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.
UPDATED: We've added a number of new stories to our best dystopian novels list, including Noughts & Crosses, The Children of Men, Battle Royale and Stand on Zanzibar.
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 20 best dystopian novels focusing on the darker side of life. Vote for your favourite below.
Best dystopian novels
1. 1984 (1949)View now on Amazon
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)View now on Amazon
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)View now on Amazon
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. Animal Farm (1946)View now on Amazon
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.
5. The Handmaid's Tale (1985)View now on Amazon
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.
6. The Road (2006)View now on Amazon
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.
7. Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968)View now on Amazon
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.
8. A Clockwork Orange (1962)View now on Amazon
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.
9. The Stand (1978)
Author: Stephen King
Not just one of Stephen King's best novels but one of the best novels of all time. This is an epic story of good and evil, set in the backdrop of a plague-ridden US. This was the novel where we first met Randall Flagg, one of the best villains around, and it's an absolutely rivetting read - especially in the current climate.
10. The Hunger Games (2008)View now on Amazon
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.
11. The Time Machine (1895)
H.G. Wells' The Time Machine may not solely be about a dystopian future, but it sure does give us a scary glimpse into one. It's a must-read book for anyone with an interest in science-fiction and time travel because it deals with some of the messy, scary, unexpected side effects of whizzing through time. The original movie is a must-watch too, just take it with a pinch of salt – it was made in 1960.
12. We (1921)View now on Amazon
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
13. The Giver (1993)View now on Amazon
Author: Lois Lowry
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 Chrysalids (1955)View now on Amazon
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.
15. The Children of Men (1992)
Author: PD James
PD James’ The Children of Men is a riveting book set in 2021, where mass infertility has meant that no child has been born for 25 years. Unlike the movie, which follows main protagonist Theo Faron, the book takes a number of points of view (switching between third and first person) and is a little more sci-fi in its premise, with Omegas (those born in 1995) literally allowed to get away with murder. It’s a great book in its own right, one that’s elevated by Alfonso Cuarón’s fantastic movie.
16. The Windup Girl (2009)View now on Amazon
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.
17. Battle Royale (1999)
Author: Koushun Takami
The original novel the ridiculously successful Japanese movie was based on, Koushun Takami’s book is a visceral delight that tells the tale of schoolkids that have to fight to death on a remote island. Originally seen as pure exploitation (nothing wrong with that, in our opinion), the book is now quite rightly heralded as Lord of the Flies for the 21st Century.
18. The Drowned World (1962)View now on Amazon
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.
19. Stand on Zanzibar
Author: John Brunner (1968)
The earth is over crowded, politics is decided by assassinations and there’s people trying to appease erupting volcanoes with incense. Throw in a boatload of psychotropic drugs and what you have is a dazzling and inventive dystopian nightmare. Made in the 60 but it could have been writer yesterday, that’s how close Brunner has got to the way the world currently is right now.
20. Noughts & Crosses (2017)
Author: Malorie Blackman
Noughts & Crosses has been given more prominence of late, thanks to a largely successful TV adaption. The source novel is superb and achingly current. It shows a world split by race - where the Noughts are the dark-skinned ruling class and the Crosses are pale-skinned lower class and used to be the slaves of Noughts. A love affair between Sephy (a Nought) and Callum (a Cross) threatens the very fabric of society.