7 Classic Books For Those New to Dystopia

The dystopia is a setting we find ourselves faced with more and more in 21st century media. Book sagas like The Hunger Games and The Divergent Series are some of the biggest sellers in Young Adult fiction, as well as popular movie franchises. While The Walking Dead is one of the most talked about shows on TV (as well as a popular comic book series with video game spin-off’s), and movies like Word War Z are making a serious amount of money, despite critical bashings. Writers have always pondered what the future will look like, but their imagining have changed over the years depending on the social context. Here are some of the classics of the Utopian/Dystopian genre from the last 150 years, and how they lead to the current iteration of the genre.

Edward Bellamy: Looking Backwards 2000 – 1887 (1888)

Looking Backwards, Bellamy, Edward Bellamy
Looking Backwards

A very popular book in its time, but now relatively unheard of. The novel takes place in the year 2000, a far-flung date at the time, which is now feeling long gone. Bellamy writes of an America where money, poverty, and theft are no more. He attempts to imagine a perfect world, and some of his thoughts are not far from what we have today. He essentially invents streaming music, food delivery services on a mass scale, and the credit card. The novel does feel a little dated now, and is essentially a series of conversations between the protagonist, a man who sleeps for just over 100 years, and the man who explains this new and strange world to him. However, it is interesting to see where people of the past thought the future was headed. After its publication there were numerous societies in America that tried to live in the way that Bellamy described, believing this was in fact our eventual outcome. Just over one hundred years ago, we were still very positive about the future but, as we know now, that changes.

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World (1932)

Brave New World
Brave New World

This novel maintains a bridge between the Utopian literature of the past, and the Dystopias yet to come. The main question one might ask themselves after reading this book is: where does it fit? The setting is nightmarish to us (babies grown en-masse in test tubes, species-wide mind-control, and brain numbing drugs) but the majority of the inhabitants of this world are happy. Huxley lived in a worrisome time, the rise of Nazi Germany in Europe was underway, and the future was beginning to look not quite as positive. The novel is a scary portrayal of what might happen if human experimentation goes too far, and this is something we might have to think about ourselves soon enough. What are the limits of self-preservation, and when do we say stop. It is a very easy read however, and Huxley’s humour is palpable throughout. The novel can easily be read as a serious one, or as one mocking the genre as a whole. Either way, it still remains relevant to this day.

George Orwell: 1984 (1949)

Concept Art

There is no doubt that Orwell’s most famous novel is dystopian from the moment you begin reading. We are introduced to a bleak London, and a world population constantly at war with itself. It is perhaps one of the most famous and iconic books of the twentieth century. Even leaving a dent even on our language, to describe something as Orwellian is to refer to this book. Orwell and Huxley are often compared to each other, but they couldn’t be anymore different. Huxley portrays a world where the inhabitants do not want to think, and Orwell presents one where its inhabitants are not allowed to think. It continually makes you wonder how deep everything goes. You see behind the layers of Orwell’s world for just a second, but are left wanting to know more. The idea of being constantly watched is also something we have brought into the world today, and has become even more relevant since Orwell wrote this novel. It is not a book for the faint hearted, and ends with a long section of torture, but you always knew it was heading there anyway. A must read for anyone who enjoys a good dystopia, or just the greats of the literary canon in general.

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Dispossessed (1974)

The Dispossessed
The Dispossessed

The sci-fi genre, which some consider a blood relative to the dystopian novel, has been mastered by Le Guin. The novel is the first, chronologically, in her Hainish Cycle series, one of the staples of modern sci-fi. Her novel presents the dual planets of Anarres and Urras. But the novel does not tell you which is the dystopia, and which the utopia. While Anarres has complete equality, it is sparse in resources. But while Urras is abundant in resources, it has an extremely prevalent class system, as well as strict gender oppression. The chapters alternate between the two worlds, but focus on the character of Shevek, a native to Anarres but a visitor on Urras. This has the effect of making you eager to return to the previous of the two separate plots lines, even though both are very enjoyable, and learn more about the vastly different worlds. It is a well written piece of sci-fi, and leaves one wondering just where the author is making commentary on our own society, and which world she would choose to live on herself. It is clear that this blurs the line between what is a Utopia and what is a Dystopia. It expands the very concepts to be a lot more objective than what past writers might think, and focuses on how any world can be a Utopia for someone.

