9 Great Dystopian Novels that Illuminate How We Live Today
About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.
Have you’ve read The Hunger Games and been left wanting more? Here are some of our favourite dystopian novels:
1. 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
An epic trilogy that weighs in at almost 2,000 pages, the 1Q84 of the Japanese cult novelist Haruki Murakami is my absolute favourite dystopian novel. The title a clear reference to George Orwell’s 1984, Murakami’s novel is set in the year of 1984, in a fictionalised Tokyo, where something is wrong with the moon. The reader is told the interwoven stories of two characters trying to navigate this strange half-world: Aomame, a young gym instructor with a murky past, who assassinates evildoers for a bit of extra cash and is especially fond of bald, middle-aged men; and Tengo, an aspiring writer who teaches at a Tokyo cram school and becomes inexplicably woven up in the life of a beautiful, otherworldly young writer he meets through his agent.
The twists, shocks, and unbearable suspense of the immaculately-crafted plot (which includes cults, a town of cats, life-sized chrysalises and an elusive and aggressive tribe of Little People) will have you squinting over this book at 3am on a school night. What’s more, the richness of the detail with which Murakami describes not just his characters, but also life in twentieth-century Tokyo (cans of hot, bitter, coffee; the clunking inter-city train; reading greasy newspapers in cheap cafes) immerses you so completely in his world that you’d rather do almost anything than leave it at the end. If you’re left hankering after more Murakami once you’re done, I’d recommend Kafka on the Shore, Norwegian Wood or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle next.
2. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2004, Cloud Atlas is composed of six nested stories that take the reader from the 1850s South Pacific to a post-apocalyptic, distant future. The structuring conceit is a clever one: each story is read by the main character of the next, lending a sense of continuity and almost inevitability to the escalating events the book retells. A great story with far-reaching implications for our corporate culture, and the different forms of colonialism that form the shaky foundations upon which our world is built.
3. London Fields by Martin Amis
… Or actually, maybe this is my favourite. By universal consensus one of Martin Amis’s best novels, London Fields is a murder mystery set in a world waiting in terror for an unspecified apocalypse. Nature sickens, the sun is red, cold and low in the sky, and the book’s narrator is slowly dying of what seems like nuclear poisoning. Against this backdrop is the ‘whydunnit, not whodunnit’ of the murder of Nicola Six, a palpably deranged femme fatale who spends most of the novel setting in motion an incredibly complicated and mysterious plan to have one of two men murder her. The innocent, good and astonishingly gullible Guy is pitted against Keith Talent, perhaps Amis’s most spectacularly and memorably seedy villain, who likes violence against women, fighting dogs, and boiling-hot curries. The book mixes the darkness and suspense that are the traditional ingredients of a murder mystery with a dose of post-modern literary showiness and Amis’s special brand of gleeful, mock-epic humour.
If at the end you can’t get enough of Keith Talent, try Lionel Asbo, a later (and perhaps lesser, but still excellent) novel set in a made-up part of London called Diston (geddit?), which follows the misdeeds of the delinquent Lionel Asbo and his entropic family. Einstein’s Monsters, meanwhile, is a compelling collection of short stories on the theme of nuclear war that also fits neatly into the dystopian fiction genre. And finally, no discussion of Amis and SciFi would be complete without a mention of Time’s Arrow, a book that is at once harrowing and blackly comic, in which the life of a Nazi soldier – including his participation in the concentration camps, and escape from Germany after the war – is retold in reverse. Perhaps my favourite thing about Amis’s writing, and one that makes his books so immensely gripping and fun, is that (unlike, say, Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy) he borrows the conventions of the dystopian/SciFi genre without allowing them to usurp characters or plot.
4. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
A father and son journey across a landscape blasted by an unspecified apocalypse that has destroyed most of humanity, culture and nature. The humans that remain have resorted to cannibalism, scavenging the ruins of destroyed cities for food and human remains. The boy’s father coughs blood and realises that he is dying. The story charts the pair’s attempts to survive, and avoid being eaten by cannibals, and the father’s efforts to protect his son. It’s another spectacularly bleak one, asking questions about defining right and wrong when the superstructure of society is removed, familial love and the morality of suicide. The book’s style is taut and spartan, its aesthetic charcoal grey. Better suited to a rainy train journey or a day on the sofa than the holiday backpack – but that isn’t to say it isn’t gripping!
5. Waiting for the Barbarians and The Childhood of Jesus by JM Coetzee
These two dystopian novels bookend JM Coetzee’s dazzling literary oeuvre in more than one way: the former was published in 1980, at the beginning of his career; the latter only in 2013. The first is among his best work, the second, in my opinion, his worst. The world of Waiting for the Barbarians is a tiny, wintry colonial town that exists on a bleak frontier of ‘The Empire’. The setting becomes the backdrop for a series of acts of spectacular cruelty and horror that pose difficult and resonant questions about (among other things) the legitimacy of different forms of imperialism. If you want an introduction to the work of the Nobel Prize-winning writer, this should be it – along with Disgrace, The Life and Times of Michael K, and Slow Man.
