Dystopian novels help us to critically evaluate our world all while creating a rich fable—doing these two things at once is no easy task and over time has created some of the most exhilarating and challenging fiction to date.
From individuals who are the (un)lucky sole survivors of an apocalypse to a small group of humans banding together to do the right thing these books have become part of our national psyche and excellent meditations on both the future and the present state of humanity.
After reading through all the best dystopian novels I was struck with the vanilla-ness of current lists, so decided to assemble a more forward looking group of dystopian books that both contains the classics but are not necessarily confined to them. Included below are some new voices but also the original prophets who helped establish the genre in the first place.
1. The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
First Sentence: “Burning is an art.”
An exciting retelling of the legend of Joan of Arc in an ecologically ravaged 2049 is an obvious must read out of all the dystopian books listed here. I honestly thought stories like this never got published, which is why I think it has to be one of the greatest dystopian works of all time. Taking place in the near future in a time when world wars have turned the earth into a radioactive battleground, humanity has retreated to a hovering area known as CIEL (French for Heaven). These humans have become sexless, hairless, pale creatures that float above the world and spend their time inscribing stories on their skin. When a man by the name of Jean de Men turns CIEL into a police state a group of rebels break away and vow to stop him, inspired by a girl named Joan.
2. The Children of Men by PD James
First Sentence: “Early this morning, January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five, two months, and twelve days.”
A thrilling read where the stakes are the highest, The Children of Men opens with a grim future in which the very future itself is in doubt. The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born has all become adults. Civilization is crumbling and as suicides increase Oxford historian Theodore Faron slumps into an apathetic state of recollection. That is until a bright woman by the name of Julian seeks him out with a request to visit his brother, the Warden of England. She might just have a way to save all of humanity.
3. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
“I had my recurring dream last night.”
Chaos erupts in America in the year 2025 due to global warming and massive economic crisis, sending the whole country into ruin (failed pharmaceutical experiments have created dangerously addictive drugs and water shortages abound). In what remains of Los Angeles, a family and small group of survivors find shelter from the anarchy in a small gated community.
Fire destroys this safe haven and forces the precocious and hyperempathetic Lauren out into the ravaged remains of Los Angeles. But Lauren was prepared—as much as she could be. Of all things, she has an idea—and that idea might just be the revolutionary one that saves what remains of the human race.
4. I am Legend by Richard Matheson
First Sentence: “On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back.”
I am Legend follows the last living man on earth, Robert Neville as he battles the vampiric hordes and desperately researches the origins of the plague that turned all of humanity into monsters. A deep and at some points claustrophobic study in solitude and despair for much of the book until Ruth enters his life. The ending of this one is not to be missed.
5. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
First Sentence: “No! I don’t want the mangosteen.”
A dark exploration of the post-oil future after a biological plague (created by extreme competition from giant corporations) has wreaked havoc on humanity. Set in Thailand this follows Anderson Lake as he searches for what he believes will give his company a way to modify foods and sell them to the starving masses, which of course leads him into a dark world and a heap of haunting questions for listeners to explore alongside him. The Windup Girl won the Hugo and Nebula award so should be an obvious next read on your dystopian journey.
6. The 100 by Kaas Morgan
“The door slid open, and Clarke knew it was time to die.”
After a world-ending nuclear war sent the remains of humanity to space time has been counting down on the survivors. They are running out of oxygen.
Now the last gasp of a dying civilization has one hope: 100 juvenile delinquents will be sent to the surface of Earth to see if it is safe and to help recolonize the only home humanity ever knew.
7. Neuromancer by William Gibson
First Sentence: “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
An iconic opening line launched this futuristic novel into sci-fi history. In Neuromancer, we follow Case, a hacker who has been banned from cyberspace because he stole from his previous employers, as he makes a deal with some new nefarious ne’r-do-wells to pull off an unthinkable heist against a powerful AI known as Winter Mute. Composed in a radical, techno-noir punk voice that fellow cyberpunk troubadour Stephenson would draw on for Snow Crash, this is easily one of the best science fiction books ever written.
