Dystopian fiction lets us see what could be — what sociocultural changes and political policy could turn us into — and gives us an avenue for discussion. Using sci-fi tropes or revised alternate history, writers like Ray Bradbury and George Orwell create commentary on a wide range of social, economic, and political issues. These are the 10 very best dystopian novels:
During the McCarthy era, censorship was prevalent; the 1950s had book burnings featuring communist literature and the shutdown of community groups that were deemed unpatriotic. Over time, politicians used the public’s paranoia of communism and the acceptance of widespread censorship to throttle other progressive reformative policies, like women’s suffrage: this use of censorship as authoritarian control is the basic foundation of the world in Fahrenheit 451. Ray Bradbury used science fiction concepts to explore sociocultural issues in his previous works, notably in his collections The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, and he does so again to great effect in Fahrenheit 451.
1984 was the last novel that Orwell published and it is possibly his greatest. The nightmarish dystopia of Orwell’s world — the mass surveillance, the totalitarian government, the culture of propaganda and censorship — is scarier when you realize that it exists in countries in our modern world. 1984 is all at once several things: political satire, futuristic dystopian fiction, and an important novel.
Never Let Me Go
Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose is beautiful and it makes for an unsettling backdrop against the cold, harsh dystopian setting of Never Let Me Go. The story begins innocently enough, exploring the life in Hailsham, a boarding school in England, but the cruel truth of the world reveals itself shortly. This is a wonderful book, one best read blindly without any knowledge of its plot or themes. To say any more would possibly spoil it for future readers.
Brave New World
Governmental control over reproductive rights, lifespans, and free speech is the backdrop for Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; government mandates also dictate caste structure and lifespans, giving the public zero control over anything in their own lives. A brainwashing technique during sleep periods keeps the status quo, individual identity is discouraged, and undesirables are moved to “reservations” away from the general public. Brave New World follows two characters as they take a vacation at one of these reservations and meet a young man who has never experienced the world outside — the brave new world. A study of culture shock and a commentary on individualism, Brave New World is an enduring classic.
The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaid’s Tale is possibly our world if racial and gender equality movements never happened. People in The Handmaid’s Tale‘s disturbing, yet fascinating world are compartmentalized: by color, by gender, by religion, by caste. Reproductive rights are completely under the control of the male ruling class, and due to a plummeting birthrate, fertile women — called handmaids — are herded and used for reproductive purposes. Within this nightmarish setting is a story of one of the male ruling class officers breaking the status quo with one of the handmaids. A great, depressing read.
I first read Orwell’s Animal Farm as a youth, with very little idea of what communism was, but even then, I found the novel’s concept of “animalism” and the farm’s gradual changes to social structure fascinating. Re-reading it years later, I realize that Animal Farm is not a subtle book. The use of talking pigs and a list of commandments are direct punches to the face of allegorical humor — but in spite of (or maybe as a result of) its directness and Orwell’s words dripping with undisguised contempt for communist ideology, Animal Farm is a revered classic of dystopian literature.
Make Room! Make Room!
Most people know the twist that makes the overpopulated Earth in “Make Room! Make Room!” a horrifying dystopia from the film adaptation “Soylent Green”, but that doesn’t make the book any less compelling of a read. “Make Room! Make Room!” takes place in a crowded New York City where violent riots and a severe shortage of resources has forced the government to take drastic measures to keep the status quo. One of Harry Harrison’s best works and an instant classic.
Lord of the Flies
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies shows a group of boys, marooned on an empty island, turning paradise into a dystopia; the boys slowly degrade into savages, becoming animalistic through mob rule. Golding’s novel — on the American Library Association’s list of frequently challenged and banned books — is a special type of dystopian fiction, because it takes the reader through the setting’s gradual transformation from idyllic island to dystopia.
The Time Machine
H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells The Time Machine is mentioned in the very best time travel novels list as using time travel as a vehicle to explore social structures; it appears on this list as well for using an extreme result of hundreds of years of capitalist rule to create a dystopian world where the peaceful, simple Eloi are hunted by the tunnel-dwelling Morlocks. A classic and a great fit for readers interested in either time travel fiction or dystopian worlds.
Oryx and Crake
Oryx and Crake is the first book in the post-apocalyptic Maddaddam trilogy — and is listed on the best post-apocalyptic series list — but works well as a standalone dystopian novel. In it, we follow a man named Snowman living in a desolate, ruined landscape; flashback sequences reveal the cause of the desolation, and through the flashbacks we are brought into a dystopian world where corporate scientists live in protected communities while the general public live in the dangerous urban zones outside. Through the scientists’ experiments in genetic manipulation, nature revolts against mankind with viruses and mutations, causing the cataclysm that turns the dystopia into an apocalyptic landscape. Though the entire Maddaddam series is fantastic, Oryx and Crake is the best entry of the trilogy.