Angela Carter: The Passion of New Eve (1977)

The Passion of New Eve

Carter is as surreal as it gets. Her novel’s protagonist travels across an America at war with itself. With rats that eat dogs, palaces made of glass, and a four breasted fertility god, it feels like she has crammed a fever dream into a novel. Every ten pages or so you find yourself stopping and wondering if you just read that right. She has a mastery of mythology, and utilises this in conjunction with her surreal writing style to brilliant effect. Carter’s focus on gender – primarily its fluidity – are the key focus of the novel. It questions what will gender become in the immediate future, and the answer is not necessarily a bad one. The world may be turning in on itself, but that is only so something new can take its place. It is clear that what Carter is writing is not an imagination of the future, but how she sees the present, and that the world has become the dystopia that we feared it would. But she leaves us in the heat of this massive upheaval, asking us where it will go from there, and this is probably the most telling thing about the novel.

Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)

Book Cover Image
The Handmaid’s Tale

A Republican’s daydream? Atwood’s novel shows us everything the Feminist, and Civil Rights, movements are fighting against, and how it could all go horribly wrong if we don’t take enough care. The women are either battery farmed for children, live sheltered and hollow lives as wives, made to serve as domestic help, or sent to the desolate colonies to starve to death. It is one of the most argued over novels in modern society, and has been banned in several places for its viewpoint. Perhaps that is what places it as part of this legacy of dystopian novels, as both 1984 and Brave New World were banned for a time. The protagonist Offred is a very unaware pair of eyes in this world, but where the novels of the past spent a long time explaining how their worlds work, Atwood does not. She focuses on how it feels to be a woman in a society that intrinsically oppresses them, not really a far cry from our own world. It is also a very easy book to read, you will start and before you know it be 100 pages in, and you’ll look up, horrified, and a little frightened by what you’ve read.

Cormac McCarthy: The Road (2005)

The Road
The Road

So we find ourself in the twenty-first century, and now there is no longer a world to describe. McCarthy’s simplistic novel takes us across a desolate North America, in the wake of an unknown apocalyptic disaster. Society is gone, the very surface of the earth is scorched. The only two non-cannibals left around, a farther and son, are desperately trying to a find a means to survive, by walking the roads and searching for food. It is a very gruesome book, and the easy to read style makes the moments of gore hit home even harder. The novel shows us that the real end for humanity as we know will be our own extinction, and that we will turn on ourselves at the point of departure. At its end, it leaves you with a glimmer of hope, but how you choose to look at this may show you how pessimistic the world has become for you personally. There is no future in a world like this, and perhaps that is where the dystopian novel has left us, with nothing more to describe.

These novels show the path that literature, as well as western society, has taken in terms of how it sees the future. It began wholly optimistic that the world was always getting better, and progressed to a world with nothing left in it. We also see that although these novels are set in other worlds, they comment upon the problems and issues of the time they were written. The dystopia/utopia is a much wider literary field than described above, and reaches back as far as literature itself. And there are many more novels or texts that could be entered in. Are there any novels missing from this list that you feel should be essential to it? Leave any ideas in the comments below.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Roadside Picnic is a SUPER dystopia, and deserves to be on this list. Not only are the ideas brilliant, the writing and prose OWNS anything by the likes of Stephen King, and the authors are extremely subtle about the fact that the world is crumbling. They don’t go “OMG THE WORLD IS CRUMBLING”. They hint at it through ATMOSPHERE: dialogue, descriptions (block after block of boarded up houses), and the fact that even people who would normally be rich like Burbridge are driving around in crap cars, live in cottages and have no money.

  2. Brave New World is my absolute, all time favorite book. It is amazing.

  3. Coffman

    If you like young adult dystopian novels you should check out Revealing Eden by Victoria Foyt.

  4. I like how this list is full of dystopias that take place in a time period that was the future when it was written but is now the past. It’s interesting how people perceived the not-so-distant future that is our today.

  5. A Clockwork Orange also goes along with the rest of these books. A great read.

  6. Emily Deibler

    These are all staples, but I most definitely second The Dispossessed! Nice work!

  7. Munjeera

    Oryx and Drake is another good one by Atwood.

  8. Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov is one of the greatest dystopian novels of all time!

  9. Fahrenheit 451.. It’s one of my favorites and it does create a realistic dystopian future. I mean, half of the things mentioned in the book are already happening (obsession with television, insensitivity to violence in war, and the need to make things faster and smaller) so the step to the future portrayed in the novel seems possible, although radical. Plus, I love the anti-censorship angle, in any sort of literature.

