Dystopian fiction is making us scared. Stop writing it!
Or, we’re writing it because we’re already scared, so we should probably write more.
The future, like the present, can be both wonderful and terrifying.
If you find yourself drawn to dystopian stories, ask yourself, “Why?” Is it because the future looks bleak? Or does a truly fresh start sound pretty good?
It’s okay if the answer is both. Feeling strongly about two or more completely contradictory things is deeply human (annoying, but human).
The books on this list are mostly from the 21st century, except for a few older ones that I thought deserved special mention.
Lola Hart is an ordinary twelve-year-old girl. She comes from a comfortable family, attends an exclusive private school, loves her friends Lori and Katherine, and teases her sister. But in the increasingly troubled city where she lives (a near-future Manhattan), she is a dying breed. Riots, fire, TB outbreaks, roaming gangs, and civil unrest threaten her way of life, as well as the very fabric of New York City. In her diary, Lola chronicles the changes she and her family make as they attempt to adjust to a city, and a country, that is spinning out of control.
Her mother is a teacher, but no one is hiring. Her father is a writer, but no one is buying his scripts. Hounded by creditors and forced to vacate their apartment and move to Harlem, her family, and her life, begins to dissolve. Increasingly estranged from her privileged school friends, Lola soon makes new ones: wise veterans of the street.
“Fascinating and well written…wonderfully inventive…. Mr. Womack’s New York has a constant punk-rocker violence, which unwinds with a deadpan humor.”
—The New York Times
In the near future, America is crushed by a financial crisis and its patient Chinese creditors may just be ready to foreclose on the whole mess. Then Lenny Abramov, son of a Russian immigrant janitor and ardent fan of “printed, bound media artifacts” (aka books), meets Eunice Park, an impossibly cute Korean American woman with a major in Images and a minor in Assertiveness. Could falling in love redeem a planet falling apart?
“[A] profane and dizzying satire, a dystopic vision of the future as convincing—and, in its way, as frightening as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s also a pointedly old-fashioned May-December love story… a heartbreaker worthy of its title, this is Shteyngart’s best yet.”
—Publishers Weekly, starred review
Winner of the Nebula Award
In an alternate world in which John F. Kennedy survived and scientific breakthroughs in animal research and telepathy allow for advanced communication with animal companions, fifteen-year-old Vic and his telepathic dog, Blood, scavenge the wastelands of a war-torn United States, survivors of a nuclear World War III between the Americans and the Soviets. While Blood guides Vic toward women—to be used for sex—Vic ensures that Blood has food, but the symbiotic relationship is put at risk when the pair meets Quilla June Holmes, who lures the boy to an underground civilization.
“The ending has to be one of science fiction’s best.”
I don’t usually read a lot of dystopian books, but Station Eleven is a great story and exceptionally well-written.
A virus sweeps through the world and quickly kills off 95% of humanity, ending all comforts of civilization. The book’s protagonist is Kirsten, a young woman traveling with a band of musicians and actors who move from town to town, playing music and putting on Shakespearean plays. They hunt for food and tread carefully in a dangerous world, but even they can’t avoid a deadly and insane prophet.
Author Emily St. John Mandel flings the reader back and forth in time, examining characters both before and after the pandemic by jumping from thirty years before the virus to twenty years after and back again. But she does so with such a deft touch that these transitions feel natural and illuminating.
—The New York Times
Humanity is all but extinguished after a war with Partials—engineered organic beings identical to humans—has decimated the population. Reduced to only tens of thousands by a weaponized virus to which only a fraction of humanity is immune, the survivors in North America huddle together on Long Island. But sixteen-year-old Kira is determined to find a solution. As she tries desperately to save what is left of her race, she discovers that the survival of both humans and Partials rests in her attempts to answer questions about the war’s origin that she never knew to ask.
“A dark, wild ride.”
Taxation has been abolished, the government has been privatized, and employees take the surname of the company they work for. It’s a brave new corporate world, but you don’t want to be caught without a platinum credit card—as lowly Merchandising Officer Hack Nike is about to find out. Trapped into building street cred for a new line of $2500 sneakers by shooting customers, Hack attracts the barcode-tattooed eye of the legendary Jennifer Government. A stressed-out single mom, corporate watchdog, and government agent who has to rustle up funding before she’s allowed to fight crime, Jennifer Government is holding a closing down sale, and everything must go.
“Wicked and wonderful… [It] does just about everything right… Fast-moving, funny, involving.”
—The Washington Post Book World
Forty or so years in the future. The once-great city of Bohane on the west coast of Ireland is on its knees, riddled with vice and split along tribal lines. There are the posh parts of town, but it is in the slums and backstreets of Smoketown, the tower blocks of the North Rises, and the eerie bogs of the Big Nothin’ that the city really lives. For years it has all been under the control of Logan Hartnett, the dapper godfather of the Hartnett Fancy gang. But there’s trouble in the air. They say Hartnett’s old nemesis is back in town; his trusted henchmen are getting ambitious; and his missus wants him to give it all up and go straight.
“Extraordinary… Barry takes us on a roaring journey… Powerful, exuberant fiction.”
