The Future Is Now: 40 of the Best Dystopian Novels
How accurate are the best dystopian novels and fiction? Throughout the last several years, we have seen a lot of predictions made by novels from decades before become realities. Technological surveillance, climate disasters, nuclear accidents, plague, police states, loss of bodily autonomy. (Penny Lane’s Almost Famous voice: It’s all happening.) What would George Orwell think of the 21st century? His novel 1984 is perhaps the most famous dystopian novel of all time. Orwell’s idea of a world where the government is always watching is now a reality, like in his native England, where there are hundreds of thousands of CCTV cameras. But what is a dystopian novel? Read on for the definition and 40 of the best dystopian novels!
What are dystopian novels?
A dystopian novel is basically one where the world has changed for the worst. The climate, the health, the government — they’re all damaging in one way or another, usually to marginalized people and communities, but sometimes to everyone. For example, another of the most popular dystopian books is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, where a certain percentage of the population of women must bear children for the rich and powerful (something that has occurred in marginalized communities throughout time, but was seen by the general population as science fiction when it was released).
Why do we love dystopian novels? Perhaps we are trying to get an idea of what we are in store for, or perhaps looking for hints on how we would survive. The pandemic actually brought more readers to dystopian novels. The fact that the popularity of dystopian novels greatly outweighs that of utopian novels shows that we don’t have a lot of faith that the future is going to be all rainbows, candy cane trees, and sparkling kittens.
I recently heard something that mentioned how we love Star Wars, but the fact remains that these stories show there is still war and oppression in the galaxy. Which tracks. But at least for now, the future is entertaining. That’s where this list comes in. There are dystopian books ranging from the slightly speculative to the all-out apocalyptic. You can’t have a list of the best dystopian novels of all time without including the classics, but you’ll also find some more modern titles and great YA titles that will fill your TBR. Get ready for the best feel-bad books around!
The Best Dystopian Novels
Internment by Samira Ahmed
Written in response to the horrifying events of 2016, this is the story of a teenage girl who joins a resistance after she and her family, and many other Muslim American citizens, are put in an incarceration camp.
The Power by Naomi Alderman
In this electrifying (pun intended!) novel that is soon to be a series, teenage girls develop the ability to cause electric shocks with a touch of their hands, which shifts the balance of power in society.
Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
When a plague wipes out any edible sources of animal meat, humans turn to what they have available: each other. This is the story of a meat factory worker who becomes attached to one of the people intended for slaughter. For another great novel along these lines, pick up Animals by Don Lepan.
The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell
This isn’t just an amazing dystopian novel, it’s one of the best zombie novels out there. When a plague brings the undead to life, a young woman running from a painful past does whatever she can to survive.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
In this disheartening age of book banning, now is a good time to read (or reread) this dystopian classic about the outlawing of books and the group responsible for removing contraband from homes.
Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
And this prescient classic is set in a California of the 2020s where political and climate upheaval are destroying the world. From the chaos arises a young woman with supernatural empathic abilities who might be the salvation of the planet…or its end.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Widely considered one of the best dystopian novels for young adults, this mega-popular series starter is about a future of poverty and oppression. Children from the country’s 12 districts must compete in a battle to the death in order to gain vital supplies and attention for their districts.
The Passage by Justin Cronin
And this is another dystopian novel featuring frightening creatures of mankind’s own making. When the test subjects of a secret experiment escape captivity, they bring about the end of civilization as people know it and turn the country into a horrifying wasteland.
All City by Alex DiFrancesco
When a superstorm hits New York City, the city’s most vulnerable are left behind to fend for themselves. The survivors form a community of sorts, bolstered by the appearance of mysterious street art.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
This multi award-winning YA novel is set in a near future where people have lost the ability to dream, and it can only be restored by the bone marrow of Indigenous people, who are now hunted for it.
Ella Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable by Mark Dunn
On an unnamed island, the letter “Z” falls from the town sign. Taking this as its own sign, the local government bans the use of the letter. As more letters fall from the sign and are also outlawed, those letters also disappear from the text of the novel, which is written in snail mail between cousins. It’s a brilliant delight.
The City of Ember by Jeanne Duprau
In this classic middle grade novel, humanity lives in a world with very little light left. When that source begins to go out, a young girl thinks an ancient message holds the clue to saving the world from complete darkness.
American War by Omar El Akkad
In a future America, a second Civil War has divided the country and climate change has flooded much of the coastline. A young girl and her family are forced into a displacement camp after her father dies, where she is vulnerable to a group preaching resistance through violence.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
And like P.D. James’s great classic Children of Men, this novel deals with human babies in the future. When children being born start exhibiting the characteristics of earliest man, sending the world into a panic, the government attempts to intervene in the lives of people who are expecting.
For more great novels about strange changes to humans, check out The Book of M by Peng Shepherd and Sip by Brian Allen Carr.
Neuromancer by William Gibson
And this classic of science fiction and technology is still relevant today. It’s an award-winning look at the highs and lows — and dangers — of artificial intelligence and the future. Fun fact: Gibson coined the term “cyberspace.”
The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings
In what is surely going to be one of the best-loved modern dystopian novels, a young woman who doesn’t know if she wants to get married must decide if she will submit to the government’s tracking program of unwed women. If she doesn’t, she will be arrested as a witch.
Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison
In a prediction of future population growth, Harrison has penned a novel about a detective searching for a serial killer in a crowded city of millions, where people live in dwellings stacked high to the sky. This was the basis for the film Soylent Green (but you won’t find the line “Soylent Green is people” in this book).
The Dog Stars by Peter Heller
After a deadly flu wipes out most of the population, a man and his dog attempt to survive the harsh, lonely conditions of the new world while trying to escape the notice of the violent packs of people who roam the lands looking for victims.
Crosshairs by Catherine Hernandez
And in this sadly relevant recent dystopian novel, marginalized communities are hunted and incarcerated in work camps by a horrifying, violent group known as “The Boots.”
Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban
It seems impossible that the author of this wild story of post-apocalyptic England written in an invented language is also the author behind Bread and Jam for Frances and Emmet Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas, but here we are.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
In a book most of us probably had to read in school, authoritarian rule sweeps the land, and people are forced to submit to the technological whims of the new dictatorship.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
It’s really a spoiler to explain why this classic is a work of dystopian fiction, so let’s just say it’s about three close friends who grow up together at a very special boarding school.
The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1) by N.K. Jemisin
This is a modern classic of climate fiction. The first book starts with the world after cataclysmic events have ruined the surface. The Broken Earth trilogy won the Hugo Award for all three books in the series, making Jemisin the first author to do so.
The Stand by Stephen King
In one of King’s most famous works, a virus kills most of the population. The survivors gather together in two factions, good and bad, and head west to stop the coming of a great evil.
The Giver by Lois Lowry
And this classic of children’s literature is set in a supposed future utopia where everyone is cared for and obedient and doesn’t ask questions. But when one child receives the memories of humans’ past, he begins to question everything.
Severance by Ling Ma
A young woman in New York City who is so bored with her job and isn’t aware that a deadly flu has broken out until she is one of the remaining uninfected people. She joins up with a group of holy rollers looking for more survivors, but she is harboring a secret that may put her in danger.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
And this is probably the most beloved dystopian work of the 21st century. It’s about the survivors of a deadly flu who are located in pockets around the country and are trying to survive as best they can against dangers, both environmental and human, while holding on to the memories of the Before Times.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
In this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, a father and son make their way across an America that has been devastated from coast to coast by ash and fire, encountering friend and foe along the way. But is it really surviving if there’s nothing to live for?
A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter Miller, Jr.
This is the greatest science fiction novel of all time, in my opinion. Set in three parts, it tracks a future civilization, on a planet that has been destroyed by nuclear warfare. The residents are the offspring of the survivors, who rose up and killed all the intelligent people on the planet for creating — or having the ability to create — nuclear weapons. There’s now a group of monks who hold onto the sacred text of “Leibowtz” and try to survive. Widely considered one of the first, and best, works of apocalyptic fiction, this one will knock your brain’s socks off.
How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu
This is a recent stunner, told in stories set from the recent future to hundreds of years ahead. It all starts with a virus unleashed during an excavation, and in the aftermath, humans must learn how to care for the vast number of sick and dying people, first adults and then children.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
In this powerful novel that is unfortunately all-too relevant, America of the future is a place where all citizens must swear loyalty to the country and no discussion or celebration of other cultures is allowed, under penalty of law.
The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa
The Memory Police rule over an an unnamed island, where common everyday items disappear from homes, and the memory of them from brains. In this police state, remembering the lost items could cost a citizen their life.
Infomocracy by Malka Older
And in this exciting technological dystopia, a search engine has become a big influence in the world of politics, and the government parties are still wrestling one another for control.
War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi
In this thrilling start to a YA series, set 150 years in the future, two sisters in Nigeria fight for their lives in a world that has been all but destroyed by climate catastrophes and nuclear war.
A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker
This is one of the most accurate dystopian novels of the last several years. Released a year before the world faced Covid-19, it’s about a planet where a deadly virus has forced everyone to remain in their homes, and gatherings have been outlawed.
Scythe (Arc of a Scythe, #1) by Neal Shusterman
Shusterman has written a lot of fantastic dystopian YA novels, like Unwind, where kids can be “retired” by their parents. But this one, about a future state-sanctioned culling to keep population growth down, is definitely the best (and hopefully not prophetic).
On the Beach by Nevil Shute
This is a classic, and one of the first popular novels about nuclear war. It’s set in Australia in 1963 after World War III, where citizens await the inevitable radiation from the nuclear fallout to reach the country.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
This is an excellent and wildly popular YA series about a future where martial law rules the land, with academies training new soldiers to uphold order, while rebel forces work to dismantle it.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker
This is a very light dystopian novel. It’s really a story about a young girl and the dissolution of her parents’ marriage, while outside their home, the world begins to change when the Earth’s rotation begins to slow down for unknown reasons.
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
And last but not least, this is a fantastic adventure about a future where a sleeping sickness has affected a lot of the population, bringing chaos, death, and destruction to the world.
For another great sleeping sickness novel, check out The Dreamers by Karen Thompson Walker.
For more dystopian reads, check out 15 Must-Read Dystopian Romance Novels, 5 Eco-Dystopian Novels, 8 of the Best Queer Dystopian Novels, and YA Dystopian Novels.