  10. Recommending:

    Perdido Street Station
    The Scar
    The Iron Council

    If you are a fan of dystopic and steam-punk fantasy, it’ll be right up your alley…

  11. I’m reading Brave New World right now and I can’t hate this world Huxley created. They found a way to irradicate religious wars, class wars, family dysfunction, overpopulation and disease.

  12. Really good list, this. Long Walk is a very chilling, and gripping read that I always recommend.

  13. Perspective

    The Hunger Games is definitely what I’d call a groundbreaker in terms of placing a female lead inside a dystopian novel, and whilst I wouldn’t call the first in the series jaw-dropping it’s interesting enough and accessible for teens and tweens to begin thinking about the implications of wealth, poverty, the power of government etc. Unfortunately it seems to have spurred on a number of generic copies like the Divergent series which smacks to me of pure masturbatory nonsense based on teens wanting to be special snowflakes and the like.

  14. I as a rule don’t like this style of fiction. I have read 1984 but that was back in 1972. I found it very depressing at the time. But this article has spark an interest in reading these books

  15. Love this list and I’ve read quite a lot of these books. Brave New World ftw.

  16. Woodard

    “The Last Time Machine” is a great time travel novel. Please give it a read.

  17. Zielinski

    Clockwork Orange anyone? Brutal and terrifying, with an oppresive government to boot. Classic dystopian.

  18. Should have an Australian novel “Wake In Fright”- a dystopia in the outback that exists today! Check the movie out too. Directed by a Canadian- he held up a mirror to Australia and we didn’t like seeing ourselves as we really are. Only an outsider sees what’s wrong with a society sometimes. It wasn’t a box office at all here but was popular overseas at the time.

  19. “The Handmaid’s Tale” and the “Madaddam” trilogy.

  20. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin is my fav.

  21. Torie Denny

    Brave New World is pure genius. Huxley was way ahead of his time.

  22. The Giver, Gathering Blue, and Messenger are great books when it comes to dystopian societies.

  23. A good list, but I would add The Children of Men by PD James to it.

  24. Mcgovern

    I believe that what makes a great dystopia is it’s relevance to the author’s world, believability, and how in-depth the mechanics of the society are analyzed. 1984 is the best one in my opinion. This is all opinion, of course. I entered the world of dystopian fiction because of my interest in social commentary and political science.

  25. Muhammad

    If fallout 3 were a novel…it would win.

  26. I would have found a place for The Windup Girl by Paulo Bacogallupi. A post famine and fossil fuels world where GM crops have run rampant, killing off natural vegetable’s ability to self-germinate, leading to a constant rush to stay ahead of the starvation curve. The scariest part is we see Monsanto taking steps which could lead straight to that.

  27. All of these are great dystopian novels and I’ve read all.

  28. I read the 1984 by Orwell some time ago actually, really loved it!

  29. I would argue The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are two other greats!

  30. The Circle by Dave Eggers!

  31. On a visit to India, just three years after winning the 1955 Nobel Prize, his hosts, mishearing his name, announced him as Aldous Huxley – whose work Laxness had dismissed as redundant parlour twaddle.

  32. Great list (I have no idea how you managed to limit to seven…). I’d love to see a list of movies (not originally based on a book) next to this.

  33. I always thought Brave New World and 1984 make excellent companion pieces. I’ve heard good things about The Island as well but I have yet to read it.

  34. I think we’re much closer now to Brave New World than 1984. In the Western world, our focus seems to be on medical and technological ‘progress’, and I see little overt sign of the kind of totalitarian government Orwell described. That’s not to say that there’s no government control exerted over citizens, but our world today is one of consumers who mostly spurn the harsh realities of our planet in order to attain more possessions, which they believe will in turn bring them happiness.

  35. It’s interesting to see that despite the rising popularity of YA dystopian novels (like The Hunger Games for example), dystopia has been a genre that’s been written about for a very long time. I wonder about what that says about us as a society haha, especially because we enjoy reading it so much.

  36. Great article. I personally think these sorts of lists are super informative and quite helpful for those looking to dive into dystopian novels!

  37. I remember reading 1984 in Western Civ. It was amazing how the story greatly upset me when Winston turns on Julia in order to end the torture. His cowardice, in my opinion, made him irredeemable. This line of thought sparked a debate on whether or not one should pass their problems onto someone else in order to escape torture. After a few tries from the TA to get us to discuss communism, he decided our heated debate on sacrifice vs survival was more interesting.

