At this point in world history, diving into the rich world of fictional dystopia seems like an exercise in masochism. But this selection of the best dystopian novels will remind you that no matter how bad things seem in the real world, at least we’re not being coerced into fighting to the death for entertainment.
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner (1968)
Winner of the Hugo Award in 1969, Stand on Zanzibar concerns itself with the consequences of overpopulation, depicting a world in which a huge corporation is attempting to take over the management of a fictional African country to speed up its development. It’s crammed with prescient ideas and predictions, though it’s still very much a product of 1960s anxieties, such as increasing commercialisation, eugenics and racial tensions. Several chapters are devoted purely to world-building, such as quotations from the The Hipcrime Vocab – a book by a fictional in-world sociologist – adding a rich level of context.
Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)
In Children of Men, humanity has become infertile and the United Kingdom has descended into an autocratic nation governed by a self-appointed Warden and council. Immigrants are exploited and the elderly are a burden, often forced to commit suicide at the age of 60. The book tells the story of the struggle between the ruling government and a dissent group who are demanding reform. It was adapted into an award-winning film by Alfonso Cuarón that changes elements of the story considerably, making the novel an interesting read for fans of the film.
Battle Royale by Koushun Takami (1999)
Battle Royale has a good case to be one of the most influential dystopian novels of modern times, influencing as it has The Hunger Games and by extension one of the most popular video games ever made in Fortnite. Set in a fictional authoritarian Japanese state that arose from an alternative history where Japan was victorious in World War II, Battle Royale sees 50 high-school children kidnapped and sent to an island to fight to the death – where they wear explosive collars to ensure their obedience. Published in Japanese in 1999, it wasn’t translated into English until 2003 – three years after the outstanding film adaptation of the same name.
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
George Orwell’s classic permeates so much of modern culture that even a first read feels instantly familiar. It follows Winston Smith, who lives in a version of Britain that has been subsumed into Oceania, one of three totalitarian super-states engaged in a state of perpetual war. He lives under the constant watch of Big Brother, the leader of the ruling Party, via a telescreen that can see into almost every corner of his home. In an era of smart speakers and facial recognition, it feels more relevant than ever.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
On the face of it, the society described in Brave New World is a utopia – but that illusion soon disintegrates. Huxley predicts genetic modification, and advances in reproduction and psychology that usher in an elite society and a social hierarchy based on intelligence, where citizens are kept placated through the consumption of a drug called soma. But people from outside the cities who still live, give birth and age the old way are viewed as savages – the book follows the clash between these two worlds through the eyes of psychologist Bernard Marx.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
The television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale has made red cloaks and white cowls familiar to millions – the book is narrower in scope, but intensely powerful. It follows Offred, whose real name is never revealed in the book, and her life in Gilead – a twisted but increasingly plausible version of American where women are oppressed by a government of religious fundamentalists who seized power in a coup. A sequel, The Testaments, picks up the story fifteen years later.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
Bleak, breathless and beautiful, Pulitzer prize-winner The Road grabs you from the first sentence and doesn’t let go. The story follows a nameless man and his son on a journey across post-apocalyptic America – in a world where cultural norms are fading fast. But the way it’s told that with you – McCarthy’s sparse style, familiar from Blood Meridian and No Country For Old Men – is perfect for a simple tale that’s about civilisation and humanity stripped down to the bones.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
When it was written, Ray Bradbury’s masterpiece tapped into very real concerns about censorship at the height of McCarthyism. It tells the story of Guy Montag – a ‘fireman’ employed to burn the possessions of people who read outlawed books, but who – like Nineteen Eighty-Four’s Winston Smith – slowly has his eyes opened. The book’s depiction of the near future predicts everything from in-ear headphones to 24-hour cash machines.
The Wall by John Lanchester (2019)
In the near-future, the seas are rising, and Britain has walled itself off – to keep the waters, and the people out. But the Wall needs people to man it, and so the country’s youth are drafted in for long stints peering out to sea as Defenders on the lookout for dangerous Others. It’s about the environment and immigration – but also the disconnect between the young and old. A tale for our times.
Vox by Christina Dalcher (2018)
There are echoes of The Handmaid’s Tale and Naomi Alderman’s The Power in this chilling story about a world where women are limited to 100 words per day by a utterance-counting bracelet that shocks them if they go over the limit. It’s not as artfully done as Atwood’s classic of the genre, but it’s certainly entertaining – a screen adaptation is inevitable.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
Written by Anthony Burgess in just three weeks, A Clockwork Orange follows 15-year-old Alex and his ultra-violent teenage gang – inspired by societal anxieties about the youth culture of the 1960s. Unlike the famous Stanley Kubrick movie adaptation, which was based on the American edition of the book that had the final chapter removed, the full version of the book ends on a happy, optimistic note.