When historians chronicle on our present age, 2016 will be marked as the lynchpin year that catapulted us into our current real-life dystopia.
Beginning with Leicester City’s overcoming 5,000-to-1 odds and the surprising results of the Brexit vote. Then it continued on to the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series after a 108-year drought, 2016 provided one shocking result after another.
Any one of these events would’ve been enough to raise more than a few skeptical eyebrows. The fact that they all happened in succession of each other in that fateful year is evidence, to some, that the end of the world is near and that the subsequent decades will play out similarly to Neil Gaiman’s first novel.
And lest you think that 2016 was some kind of fluke, consider the following, similarly unlikely events following that year: In 2017, previously online-only retailers such Rent the Runway and Birchbox expanded into physical, brick-and-mortar locations, highlighted by Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods.
In 2018, the Philadelphia Eagles won their first-ever Super Bowl (and championship of any kind since 1960) with a backup quarterback and second-year head coach against the most-decorated QB-head coach duo in NFL history. Also, 2018 marked the first time ever that a 16-seeded team defeated a 1-seed in the March Madness basketball tournament.
In 2019, the St. Louis Blues won the franchise’s first-ever Stanley Cup in a season in which they owned the NHL’s worst record as late as January 3. And the Washington Nationals won the World Series after starting 19-31 in the first 50 games. And that’s just in the sports world.
Face it: 2016 was no anomaly; it was a harbinger of things to come.
However, we should not cower in fear about living in the end times. Let’s embrace it by diving headlong into some of the most influential and artistic literary works depicting dystopia and post-apocalyptic totalitarianism.
Literary geniuses such as Margaret Atwood, H. G. Wells, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Philip K. Dick have owned and defined the dystopic and anarchic literary space. Honestly, a formidable list could be made using their works alone.
However, for the sake of variety, we have included works of other talented writers with which you can familiarize yourself so that you can delight in the depth of diversity of dystopian novels.
Without further ado and in no particular order…
Table of Contents
- 1. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
- 2. Nineteen Eighty-Four (or 1984) by George Orwell
- 3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
- 4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
- 5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- 6. The Hunger Games (trilogy) by Suzanne Collins
- 7. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- 8. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
- 9. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
- 10. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
- 11. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
- 12. The Stand by Stephen King
- 13. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
- 14. The Giver by Lois Lowry
- 15. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- 16. The Children of Men by P. D. James
- 17. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
- 18. The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick
- 19. The Maze Runner by James Dashner
- 20. The Running Man by Stephen King as Richard Bachman
- 21. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
- 22. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
- 23. Blindness by José Saramago
- 24. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
- 25. The Spider in the Laurel by Michael Pogach
Fahrenheit 451 is a literary classic and a harrowing portrayal of a dystopian society. Through overt propaganda, the setting of the story gives the illusion of a perfect society benevolently controlled by the government.
The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman whose duty it is to burn books as a means of censoring literature, distorting knowledge, and eliminating individual thought.
In futuristic America created by Bradbury, concepts such as freedom of information and individuality of the citizen are viewed as vices, not virtues, and are thus prohibited.
The brutal conclusion of the novel serves as a picture of anarchistic violence drawn to its logical end. Violence is pervasive in Fahrenheit 451.
The firemen terrorize the citizens and their property. Mass media broadcasts barbaric acts for viewers’ entertainment and consumption. Even those walking the streets are susceptible to speeding vehicles haphazardly crashing into everything in sight.
It all goes to show the inevitable self-destruction and collapse of a society buried under the weight of its own violence and oppression.
But still, Guy Montag offers readers a glimmer of hope. With his newfound freedom, he is able to think for himself for the first time in his life and attempts to resurrect his community with a group of like-minded free thinkers.
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four (or 1984) by George Orwell
Also considered one of the best science-fiction novels of all time, Nineteen Eighty-Four is also one of the most celebrated and decorated dystopian thrillers ever written.
Published in 1949, Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in the then-future year of 1984 that is riddled with warfare, extreme government surveillance, censorship, and propaganda.
This literary and artistic tour de force popularized the terms Big Brother, Orwellian, Newspeak and doublethink in the English lexicon and illustrates the danger of refusing to engage in political discourse as a society.
The iconic dystopia is divided into three ever-feuding superpowers: Oceania, Eastasia, and Eurasia. Our protagonist, Winston Smith, works in the Record Department of Ministry of Truth for the Ruling Party in London, a nation in Oceania. Winston Smith’s job is to alter documents of the past to suit the needs and perpetuate the propaganda of the Party.
He is frustrated by the oppression of the Party, which has made free thought, sex, and individual expression illegal.
