Humanity aims for constant progress and a movement towards a superior standard of living. But what happens when everything goes wrong instead? Well, you only have to read the best dystopian novels to find out – or turn on the news to see we're only a few steps removed.
UPDATE: We’ve added The Giver to our list because it came highly requested by you. After all, it is an award-winning novel, which won critical acclaim and was even adapted into a movie back in 2014, starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and Taylor Swift. It's about a world that seems to be perfect, but as you'd expect, nothing is quite what it seems.
Speculating about a future that has taken a distinct turn for the worse is a mainstay of science fiction writing. There's no beautiful end point, only a joyless, dysfunctional dystopia.
We take a look at 11 of the greatest novels focusing on the darker side of life. Vote for your favourite below.
Best dystopian novels
1. 1984 (1949)
Author: George Orwell
1940 is so eerily prescient, a multitude of its terms are now commonplace in our modern world. Big Brother, Room 101, Newspeak and 2+2=5 all originate from Orwell’s classic tale. A disturbing, dystopian world of constant surveillance and government-controlled media for sure, but one which, uncomfortably, we recognise more as real life than when published in 1949.
2. Brave New World (1932)
Author: Aldous Huxley
Inspired by the utopian novels of H.G.Wells, Huxley sought to write a book with a polar opposite prediction of the future. He managed it with some style, by painting an image of a cold world with numbing drugs, organised reproduction, no concept of family, and brainwashing from birth. While superficially a hedonistic environment, it soon becomes clear that this is no place to live: if you cannot feel pain, can you ever truly feel joy?
3. Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
Author: Ray Bradbury
The ultimate dystopia for a writer, Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 describes an American society where books are burned and intellectual thought is illegal. A free press and the dissemination of ideas are commonly viewed as central tenets of democracy and intellectual progress - Fahrenheit 451 tackled head-on the nightmare world where this is not possible. Brilliantly, in a triumph of irony, when it was first released, the book itself was banned for "questionable themes".
4. The Handmaid's Tale (1985)
Author: Margaret Atwood
A dystopian vision of the future that hideously looks ever more plausible, The Handmaid’s Tale is set in a totalitarian Christian theocracy that has overthrown the US government. In a post-nuclear world plagued by infertility, women are forbidden from reading, and the few capable of having children are subjugated and forced to serve the wider needs of society by becoming breeding machines. A harrowing read and a fascinating look at a dystopia based on gender discrimination. The TV series is essential viewing.
5. The Road (2006)
Author: Cormac McCarthy
The Road is a harrowing and brutal look at a post-apocalyptic America. A father and son make their way across a destroyed landscape devoid of virtually all life. The future is hopeless, but on they must go, into the unknown and whatever awaits them. As dystopian novels go, this is certainly one of the most bleak.
6. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968)
Author: Philip K. Dick
A literary phenomenon and one that inspired the equally successful movie Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?'s world is a post-apocalyptic society featuring - of course - hover cars and robots. Following the nuclear ‘World War Terminus’ and resulting radiation poisoning, animals are rare and unfeeling androids proliferate. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? forces the reader to consider what it is that really makes us human.
7. A Clockwork Orange (1962)
Author: Anthony Burgess
An unforgettable book that spawned an equally unforgettable Stanley Kubrick movie, A Clockwork Orange painted a vivid, depressing future riven with violent gangs, extreme youthful violence and the work of state authorities to try to restore order. Hugely influential, this is another novel that birthed many new words, including droogs and ultraviolence. It mused on what it really means to be free.
8. The Hunger Games (2008)
Author: Suzanne Collins
It has spawned two book sequels and an all-conquering movie series, but the first Hunger Games is an undoubted classic in its own right. A future nation of Panem harks back to Roman times by creating the "Hunger Games", a barbaric and brutal tournament in which desperate people fight to the death for food and rewards, for the entertainment of a ruling class. Additionally a satire on reality television, The Hunger Games is an unsettling dystopian vision of the world, which some would argue already exists in one form or another.
9. We (1921)
Author: Yevgeny Zamyatin English Translation: Gregory Ziboorg
We is an early dystopian novel written way back between 1920 and 1921. It's believed that some of the other popular novels in the list, including Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984, were heavily influenced by We.
It's set in a place called One State – an urban setting made mostly from glass, which keeps everyone under surveillance. It follows the story of D-503, a spacecraft engineer who becomes involved in a resistance group
10. The Chrysalids (1955)
Author: John Wyndham
Set several thousand years in the future, The Chrysalids outlines a world unable to tolerate any difference. Convinced ‘normality’ is key to preserving their world, the inhabitants of Labrabor set out to kill, or banish, anyone that differs from them - including those who happen to have telepathic powers. With the rise of religious fundamentalism, this is another book which gave an eerie prediction of our real-life progress as a society.
11. Animal Farm (1946)
Author: George Orwell
Okay, yes, we know - we’ve included two Orwell novels - but there’s a reason we get taught Animal Farm at school, because outside the confines of the classroom it’s a pretty decent book. As any history buff will know, this 1946 novel is filled to the brim with historical reflections and thinly-veiled criticism of the Soviet Union, but told through farm animals including a pig called Napoleon.
12. The Drowned World (1962)
Author: J.G. Ballard
Ballard paints a vivid picture of a world irreversibly changed by global warming. The cities of Europe and America lie submerged in tropical lagoons. A biologist cataloguing flora and fauna is beset with strange dreams. A global scenario that might have seemed fanciful when the book was written back in 1962, Ballard’s predictions could well end up playing out in real life very soon.
13. The Giver (1993)
We’ve recently added The Giver to our list because it came highly requested by you. After all, it is an award-winning novel, which won critical acclaim and was even adapted into a movie back in 2014, starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep and Taylor Swift. It's about a world in which young people are given professions at 12-years-old, but Jonas finds that this seemingly perfect utopia has a lot of hidden secrets. If that plot sounds familiar, it's because this book has inspired numerous others in the dystopian genre since.
14. The Windup Girl (2009)
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
A modern dystopian classic, Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl describes a world where catastrophes are commonplace. Global warming has caused huge sea level rises and biotechnology rules, and mega corporations - calorie companies - control food production. He creates a vivid dystopian environment, set in Thailand. Like so many on this list, it is an entirely believable one.