Now that you’ve read the Hunger Games, Divergent and a slew of other YA dystopias, including one titled Dystopia, where do you go next? Dystopian novels are nothing new. Long before Suzzane Collins brought them to the YA genre, writers were exploring dystopian worlds in literature, science fiction and fantasy. Here are my favorites.
What makes a novel Dystopian?
Before we begin the list, what makes something dystopian? I will give my answer in two parts. First, what makes a society dystopian and then what makes a novel dystopian.
What’s a dystopian society?
Dystopia, at its simplest definition, is the opposite of a utopia. A utopia is a perfect society, so a dystopia must be a terrible society. But that’s pretty vague. I prefer to define a dystopia as a dysfunctional society.
Some families or groups look and act crazy, but function fairly well together. Others act normal but are loaded with dysfunction once you get inside. So what makes a group dysfunctional? A common litmus test that sociologists and psychologisst use is the Über rule. The űber rule is; you can’t question the rules.
Every group has certain rules and expectations. Ideally these rules were established for a reason. Members understand why the rule is there, when it was instituted and how. There is a protocol in place for discussing and changing rules as the situation changes.
But when the űber rule is in place, you aren’t allowed to question the rules. The reason the rules are in place are hidden or forgotten. Any attempt to discuss the rules or change them is an act of treason against the group.
For example, the United States might act a little crazy at times but we all know how the laws are made, how they can be changed and we are free to discuss what changes we might want to make, so it’s not a true dystopia. Of course you can argue that there’s corruption in how laws are made, unequal enforcement, etc. and we are times, pretty dysfunctional. But it’s still short of a true dystopia.
In Soviet Russia, on the other hand, laws were made by a small group who didn’t have to explain how or why they choose those laws. Any attempt to question the regime was harshly dealt with. It does qualify as a dystopian society.
So what makes a novel dystopian?
I have two simple criteria. The dominant group in the novel must be dysfunctional to the point of being dystopian. The group’s dysfunction must drive the novel.
A lot the novels that you find on the average listopia don’t really qualify as dystopian to me. By the same token there are a lot of good novels that should be considered dystopian but aren’t.
I don’t have any zombie or apocalypse novels on this list, because the dysfunctional society, if it exists, doesn’t drive the story. It’s a side effect of the apocalypse. Most epic fantasies don’t qualify either, because they tend to be about stopping the totalitarian regime (AKA evil wizard) from taking over. A true dystopian novel is about the character’s struggles living within a dystopian society.
Here are my top ten picks for adult dystopian novels.
1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
When a conservative Christian group takes over the United States, the Republic of Gilead is formed. Marketplaces now features pictures since women aren’t allowed to read. Facing declining fertility they begin to employ handmaids, to let the ruling caste procreate. In order to avoid the idea that this is adultery, the handmaid must lay under the sheets while the man stares at his wife.
Told from the point of a view of a handmaid, there is no doubt the novel is both dystopian and adult. It’s very well written.
2. Make Room! Make Room! (AKA Soylent Green) by Harry Harrison
Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel about an overcrowded urban society facing food and space shortages, became the inspiration for 1973 movie, Soylent Green. It’s a great dark dystopian novel. Fans of the film beware, Make Room! Make Room! doesn’t include cannibalism.
3. Wool by Hugh Howey
Wool tells the story of a future where the world has been blighted and unlivable. Survivors live in underground silos. What really makes Wool a true dystopian is that the survivors don’t even remember what happened to make it that way, and even thinking of outside is a criminal offense punishable by death.
4. The Dosadi Experiment by Frank Herbert
Frank Herbert had a thing about survival of the fittest. It shows up frequently in his works. The Fremen of Dune are tough because they’ve spent generations in one of the toughest environments ever, the planet Arakis. Arakis, however, can’t hold a candle to Dosadi. The novel is set in the Whipping Star series, though it’s easy to read as a stand alone novel. Aliens have conspired to keep a small group of aliens and humans trapped on a toxic planet, until the survivors have become so strong they now fear to let them out.
5. Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
Snow Crash is a classic cyberpunk novel but it also qualifies as dystopian in my opinion. The government has more or less ceased to function and sovereign corporations have moved into the power vacuum. The result is a byzantine world of sovereign corporations that is well described.
I have always admired Stephenson’s gutsy writing style, but never more than his decision to make his hero a half-Japanese American named Hiro. Hiro is a hacker turned pizza delivery guy who is drawn into a friendship with a young skateboard courier named YT. The two of them must work together to uncover the secret of Snow Crash, a computer virus that can infect hackers brains.
6. 1984 by George Orwell
Published in 1959, when the title date seemed far in the future, 1984 is a dystopian classic. It’s so old school that most 1984 fans still think old school is a popular catchphrase. Even so, it’s a must read, especially if you have ever wondered where terms like thought police, big brother and double speak come from. It’s a world that is so fucked up and dystopian that after the main characters is caught and re-educated for his thought crimes, they leave him alive until he is so brainwashed that he agrees with his sentence and volunteers for death.
7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
One of Bradbury’s classic novels, Fahrenheit 451 is an allusion to temperature at which a book will ignite and burn. The novel tells of a world where knowledge is censored and books are all banned. Guy Montag is a fireman. It’s his job to find and destroy books. That is until he is sucked into a secret society that strives to save literature by memorizing books whole.
8. Logan’s Run by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
Life under the dome is perfect, except for one small fact. To conserve resources everyone must die at thirty. That doesn’t seem like much of a problem when you are in your early twenties, and as you near thirty, well that’s what the Sandmen are for, to make sure no one runs.
9. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut is one of the great American writers of the twentieth century. His style is dark and cynical, and several of his novels show up frequently on listopia and elsewhere as dystopian novels. Most of those novels don’t make my cut. Titles like Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five are unrelentingly dark, but the societies are not true dystopias. But Player Piano is different. The society is one where machines are rapidly replacing humans in virtually all jobs, creating a new lower caste of unemployed or barely employable men. Strikes a little too close to home at times.
10. The sword of truth series by Terry Goodkind
I have left almost the entire fantasy genre off this list for one simple reason. Most epic fantasies are about the struggle of good and evil. The evil is the threat, a wizard, lord or ruler that is trying to take over the land. While that can make a great story, its not a dystopia. A dystopian novel must be driven by the characters reaction to living within a dystopian society. The Sword of Truth series is one of the few that meets that requirement.
My Shameless Promotion:
I’ve dabbled in post-apocalypse and have one book out that could be defined as dystopian. In Children of a New Earth, Amy Beland has been raised on Freedom Ranch, deep in the Rocky Mountains in the years after the collapse. The ranch is run by white supremacist. They don’t allow much discussion or input in decision making and they’ve lied to the younger generation about why the collapse has even happened, making it a pretty clear dystopian society. You can download a copy from Amazon: