Though it might seem paradoxical on the outside, escaping into a dystopia is a well-documented way to cope when the present seems like too much. Some of the most terrifying dystopias are the ones that seem like we are more than halfway there. Obviously, it is in the nature of a dystopia to be a pretty dark read, but what makes the books on this list stand out is how plausible they are. They could be a step or two (or even just an election) away from our current reality.
Not all dystopias are far off places where society has broken down into well-delineated factions based on some arbitrary distinction. Not everyone gets to be the Chosen One in these stories — some of these characters are just doing their best to survive in a system that is not set up for that. There are heroes, but there are also villains and sometimes it isn’t clear which one is which. In this list, we have characters contending with an omnipresent social feed that is constantly advertising to them, schools that aren’t really schools at all, and people living with the consequences of wars they did not ask for. It is not hard to draw a line from their lives to ours and hopefully that encourages readers to make what changes they can in our world.
Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill
In a world where girls are no longer born naturally, “eves” are raised in schools to learn how to please men until they come of age and are selected for marriage, or left to other fates. Best friends freida and isabel (the names of the girls are not capitalized) are among the most highly ranked girls in their year. In their final year of school, freida must fight for the future she wants even as isabel seems to have lost sight of what they have been told is important.
The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
In a world nearly destroyed by global warming, another calamity has taken place. Indigenous people are being hunted for their bone marrow, which can recover the ability to dream, something the rest of the population has lost. A group struggles to evade the marrow thieves as they make their way up north in secret. One of the group members may have the key to defeating them.
Feed by M.T. Anderson
Titus lives in a near-future world in which most of the population is connected to the feednet, a futuristic version of the internet implanted directly into their brains. He doesn’t care about very much beyond the entertainment provided to him and to his friends through their feeds. School™ doesn’t interest him much and his parents are distant. On a night out on the moon, a hacker causes their feeds to malfunction and he and his friends find themselves in the hospital with nothing in their heads for days. Titus meets Violet, whose determination to fight the feed’s hold on humanity both confuses and inspires him.
Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
Juliette can kill with a touch. To her, it feels like a curse that has put her in an asylum. To the Reestablishment, she is a weapon to be taken advantage of. Juliette must decide whether she is willing to be that weapon in order to get out of the asylum or if there is another destiny out there for her.
The Grace Year by Kim Liggett
The 16-year-old girls of Garner County are told that they have the power to drive men wild, that their skin emits a powerful aphrodisiac, that their very youth is dangerous. That is the reason why they are sent away for the grace year, to dispense of their magic and return purified and ready for marriage. No one talks about what happens during their grace year, nor about the dangers that await the banished girls. Nearly 16-year-old Tierney James believes that the greatest threat to her survival is a society that pits woman against woman.
Legend by Marie Lu
The former western United States is now The Republic, a nation perpetually at war. The daughter of a wealthy family, June, is being groomed for a military career. Day is a criminal. They are brought together after June’s brother is murdered and Day is the prime suspect — only to find out how far The Republic will go to guard its secrets.
Unwind by Neal Shusterman
After the Second Civil War, abortion has become illegal and life is sacred until the age of 13. After that, parents are given the option to “unwind” their difficult or unwanted teenage children. Their organs will be redistributed to different donors, thus “life” does not end. Connor is an out of control teenager, Risa is a ward of the state, and Lev is a tithe, who was conceived to be unwound. Together, they work together to try to survive a society that would rather they no longer exist.
Want by Cindy Pon
Set in a Taipei that has been polluted to the point that the rich wear special suits to protect themselves, the rest of the population has become accustomed to illness and early death. Zhou, grieving the loss of his mother, is determined to infiltrate the corporation that produces the suits, and also might be creating the pollution that requires them. As Zhou and his friends get deeper into the world of the wealthy, he finds himself falling for the daughter of Jin Corp’s CEO. Will he be able to save his city?
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
The Medio School for Girls trains girls of privilege to fulfill one of two roles in society: to run the household of a wealthy husband or to raise his children, thus avoiding the frequent political uprisings of the lower class. Daniela Vargas is the school’s star pupil with a marriage fast approaching — but her pedigree is a lie. On her graduation night, she is approached to spy for a resistance group and must choose between the life her parents fought to give her or a chance to free Medio.