Thus, he rebels against the totalitarianism in which he lives, despising the coercion of outward obedience and demands of absolute allegiance forced on him by the all-seeing eye of Big Brother, the symbolic head of the Party.
In his quest for liberty and freedom, Smith begins a furtive affair with his co-worker Julia but quickly learns that the search for truth and freedom in 1984 is paid for in treachery.
3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
Animal Farm is yet another dystopian masterpiece authored by George Orwell.
In this classic allegory, a group of farm animals plots against their human farmer with the thoughts of forming a society where all the animals can be equal, free, and happy.
Unfortunately, the revolution is betrayed and the dream of a utopian farm of equality is never realized. Instead, the estate devolves and succumbs to the dictatorship of a dastardly shrewd pig named Napoleon.
Published in 1945, mere weeks before the culmination of World War II, Orwell’s fantastical fable of farm animals is a satirical reflection of the events surrounding the Russian Revolution of 1917.
Orwell was a democratic socialist who fought alongside communists in Spain against the Francisco Franco regime. However, his time in Spain made him just as leery of the Western communists and their potential for totalitarianism and oppression as the fascists he fought.
Animal Farm is Orwell’s no-holds-barred critique of Stalin’s version of communism, which he depicts as a brutal, oppressive, and unequal regime, being in clear opposition to his personal socialist views.
His criticism of Western leaders—both capitalists and communists alike—was scathing. The violent, harsh, and drunken humans of Animal Farm represent Western political rulers.
It is a severe indictment against Westernism that the animals are more afraid of the humans regaining control of the farm than they are of submitting to the Stalinist pigs.
Are you into stories about the dynamics of a father-son relationship? Are you fond of coming-of-age narratives? Do you have an appetite for post-apocalyptic horror stories involving cannibals? Then have I got a novel for you!
The Road is set in an anonymous post-apocalyptic world with an anonymous father and son walking the “state roads” after some catastrophic event.
Throughout the novel, McCarthy utilizes a writing style and vocabulary that are concise, but fragmented, reflecting the barren, desert terrain the main characters must traverse. The lack of and alteration of punctuation throughout the story sets a tone that scarcity is the defining reality of this new world.
The connection between the father and his son is a sacred, holy bond. The father feels it is his spiritual duty to protect his son and preserve his future in this new frontier.
This devotion to his son causes the father to sacrifice over and over again to allow his son to have prospects of a viable future. To the father, the son is the only remaining proof of God’s existence.
The emotional connection between these two main characters proves that one’s light can never be truly extinguished, so long as there is someone to carry it forward.
5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Before Offred was a strong leading lady of a critically-acclaimed television series on Hulu, she was a strong female lead of Margaret Atwood’s prescient dystopian thriller.
In the novel, the main character Offred—literally “Of Fred,” her oppressor—is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, an extremely religious, totalitarian nation that has replaced the United States of America. We never learn her real name in the book.
The rulers of Gilead assumed power after completing a successful military coup, in which they assassinated the POTUS and members of Congress. They claimed that their takeover was temporary and necessary to clean up a society rampant with pornography, prostitution, and violence against women.
Their prescribed remedy to the disease of the previous regime was to eliminate women’s rights, to forbid women from employment and owning property, and to crack down on feminist idealogy.
6. The Hunger Games (trilogy) by Suzanne Collins
In the canon of greatest YA stories, The Hunger Games trilogy is second only to the Harry Potter series. Set in a post-apocalyptic dystopian nation of Panem, the trilogy follows the exploits of heroine Katniss Everdeen.
Panem, which we can presume is the remnants of the former United States, is divided into 12 districts, with a 13th district snuffed out after a failed rebellion.
Every year each district, except the Capitol, must send one girl and one boy chosen by lottery to participate in the Hunger Games–a ghastly reality show in which they must fight to the death until only one survivor is left. Katniss, who lives in District Twelve, volunteers to go in place of her younger sister, Prim. That’s when the adventures begin.
She forms an alliance with the boy from her district, Peeta. In an act of defiance, Katniss and Peeta attempt to ingest poisonous berries and leave no survivors of this cruel exhibition hosted by the Capitol. Their attempt is thwarted, and they are propagandized as engaged lovers for a year. The President is angry at them, but they believe themselves to be relatively safe from his wrath as national heroes.
In the subsequent year, however, in a spiteful act of vengeance, it is announced that the next year’s Hunger Games will be comprised of the victors from the previous events.
The success of Katniss and Peeta has inspired other districts to consider rebellion against the Capitol, which President Snow views as a threat that must be crushed immediately.
