Dystopian novels are a category all their own, distinct form science-fiction as the focus is less centered on technology and science and more on humanity; but also distinct from post-apocalyptic fiction because these novels envision a world after the worst has already unfolded. This usually means a world where humanity’s chief enemy is humanity itself.
The very best of this genre tend to gaze inward into the soul of man and find something irredeemably sinister. Some would say these novels truly see humanity at its most honest. (Links int he description may be affiliate links. If you make a purchase, I may receive a small commission at on extra cost to you.)
This seems an obvious place to start — and for good reason. Orwell’s chilling tale of an all-seeing, all controlling, regime with the power to crush all dissent with carefully crafted language and the implied threat of personal erasure always sounds eerily familiar in times where there the powers that be have too much power. In other words, it always sounds eerily familiar. Ever why this still has a place on bestseller lists nearly a decade after its release?
Huxley’s provocative classic is best understood as a companion piece to Orwell’s 1984. The imagine dystopia here is not one which humanity is enslave into, but rather, one humanity volunteers for. The landscape Huxley creates is full of unending surface thrills, the absence of individual responsibility and access escape from life’s ugly side through a drug called Soma. The Author is cynical enough to see danger from all angles: corporate greed, conformity and an excessive appetite for vice.
Don’t be frightened by the unfamiliar title or the author’s hard-to-pronounce name. We is to dystopian fiction what Bram Stoker’s Dracula is to vampire novels, which is to say, the place where it began. Penned in 1924, Zamyatin’s forerunner of the genre contains themes that suggest a young Huxley and Orwell were paying close attention. It is horrifying, thrilling and funny.
Although primarily known as a writer of science fiction short stories, Bradbury takes a deep dive here on the impulse to control the written word. In Bradbury’s bleak dystopia, a group of men known as firemen are tasked with destroying all printed books — as well as the homes that contain them. Hope exists in the form an eccentric neighbor named Clarisse who seeks to educate the world about a past where ideas were fearlessly shared in books. A must read for fans of the genre, and for fans of free speech.
Philip K. Dick may be the most ruthless and unflinching truth-teller in the genres of science-fiction and dystopian fiction. While his seminal classic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (later adopted into the film Blade Runner) doesn’t quite fit in this category, The Penultimate Truth does. Its story concerns a hoard of frightened humans forced to live underground while a stunning secrets lives just above them. This would be a great introduction to those new to the genre or new to this groundbreaking author.