George Orwell’s 1984 is a classic dystopian work, so embedded in our cultural zeitgeist that people who have never read the book readily reference it. The popular reality show Big Brother is a direct reference to the authoritarian panopticon that watches every citizen in Orwell’s classic. It’s also one of the scariest books I’ve ever read. Once you’ve given this book a spin, here are 12 more dystopian and anti-utopian books like 1984.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
You’ve probably already read this in high school. And college. It predates 1984 by 17 years, though it is not the oldest book on this list. In it, people are kept perpetually happy and compliant by living in blissful ignorance. Free love, free drugs, and a well-structured society make everything seem perfect…until Bernard starts wondering if there’s more to this world that empty happiness.
Brown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson
A Caribbean-Canadian collision that takes white flight and dials it up to a dystopian 11, Brown Girl in the Ring imagines a future Toronto in which everyone of means has fled the city, which has been walled off into a lawless wasteland. Inside, people live by any means necessary. When a wealthy outsider needs a heart transplant, those inside become hunted like so much meat.
China Dream by Ma Jian, Translated by Flora Drew
Orwell’s book is filled with the authoritarian government directly influencing its citizens, going so far as to police their thoughts (via observed behavior, but still). This is still a far cry from the China Dream Bureau in China Dream, in which the government is forcing the dream of President Xi Jingping directly into minds while they sleep.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Every book nerd puts this right up on a list of worst nightmares: a world in which books are forbidden. Bradbury’s classic tells the story of Guy Montag, a fireman. Except in this world, fireman means he burns books and other banned material, not that he puts out fires. Then one day, he starts reading a book. And then another. His whole world crashes down as his mind expands in this classic.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
In many ways, I feel The Giver is the closest comparison on this list of books like 1984. Everyone is given a job based on their talents. Families are created based on interpersonal styles and income. They all take drugs to suppress emotions and sex drives. Then Jonas is given the job of Receiver of Memory and meets with the Giver of Memory. In this unique position, he comes to understand just how controlled society is and how little freedom he has.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Given how popular the Hulu series is by now, this book likely needs no explanation, but I’m giving it anyway. In a dystopian future, patriarchy and religious rule have clamped down society. Women are forced into specific roles like wife, cook, or handmaid. Except handmaids are women whose only role is to bear the children of powerful men. Even while their wives are in the room while the deed is done. Atwood’s modern classic is a tale of one such woman’s desperate attempt to escape this hellscape of servitude.
Material Girls by Elaine Dimopoulis
In our reality, teenagers only think they define what is or isn’t cool, but in the world of Material Girls, they really are the trendsetters. When a fashionista and a pop star start to question the rampant consumerism of their world, the real corporate puppet masters start to yank and snip their strings.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
I struggle with exactly how to describe the dystopian nature of this novel without spoiling the book. Let me just say that something is amiss with the children who grow up at Hailsham Boarding School, even though well into adulthood, they still don’t know what that is. They are encouraged to make art and remain healthy, but don’t know why or what makes them special. Once they find out, they look at their entire lives in a different light.
Naughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman
In Blackman’s dystopian world, people are either Naughts — pale-skinned and poor — or Crosses — dark-skinned elites. In a riff on the old Romeo and Juliet plot, Callum and Sephy, a Naught and a Cross, fall in love. When a terrorist attack linked to both Callum and Sephy occurs, their lives and love are thrown into devastating turmoil.
Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler
I can’t go making a list of books like 1984 without mentioning the incomparable Octavia E. Butler. In the wake of a war, Lauren Olamina fled and founded Earthseed, a community founded on the peaceful notion that God is change. After several prosperous years, America is changing, led by a president leading the charge to America’s “golden age,” which includes an end to racial equality and religious tolerance. Sounds too familiar.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
In an eerily prophetic novel from 2010, Shteyngart imagines an America crushed by a financial crisis with China calling in its debts, and social media dominating real life. People livestream their lives, obsessed with likes and viewership, but Lenny Abramov is a luddite living both inside and outside of this world. Then he falls in love with a younger Korean American girl named Eunice Park, and their relationship seems like the only thing holding their world together.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Arguably the progenitor of the dystopian literature genre, Zamyatin’s We came out in the Soviet Union in 1924. People have numbers instead of names. They live in glass apartments so they can watch and be watched at all times. When D-503 feels an illegal attraction I-330, he starts to dream, which is a sign of mental illness. His world crumbles around him as his failing ignorance gives way to authoritarian punishments.
Dystopian and anti-utopian literature play important roles in helping shape our collective views of the world. They show us the importance of freedom and the danger of authoritarian regimes. They often hold a funhouse mirror up to our own reality as warning. Give 1984 a read so you can accurately reference “Big Brother” and “Thought Police,” but also read some of these books like 1984 for the full dystopian experience.
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