Top Ten Dystopian Novels

This week’s Broke and Bookish title was kind over-long but the basic premise was discovering books for fans of a particular genre.  Dystopian fiction has been a really big deal – I mean, it has always been popular but particularly lately in the young adult genre, it seems like every time I go into the bookshop (and think about just how often that is) there is a new stack of books all about this snappy young heroine who is ready to take on the oppressive regime.  Certainly in terms of books that I personally get submitted over the course of a week, the majority of those take some kind of dark paranormal dystopian theme.  Perhaps because it is so ubiquitous, there does seem to be some distinctly shoddy examples out there.  The definition of dystopia is ‘a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding’ but all too often the dystopia is centred on a moody teenager not getting what they want.  It is not like me to take against an entire literary genre so I wanted to come up with the examples of literary dystopia that I have enjoyed.  So here goes.

Children of Infinity, Roger Elwood
I found this book thanks to my high school librarian, that lady was also my English teacher for three out of the five years.  It’s a collection of short stories each of which is fantastic in its own way and all but two are dystopian in nature.  There is the young girl who is kidnapped from her home planet and taken to a version of Earth rendered dystopian by human pollution and her sacrifice to save her home made my eleven year-old self very teary-eyed.  There is the young man who comes to question the deity which has for so long rule his world.  My own favourite is the All-You-Can-Eat restaurant which is visited by an alien who needs to eat everything in sight in order to process kinetic energy to help his dystopian home planet.  This is not a book that is easy to find these days but I have always remembered it for Elwood’s imaginative visions of a future which might or might turn out well but will certainly be interesting.
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
Whenever I read anything by Margaret Atwood, I always re-emerge with a slightly different view of the world.  After reading The Handmaid’s Tale, every time a new ‘woman’ policy was announced by the government, this book always popped into my mind.  This novel imagines a totalitarian future where women are subjugated in the service of reproduction.  The lead character is a Handmaid, marked out as such by her red robes, she is required to copulate with her Commander in a bizarre ritual in his Wife’s presence.  Fertility rates in this society are low so women with functioning ovaries are expected to do their duty.  It is the sense of hopelessness, that this is what is expected – and worse than that, that this is what women deserve – despite the spark of hope at the end, this is an incredibly depressing vision of our future.  Unlike most of the books on this list, this is not young adult fiction but instead plays into and expands some of the more unsavoury societal attitudes towards women.
The Tripods, John Christopher
This is just a fun trilogy, I read it with my mother when I was about nine or so – it imagines a future where the Earth is ruled by Tripods who Cap humans when they reach adulthood, thereby controlling their thoughts and preventing rebellion.  The main character Will is approached by a member of the underground resistance and he leaves his home village to journey to The White Mountains to battle the regime.  The second book deals with him battling to get in to the City of the Tripods and the final instalment is all about the big battle.   It is so much more imaginative than Twilight or The Hunger Games in its vision of an oppressive authority.  There are so many science fiction stories include aliens who walk on two legs, have two eyes and then maybe a bump on their nose or something that indicates that they are aliens.  When Will finally meets The Masters, they are like massive blobs and it is later noted that within the galaxy, they are the most similar to us.  The description of the city of the Masters is also fascinating, a world where the the atmosphere is far heavier, an exhausting place for a human to exist.  These creatures are not cruel out of malice but they are building a society where the needs of humans are irrelevant.  Will himself is an awkward character and there are misunderstandings and differences between him and his fellow-rebels and with a wider society conditioned to obey the Tripods, there is an uneasy sense that possibly humans are not worth saving.  A very thought-provoking series with an antagonist that is actually interesting.
Children of the Dust, Louise Lawrence
I owe this read to my lovely family friends who emigrated out to Australia when I was eighteen – very sorely missed.  I borrowed this from their elder daughter when I was about fifteen and I’ve never forgotten it.  It is another trilogy and it does rather embrace the 1970s fear of The Bomb.  As nuclear devastation breaks out, the schoolgirl Sarah struggles to keep her younger brother and sister and stepmother alive in a world that has completely collapsed.  The next two volumes deal with each successive generation of the family but the series takes a very dim view of humanity in general for having wished this on themselves.  Lawrence’s dedication prays that children ‘never know the dust’ but although we have proved lucky so far, again it raises some disturbing questions about our society’s magnetic pull towards self-destruction.


