While the world may feel hopelessly dystopian, these works of classic and modern fiction hold up a mirror with entertaining stories of our worst possible futures.
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Novels have the capacity to captivate our imaginations while also engaging in human themes and reflecting the modern world. Authors like George Orwell, Octavia E. Butler, and others have written dazzling works of dystopian fiction that present terrifying futures, both near and far, that make us reconsider the world we inhabit in order to create a better tomorrow. Spanning over 120 years of literature, these dystopian novels feature totalitarian governments, menacing villains, and the causes of our downfall from deadly diseases to climate change to each other.

From a time-traveling adventure crafted by H.G. Wells to Suzanne Collins' global phenomenon-turned-blockbuster franchise starring Jennifer Lawrence, these are the best dystopian novels of all time — having inspired the minds and imaginations of readers from decades past and continuing to awe and move us today.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

1984 by George Orwell (1949)

George Orwell's classic tale of governmental oversight and constraints of freethinking remains relevant in modern discourse as the term "Orwellian" is used and misused constantly. But the book that coined that term, 1984, is a thought-provoking and expertly crafted novel. 

The story follows Winston Smith, a skillful worker rewriting history in the Ministry of Truth, who starts to look back fondly on the days before the Party took over the region of Oceania and implemented their cult of personality devoid of freethought and individuality. With beautiful prose and incredible world-building, Orwell's 1984 is more relevant today than ever before, and a must-read for the times.

Station Eleven
Credit: Knopf Doubleday

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Now an HBO Max miniseries, Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven is a tribute to art and human connection. Merging past and present through characters all across North America, the novel follows a nomadic troupe of actors as they perform Shakespeare plays and classical music in a world ravaged by a flu that wiped out nearly the entire human race. 

With rich characters and an exciting form, St. John Mandel has crafted a modern classic full of hope in the face of suffering. EW's critic gave the novel an "A," writing "This is not a story of crisis and survival. It's one of art and family and memory and community and the awful courage it takes to look upon the world with fresh and hopeful eyes."

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Dover Publications

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

H.G. Wells' 19th century novel The Time Machine follows a time traveler into the future, 80,000 years beyond his life to a world of two races: the Eloi and the Morlocks. Mirroring the duality of man, these separate classes paint a picture of a terrible future for all of humankind. With breathtaking storytelling and a science fiction plot that helped spawn a century of inspiration, The Time Machine is a timeless novel that will continue to enthrall readers for years to come.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Simon & Schuster

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

This classic of world literature, Fahrenheit 451 follows Guy Montag, a fireman whose job is to burn books along with the houses where the now illegal texts are hidden. But once Guy meets his young neighbor, Clarisse, who teaches him about the freedom and imagination of the past, he begins to question his role in the world and what's at stake when we deny basic truths. Striking in its satire with a message more important than ever, Ray Bradbury's deftly written novel remains a must-read for any fan of fiction.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Grand Central Publishing

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (1993)

Set just a few short years away from our time, the Parable of the Sower's world ravaged by war, disease, and chronic water shortages doesn't feel so far off. But Octavia E. Butler's mesmerizing prose and incredible leading characters make the case for hope in the face of it all. 

After her parents die in a fire, Lauren Olamina travels from a crippling Los Angeles with other refugees to the safety of the North while coming up with a plan for the salvation of the world. But in this gripping novel, Lauren must also navigate her "hyper-empathy," which allows her to experience the emotions and hardships of those around her in a world full of pain and suffering. As the first installment of the deeply affecting (and sadly unfinished) Parable series, Parable of the Sower is an excellent introduction to one of the greatest American authors in recent memory.

Never Let Me Goby Kazuo Ishiguro
Credit: Vintage

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

What if everything you have ever known and loved was a lie? Kathy has to face this question in Never Let Me Go after she and her two friends, Ruth and Tommy, escape the grounds of their normal English boarding school to learn about the world outside for the first time. The riveting novel by now Nobel Prize winner Kazuo Ishiguro is part mystery, part love story, and part scathing critique of how humans treat the vulnerable and different in a world where people are disposable... and even replicable.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Harper Perennial

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Published 90 years ago, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World is one of the best American novels of the 20th century and surprisingly apt at predicting future scientific advancements, including reproductive technology and psychological conditioning. In a dystopia whose citizens are genetically engineered and set into a hierarchy, the novel's protagonist, "Alpha" psychologist Bernard, challenges the system and the forces behind it by daring to explore the old world... and even bring part of it back with him. Controversial and thought-provoking, Brave New World is a novel that deserves continued analysis and enjoyment for years to come.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Little, Brown

The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016)

With a small twist of nature, suddenly, the entire world changes. In Naomi Alderman's contemporary work, the recognizable world is all but the same, except for the shocking revelation that teenage girls can now conduct electricity to cause intense physical pain or death to others. By mixing up the societal roles of authority, The Power helps mirror our current world and confront our mindsets and predispositions through its fictional history of how women assumed societal dominance. 