8. The Passage by Justin Cronin
With its quiet, beckoning cover you wouldn’t suspect this hallowed tome of the vampire apocalypse contains anything but exquisite prose crafted in the rarefied airs of an MFA workshop. The Passage takes flight from a familiar premise. As usual the U. S. military is conducting experiments on death row inmates with a Bolivian bat virus in a genuine, heart-felt attempt to create super soldiers.
And of course this time they finally get it right.
The twelve subjects who survive are bestowed with a benison of strength, agility, newfound mental powers and a lust for human blood and mayhem. When The Twelve manage to utilize their burgeoning psychic powers to coerce their cell guards to release them you can quickly surmise the sort of wide scale slaughter that follows.
9. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
First Sentence: “When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.”
What started as a young adult phenomenon has become essential reading on all dystopian lists, if not a prophetic depiction of American society. In a post-apocalyptic North America, children are gathered up every year to court and entertain the Elites in the Capitol by fighting to death, all streamed live in real time. When Katniss Everdeen steps forward to volunteer as tribute in place of her sister, her life will be forever changed.
10. 1984 by George Orwell
First Sentence: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
Essential reading for the 21st century, this is one of the founding books of the Dystopian genre. In 1984 Big Brother is always watching you and the Thought Police are literally reading your mind.
Winston Smith is a man with a very perfunctory name and a very uncanny ability: he can still think for himself. This sets him on a collision path to take on the powers that be. Deeply unsettling for its sharp understanding of the power modern and future governments are able to wield through technology as essential as writing and as novel as televisions and cameras, 1984 is a pessimistic masterpiece of dystopian fiction.
11. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margert Atwood
First Sentence: “We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
The Handmaid’s tale is a startling and stimulating work featuring a mentally tough female lead named Offred as she fights for life in the oppressive and theocratic Republic of Gilead.
12. The Drowned World by J. G. Ballard
First Sentence: “Soon it would be too hot.”
In The Drowned World, the major cities of Europe and America have sunk into the depths of lagoons formed by a radical increase in the Earth’s temperature. This of course caused the polar ice caps to melt and rich jungles redolent of Earth’s Triassic period to emerge.
This doesn’t really sound too ominous, but Ballard’s apocalyptic novel is a dark, weird, contemplative remix of Heart of Darkness exploring what happens when the world regresses to a prehistoric environment and awakens all those primordial urges we have learned to repress.
13. The Selection by Kierra Cass
First Sentence: “When we got the letter in the post, my mother was ecstatic.”
For most, The Selection is the opportunity of a life time: the chance to escape from the lower rungs of a harsh caste system and glide to the upper echelons while competing for the favor of a glorious prince. But not America Singer. With a single letter she is forced to turn her back on the love of her life, and admit that she might love the gilded courtly life more than she wants to acknowledge.
14. Recruitment: A Dystopian Novel
First sentence: “I see your lunatic bird’s showing off again,” Cardyn says, scrunching his eyebrows together as he sidles up to me and stares at Render.
Every year the government of Valta celebrates the first day of November, which is the day they declared war on the Eastern Order. On this same day a fresh group of teenagers turn 17 and are taken away by the Recruiters to undergo intense transformation to serve in a war that makes less and less sense. The recruits are told they are the key to winning the war, but 16-year-old Kress and her friends are starting to have questions and doubts–which could lead them to a brave new future or a dark end,
15. The Rule of One by Ashley Saunders
First Sentence: “I am falling.”
Set in the near future of the United States, a one-child policy has been established and ruthlessly enforced. Ava Goodwin has a secret—one her mother died to keep and one her father desperately tries to keep hidden—Ava Goodwin has an identical twin: Mira. When the family’s sacred secret is discovered the twins are flushed out into the wilds of Texas and hunted as fugitives. If they can only survive they may live long enough to start—a revolution.
16. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick
Yes, this is the novel that inspired Blade Runner. Written by legendary science fiction author Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep finds humanity in a dark place. After the World War has killed millions most of mankind has been forced to flee the planet. The ones who stayed behind covet the living so the government creates extremely realistic versions of humans, then bans them when they realize how dangerous they might become. This forces them into hiding and it falls upon people like Rick Deckard to find the rouge androids and “retire” them.