In this epic and popular trilogy, Suzanne Collins tackles issues of social inequality and class warfare and offers criticisms of popular culture, entertainment, and reality TV.
Jack versus Ralph. Piggy. The conch. Social order. Anarchy. These are the main characters and forces at work in William Golding’s classic dystopian novel, The Lord of the Flies.
The novel is set on an uninhabited island after the crash of a plane transporting a load of adolescent schoolboys.
Ralph is introduced first as a sophisticated and physically attractive young man–Piggy is presented as Ralph’s physical counterpart.
The boys discover a conch and use it to summon the rest of the survivors of the crash, introducing us to Jack, who appears confident and already leads a group of boys.
Despite being “the most obvious leader” and having the most leadership experience, the boys vote for Ralph as a leader because he is in possession of the conch. Jack reluctantly accepts Ralph’s leadership, and the two bond while exploring the island together.
Eventually, Jack asserts himself as the chief hunter; while Ralph is tasked with leading all of the communication and working to get them rescued.
As the story progresses, conflict arises over which role is more important for the boys: establishing communication to get rescued from the island or hunting to provide food to survive on the island.
8. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
What started out as a series of short stories ended up becoming an award-winning novel addressing issues like child soldiers, the cruelty of warfare, compassion for one’s enemies and pervasiveness of suspicion and deceit in human nature.
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is the third child in a family of geniuses and is selected by international military forces to save the world from destruction at the hands of the alien Formics (or Buggers).
Because of his supreme skills, Ender is trained and tasked to destroy the Buggers, thinking that the warfare of which he’s taking part is just a game.
As the narrative progresses, Ender’s compassion deepens and increases as does his distrust of authority and propaganda.
9. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Our teenage protagonist, Alex, is violent and rebellious against attempted reforms being pushed upon him.
The story, told by Alex as an unreliable narrator, is a dark satire of extreme political institutions and neglect/abuse of mental health.
Alex is a savage criminal who commits acts of theft, sexual violence and debauchery, and murder. He is sentenced to 14 years in prison because of his criminality, where he undergoes radical behavior programming which is nearly as savage as the acts for which he was incarcerated.
The controversial novel poses difficult questions about ethics and morality and the free will of an individual.
Which is the greater evil: To allow an individual the freedom to be as evil as one can be or for a society to coerce that individual to “do good” by effectively eliminating that individual’s free will?
10. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Slaughterhouse-Five is a nonlinear depiction of the life of Billy Pilgrim, before and after he becomes a POW of Germany in World War II. Billy has become untethered to time and is able to travel from the planet Tralfamadore to various points of his life.
The novel’s central topic is centered around the trauma of the Bombing of Dresden. As a witness to the devastation, Billy begins to grapple with the meaning of life and death. Billy is left with no adequate answers as he remains horrified by his observations in Dresden.
As a soldier of war, he is a participant in an economy where there is no reward, no punishment, no justice, but plenty of atrocities. He is unable to find mental solace when he returns to civilian life as an optometrist.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Vonnegut portrays life as violent, repetitive, and void of ultimate meaning and fulfillment.
At the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, the bird’s song asks, “Poo-tee-weet?” at the end of the novel, Billy hears the bird still asking the same simple, meaningless question.
11. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
This graphic novel is a powerful story in which author Alan Moore and illustrator David Lloyd take their audience on a visually captivating and psychologically thrilling adventure in their futuristic world of totalitarian England.
Throughout the course of this dark, political journey, Moore and Lloyd compel their readers to observe a tug-of-war between the extreme political positions of anarchism, absolute freedom, and fascism.
The creators purposefully never truly answer the question of which form of government (or lack thereof) is best for humanity.
Rather, they allow the readers the freedom to come to their own conclusions based on what they’ve learned and observed from the events in the world they created.
12. The Stand by Stephen King
What do you get when you combine horror, a bit of science fiction, a sprinkle of satire, a pinch of fantasy, and a little political allegory?
You might end up with something akin to The Stand, a dystopian treat from the pen of Stephen King.
After “Project Blue,” a supervirus and biological weapon, decimates the planet of over 99 percent of its population, the ensuing panic, and violence that follows threatens to finish off the remaining survivors.
King, who often advocated warnings against the dangers of the arms race and never-ending development of weapons of mass destruction by both Eastern and Western powers during the Cold War, creates a macabre look at post-apocalyptic human life.
And as much as a threat as biological weapons pose to humanity, the characters and events of The Stand are evidence that mankind’s penchant to pursue self-preservation and power above collaboration and sacrifice maybe just a lethal as any weapon of mass destruction.
13. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
After the carnage left from World War Terminus, Earth is an unrecognizable radioactive wasteland in post-apocalyptic 1992 (or 2021 depending on which version you read).