The Way I Live Now, Meg Rosoff
I find it really interesting to contrast How I live Now with Children of the Dust since they both so obviously reflect the fears of their age.  Again, I borrowed this from the family friends who emigrated to Australia, I think I was about sixteen when I read it and I’m not sure if it was me or their daughter who was going through a dystopian phase.  Probably a bit of both.  Anyway, Daisy is a highly strung anorexic teenager from New York who is sent to visit her cousins in England.  Shortly after arrival, the whole country collapses due to terrorist attack.  Published not long after the World Trade Centre attacks, this reflected a vision of dystopia that seemed truly possible at the time and although the nature of our species is not altered as it is in Children of the Dust, instead there is a very disturbing portrayal of the violence wrought by humans towards their fellows.  I have never forgotten it.
I read this last year and I loved it – it is dystopia meets Victorian literature!  Shannon sets the action two hundred years after the collapse of society and the rise of Scion – it’s all very complex and I feel like I need a refresher course before I launch into The Mime Order.  Shannon is a fantastic writer and the world she draws is vivid and frightening – even in the beginning, the description of Paige on a respirator as she accesses the aether drags you straight into the action and the pace never lets up.  I am so glad that there’s going to be a whole series!
The Luck of Troy, Roger Lancelyn Green
Don’t read The Hunger Games – it will give you strange ideas of what your pubic hair can achieve.  Go back to the source material, the Greek myths and legends.  Roger Lancelyn Green’s re-tellings for children are timeless and my favourite was The Luck of Troy, depicting the crumbling of Troy’s walls through the eyes of Nicostratus, Helen of Troy’s son.  It is a different view of dystopia but it certainly fits the description – Troy is fading fast and there is suffering aplenty along with some very disturbing descriptions of what Paris’ brother Deiphobus plans on doing to Nicostratus.  We may know where the story is headed but the journey on this one spectacular.
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
I have only seen parts of the film adaptation of this one – it’s just so unremittingly depressing.  Set in another post-apocalyptic nuclear wasteland, it depicts just how exhausting survival would be.  The Man and the Boy journey across the country pushing a shopping trolley full of their worldly possessions (not many) and try to stay a few steps ahead of the cannibals of whom there are lots.  It is a harrowing story and the suicide route is mooted more than once – so often dystopian fiction is written as escapism, we read it to vicariously imagine our own bravery in these extreme situations but The Road underlines that for most of us, we would not stand a chance.
Another fairly depressing read here.  This is set in an alternate reality where young clones are brought up to have their organs harvested for donation.  Some of them work as Carers to their fellow Donors before starting to give up their own organs and the main character is Kathy, who has been a Carer for over a decade.  This is another dystopian vision which is horrifying but the characters do not seem to recognise it – their deaths are referred to as ‘completions’, they are briskly matter-of-fact about their surgeries and the moments of despair are sparse.  Of course in some ways it is a wider parable about the fact of mortality as a whole but in truth, this is a horrifying portrayal of an unjust system that the characters never really work out how to challenge.
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham
My mother and I first read this when I was about ten though I re-read it repeatedly afterwards.  It’s another rather vintage view of the apocalypse with solar weapons going horribly wrong and unleashing total blindness on the general populace.  If this isn’t inconvenient enough, there’s these genetically engineered killer plants that can walk which are now free to do what they wish.  Oh and there’s also weird typhoid-esque illness which strikes.  Basically, all is not well.  Enter Bill Mason who has experience with Triffids and a determination to find himself a safe place and build a family – it all gets a bit British here as he does Hard Work and Courage to build a safe home but I loved it.  I always felt sad that there wasn’t a sequel …
His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
This is a rather more philosophical/theological view of dystopia; Lyra grows up in a world governed by a Calvinist Catholic Church (yes, I know) and an externalised vision of the soul.  As well as a fairly Victorian aesthetic (only with airships), there are some disturbing breakthroughs going on with Lord Asriel taking on the Heavens and suddenly we have an uprising against the ultimate Authority of all.  I first read this aged eleven and I was blown away by the whole thing – I am completely overdue a re-read.
There are some ways in which The Passage and its sequel The Twelve are guilty pleasures; there are plotholes you could drive a tractor through and it’s all about vampires but … I still love it.  Basic premise is that a virus gets out of control, those afflicted break out of the lab, naturally Armageddon ensues.  Flash forward a century later and there’s a settlement at the end of the world trying to hold out against the virals and then Amy steps forward – the Girl To Save The World.  Cronin wrote this story for his daughter and behind all of the cliché, there is a warm heart to this series that raises it above the average.  If you must read vampire-related fiction, this is definitely the one to go for.
1984, George Orwell
This is very much the Daddy of all dystopian nightmares, Big Brother himself is watching you.  Again, I read it when I was about sixteen – I think I really must have been the one going through a dystopian phase.  I remember though finding its incessant gloom a bit of a drag – I can see how the average teenager might be looking for something else in their dystopia than this tale of woe and misery.  What worries me more is how so many things about it have come to pass – the surveillance society, the lottery, the meaningless jargon, the hate thing (hello, Twitter!) and also our collective amnesia about the immediate past.  So yes, it’s fantastic but … it’s really, really depressing.
Despite the fact that it is based around a Georgia Flu pandemic very  similar to the Ebola virus which wipes out the vast majority of the world’s population, it has a surprisingly uplifting central message.  The idea of what we take forward and what we leave behind was very thought-provoking.  Again it was a book where the joy was in the journey – there were so many fantastic details such as how when the final newscast cut out, one of the channels stuck on re-runs of America’s Got Talent for a few hours before the television finally faded to snowstorm.  St Mandel has written a dystopia that is believable and is difficult – I wouldn’t want to live there – but which also has a far kinder view of humanity as a whole.  As a species we are fascinated with all of the different ways we can end ourselves but this is my favourite of them all.
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28 thoughts on “Top Ten Dystopian Novels

  1. The Handmaid's Tale and Station Eleven are the only two on that list I have read, but I loved them so much. I may have to check those other ones out.