  38. When reading Brave New World back in high school, the novel seemed quite humorous back then. Maybe it was because I was still young and naive, but now as I read it again, the underlying messages in the book are quite real and evidently, scary. Great article!

  39. I think the Handmaids Tale is probably one of the best dystopian novels I’ve ever read and it was actually the first. I think at first the novel itself can be a bit confusing because she focuses so much on how it feels and doesn’t directly explain Offered’s situation. I think a lot of that need to know stems from a initial lack of understanding of what is actually happening in the world around Offered. As much as I love the book I still hate that you have to make up your own ending, I don’t feel as satisfied as I think I would if she hadn’t left it so open ended.

  40. As a lover of dystopian novels, I have read a lot of these and look forward to discovering the others in this list.

  41. Aine

    I think you have a thorough list compiled! I’m especially pleased to see both Orwell and Atwood on your list; I think Atwood’s blend of dystopia and sci-fi, as well as biopolitics, makes her a valuable voice for the future of dystopian writing (as we see currently in her MadAddam trilogy).

    Recently Orwell has been pulled from a lot of high school curriculums and REPLACED with books like the Hunger Games in hopes of encouraging students to read with modern titles. Do you think teachers should try to work with both texts instead of replacing Orwell’s classic?

  42. These are all fantastic dystopia novels, my question to you is whether you believe that they serve as a culturally significant genre. I, personally very much enjoyed reading Orwell’s “1984” and I found it intriguing that it is a very relevant description of modern society. What are your thoughts?

    • Thomas Sutton

      1984, and the genre in general and very culturally significant, they novels reflects the anxieties of the time they were written in, as well as predicting elements of the future

  43. Really insightful! 1984 sparked my interest in the genre.

  44. Love the inclusion of these awesome female authors in a genre where they are frequently neglected. I would add Yvegeny Zamyatin’s We (1921)which is a little less talked about, but it is credited as inspiring 1984, Brave New World, and The Dispossessed- among others!

  45. Excellent selection of books – I have read several of the titles listed but definitely would check out the few I have not! The Handmaid’s Tale looks particularly intriguing…

  46. Karyn Little

    1984 and Brave New World are two of my absolute favourites! Looking forward to reading The Handmaid’s Tale soon. I will definitely be completing this list.

  47. This is a great selection. However, I found your synopsises to be lacking in their assertions. I found myself often disbelieving in certain associations as they were either misleading or incorrect. Like when you claim that Edward Bellamy “invents” music streaming and credit cards. I think being more conscious with your word choice would deliver a more effective piece.

  48. It’s interesting that each era’s dystopia or futurist novels really are just reflections of the neuroses of the era, rather than an open look at the future… there are a few exceptions. The Time Machine by Wells is one novel that I have always sensed presented a future divorced from the immediacy of the most popular issues facing the 19th century. The Road by McCarthy is solidly ensconced in 21st century concerns.

  49. Connor Gregorich-Trevor

    Great article! I’ll be sure to check out the ones I haven’t read yet.
    While I respect its importance, I’m personally not a fan of Brave New World (I found Huxley’s characterizations extremely inconsistent, among other problems). 1984, though. Still one of the scariest books I’ve ever read, and still keeps me up at night.

  50. Emily Esten

    I feel like The Giver should be on this list as well, though I suppose it doesn’t fit in with the collection you’ve already curated.

  51. Great list!! While I’m a super fan of The Handmaid’s Tale, there were a couple on here that I have never heard of. Definitely looking forward to some summer reading!

  52. This article absolutely caught my eye while scrolling past. Any recommendations for classic books just gives me reason to add onto my collection! I read Brave New World and 1984 one right after the other, to compare the uses of dystopian/utopian societies in different points of view. I know that one was inspired by the other and I don’t remember what the order was. I think Brave New World came first. I quickly became a fan of Aldous Huxley after that; am reading Ape and Essence at the moment. I never liked George Orwell after attempting to get through Animal Farm. That might have been because I tried to read it in ninth grade, while my consciousness was still trying to form correct opinions (an oxymoron if ever there was one). I did like 1984, actually. Same reason I will be re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, in hopes that my maturity accounted for my severe dislike of the novel. Sorry, Harper Lee!

  53. Amanda

    You just built my summer reading list! I’ve been meaning to read 1984 for a while, so I’m looking forward to making my way through this collection. Thanks for this!