Through its wreckage, Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter, in search of the rebellious replicants (androids) to retire. His latest assignment is to find and kill six androids of the new and highly intelligent Nexus-6 model which have recently escaped from Mars and traveled to Earth.
During the course of his long day of bounty hunting, Deckard (and we along with him) wrestle with the concept of human identity.
What does it mean to be human? Are humans alone capable of showing empathy? How do technology and our increasing use and dependence on it affect our understanding of what it means to be human?
14. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Imagine living in a world that is absent of fear, war, famine, pain, hatred, and competition. It sounds like an ideal place to grow up, right? A utopia even. However, for adolescent Jonas, not all is as it seems in his Community of Sameness.
The elimination of individual expression, emotional depth, and even choice are the means by which the Community around him has produced such well-behaved citizens.
When Jonas is assigned to be the Receiver of Memory (whose task it is alone to keep the collective memory of the community even of the past time before Sameness), he is introduced to the pain, wisdom, and emotions of the memories from the past.
With his newfound feelings and responsibilities, Jonas must wrestle with thoughts of conformity to societal expectations and desires for individual expression and feelings.
Is the removal of pain and fear really a fair trade for giving up one’s choice, memories, and individuality?
In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley creates a futuristic world of technology in which Henry Ford’s assembly line is worshipped as a deity.
Set in the year 2540 (or 642 AF, “After Ford), London is a city in the World State in which citizens are manufactured outside of the womb and cloned so that “everyone belongs to everyone else.”
Huxley wrote Brave New World in between World War I and World War II as a sharp criticism of what he believed to be misplaced optimism in the Western world because of the technological advances of the Industrial Age.
While many in his day believed that rapid technological advancement was the remedy to disease and warfare, Huxley offered this novel as a delicious dystopian antidote.
16. The Children of Men by P. D. James
Dr. Theodore Faron, a professor of history at Oxford, writes the first entry in his diary at the outset of this novel. The year is 2021 and it has been 26 years since the last human baby was born. In 1995, the entire human race was stricken with infertility.
The last generation of children—born in 1995—are called “Omegas” and are noted for their physical attractiveness, cruelty, and disdain for the previous generations. The majority of the world devolves into chaos and depression because of the hopelessness caused by Omega oppression.
The Children of Men is a gripping story of love and survival. It is all the more powerful in that is takes place in a dying civilization.
When everything in life seems to point to nothing, mankind still finds a way to hope and grow as a community.
Dr. Faron is a dynamic character, a simple loner when we’re first introduced to him. By the conclusion of the novel, however, he has transformed into someone who is intimately involved in the lives of others, caring for those in need, assuming the responsibility of protecting the lives of others as the Warden.
His metamorphosis showcases the effect and influence that the personal growth of an individual can have on the many.
17. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle
An award-winning, young adult, coming-of-age dystopian thriller so revered that Oprah Winfrey herself decided to make it into a movie. Madeleine L’Engle, take a bow, A Wrinkle in Time is both a timeless literary accomplishment and a work of art.
Meg Murray is the precocious, teenage heroine of this epic YA novel—a sort of spiritual and literary predecessor of Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games and Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter books.
Accompanied by her friend, Calvin O’Keefe, and her younger brother, Charles Wallace, Meg embarks on an odyssey through time and space in search of her missing scientist father.
Through the experiences undertaken by the main characters on their rescue mission from the planet of Camazotz, L’Engle brings issues such as the battle between good and evil, the co-existence/co-dependence of science and spirituality (or faith and reason, if you will), heroic depictions of feminism, and the essence of beauty to the forefront of the reader’s consciousness.
The fantastical journey that readers experience with the Murrays will strengthen their resolve about the conquering power of love, courage, and family.
18. The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick
Philip K. Dick made our list with three separate titles—all of them deserve to be included on their own merit. Dick has been gifted with a distinctive dystopian pen. The Minority Report is evidence of that claim.
The story follows the life of John Allison Anderton who is the aging head police commissioner of the Precrime Division in which three mutants called “precogs” predict all crimes before they occur.
While giving a tour around the precinct to Ed Witwer his new second-in-command, Anderton is stunned to receive a report that he himself has been predicted to commit an upcoming murder. The overreach by law enforcement of Precrime can be seen as a parody or precursor to the instances of racial profiling in present-day law enforcement in America.
The novel raises the following paradox of predicting the future:
Does knowing the future inherently compel a self-fulfilling prophecy? Oedpius Rex, anyone?
If you know what will happen, can you change the outcome? If so, how reliable was the prediction in the first place?
