The best dystopian novels of all time

Our edit of the best dystopian books ever written, from classic authors like George Orwell, Margaret Atwood and Aldous Huxley.

22/09/2021
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Dystopian fiction fascinates us because it draws on aspects of our own world. Mirroring elements of society, the environment, religion, politics or technology, the best dystopian books present a world that, though eerily familiar, is much more frightening than our own.

From the misogynist dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale and Margaret Atwood's sequel The Testaments, to a world changed forever by a deadly pandemic in  Emily St. John Mandel's dystopian novel Station Eleven, the best dystopian fiction often carries a warning for the future. George Orwell's 1984 in particular only seems to grow in relevance, and Dorian Lynskey discusses the novel's fascinating history in his book The Ministry of Truth. Here are some of the most sinister, and some might argue prescient, dystopian novels ever written.  

Invisible Sun

by Charles Stross

Book cover for Invisible Sun

The conclusion of Charles Stross's Empire Games trilogy sees the twin worlds of The New American Commonwealth and the 'USA' – a high-tech parallel world – locked in a deadly arms conflict.

While the Commonwealth faces a crippling power vacuum following the death of its president-equivalent, the advanced USA timeline awakens an alien threat that has already destroyed humanity on one version of Earth . . .

Set in the same world and Charles Stross's Merchant Princes sequence, this high-octane dystopian sci-fi book is not to be missed.

The Silence

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for The Silence

Don DeLillo's The Silence is a unique dystopian novel which, rather than delving into how humanity may struggle to survive in the aftermath of a disaster, focuses on the immediate moment an unpredictable crisis hits. Although it was begun before COVID-19 existed, it’s set at a time when a virus that emptied the streets is ‘fresh in the memory’ and an even greater disaster is about to strike. This is a dazzling short novel about what it means to be human in a time of crisis. 

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover for Station Eleven

One of our favourite dystopian novels of recent years, Station Eleven moves backwards and forwards in time, presenting the recognisable years just before a flu epidemic brought about the collapse of civilisation alongside the strange and altered world that exists twenty years after. It’s a novel that asks questions about art and fame and about the relationships that sustain us through anything – even the end of the world.

American War

by Omar El Akkad

Book cover for American War

It’s 2074 and America is once again devastated by civil war. Sarat has lost her father, her home, and is fighting for survival. She didn’t start this war, but she’s determined she’ll end it. This powerful debut novel imagines America in the grip of a deadly plague and riven by civil war as one family are caught in the middle. This dystopian book asks us to consider what might happen if America turned it’s most deadly policies and weapons on itself. 

The Trial

by Franz Kafka

Book cover for The Trial

Kafka creates a nightmarish bureaucracy which traps his protagonist in an unlawful conviction in this bleak and frightening dystopian fiction. On his thirtieth birthday Joseph K is arrested for an unknown crime. He has no idea what he has done wrong, and he is never told what he has been charged with. As he fights to prove his innocence he struggles with the invisible Law and the untouchable Court, and the course of his life is changed forever. 

Brave New World

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Book cover for Brave New World

Heavily influenced by the science fiction writers, such as H.G. Wells, who went before him, Aldous Huxley presents a future where the World Controllers have created the ideal society in this classic dystopian book. All its members are happy consumers, kept docile with a sinister mix of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs.

Noughts & Crosses

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Book cover for Noughts & Crosses

In the award-winning Noughts and Crosses sequence, of which this book is the first, Malorie Blackman creates a dystopian world in which the white Noughts are treated as an inferior race, while the black Crosses are born into privilege and perceived as superior in every sense.

It follows Sephy and Callum, who, despite the friendship they have shared since they were children, are fated to be bitter enemies. Sephy is a Cross, dark-skinned, beautiful and the daughter of a powerful politician, while Callum is a Nought, white and poor, existing to serve Crosses and nothing more.

But against all odds, star-crossed lovers Sephy and Callum choose each other, and this powerful story, which reverses the traditional racial stereotypes we see in our own world, follows the trials of their relationship.

The Handmaid's Tale

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Book cover for The Handmaid's Tale

In this classic of feminist dystopian fiction, Margaret Atwood presents a world where women’s bodies are controlled by the state and 'handmaids' are forced to provide the families of the elite with children. The bestselling TV adaptation, starring Elisabeth Moss and Samira Wiley, has been nominated for multiple awards, and the fourth series is highly anticipated.

If you love The Handmaid's Tale, discover what to read next

The Testaments

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Book cover for The Testaments

Shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, The Testaments is the highly anticipated sequel to Margaret Atwood's dystopian classic The Handmaid's Tale. Set fifteen years later, in the crumbling regime of the Republic of Gilead, the novel tells the story of three women – two who have come of age with no memory of life before Gilead and one who is one of the few women still to wield power in society.

