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.

28/10/2020
3 minutes to read

Dystopian novels fascinate us because they draw on aspects of our own world. Mirroring elements of society, the environment, religion, politics or technology, 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 Station Eleven, dystopian novels often carry 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.  

The Silence

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9781529057096

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. 

American War

by Omar El Akkad

Book cover for 9781509852215

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 novel 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 9781529021073

Kafka creates a nightmarish bureaucracy which traps his protagonist in an unlawful conviction in this bleak and frightening dystopian novel. 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

by Aldous Huxley

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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 fiction. All its members are happy consumers, kept docile with a sinister mix of genetic engineering, brainwashing and recreational sex and drugs.

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood

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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

by Margaret Atwood

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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 9781509870639

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

by Ray Bradbury

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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 Time Machine

by H. G. Wells

Book cover for 9781509845682

One of the first portrayals of time-travel in literature, The Time Machine is the dystopian story of 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

by Anthony Burgess

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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 9781529032666

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 9781509843985

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. 

Station Eleven

by Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover for 9781447268970

Our favourite dystopian novel 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.

The Power

by Naomi Alderman

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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 9780330457613

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 the series here.

The Hunger Games Trilogy

by Suzanne Collins

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This bestselling dystopian 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, will be published in May 2020.