10 Must-Read Dystopian Novels: Our Readers’ Picks

we dystopia

While not all sci­ence fic­tion is dystopian—far from it—a ques­tion does arise when the sub­ject of that most pes­simistic of gen­res comes up: is all dystopi­an lit­er­a­ture sci­ence fic­tion? In a post a cou­ple days ago, we brought you five of Antho­ny Burgess’s favorite dystopi­an nov­els, a list that would seem to answer with a resound­ing No. For one thing, Burgess includes what we might count as his­tor­i­cal fic­tion on his list—Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. Is Orwell’s 1984 sci­ence fic­tion? It makes more sense, per­haps, to call it polit­i­cal satire, or “spec­u­la­tive fic­tion,” the term dystopi­an nov­el­ist Mar­garet Atwood prefers.

In the intro­duc­tion to her essay col­lec­tion In Other Worlds, Atwood defines “spec­u­la­tive fic­tion” as “real­is­tic and plau­si­ble” where­as sci­ence fic­tion con­tains more fan­tas­tic ele­ments. Hair­split­ting maybe, but for Atwood it means that dystopias—at least her dystopias—are not sim­ply philo­soph­i­cal thought exper­i­ments divorced from lived real­i­ty, like much utopi­an fic­tion. They are pro­jec­tions, and at times imag­i­na­tive tran­scrip­tions, of the present, show­ing us what may already be hap­pen­ing right under our noses, or what might be right around the cor­ner.

As Burgess wrote of 1984, “It is pos­si­ble to say that the ghast­ly future Orwell fore­told has not come about sim­ply because he fore­told it: we were warned in time.” In oth­er words—the total­i­tar­i­an future Orwell fore­saw was entire­ly pos­si­ble in Eng­land and Amer­i­ca, and need­less to say, already large­ly a real­i­ty in places like Stalin’s Sovi­et Union and cur­rent-day North Korea. In our Burgess post, we asked our read­ers to name their favorite dystopi­an nov­els (or films). How­ev­er we define dystopia—as dark futur­ist fan­ta­sy, sci-fi, or “spec­u­la­tive fic­tion” about nasty things on the verge of com­ing to pass, we’ll nev­er lack for exam­ples.

The list of nov­els below below offers a range of futur­is­tic tales, some more real­is­tic and plau­si­ble, some more fan­tas­tic. Like Burgess, read­ers had a broad def­i­n­i­tion of “dystopi­an” as a genre. I was sur­prised, how­ev­er, that no one men­tioned any of Atwood’s excel­lent nov­els, so I’ll throw in both Oryx and Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale as my picks.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Clock­work Orange Author Antho­ny Burgess Lists His Five Favorite Dystopi­an Nov­els: Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Island & More

Hux­ley to Orwell: My Hell­ish Vision of the Future is Bet­ter Than Yours (1949)

Hear Ray Bradbury’s Clas­sic Sci-Fi Sto­ry Fahren­heit 451 as a Radio Dra­ma

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness


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Comments (17)
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  • Ami92 says:

    Wow, I’ve only read 2 from the list. Now I will. Besides, I love Hunger Games and Diver­gent series. And a few days ago I fin­ished Crim­son Hills (M.Mal). It was a good dystopia too.

  • Lavender says:

    Hi Josh, I am an ESL exam writer. I am won­der­ing if you mind my using your arti­cle as the text for my read­ing com­pre­hen­sion test? I’ve left mu email. Let me know what you feel, please.

  • CarolJude says:

    jack wom­ack, Ran­dom Acts of Sense­less Vio­lence

    Think of it as a Judy Blume nov­el if Judy was a chron­i­cal­ly depressed pes­simist.

  • GraveDigger says:

    Foun­da­tion Tril­o­gy

  • Uwe Sommerlad says:

    I real­ly won­der, to say the least, even on the premise that “1984” should be exclud­ed. So no “The Time Machine”? “I Am Leg­end”? “Brave New World”? “Fahren­heit 451”? “Logan’s Run”? “The 10th Vic­tim”? “A Clock­work Orange”?

  • MIKE NEWTON says:

    The Day of the Trif­fids, The Crysalids and The Krak­en Wakes, by John Wyn­d­ham.
    On the Beach, by Nevil Shute

  • Roger Stryeski says:

    Aero­drome by Rex Warn­er

  • Gordon Diver says:

    Great list, I’d all sug­gest Sta­tion Eleven, by Emi­ly St.John Man­del and the Ille­gal, by Lawrence Hill.

  • Sollipsist says:

    It’s diplo­mat­ic of you to call an utter mis­un­der­stand­ing a “broad def­i­n­i­tion.”

  • Randy Woodall says:

    Wow. NOTHING by the huge­ly pop­u­lar author Philip K Dick? When Dystopi­an is not a bad one-word sum­ma­ry of his work as a whole?

  • lword says:

    “He, She and It” by Marge Pier­cy and “The Hand­maid­s’s Tale” by Mar­garet Atwood are miss­ing from your list. They’re both bet­ter than Tep­per’s book even though I enjoyed it as well.

  • 8forty says:

    How’s John Brun­ner not on this list?

  • Patrick says:

    Noth­ing to Envy — dystopi­an and real.

  • Lisa says:

    Dhal­gren is mis­spelled.

  • Ferda Ak says:

    Atwood’s Hand­maid­’s Tale can­not be omit­ted since it is already becom­ing real­i­ty in many parts of the world,as a mat­ter of fact it has already hap­pened in the Mid­dle East.

  • Brian Spaeth says:

    May I pro­pose an 11th? “The Sun Tem­ple” : bfspath.com

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