Like many teenagers before me, I first got into dystopian fiction in high school when we studied George Orwell’s 1984. And that was the only dystopian novel I studied at any level of school (including college), which is fairly weird when comparing notes with other English majors. However, I only needed that first taste to start a hunger for the genre moving forward.
But let me back up a moment to define what I mean by dystopian novels, just so that we’re all on the same page. For me, dystopian novels are those that feature stories in a totalitarian or post-apocalyptic society where there is great suffering or injustice, sometimes obvious to the protagonists, though sometimes there’s a subconscious sense of something being not quite right.
Below are what I consider the 10 best dystopian novels ever written. Fortunately, we allow dissent on this site. So feel free to share your own favorites in the comments below.
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10 Best Dystopian Novels for Writers
Maybe this is a sentimental choice, since it was my introduction to the genre, but I don’t think so.
For one, many of its terms and concepts have entered popular culture since its publication, including Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and 2 + 2 = 5. But there’s more to 1984 than a repressive totalitarian government led by someone who may or may not exist (but who is always watching you regardless).
There’s Winston Smith’s interaction with the world around him, and his relationship with his coworker, Julia. Their relationship and where that relationship eventually leads has stuck with me over the years.
For me, it’s what makes this book a timeless classic (despite the very timely title)—and ultimately, it’s that relationship that helps make this novel number one on my list of dystopian novels.
I’ll admit that I debated whether to include Lord of the Flies on my Top 10 list. Some dystopian lists include Golding’s novel, and some do not.
However, when I think about totalitarian societies with great suffering in fiction this novel rises to the top. In fact, this novel would be number one on my personal list of the most depressing novels ever written. And that’s not meant as a slight.
Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a compelling read about a group of young boys who survive a plane crash near an isolated island in the Pacific Ocean. After surviving the crash, the boys work out how to move forward as a group while they wait to be rescued by adults.
What starts off with great hope comes crashing down around them piece by piece.
Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale follows a woman named Offred (meaning “Of Fred”) in a dystopian society named the Republic of Gilead that was formed after a staged political attack and revolution by a radical political group called “Sons of Jacob.” Gilead is a theonomy, which is a hypothetical form of government in which society is ruled by divine law.
Of the many changes in this new society, one is that women’s rights are severely limited, as they can’t hold property, handle money, or read or write. All women also have a strict, color-coded dress code they must follow that makes their roles easy to identify. Handmaids, who wear red, are assigned to produce children for the ruling class of men, known as “commanders.”
As a handmaid, Offred offers a unique perspective into this world, because she lived in the pre-revolution, revolution, and post-revolution eras.
While some people try to label this a feminist dystopia, Atwood points out that men and women suffer in her dystopian world.
Huxley’s Brave New World is one of the first that come to mind when thinking of dystopian novels, but it was inspired by H.G. Wells’ utopian novels. Huxley started off writing a parody of these novels for fun but got swept up in his dystopian world—as have many readers since.
The novel captures a utopian society based in London called the World State that measures time in years “After Ford” (or AF)—and that also, of course, is not a utopia. The plot basically involves an unsatisfied member of the World State going on vacation with his wife to an uncivilized reservation and bringing a “Savage” and his mother back with him.
Then, a series of events happen as the “Savage” reacts to his “brave new world.”
I’m not afraid to admit that Anthony Burgess is one of my all-time favorite authors, and the first novel to hook me was A Clockwork Orange, which I read before watching the Stanley Kubrick film. It’s a dystopian dark comedy that follows around a teenage troublemaker named Alex and his gang of friends (or “droogs”).
Burgess himself claims to have written the novel in just three weeks. That’s impressive on its own, but one element that I love about the novel is his seamless usage of a fictional slang called Nadsat that he developed from his experience as a linguist. Copies of A Clockwork Orange include a dictionary for the language in the back so that readers can understand terms like “lewdies,” “baboochka,” and “polyclef.”