19. The Maze Runner by James Dashner
The Maze Runner is the story of Thomas, a sixteen-year-old boy who finds himself trapped in the Glade, a place of total blackness. He has no idea of how he got there or what the outcome will be.
When the darkness begins to rise, he realizes that he’s inside a creepy elevator. When the elevator stops, he is snatched away by boys his own age, none of whom he’s known previously.
With The Maze Runner, Dashner tells a story of tenacity, perseverance, and sacrifice.
Though he is surrounded by uncertainty and mystery throughout his journey, Thomas displays an undying devotion to his vow to escape the Glade and find a way home for himself and the other boys.
He is strong-willed and prepared to risk his own life to solve the mysteries of the Glade. In that regard, Thomas isn’t alone in his willingness to put himself in harm’s way for the sake of someone else.
20. The Running Man by Stephen King as Richard Bachman
The Running Man is set within a dystopian future in which the poor are mistreated by the government and large corporations as second-class citizens if not less than human beings.
As Ben Richards watches his daughter grow increasingly sick to the precipice of death, he enlists himself in a reality TV-like game show where the objective is to merely stay alive as a desperation move to earn enough money to care for Cathy.
Originally written under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman, The Running Man is a science-fiction indictment of social injustice, corruption, and class warfare.
In a world where wealthy corporate conglomerates and big governments wield a grossly inequitable amount of power, influence, and control over the media and institutions of education, what chance does the ordinary citizen have for survival?
21. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
Nowadays, time travel has become somewhat of a cliche in modern-day science fiction literature and cinema. However, back in the day of H. G. Wells, he was a pioneer of sorts in his popularization of the time machine.
In The Time Machine, the Time Traveller uses his invention to propel himself more than 800,000 years into the future, where he meets the Eloi, who represent a comfortable, aristocratic class of people, and the Morlocks, representing a working class of people.
The encounters of the Time Traveller on his multiple excursions serve as a window to the socio-economic dynamics that Wells observed in his day.
22. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Amazon produced a critically-acclaimed TV series based on this masterful novel from Philip K. Dick.
The Man in the High Castle is an alternate history in which Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan prevailed in World War II and explores the ramifications of that outcome. The United States of America is occupied by and divided between Germany and Japan. A sparse remnant of Jewish people live under false identities, and slavery has been legalized.
Similar to Shakespeare’s use of a play-within-a-play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Dick employs The Grasshopper Lies Heavy as a novel-within-a-novel, which itself is an alternate history to what the citizens in the novel have been given by Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
The characters in The Man in the High Castle must confront crises of identity, the corrupting nature of power, the self-destruction of prejudice, and the nature of truth and reality.
23. Blindness by José Saramago
What do you do when your entire community is stricken with an untraceable plague of blindness?
Portuguese novelist José Saramago invites you to discover the answer to that question in his captivating narrative.
As the darkness descends upon each individual, the moral fabric within society begins to disintegrate. The physical blindness of the citizens is a metaphor for the peril of social, spiritual, and interpersonal-blindness suffered through self-centeredness. It robs us of the ability to perceive the humanity of others because our focus is too much on ourselves.
However, Saramago does not leave his readers or his main characters without hope. Led by the Doctor’s Wife, a small group of people works together to preserve their humanity within a city that is decaying all around them.
24. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
In Thailand in the 23rd century, food production and distribution are controlled by massive businesses and the planet is suffering greatly from the effects of climate change.
Through the lives of Anderson Lake and Emiko, the Windup Girl, Bacigalupi confronts his audience with the following questions:
What are the results of food supply becoming the dominant form of currency?
Is bioterrorism the inevitable consequence of the unchecked pursuit of corporate profits?
The Windup Girl is an impressive feat of world-building by Bacigalupi. He is able to showcase a planet devastated by environmental disaster without becoming coming across as heavy-handed or political.
The setting created by the author is as much of a central character to the novel’s plot as either Anderson or Emiko.
25. The Spider in the Laurel by Michael Pogach
What if you put Indiana Jones in a world which had outlawed religions and their
Rafael Ward, the main figure in The Spider in the Laurel, is a Jones-wannabe (at best), reluctantly employed as a government agent but equipped with a dormant spirit of adventure. When fate would introduce him to the badass Hannah MacKenzie, all hell breaks loose, and so does Rafe’s inhibitions.
The Spider in the Laurel is a post-religion dystopian thriller and the first novel of the Rafael Ward series from up-and-coming author, Michael Pogach.
Follow Ward and MacKenzie as they dodge the authorities of the Citizen’s Republic of America, while on a quest to secure the Vase, an ancient relic that may be the key to their salvation.
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