Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2. Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate.
When it comes to dystopian books, there are a lot of fish in the sea. Some of them are about fish coming out of the sea (Undertow, anyone?). But if your dystopian fiction to-read list is just The Hunger Games, Divergent, and 1984, you’re missing a lot, from the classics to the ones for, well, adults.
Peruse our killer (sometimes literally) selection of some of the best dystopian literature of all time.
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The Shore of Women, by Pamela Sargent
In this feminist dystopian classic, Sargent unveils a society where, after a nuclear war, women have exiled men from the cities and use them only for the purposes of loveless reproduction. When a lone woman finds herself exiled among the men, she must fight for her life as she fights to fix her flawed society.
Check this one out for a refreshing reversal of dystopian and post-apocalyptic tropes.
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood
When you think dystopian books, you probably think of Margaret Atwoods 80’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale. You should read that. But, you should also read her more recent venture, Oryx and Crake, which portrays a world where corporations dominate and control the population with the runaway power of gene manipulation. Eerie and complex, Atwood skillfully examines the inevitable consequences of an increasingly divided America through the story of one man’s lost love.
Rubicon Beach, by Steve Erickson
When prisoner Cale is released into dystopian Los Angeles and begins working in a desolate library, he becomes disturbed by strange visions of his own death. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman stumbles from job to job, until she finds work with a screenwriter obsessed with numerology. If it sounds trippy, it’s because it is, as well as dark and ethereal and concise and, well, just read it, ok?
The Continent of Lies, by James Morrow
In this dark and satiric future vision, virtual reality is the fad of the era. Players eat a cephapple or “dreambean” and enter their desired reality: love stories, war stories, even horror stories. Quinjin’s job is to critique these adventures for potential consumers. But when a new, illicit “dreambean” takes people to a nightmare hallucination that drives them mad, Quinjin’s new job is to prevent it from spreading before the haters put a stop to the dreambean industry. This one’s a mind trip, so hold onto your butts.
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler
From Octavia Butler, the first science fiction author to win a Macarthur “genius” grant: In an America lost to drugs, war, and a lack of nearly every resource lives Lauren, an 18 year old girl with “hyperempathy,” a hereditary trait that makes her sensitive to the pain of others. When her family and safe neighborhood is lost to fire, Lauren leads a group of refugees north, where she dreams up an idea that might just change the world.
If you like this one, you’ll love the sequel, where a dangerous political candidate attempts to reunite America by bringing back the past—meaning racism, isolationism and religious intolerance (sound familiar?)—threatening the peaceful existence that Lauren and her followers have created for themselves. The pièce de résistance? The candidate’s slogan is “make America great again.”
The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner
Brunner’s dystopia is a look at a future where environmental destruction has run amok. Disease, birth defects, and air pollution are so rampant that citizens wear gas masks, and the poor are forced to drink fetid, unsafe water. Environmentalist Austin Train lives in a world where overpopulation and complacency have led to a government dominated by corporations, and the only people who seem to care about the natural world are violent eco-terrorists who claim to follow Train’s teachings. This one’s written with a ton of anger and a surprising degree of prophetic accuracy (considering he wrote it in 1972).
On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee
Same America in the doldrums of decay, but in Lee’s startlingly original take, a labor class made up of the descendants of poor provincial Chinese people is kept in settlements apart from the rich. When Fan, a female fish-tank diver leaves her settlement to search for the man she loves, who has gone missing, her journey through the nearly lawless open country will become legend, especially to those she’s left behind. More than your average dystopian, On Such a Full Sea explores myth, art, and truth.
The Running Man, by Richard Bachman (just kidding, it’s by Stephen King)
Written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman, this dark and evocative King novel was also a less dark and evocative 80s movie.
Ben Richards is desperate for cash, so desperate he signs up for The Running Man, a televised game show where runners are allowed to wander the world while stalked by paid hunters and law enforcement, winning cash for every hour they stay alive. Set in a dystopian world of collapsing economies and rising violence, the plot of The Running Man may sound a little familiar, but that’s because it’s the granddaddy of dystopian televised killfests like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games.
The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi
Paolo Bacigalupi is the criminally underappreciated modern master of the dystopian genre. Read this one, about a disturbingly plausible near future where water is the major currency, or The Windup Girl, to sample his masterful world-building. In The Water Knife, set in a desolate American Southwest, water is like gold in the old west—people will kill for it. This one’s an edge of your seat thriller kind of read, so don’t be surprised if you read it all in one go.
Love in the Ruins, by Walker Percy
Walker Percy’s surprisingly funny dystopian book begins in a “future” U.S. where Americans are violently polarized along racial, political, and social lines, and a seemingly endless war continues abroad. The only thing standing between America and ruin? A device called a Lapsometer, which is capable diagnosing all of society’s ills. Dr. Thomas More, psychiatrist, inventor and former mental patient, goes on an odyssey to cure the world with his lapsometer, but he must be careful lest it fall into the wrong hands. More satire than dismal prophecy, this is a light-hearted addition to your dystopian list.