Language and process of writing the novel aside, A Clockwork Orange is really an interesting glimpse into the head of an intelligent sociopath and how the dystopian society around him attempts to cure his condition.
If Lord of the Flies is number one on my imaginary “most depressing novel” list, McCarthy’s The Road is probably number two. It’s a super compelling read and somehow actually offers a little hope, but it’s about as dark as a novel can get.
The main premise is that a father and son travel across the mainland to the sea years after an extinction event has reduced the United States to a post-apocalyptic world filled with cannibals, ash, and little else. Oh yeah, and the mother of this family commits suicide just a bit before they start their trip. Real upbeat stuff here, right?
That said, the father and son are about as likeable as you can make characters in this kind of man-eat-man world, in which the father continually assures his son that they’re “good guys.” The setting is grim, but that’s why I found myself entranced by this novel and rooting for these “good guys” to find some sort of success.
The seventh book on this list is actually the first book of a trilogy by the same name. The Hunger Games was published in 2008 followed closely by the publication of Catching Fire in 2009 and Mockingjay in 2010.
The main premise for The Hunger Games is that it’s a dystopian story set in Panem, a North American country that consists of a prosperous Capitol and 12 impoverished districts. At one point there was a 13th district, which was destroyed for attempting a failed rebellion. As punishment for the remaining districts, they have to conduct a lottery each year to provide a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 from each district to participate in a televised battle to the death.
The novel is narrated by Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old who volunteers to take the place of her 12-year-old sister in the competition. As with any reality television show, alliances are formed and broken with the extra weight of this being a “life and death” competition.
There’s probably a list-making rule hidden somewhere that prohibits list makers from listing two books by the same author in the same top 10 list, especially when there are so many great novels available in the genre (and there are so many great dystopian novels, aren’t there?), but this is my list—so we’re playing by my rules. You’re welcome.
In Animal Farm, George Orwell shares the story of a group of farm animals that rebel against their human farmer with the goal of creating an animal utopia in which every animal can live a free and happy life—without fear of exploitation.
Sounds good, but things quickly turn south as one of the two co-leaders of the new society, Napoleon, turns everyone against his better half, Snowball. With Snowball out of the way, Napoleon begins to consolidate power, and the once bright future of Animal Farm begins to darken.
Farenheit 451 is the story of a “fireman” named Guy Montag, who lives in a distant future in which people of his profession are employed to burn the possessions of people who read outlawed books, especially those that complicate the lives of those who read them (kind of like every book on this list).
Anyway, Montag starts to have an awakening after a few life and death experiences and the pocketing of one of the outlawed books. Later, he reveals to his wife that he’s been stashing books away for a while.
Maybe it’s because I spent so many years editing books, but I have a soft spot for a dystopian novel that focuses so purely on the act on burning books. Plus, I just love the way Ray Bradbury spins a tale (The Halloween Tree is one of my favorite middle grade books).
Men with flamethrowers and 8-legged “mechanical hounds” that help locate book hoarders—in a world that’s on the cusp of a nuclear war? Sign me up.
Of all the books on this list, Never Let Me Go is the one I’ve finished most recently, and that’s the only reason I have it so low on the list—I never know whether to trust my initial “high” of reading a great new (to me) book. But just discussing it here makes me want to read it again, because it’s the type of book that reveals itself in layers.
The narrator, a 31-year-old carer named Kathy H., tells a compelling story about the relationship between her and her friends, Ruth and Tommy, who went to the same Hailsham school together that prepared them for their unique futures in a dystopian world that feels eerily contemporary.
In fact, the novel, published in 2005, takes place in London in the late 1990s—making it a new sort of “contemporary historical dystopian” fiction.
I won’t reveal too much of the plot, because anyone who’s read the novel knows that most of the enjoyment is in how Kathy H. reveals each new layer.
Honorable Mentions: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, We, The Windup Girl, The Time Machine, and Running Man.
So what did I miss? Let me know in the comments below.