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The 20 best dystopian novels

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Dave Fawbert
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Humanity aims for constant progress; movement towards a superior standard of living.

But what happens when everything goes wrong instead? A mainstay of science fiction writing over the years has been to speculate about a future which has taken a distinct turn for the worse. There's no beautiful end point, only a joyless, dysfunctional dystopia.

We take a look at the 20 greatest novels focusing on the darker side of life.

  • 1984 (1949)

    Author: George Orwell

    A books so eerily prescient that 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 Orwell wrote it in 1949.

  • The Windup Girl (2009)

    Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

    A modern dystopian classic, Bacigalupi describes a world where catastrophes are commonplace, global warming has caused huge sea level rises and biotechnology rules, with mega corporations - calorie companies - controlling food production. Set in Thailand, he creates a vivid dystopian environment and, like so many on this list, an entirely believable one.

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  • Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? (1968)

    Author: Philip K. Dick

    A literary phenomenon and one that inspired the equally successful movie Blade Runner, it’s all built within a post-apocalyptic society featuring - of course - hover cars and robots. Following the nuclear ‘World War Terminus’ and the 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.

  • 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?

  • The Chrysalids (1955)

    Author: John Wyndham

    Set several thousand years in the future, The Chrysalids outlines a world which is dystopian due to its inability to tolerate any difference. Convinced that ‘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.

  • A Clockwork Orange (1962)

    Author: Anthony Burgess

    An unforgettable book, which 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 and restore order. Hugely influential and another novel which birthed many new words, including droogs and ultraviolence; it mused on what it really means to be free.

  • Fahrenheit 451 (1953)

    Author: Ray Bradbury

    The ultimate dystopia for a writer, Bradbury described an American society where books are burned and intellectual thought is illegal. A free press and the dissemination of ideas is commonly viewed as a central tenet of democracy and intellectual progress - Fahrenheit 451 tackled head-on the nightmare world where this was not possible. Brilliantly, in a triumph of irony, when it was first released, the book itself was banned for ‘questionable themes’. An HBO movie is on the way.

  • 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 which 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.

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  • The Hunger Games (2008)

    Author: Suzanne Collins

    Of course, it has spawned two book sequels and an all-conquering movie series, but the first Hunger Games is an undoubted classic. A future nation of Panem harks back to Roman times by creating the ‘Hunger Games’: a barbaric and brutal tournament for desperate people to 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, at its heart, an unsettling dystopian vision of the world, which some would argue already exists in one form or another.

  • The Iron Heel (1908)

  • Logan's Run (1967)

    Authors: William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson

    A simple, but terrifying concept: a world where resources are maintained and the population controlled by the mandatory death of all humans once they reach the age of 21. Set in the 23rd century, the eponymous Logan-6 is the trained killer responsible for enforcing this; quelle surprise, when it’s his turn to meet his maker, he’s less keen on the idea. Well, isn’t that just typical?

  • Neuromancer (1984)

  • The Running Man (1982)

    Author: Richard Bachman (Stephen King)

    Published under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, The Running Man is an all-time classic, inspiring the Schwarzenegger movie of the same name. In a dystopian America in 2025, the economy is in ruins, violence is commonplace and a totalitarian government rules. Life for those ‘blacklisted’ is unbearable, and submitting to a game show where death is all but certain looks like the only way out. Like so many King novels, the The Running Man went on to be hugely influential; it’s hard to imagine The Hunger Games existing without it.

  • The Time Machine (1895)

    Author: H.G. Wells

    It’s a pretty big accolade to have: H.G. Wells is generally acknowledged to have popularised the idea of time travel, and his term ‘time machine’ is the standard vehicle used. Unfortunately for the Time Traveller, his incredible machine takes him to some dark, dystopian places and enables him to witness the end of the earth. The word influential does not fully describe how important this book was for science fiction.

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  • Article 5 (2012)

    Author: Kristen Simmons

    A young adult dystopian novel, Article 5, Simmons’ debut novel, was released to critical acclaim in 2012, demonstrating that the genre is alive and well. The US is run by an ultra-conservative Federal Bureau for Reformation and a child born out of wedlock is, technically illegal. A fight for survival ensues, with scenes of torture and darkness aplenty.

  • The Drowned World (1962)

    Author: J.G. Ballard

    As the title suggests, Ballard paints a vivid picture of a world irreversibly changed by global warming; the cities of Europe and America lie submerged in tropical lagoons, while 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.

  • We (1921)

    Author: Yevgeny Zamyatin

    A novel with a fascinating background: Zamyatin experienced the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917 and in between worked for the Russian Navy on the Tyne shipyards in Newcastle during the First World War. Informed by these experiences, he wrote We, set in the future in an urban nation constructed of glass, with secret police and constant observation in a similar method to the Panopticon and Foucault’s associated ideas of power. People are numbered, not named and individuality is lost. Written in Russian way before Stalin was in power, it was eerily predictive of some elements of the eventual Communist way of life.

  • Uglies (2005)

    Author: Scott Westerfeld

    An interesting take on a dystopian world, Westerfeld describes a place where conformity is everything, achieved through mandatory extreme cosmetic surgery - making everyone ‘pretty’ - upon reaching the age of 16. Individual choice has been removed and - of course - Big Brother is watching your every move. Although written relatively recently, the constant move towards the conformity of beauty standards in the Western world suggests that this particular image-based dystopia may not be too far away.

  • Oryx and Crake (2003)

    Author: Margaret Atwood

    Another dystopian world which has roots in what is actually happening in real life, Atwood describes an America with a divided society: a rich getting richer and a segregated oppressed poor, who are kept away from the rich. Corporations dominate and control the population, aided by gene manipulation. A complex and vivid plot, it hypothesises the consequences of prioritising short-term scientific progress over long-term responsibility. A TV adaptation is on the way.

  • The Road (2006)

    Author: Cormac McCarthy

    A harrowing and brutal look at a post-apocalyptic America where a father and son make their way across a destroyed landscape devoid of virtually all life on Earth. 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.

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