―The New York Times Book Review
By the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature
A city is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness,” which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but the criminal element there holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and raping women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers—among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears—through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing.
“This is a shattering work by a literary master.”
—The Boston Globe
It’s easy to be a hero when you’re saving the entire world or galaxy or species. Which is why the hard-boiled detectives are the most heroic characters out there. They’re not out to ram the bad guy’s spaceship. More likely, they’re trying to find justice for a murdered little nobody, or get an intensely offensive (but innocent) man out of jail.
This dogged death grip on principle directs the actions of private detective Conrad Metcalfe in a bizarre future world populated by talking animals, drugs for all, and the most authoritative state I’ve ever come across. It’s dark, funny, fast-paced, clever, and chilling.
“Marvelous . . . Stylish, intelligent, darkly humorous and highly readable entertainment.”
—San Francisco Examiner
Todd Hewitt is the only boy in a town of men. Ever since the settlers were infected with the Noise germ, Todd can hear everything the men think, and they hear everything he thinks. Todd is just a month away from becoming a man, but in the midst of the cacophony, he knows that the town is hiding something from him—something so awful that Todd is forced to flee with only his dog, whose simple, loyal voice he hears, too. With hostile men from the town in pursuit, the two stumble upon a strange and eerily silent creature: a girl. Who is she? Why wasn’t she killed by the germ like all the females on New World?
“Crack dramatic and comic timing… unforgettable… penetrating… The cliffhanger ending is as effective as a shot to the gut.”
—Booklist (starred review)
Riddley Walker is a unique, fascinating book. It takes places a few thousand years after a nuclear Armageddon in England when a young boy comes across a plan to recreate a weapon from the ancient world.
Humanity is semi-literate, and the language in the book reflects that. It can be a little off-putting; here’s the first line of the book:
On the naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for along time before him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
When I first started Riddley Walker, I thought, “Oh god, I don’t want to deal with this.” But someone whose opinion I respect (darn those people) recommended it, so I kept going.
It was totally worth it. Yes, you have to read it slowly, and yes, it’s more work than reading a typical book. But it’s also a lot better than a typical book. I think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
It’s intense, imaginative, and probably unlike anything you’ve ever come across.
“Stunning, delicious, designed to prevent the modern reader from becoming stupid.”
—The New York Times
In this Young Adult book, Amy is a cryogenically frozen passenger aboard the spaceship Godspeed. She has left her boyfriend, friends, and planet behind to join her parents as a member of Project Ark Ship. Amy and her parents believe they will wake on a new planet, Centauri-Earth, three hundred years in the future. But fifty years before Godspeed‘s scheduled landing, cryo chamber 42 is mysteriously unplugged, and Amy is violently woken from her frozen slumber.
Someone tried to murder her.
Now, Amy is caught inside an enclosed world where nothing makes sense. Godspeed‘s 2,312 passengers have forfeited all control to Eldest, a tyrannical and frightening leader. And Elder, Eldest’s rebellious teenage heir, is both fascinated with Amy and eager to discover whether he has what it takes to lead. Amy desperately wants to trust Elder. But should she put her faith in a boy who has never seen life outside the ship’s cold metal walls? All Amy knows is that she and Elder must race to unlock Godspeed‘s hidden secrets before whoever woke her tries to kill again.
Cloud Atlas begins in 1850 with Adam Ewing, an American notary voyaging from the Chatham Isles to his home in California. Along the way, Ewing is befriended by a physician, Dr. Goose, who begins to treat him for a rare species of brain parasite… Abruptly, the action jumps to Belgium in 1931, where Robert Frobisher, a disinherited bisexual composer, contrives his way into the household of an infirm maestro who has a beguiling wife and a nubile daughter… From there we jump to the West Coast in the 1970s and a troubled reporter named Luisa Rey, who stumbles upon a web of corporate greed and murder that threatens to claim her life… And onward, with dazzling virtuosity, to an inglorious present-day England; to a Korean superstate of the near future where neocapitalism has run amok; and, finally, to a post-apocalyptic Iron Age Hawaii in the last days of history.
“[David] Mitchell is, clearly, a genius. He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine, can evidently do anything, and his ambition is written in magma across this novel’s every page.”
—The New York Times Book Review
In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.
“A violent, jarring, speed-rap of a novel that generates nearly constant suspense. . . . I couldn’t stop reading.”
If you’re a child of the 80s, reading Ready Player One is like mainlining heroin-strength nostalgia. It’s so ridiculously fun that I frequently imagined author Ernest Cline giggling and saying to himself, “I can’t believe I’m getting away with this!”
In the dystopian future, teenage Wade Watts searches for a mysterious Easter egg in a worldwide video game called the OASIS. Finding the Easter egg will result in him to inheriting the ownership of the OASIS and billions upon billions of dollars. Of course, he’s not the only one looking for it.
I listened to the audiobook version of Ready Player One, and loved it. Narrator Wil Wheaton nailed it.
“[R]idiculously fun and large-hearted.”