  2. Wow I've only read like 2 of these! HA. I thought I was well versed in dystopian, but then again, I do read mostly just YA dystopian. Omg, I need to read The Handmaiden's Tale. And I also am so curious about Never Let Me Go because it sounds exactly like Unwind and now I want to know which one was written first. *rushes to goodreads*
    Here's my TTT!

  3. This is a great list! And one that brought back quite a few memories. I had an eccentric political science class where the majority of the reading list was dystopian novels. Odd, but to this day I can rattle off random stuff from various dystopian fiction.

  4. Hi – yeah, Never Let Me Go was first with that idea. From the synopsis of Unwind it seemed like a significantly more melodramatic look at the idea – I think that for me, Never Let Me Go had its impact because the characters were so accepting of the situation. The film's pretty decent if you want to check it out. Thanks for commenting! 🙂

  5. Thank you for commenting! I completely agree, there's something about dystopian fiction that really appeals to young adults but there are also a fair few decent ones in the adult section. Thank you also for your contributions, I will have to take a look. I liked your list, I actually hadn't read any from it which is unusual for me. Hope you enjoy your week 🙂

  6. It's brilliant, isn't it! I hope you enjoy Station Eleven, I loved it. I like your TTT, there's a few of my favourites on there, especially All My Friends Are Superheroes! Hope you have a great week and thanks for commenting 🙂

  7. I always kind of regret not taking the Science Fiction module at university, it certainly would have been different. Still, in the end I took one on Shakespeare which was interesting too in its own way. But I agree that the political element about dystopian fiction is fascinating even as an amateur … hope you're enjoying your week, thanks as always for the comment! 🙂

  8. I'm pretty sure I'm currently reading my first Dystopian book, but I might have forgotten one or two in the far past. All that to say I'm not very familiar with the genre. It does look interesting though. 🙂

    Aidyl's TTT

  9. A very interesting topic, I've only read two of them but in a way there is no need to read any others!
    The two are The Handmaid's Tale and Nineteen Eighty Four (a quick aside, your cover illustration calls it 1984, Orwell would not be pleased as he insisted the title was the year in words not numbers.) I read both for the first time as an older teenager, the Atwood was the first of hers I had read and the Orwell the second (the first being Animal Farm as required reading at school when I was 15.) Both books I feel are the summit of both author’s work (even though Atwood is, thankfully, still with us and still writing.)
    The Handmaid's Tale impressed me particularly by Atwood's description of how women would be subjugated almost overnight by men through the control of work and the simple act of stopping their ability of paying for goods in shops. The ending is very clever as well, but to say more will give too much away for anyone who hasn't read it yet.
    The first time I read the Orwell it came across as just a rather exciting novel, more like a crime or mystery story. A few years later I read it once more and the political implications hit me as if I was reading a completely different novel. I think the relationship between Winston and Julia is often overlooked by people; this unlikely couple find each other and have brief happiness against the way of society of the time.
    Some years on I had to read it as part of an Open University course which brought with it the usual problem of 'having' to read a book and it almost put me off (not the first time this has happened to me at all levels of education!) But I've read it again a number of times over the years and it still has an impact (one of the few books I can remember almost word for word the opening lines!)
    There are other dystopian works I assume you considered that didn’t make your list – Huxley's Brave New World being the main one that comes to mind.

  10. My favourite cover that I've ever seen of 1984 was the Penguin one where the title was blacked out. My first copy had the title in words but it got lost in my parents' attic then I had to study it for university so my mother bought me the copy you see above by way of apology. I agree that Winston and Julia's relationship is more interesting that people often think – there's something very off-putting about Julia though. I think she's just your classic 1940s-esque written-by-a-man heroine though – I have similar issues with that ghastly woman in the Margaret Allingham series with that lack-lustre detective.
    I agree about the Handmaid's Tale but it's also the way in which society is able to convince the women that they deserve this treatment – when they are forced out of work, they don't feel they have the right to protest. It's another dystopia which seems unchallengeable. Fascinating.
    I've not got round to Brave New World – I did consider Slaughterhouse Five but I think that's more about Time Travel. Or maybe Catch 22 should be in this list because that one's just insane.
    Hope you're enjoying your week!

  11. I've never thought of Slaughterhouse Five as dystopian, it was more of a book about the Second World War with a science fiction twist to make points about the Dresden bombings.

  12. It's that time-travelling society, the ones that set Billy up to have a baby with that woman (details escape me, it's been a while). That's a bit dystopian. But no, I agree – that's why I didn't pick it. It's a beautiful book though. Catch 22 probably is a bit but that's because it's a satire.

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