17. Never Let Me Go by Kazu Ishiguro
First Sentence: “My name is Kathy H.”
Truly unsettling and dystopian, Never Let Me Go features three children who grow up in a secluded boarding school called Hailsham. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are afforded an idyllic existence: they are well cared for and allowed to indulge in literature and the broader array of arts as well. Eventually they have to leave the school which they all very well knew would happen. Unfortunately all is not well among the three and the dark purpose of Hailsham’s bright pastoral care will shape their future—or what’s left of it.
18. Stand on Zansibar by John Brunner
The shocking thing about the Stand on Zanzibar is how prescient it is: there can be no doubt its vision was key to winning the Hugo Award in 1969. Set in an overpopulated future where humanity has swollen into the billions, gorged itself on mass-marketed psychedelic drugs, Norman Niblock House is an executive at General Technics leading the company into a brave new future which involves taking over an African country in order to speed up its development. Donald Hogan is a scientist who is on the verge of discovery on the fronter of genetic engineering which will change the world forever.
19. Unwind by Neal Shusterman
Shusterman has a wonderfully dark name for his dystopian novels, dubbing them “the unwind dystology,” and Unwind lives up to this unique shade of bleak.
The second civil war has been fought over abortion and the outcome provided an alternative called “unwinding.” Any child between the age of 13 and 17 can be “unwound”: that is, having all of the child’s body parts harvested and donated to another person.
But if you can make it to 18 then no one can unwind you.
And that is exactly what Connor, Lev, and Risa are going to have to do. The problem is they are headed for a harvest camp.
20. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
First Sentence: “The King stood in a pool of blue light, unmoored.”
A theatre troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of humanity in an effort to keep the arts alive. When they arrive at a new outpost an encounter with a violent prophet will risk destroying everything they hold dear. Station Eleven is an award-winning book that takes you on a different kind of dystopian adventure.
21. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
First Sentence: “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.”
An early classic of dystopian fiction and a winner of the Nobel Prize, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies shows just how quickly our laws can deteriorate and that our primal nature can take over. When a small group of British boys survive a plane crash and are stranded on a desert island they band together to create a makeshift society that quickly unravels into rule by power and survival by strength in the state of nature.
22. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
First sentence: “When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him.”
Written in Cormac McCarthy’s rhythmic, minimalistic prose The Road takes place after an apocalyptic nuclear strike in which each day is greyer than the other. The book follows a man and his feeble son as they traverse a ruined world full of cannibals and starvation as they hope to make it to the sea and find a better place to live. While this is not a fast-paced page turner, it is a steady and dark meditation on what the day to day existence of living in the wake of a world-ending catastrophe would be like.
23. The Stand by Stephen King
First sentence: “Sally.”
In a world stripped of 99% of its people, good and evil take sides in the form of a kind old woman named Mother Abagail and a psychotic power-hungry man with a charismatic smile named Randall Flagg. Survivors have one of two recurring dreams and are eventually drawn to one side or the other.
Stu, a man who is immune to the virus and Frannie, a pregnant college student are drawn to Mother Abagail. But will they and the rag-tag band of believers who eventually find themselves on a journey to Boulder Colorado be enough to thwart someone as truly as evil as Randall Flagg? Hailed as one of Stephen King’s masterpieces and a cornerstone of dystopian fiction, The Stand should be on your list.
24. All the Birds in the Sky
First sentence: “When Patricia was six years old, she found a wounded bird.”
Set against the backdrop of a dystopian San Francisco, All the Birds in the Sky chronicles a war between magic and science: an ancient society of witches clashes with some misfits in a tech startup. And on a deeper level a story about a boy and a girl who were once separated and then have been brought back together through a curious combination of circumstance to either save the world—or destroy it.
25. The City and The City by China Mieville
First sentence: “I could not see the street or much of the estate.”
When a murdered woman is found in a small city at the edge of Europe, Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad figures it’s just another body and just another mundane case. Of course as he digs deeper and enlists the help of his counterpart in a neighboring city they learn that this murder is anything but what they could have expected. An inventive and imaginative novel, The City and The City is and a tale of two factions in two cities where one side wants to completely destroy the other and another faction dreams of uniting the two into a single city.