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Knopf Doubleday

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

Margaret Atwood's cultural phenomenon has found a resurgence in popularity after the success of the Hulu series starring Elisabeth Moss and connections to current political events — and it's just as powerful as it was when it first hit bookshelves in 1985. Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, remembers the years before, living peacefully with her husband and daughter. But now, she exists in a world where she can't read, is forced to make a baby for her "commander," and is only as valuable as her ovaries. Satirical, horrifying, and surprisingly funny, The Handmaid's Tale is an incredible work of American literature that deserves every ounce of recognition it has accumulated over the past three decades.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Knopf Doubleday

The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006)

Made into a 2009 film starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi-Smit McPhee, The Road is a stunning and brutal vision of the future by legendary writer Cormac McCarthy. For an unnamed father and son living in a burned, decaying America, their only hope on a perilous journey to the coast is their connection to each other. McCarthy's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is a beautifully composed, totalistic vision of the good and the bad of the human condition that only this author, so famous for violent depictions and searing social critiques, could write.

the-giver
Credit: HMH Books for Young Readers

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)

An influential and crowd-pleasing work, Lois Lowry's acclaimed novel is the first in a franchise that kept on giving. Jonas, a 12-year-old in a colorless world, is chosen to become the new Receiver of Memory as a life assignment, a role that forces him to remember the entire past of the world and confront the dark truth about his society's hidden secrets. Spawning countless sequels and a 2014 movie starring Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, and Taylor Swift, The Giver is a classic work of YA dystopian fiction for the ages.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: HarperCollins

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)

Science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish Cycle series spans seven books about a human society that has colonized multiple planets in the galaxy — and 1974's The Dispossessed is the the standout installment. In the novel, Shevek, a physicist, must travel to a utopian world, Urras, in order to take down the walls of hatred his planet of anarchists have developed. Unique in its explorations of anarchy, capitalism, and individualism, The Dispossessed deserved each one of its many awards, and is an undeniable cornerstone for the genre.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: W. W. Norton & Company

The Wall by ​​John Lanchester (2019)

Among the more recent dystopian literature is this suspenseful and satirical 2019 novel by John Lanchester. The Wall takes place on an island nation in a world ravaged by climate change, insulated from the widespread disaster by the titular Wall. Protagonist Joseph Kavanagh's role as a Defender on the island is to protect a section of the Wall from the Others, survivors looking to escape the rising seas on the outside. Suspenseful and timely, Lanchester's work is a compelling read of modern sociological issues seen through an affecting lens only the best fiction can achieve.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Penguin

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)

Nearly a century old, Yevgeny Zamyatin's We is the worthy precursor to much of the dystopian fiction we've enjoyed for the last 100 years. The novel follows D-503, a mathematician in a totalitarian 26th century society, who discovers something that will change the world: he has a soul. The numerous translations from its native Russian have kept its poetic prose and brilliant themes on individual freedom for a wide audience to enjoy and ponder.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess CR: Penguin
Credit: Penguin

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)

Anthony Burgess creates a terrifying and transgressive future in A Clockwork Orange, a tale of youth rebelling against authority, but in a far less charmed or inspiring manner than other contenders on this list. Our narrator is Alex, an apathetic and depraved teen gang leader who is as pleased by violence as he is enthralled with classical music. But when his heinous crimes land him in state-sanctioned aversion therapy, morality's lines only get blurrier.

With inventive slang and a controversial finale that has fans and scholars debating the character's motivations for decades, A Clockwork Orange is a prime example of dystopian literature done right. The film adaptation from director Stanley Kubrick is also an artful interpretation of Burgess' nightmare world.

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The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962)

Winner of the coveted Hugo Award, The Man in the High Castle imagines a world where the United States lost World War II and persecution and slavery persist under Imperial Japanese and Nazi rule. The 1962 novel launched the career of now-household name Philip K. Dick, being an idealistic work of prose and one of his many science fiction masterpieces. It's a daring and controversial story that makes readers question the "what-if's" of historical events in such vivid and jarring detail that it just may feel like reality.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Penguin

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard (1962)

Incredibly prescient and undeniably unique, J.G. Ballard's The Drowned World is a striking work of dystopian climate fiction. Set in the year 2145, where climate change and solar radiation have melted the polar ice caps and swallowed most of the human world, a biologist and his team navigate a hellish world populated by giant iguanas and prehistoric monsters. The novel is unsettling but thrilling, and a classic work that has stood the test of time.

The Stand - paperback (6/28/2011)by Stephen King
Credit: Knopf

The Stand by Stephen King (1978)

The King of Horror's 1978 dystopian novel is over 1,000 pages of dazzling prose and a tale of the fight for humanity. After a man escapes a biological testing facility, unwittingly spreading a strain of a flu virus that decimates 99% of human life, two leaders with varying styles of peace and violence emerge, putting the fate of the world in the hands of the few survivors. Bloated with ideas and vivid descriptions, Stephen King's The Stand is one of the greatest works of the famous author's life.

The Hunger Gamesby Suzanne Collins
Credit: Scholastic Press

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

At the height of YA book-to-movie franchise adaptations, Suzanne Collins' dystopian trilogy stands as one of the best of its time. This first novel follows aloof teen Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers in her sister's place to fight in the annual battle royale-style Hunger Games while rebellion brews in the 12 districts of a dystopian future North America. Full of dimensional characters, a pulse-pounding plot, and profound social commentary, The Hunger Games trilogy is some of the 21st century's best in YA and dystopian fiction.

Best Dystopian Novels
Credit: Random House

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

In this seminal work by Kurt Vonnegut, readers are taken on the non-linear journey of Billy Pilgrim, a man "unstuck in time," as his lived timeline ricochets from early childhood, late adulthood, surviving the firebombing of Dresden in World War II (an event the author actually lived through), and even a stint in an alien zoo on the planet Tralfamadore. Slaughterhouse-Five has since been hailed as one of the greatest novels of all time and a work of unmatched clarity that remains one of the strongest pieces of anti-war literature ever written.

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