The word “dystopia” comes from the Greek for “bad” and “place.” Novels that depict dystopias generally portray them as the products of a disaster, war, totalitarian government, or some combination thereof. Such novels are expressions of a society’s or an author’s fears and they take those fears to nightmarish extremes.
In no particular order, here are the ten best dystopian novels.
1. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)
This one is arguably the grand-daddy of the genre. A Victorian scholar constructs the titular time machine and catapults himself into the distant future. At first, he’s charmed by the lush gardenlike surroundings and the gentle, inoffensive Eloi. When his time machine is stolen, he has to track it down and thus learns some grim truths about the new world.
2. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
At first, Huxley’s world appears utopian, as war and poverty have been vanquished in most places. That illusion soon fades, for humans have been divided into five castes through genetic engineering. The more privileged characters devote their lives to hedonistic pursuits like free sex and the use of a drug called soma.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)
Set in a world of declining birthrates, “The Handmaid’s Tale” depicts a country called the Republic of Gilead that is ruled by religious fundamentalists and where women are valued only for their reproductive capabilities. Offred is the titular handmaid, and her job is to bear children for a Commander and his wife. She is also old enough to remember life before the fundamentalists’ rise to power.
4. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)
“A Clockwork Orange” details the violent exploits of Alex, a teenager who enjoys classical music, rape, and murder. He narrates the story in a slang called “Nadsat” that is heavily based on Russian. Eventually, the authorities catch up to him and subject him to various therapies designed to brainwash him to abhor violence. Alex is a sociopath, but he is also at the mercy of a government that sees nothing wrong with stripping people of their free will.
5. 1984 by George Orwell (1949)
Probably the most famous dystopian novel ever, “1984” tells the story of Winston Smith, who lives in a UK that has been annexed by Oceania, a surveillance state ruled by the tyrannical Big Brother who knows everything about the people under him. Some of the novel’s concepts, like “Big Brother” and “thoughtcrime” have since permeated popular culture. Winston falls in love with a woman named Julia, and their relationship makes them targets of the government, which views love as a form of rebellion.
6. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)
An unspecified extinction event has devastated the United States, leaving the few survivors to struggle on as best as they can. The protagonists are an unnamed father and son who are simply called “the man” and “the boy.” They are traveling across the country in search of a sanctuary. Along the way, they have to find food and evade cannibals and other marauders. The book shows how quickly civilization can fall apart in the wake of a massive disaster; the unnamed cataclysm had taken place shortly before the boy’s birth.
7. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
“Never Let Me” is a quietly compelling story told by a young woman named Kathy. She spent her formative years at a seemingly idyllic boarding school in England called Hailsham, where she met her two closest friends, Tommy and Ruth. The descriptions of life at the school sound charming, and the three youngsters don’t learn the truth about their situation until they are older. That situation is horrifying, and there turns out to be no way to escape it.
8. Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)
“What if the Nazis had won WWII?” seems like a sound inspiration for a dystopia. Harris’ alternate history is set in a world where that happened. Twenty years after the Nazis’ victory, the protagonist Xavier March is investigating the murder of a powerful Nazi official and eventually uncovers a conspiracy to destroy all evidence of the Final Solution in order to ensure friendly relations with the US.
9. Battle Royale by Koushan Takami (1999)
“Battle Royale” was almost certainly an influence on Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” series. It takes place in a fascist Japan that had won WWII. The authorities abduct 50 high school students and ship them to an island where they have to fight each other to the death. Escaping or simply hiding isn’t an option, for the kids are fitted with explosive collars to make them fight.
10. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)
“Station Eleven” is more of an elegy than a cautionary tale. Much of it takes place 20 years after a global pandemic has wiped out much of the population. Some of the survivors have formed a theatrical troupe that performs Shakespearean plays. Different characters seek clues about the old world or reminisce about their previous lives. Everybody misses something or someone.
Dystopian novels have become a staple of speculative fiction. Despite their similarities, they can vary widely in their tone, setting, and theme. There is thus a dystopian novel for everyone.