  54. Brave New World is great! I also think A Clockwork Orange is definitely worth reading.

  55. Jeffrey Cook

    Another of Cormac McCarthy’s novels “Blood Meridian” is a peculiar piece of literature as it reads very much like a post-apocalyptic tale – yet it is set in the year 1850 in the deep south of America. It chronicles the protagonist’s journey with a group of scalpers who move through the border of Mexico massacring Native Americans and Mexicans alike. Quite a memorable read if you are into the dystopian themes discussed in this article, made even more intriguing due to its setting in a historical time period.

  56. Though I am not one for dystopia, A Brave New World really did always catch my attention. For those out there that don’t want to commit to a longer novel, however, or are skeptical of the genre, I suggest The Giver. The movie version was just released that could accompany your reading and it is short enough to finish in just a few hours.

  57. I loved all seven of these novels and have ready a whole lot more of this genre. And, as much as i loved The Road, i would exclude it from this list. If all it takes to qualify as utopian/dystopian is a differently imagined world or a post-apocalyptic landscape then pretty much all of science-fiction would qualify. I think we need to draw the circle more tightly to keep the utopian/dystopian distinction a useful and intelligible one. The Road is a good example of why. Yes, it is a post-apocalyptic world (as is Walking Dead). But this doesn’t make it dystopian. If anything they are post-dystopian. They are almost non-worlds. What they are, for both The Road and The Walking Dead share this in common, is contexts that are as maximally horrible as can be imagined in order to center the ethical/moral challenges of the protagonists. Calling The Road dystopian focusses on the wrong thing. It’s not even the most horrifying thing about The Road. Rather the contest of the father’s practice of love (and his ethical/moral choices) and his son’s innocence (and love) is what is truly gripping. There is more horror (and sorrow) in the father’s insistence to push on (and deny help to the burn victim) while his son wrestles with his desire to help. The son clings to the humanity of the compassionate act, while the father, believes that his cold calculation is the better choice. The story is about the struggle for the soul of the child. And, sure, this is an element of some dystopian/utopian literature. But in this case, the setting is most definitely subordinate to the drama happening between the characters. In categorizing this novel it is closer to bildungsroman than dystopia.

  58. Francesca Turauskis

    Still have not read The Handmaids Tale, not certain how I have managed not to. I’m very interested in the Dispossessed as well.

  59. Thanks for the list! Some of these books are amazing reads. One of the books you mention was passion of the new eve – that one caught my attention forsure!

  60. João Pedro

    This list is amazing, thank you!

    My two time favorites are 1984 and Brave New World, and you gave pretty good points about them. As you so correctly said, people try so often to compare them, when they are completely different. Despite that, although I believe Huxley writes better and more realistically than Orwell, the latter has something on his writing that just captivates me. I felt so immersed while reading 1984 that it still gets my top 1, even though I think BNW is a better written and thought book. The part that Winston reads Goldstein’s book is still impactant in my mind.

    I really wouldn’t mind having “Do androids dream of eletric sheep?” here. It’s one of the most amazing dystopian books, and yet it’s rarely mentioned everywhere. The fact that onde day we won’t really be able to differentiate AI’s from humans are quite marking, and the questions “What makes us human? What is humanity?” were things on my head most of the time. Really, what differentiates an android from us? When it gets to a point where they are intrinsecally similar to us, how will we be able to differentiate? Will we NEED to…?
    Also, what creates status and power? Scarcity? How come something like this can shape our personalities in such ways…? On the novel, Rick shapes his entire quest on the desire of an animal. On our lives, we barely give them attention. We kill them one by one; jail them and forget about their existences. At the same time, we crave for useless needs, like a new Samsung/Apple watch, or a new car or house, and revolve our lives around it, even at the price of time and happiness. What defines those craves of ours? I could tenderly read an article just about it 🙂

  61. Great list, thank you! Believe “Never Let Me Go” by Kazuo Ishiguro has not been mentioned, yet it deserves to be up there.

  62. I absolutely love dystopian novels so I am quite surprised that I haven’t read any of these! Thank you so much for bringing them to my attention. I am quite surprised that Fahrenheit 451 didn’t make the list though!

  63. Stephanie M.

    This article makes me want to read Handmaid’s Tale in particular…or maybe not… 🙂

  64. I feel like one more layer was needed to make the list… “Classic” is a too broad classification aspect.

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