The Road

by Cormac McCarthy

Book cover for The Road

A post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son trying to survive by any means possible, Cormac McCarthy’s classic dystopian novel The Road is one of the most shocking, harrowing and bleak visions of the future ever created. The book was adapted into a BAFTA-nominated film starring Viggo Mortensen in 2009.

Fahrenheit 451

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Book cover for Fahrenheit 451

Possibly the most terrifying dystopian scenario for booklovers, Fahrenheit 451 is set in a not-too-distant future where books are burned and intellectual thought is illegal. Guy Montag’s job as a fireman means he is responsible for burning any books that are found, because they're considered the source of all discord and unhappiness. But everything changes when Guy's doubts start to grow.

The Godless Boys

by Naomi Wood

Book cover for The Godless Boys

Naomi Wood's astounding dystopian novel is set in an alternative England where the Church controls the country and non-believers are exiled to a remote island. On the island a gang of boys patrols the community, punishing anyone showing signs of faith. When a girl arrives from the mainland looking for her long-lost mother, the gang is torn apart, with violent consequences. 

The Time Machine

by H. G. Wells

Book cover for The Time Machine

One of the first portrayals of time-travel in literature, The Time Machine is a dystopian novel about a Victorian scientist who travels to the year 802,701 AD to find that humanity has descended into two distinct races, the charming but child-like Eloi and the sinister and dangerous Morlocks. 

A Clockwork Orange

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Book cover for A Clockwork Orange

A nightmare vision of a society overrun by nihilistic violence and governed by a menacing totalitarian state, A Clockwork Orange is one of the most inventively written dystopian novels ever published, written in teen slang 'Nadsat', a dialogue Burgess created for the novel. Fifteen-year-old Alex and his gang of friends rob, kill and rape their way through life, until the State puts a stop to his riotous excesses. But what will his re-education mean?

Nineteen Eighty-Four

by George Orwell

Book cover for Nineteen Eighty-Four

One of the best known dystopian novels of all time, 1984 is George Orwell's terrifying vision of a totalitarian future in which everything and everyone is slave to a tyrannical regime lead by The Party. The novel has a fascinating history, from the phenomenon the book became on publication to the impact it has had on the English language. Dorian Lynskey explores the cultural history of 1984 in his remarkable book The Ministry of Truth.

The End We Start From

by Megan Hunter

Book cover for The End We Start From

As apocalyptic floods submerge London, a woman gives birth to her first child. Soon the family are forced to flee in search of safety, moving from place to place on a journey of fear and wonder, as the baby grows and thrives against the odds. Megan Hunter's beautiful, spare prose paints an imagined future which is terrifying in its realism. 

The Power

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Book cover for The Power

One day, young girls across the world wake up to discover they have ‘the power’ – an electrical charge they are able to inflict at their will. Able to ‘wake up’ this power in older women, suddenly the balance of world power has shifted and men are no longer in charge. A new world order quickly falls into place, but will things get any better? This is the feminist dystopian novel that Margaret Atwood called 'electrifying' and 'shocking'. 

The Departure

by Neal Asher

Book cover for The Departure

The Committee enforces its despotic rule on a nightmarish Earth from the safety of the Argus Space Station. Too many people fighting for too few resources means corruption is rife, people are starving and the poor are policed by mechanized overseers and identity-reader guns. But the Committee still need twelve billion to die before stability can be returned, and they are prepared to take the carnage to a whole new level to reach their goal. 

The Departure is the first book in Neal Asher's near-future set Owner dystopian science fiction series. Discover the other books in Neal Asher's Owner series here.

The Hunger Games Trilogy

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Book cover for The Hunger Games Trilogy

This bestselling dystopian fiction young adult trilogy was adapted into the smash hit film series which catapulted Jennifer Lawrence to stardom. Set in a dark vision of the near future, twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to take part in a brutal reality TV show where the only rule is kill or be killed. 

A prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakesset sixty-four years before the events of the first book in the trilogy, was published in May 2020.

Zone One

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Book cover for Zone One

 Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead was inspired to write this apocalyptic sci-fi novel because of his teenage fascination with the work of Stephen King and Issac Asimov. A plague has ravaged the planet, and the population is divided into the living and the living dead. Mark Spitz is working on a task force to clear the infested from ‘Zone One’, but things quickly go from bad to worse . . . 

Parable of the Sower

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Book cover for Parable of the Sower

No list of the best sci-fi books is complete without Octavia Butler’s science fiction classic Parable of the Sower. Set in a dystopian Los Angeles in a crumbling America, Lauren Olamina struggles to survive in a world destroyed by drugs, disease and war as she battles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.

If you can't get enough of terrifying potential futures in prose, here Emma shares her recommendations for the best apocalyptic books:

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