The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born is now adult. Civilization itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace. Oxford historian Theodore Faron, apathetic toward a future without a future, spends most of his time reminiscing. Then he is approached by Julian, a bright, attractive woman who wants him to help get her an audience with his cousin, the powerful Warden of England. She and her band of unlikely revolutionaries may just awaken his desire to live . . . and they may also hold the key to survival for the human race.
“A book of such accelerating tension that the pages seem to turn faster as one moves along.”
This is a great, trailblazing book that won the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards, but just look at that awful cover. Jeez. It’s so bad I’m angry.
Case was the sharpest data-thief in the matrix—until he crossed the wrong people and they crippled his nervous system, banishing him from cyberspace. Now a mysterious new employer has recruited him for a last-chance run at an unthinkably powerful artificial intelligence. With a dead man riding shotgun and Molly, a mirror-eyed street-samurai, to watch his back, Case is ready for the adventure that upped the ante on an entire genre of fiction.
“Kaleidoscopic, picaresque, flashy, decadent… an amazing virtuoso performance.”
—The Washington Post
picaresque: a genre of prose fiction that depicts the adventures of a roguish, but appealing hero, of low social class, who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. From the Spanish pícaro, for “rogue” or “rascal.” (I had to look it up.)
In the twenty-fifth century, humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, monitored by the watchful eye of the U.N. While divisions in race, religion, and class still exist, advances in technology have redefined life itself. Now, assuming one can afford the expensive procedure, a person’s consciousness can be stored in a cortical stack at the base of the brain and easily downloaded into a new body (or “sleeve”), making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen. Ex-U.N. envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Dispatched 180 light-years from home, re-sleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco, now with a rusted, dilapidated Golden Gate Bridge), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats “existence” as something that can be bought and sold. For Kovacs, the shell that blew a hole in his chest was only the beginning. . .
“[C]ombines noir mystery with ultra-high tech science to create a complex sf thriller. Featuring a hard-nosed antihero with his own sense of personal honor and ethics, this is highly recommended for sf collections.”
Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, disease, war, and chronic water shortages. While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.
When fire destroys their compound, Lauren’s family is killed and she is forced out into a world that is fraught with danger. With a handful of other refugees, Lauren must make her way north to safety, along the way conceiving a revolutionary idea that may mean salvation for all mankind.
“Butler tells her story with unusual warmth, sensitivity, honesty and grace; though science fiction readers will recognize this future Earth, Lauren Olamina and her vision make this novel stand out like a tree amid saplings.”
Darrow is a Red, a member of the lowest caste in the color-coded society of the future. Like his fellow Reds, he works all day, believing that he and his people are making the surface of Mars livable for future generations. He toils willingly, trusting that his blood and sweat will one day result in a better world for his children.
But Darrow and his kind have been betrayed. Soon he discovers that humanity reached the surface generations ago. Vast cities and lush wilds spread across the planet. Darrow—and Reds like him—are nothing more than slaves to a decadent ruling class.
Inspired by a longing for justice, and driven by the memory of lost love, Darrow sacrifices everything to infiltrate the legendary Institute, a proving ground for the dominant Gold caste, where the next generation of humanity’s overlords struggle for power. He will be forced to compete for his life and the very future of civilization against the best and most brutal of Society’s ruling class. There, he will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies . . . even if it means he has to become one of them to do so.
“[A] spectacular adventure . . . one heart-pounding ride.”
Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen’s Calorie Man in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, Anderson combs Bangkok’s street markets in search of foodstuffs thought to be extinct, hoping to reap the bounty of history’s lost calories.
There, he encounters Emiko. Emiko is the Windup Girl, a strange and beautiful creature. One of the New People, Emiko is not human; instead, she is an engineered being, creche-grown and programmed to satisfy the decadent whims of a Kyoto businessman, but now abandoned to the streets of Bangkok. Regarded as soulless beings by some, devils by others, New People are slaves, soldiers, and toys of the rich in a chilling near future in which calorie companies rule the world, the oil age has passed, and the side effects of bio-engineered plagues run rampant across the globe.
What happens when calories become currency? What happens when bio-terrorism becomes a tool for corporate profits, when said bio-terrorism’s genetic drift forces mankind to the cusp of post-human evolution?
“This complex, literate and intensely felt tale, which recalls both William Gibson and Ian McDonald at their very best … clearly one of the finest science fiction novels of the year.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
1994 Newbery Medal winner
This haunting story centers on twelve-year-old Jonas, who lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. Not until he is given his life assignment as the Receiver of Memory does he begin to understand the dark, complex secrets behind his fragile community.
“Wrought with admirable skill—the emptiness and menace underlying this Utopia emerge step by inexorable step: a richly provocative novel.”
—Kirkus (starred review)
Environmental disasters and declining birthrates have led to a Second American Civil War. The result is the rise of the Republic of Gilead, a totalitarian regime that enforces rigid social roles and enslaves the few remaining fertile women. Offred is one of these, a Handmaid bound to produce children for one of Gilead’s commanders. Deprived of her husband, her child, her freedom, and even her own name, Offred clings to her memories and her will to survive.
“A novel that brilliantly illuminates some of the darker interconnections between politics and sex . . . Just as the world of Orwell’s 1984 gripped our imaginations, so will the world of Atwood’s handmaid!”
—The Washington Post Book World