The Los Angeles Review of Books describes Coetzee’s later novel, The Childhood of Jesus as ‘a compelling and confounding work of political philosophy wrapped in a less compelling, even seemingly intentionally flat, work of fiction’ – and I think this is pretty much on the money – with ‘confounding’ being the operative word. A man and a boy wash up on the shores of a land that is sketched only sparely and in shades of drabness; they attempt to forge an existence there, and the man tries to find a mother for the young boy. The land in which the pair arrive appears tranquil and egalitarian at first but quickly reveals itself to be a nightmare of blandness: food is eaten without seasoning, people live in state apartment blocks, everyone is mildly helpful and friendly but not very helpful and friendly. There is a lot of presumably-philosophical-on-some-level musing about the meanings of numbers and letters, and who gets to determine them. For fully-paid-up members of the dystopian fiction fan club, this is a must-read: the characteristically graceful prose of the Nobel Prize winner everywhere conspires with the sense that this must all mean something pretty deep (though I am, I confess, left flummoxed as to what that meaning might be) to categorise the book indisputably as Important Allegorical Fiction.
6. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
You might be surprised to discover that V for Vendetta was a graphic novel long before it was adapted into the film version of 2006. You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the film does the novel a bit of a disservice, oversimplifying and leaving out roughly a third of the plot. The graphic novel is set in 1990s Britain. A plague has ruined the country, and the government has instated a totalitarian state of rule to regain control – but a series of terrorist attacks show that someone is fighting back. Graphic novels are always a pleasure to read, and this particular genre of fiction is perfectly suited to the form, the illustrations heightening the atmosphere conveyed by the words. A must-read!
7. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Offred is a concubine, kept in slavery to bear children for a rich man in Gilead, a country that has replaced the United States of America in the not-too-distant future. A military, absolutist state has risen up and overpowered the government of the USA, and imposed a system of hierarchical, misogynist ultra-conservatism throughout the land. The story of Offred’s attempts to survive in this cheerless world, and her exploration of its even-darker underbelly, is interspersed with flashbacks of her life before the uprising. This is the ultimate dystopian novel – a true modern classic and a definite must-read for fans of the genre; but if pushed, I might criticise it on the basis that the bleakness of the world Atwood depicts colours the mood and even the language of the whole book, often in danger of becoming a bit dull and dreary itself.
8. A Clockwork Orange by Antony Burgess
Published in 1962, A Clockwork Orange is one of the classic examples of the genre. It’s a (very) short novel set in England in the not-too-distant future, in which there’s a dominant and troubling culture of extreme youth violence. The teenage main character, Alex, describes his various violent exploits and what happens when the state tries to reform him. If you’ve seen the movie version of the story, you might be surprised by the book’s literariness and depth- not only is it riddled with philosophy, but the author invented almost a whole new language out of Slavic and Russian words to form the slang used by its young characters. The movie might be a bit dated now, but the book transcends its time. What makes it all-the-more alluring is its fascinating reception history – its ‘offensive’ language and what some perceived as gratuitous violence lead it to be widely criticised and even banned in schools in some states in America. In 1973, a bookseller was even arrested for selling it! In recent years, even Burgess himself (while assenting that it’s the only thing he’s known for) has dismissed the book as a ‘jeu d’esprit knocked off in three weeks’ and stated that he should not have written it, since the film was so grossly misinterpreted as glorifying excessive and unnecessary violence. Intriguing!
9. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
And finally, no list of great dystopian novels would be complete without a mention of George Orwell’s genre-defining Nineteen Eighty-Four. Even if you haven’t read it (in which case, where have you been?!) you’ll almost definitely be familiar with the set-up: it’s the year 1984 and the place is Airstrip One (which used to be Great Britain) part of the superstate Oceania in a world that is at always at war. The government is all-seeing and manipulates and indoctrinates the public; the Inner Party control and dictate to the people; there is a cult of personality around the elusive Party Leader, Big Brother, who is presented as quasi-divine. All independent thought is classed as a ‘thoughtcrime’, and history is in the process of being rewritten to support the state. Do you recognise any of this? Orwell’s book was so momentous that many of his terms have been absorbed into our culture. But the novel’s appeal stretches far beyond the bleak, colourless world Orwell creates; at its heart is a powerful, emotional story of human love and survival. Like all great literature, the book transcends the confines of its genre – whether you’re a dystopian literature fan, or just a literature fan, this is one not to be missed!
Do you have things to say about any of the novels mentioned here? Or are you dying to tell us about one we’ve missed out? Let us know in the comments below!