the suggestions!

  • Stefan T.

    Now I’ve got some interesting works to add to my dystopia to-read shelf. Thanks for the recommendations. A bit off topic, but have some questions about those awesome pictures. Where are the images at the top of the page from? Did you make them yourself?

  • Athos Noblesse

    Interesting list. I wasn’t aware of the E.M. Foerster. No list of dystopian novels would be complete without 1984. That said, Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We was written in 1921 and is often cited as the inspiration for both Brave New World and 1984. Even more interesting, H.G. Wells political writings (and perhaps his fiction) were probably at the root of many dystopian visions, including We.

    • Jason Carr

      Great input Athos! Thanks for contributing and I hope you’ll continue to read the blog. :)

  • Elizabeth

    I’ve read about four of them, but The Giver is one of my favorite books of all books, not just dystopian novels. I was so excited when a fourth book in the series came out.

  • Gary anderson

    I can think of a lot of them I have read that should be on your list. l ron hubbards final black out. this was hubbards first novel written before world war 2 in the 30’s it depicts a endless second world war where civilization colopses in mainland Europe , the usa has been atomic bombed and chemical attacked into isolationism and the british isles are ruked by the communist party. the main antagonist the lefteneant is part of the british expeditionary force that is quarantined from britan because of germ warfare and plague, but its more to do with political quarantine.

Post Navigation