Dystopian fantasy stories often portray societies that fall into a decline of cataclysmic proportions. In contrast to the perfect society portrayed by utopias, dystopias present an imagined society or community that dehumanizes and frightens people.
They challenge you to think differently about current circumstances in the political and social realm. Despite the frightening undertones, this makes dystopian novels a great read.
Best Dystopian Novels
If you’re interested in trying dystopian fiction, here is a list of the best dystopian novels to start with:
1. 1984 by George Orwell
This novel describes a society under full government control, with the fictional dictator called “Big Brother” enforcing total surveillance of everyone living in the remaining superstates after a world war.
2. The Giver by Lois Lowry
This dystopian young adult novel features a society converted to “Sameness.” All memories are removed from the people and instead given to the chosen Receiver of Memory.
The story follows the selection of the next Receiver, a 12-year-old-boy, and how he responds when the last Receiver, now The Giver, transmits these memories to him.
3. Animal Farm by George Orwell
This allegory features a group of farm animals that rebel against their human farmer, thanks to the goading of a group of pigs.
The story is said to be based on the Russian Revolution. In the end, the farm community falls into a dysfunctional society with the pigs leading in full power.
4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This modern bestselling young adult trilogy features a totalitarian government in the fictional nation of Panem.
The government controls the citizens and holds the majority of the country’s wealth. Every year, the 12 districts of the country send selected children to join in a televised contest to the death called the “Hunger Games.”
5. The Maze Runner by James Dashner
This series chronicles a dystopian world destroyed by massive solar flares. The series begins with a group of teenage boys who are stuck in The Glade, and who need to find a way out of the ever-changing maze.
6. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The main theme of this novel is the censorship of books with the goal of removing people’s ability to think for themselves.The story follows a fireman tasked with burning books everywhere he finds them.
7. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The story follows the life of a “handmaid,” based on the Biblical concept of handmaids giving birth to children to be given over to their “mothers.”
This seminal feminist dystopia explores issues of bodily autonomy, while a quiet underground resistance gains strength.
8. Children of Men by P.D. James
In this novel, humanity has lost its fertility, and a self-appointed council and Warden is governing the United Kingdom in an autocratic system. The system exploits immigrants and consider the elderly a burden, leading them to commit suicide at 60 years old.
9. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami
Set in a fictional Japanese state with an authoritarian government, this book tells an alternate history of Japan winning World War II.
The story follows 50 high school children who are kidnapped, forced to wear explosive collars, and sent to an island for a battle to the death.
10. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Beneath the utopian surface of this story’s setting lurk genetic modification, social hierarchy, and a forced silence through a drug called soma. Outside the cities, people who live the regular way of giving birth and aging are considered savages.
11. The Wall by John Lanchester
This novel predicts a near future in which the seas rise and Britain walls itself off to keep people out. The country’s youth are selected to defend the Wall against both the rising sea and dangerous Others.
Lanchester expertly weaves the themes of immigration and environment into this dystopian novel.
12. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
This story explores the issues of extreme violence, especially in youth subculture. It follows 15-year-old Alex, who is involved in a violent teenage gang that robs, rapes, and kills.
The State attempts to stop this pattern, giving us a glimpse at a totalitarian government as well.
13. Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
Future Home of the Living God explores evolution in reverse, with each generation becoming more primitive than the previous one.
The story follows a pregnant woman who is searching for her own roots and starts writing a diary to give to her unborn child.
14. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
In Station Eleven, Mandel explores the aftereffects of a flu pandemic that wipes out most of civilization through the eyes of a band of survivors who perform King Lear throughout the countryside.
The book jumps backward in time to show the years before the epidemic, and contrasts it with the strange, altered world of 20 years later.
15. The Stand by Stephen King
When a deadly virus accidentally leaks from a government lab, 99% of the global population is wiped out.
Society then collapses and survivors form warring factions, but all this is only the start of the terrors that follow.
16. The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
This cli-fi (climate fiction) novel explores a world left uninhabitable by global warming. A group of scientists do whatever they can to survive in London, now a devastated wasteland due to the effects on the environment.
17. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
The setting of this dystopian novel is 2025, where climate change has wrecked havoc on the world.
Along with political unrest and scarcity, the community that surrounded 15-year-old Lauren crumbles, and she is forced to move north as a refugee.
18. Who Runs the World? by Virginia Bergin
A virus wipes out nearly all the men on Earth, and 60 years later, the women have moved on. What happens when a boy named Mason shows up in this world where Matriarchy rules?
19. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
This first book in the MaddAddam Trilogy follows Snowman, once known as jimmy, who believes he’s one of the last humans on Earth.
In this post-apocalyptic world, he’s surrounded by a humanoid species, the Crakers, created by his friend Crake before he died. Snowman looks back on painful memories, slowly unveiling his role in the bioengineered end of the previous world.
20. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
The Time Machine is one of the first stories about time travel documented in literature. The story follows a Victorian scientist who manages to travel to the year 802,701 AD, where he finds two distinct races of humanity: the child-like Eloi, and the dangerous and evil Morlocks.
21. American War by Omar El Akkad
American War poses a poignant question: what would it look like if America ended up turning its own policies and weapons upon itself?
The story explores a devastating plague alongside a second American Civil War, with a girl and her family caught right in the midst of it all.
22. Exodus by Julie Bertagna
The year is 2099, and 15-year-old Mara begins a harrowing journey packed into a tiny boat to find a strange city located on the drowned remains of what used to be Glasgow. Mara needs to find the city and search for new land in order to save her people.
23. Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
What if women existed only for the pleasure of men, and were designed specifically to meet that objective?
In this novel, every girl needs to be beautiful; those who aren’t end up as concubines or teachers of an infinite collection of future girls.
Best Dystopian Novels
Dystopian novels can serve not only as an entertaining read, but also as warnings against a fallen society.
And perhaps the best—or most frightening thing—about them is how they manage to stay relevant, no matter how long ago they were published.
Do you have a favorite dystopian novel? Share it with us in the comments below!