9 dystopian novels you should be reading

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1. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen…” From its unsettling opening sentence to its final statement (one you will never forget), 1984 is the perfect warning against giving up too many of our freedoms in exchange for what we perceive as security. Set in the fictional province of Airstrip One (formerly known as Great Britain), the novel tells the story of a dystopian world in perpetual war, constant surveillance, and complete public mind control, through a mixture of fear, force, and language. All acts of individualism are considered “thoughtcrime” by the tyrannical regime, Big Brother, and all those found guilty of it are horribly persecuted. The protagonist, Winston Smith, works for the government, but secretly hates it and fantasises about its demise. 1984 is one of the most influential literary works of the last century, not least because of its disturbingly prophetic nature (many of its elements, written as fantasy, are very much a reality in our world – things like CCTV cameras on every corner, and government censorship). Many of its concepts have entered our vernacular – terms like Big Brother, doublespeak and Room 101 all trance their source to this novel.

Notable quote: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”


2. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)

Set in the near future in Gilead, a totalitarian Christian theocracy existing within the borders of what was formerly the USA, this novel explores the subjugation of women and their fight for freedom. After a staged terrorist attack, which they blame on Islamic extremists, kills the president, a movement called ‘The Sons of Jacob’ takes over, suspending the Constitution under the guise of restoring order to the country. Quickly, women’s rights are removed, their bank accounts frozen, and society overhauled into a militarised, cult-like theocracy of ultra-Conservativism, where women are subjugated to the extreme. It becomes a crime for a woman to read. The protagonise, Offred (Of Fred) belongs to the handmaid/concubine social class – a class whose function is solely to produce children for the spouses of men who cannot bear them because of the increased problem of sterility as a consequence of disease. We see flashbacks of Offred’s life before the revolution, and her failed attempts to escape to Canada before the Sons of Jacob gained power. The novel intelligently explores the themes of gender, sex and sexuality, religion, epidemics, education, and the influence of language on thought.

Notable quote: “We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”


3. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

This novel broke my heart. I read it on various Tube journeys over the course of a week (I am sure the aura of the Underground lent to the experience, though the story is set in the country) and became completely invested in the characters, more than the story. The story was almost secondary. So masterfully are the characters in this novel written, that it is absolutely no effort to imagine the dystopian world the story is set in, and the Japanese-born British author, Ishiguro, uses words like brush strokes, painting the clearest, most vivid of scenes. The novel is split into three acts, each detailing a chapter of the characters’ lives as seen through the eyes of Kathy, the protagonist. The normalisation and protagonist’s acceptance of the world she lives in is what makes the book particularly horrifying, and the book’s many themes (friendship, dystopia, genetic science, sex, childhood, love, retrospect) have left critics in disagreement about the true genre of the novel. The book was shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize, the 2005 National Book Critics Circle Award, and the 2006 Arthur C. Clarke award. Time Magazine named it best novel of the year.

Notable quote: “The problem, as I see it, is that you’ve been told and not told. You’ve been told, but none of you really understand, and I dare say, some people are quite happy to leave it that way.”


4. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)

This is one of the seminal works in the genre – one of the books which has influenced and affected many works since. Set in London in 632 AF (After Ford), in the unified World State, which retains permanent peace, and has resources in abundance (due to population control). Its residents are kept permanently happy through the use of drugs and social sanctions, and people are divided into castes when they are in infancy. The society is a consumerist one, and people are fed platitudes brainwashing them into believing consumption is a virtue. The novel deals with such technologies as sleep-learning, brainwashing and reproductive control and combines them in a way which creates a society almost unrecognisable to us. In 1959, Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited, an essay in which he observed the contemporary world and noted that it had become so similar to the original Brave New World faster than he could have predicted.

Notable quote: “…most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.”


5. V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd (1982 – 1989)

Remember, remember! The fifth of November, the Gunpowder treason and plot; I know of no reason why… a graphic novel should not be included in this list. Especially this graphic novel – a masterpiece in the genre and one of the most quotable works of fiction of the last few decades. Following its successful film adaptation by the Watchowskis in 2005, the mysterious character of V has become something of a hero to the disgruntled masses of the noughties. The international hacktivist network, Anonymous, have adopted V’s mask, which in turn was supposed to represent Guy Fawkes, the man who plotted the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Moreover, the ‘Occupy‘ protests, which began on Wall Street in September 2011, and spread quickly throughout the world, also used the image of the mask. The graphic novel itself is set in a near-future London, following a nuclear war, which has annihilated most of the world. From the ashes, a totalitarian, fascist party called Norsefire, has beaten down its opponents and now rules the country as a police state. There is, however, a mysterious man in a mask who is known singularly by the name ‘V’, who plans to start a revolution that will return the power to the people.

Notable quote: “There’s no flesh or blood within this cloak to kill. There’s only an idea. Ideas are bulletproof.”


6. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)

Zamyatin was a controversial political satirist, who was exiled from Russia and his work banned there due to his criticism of the oppressive communist regime. This novel was, in fact, first published in an English translation in 1924 after Zamyatin arranged for the manuscript to be smuggled to New York, and was not published in the USSR until 1988. It was written in response to his personal experience of the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917. The novel is set in the future, in the One State, which is structured very similarly to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, and constructed almost entirely of glass. D-503, our protagonist, tells the story through his journal, which details the society’s rules and constructs. We learn how life in the One State is organised to ensure efficiency, how people walk in step, and how names have been abolished in favour of strings consisting of a letter and numbers: odd numbers and consonants for men; even numbers and vowels for women. All members of the state are carefully watched by the secret police. Sex is encouraged, as is polygamy, but only through a booking and ticketing system. D-503 starts out perfectly contented by his life under the guardians, until he meets I-330, a woman who smokes, drinks, and flirts shamelessly with him – all highly illegal activities. The language of the novel is highly synaesthetic and sometimes tangential, but all at once rather beautiful. This novel is considered the father of the dystopian genre, and readers of later seminal works like 1984 and Brave New World will spot striking similarities.

Notable quote: “I am aware of myself. And, of course, the only things that are aware of themselves and conscious of their individuality are irritated eyes, cut fingers, sore teeth. A healthy eye, finger, tooth might as well not even be there. Isn’t it clear that individual consciousness is just sickness?”


7. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953)

In this future American society, books are illegal, and firemen are ordered to burn any and all books. The novel deals heavily with the themes of censorship and destroying books as a means of suppressing ideas. The title refers to the temperature at which paper autoignites. Our protagonist, Guy, is a fireman, whose job is to burn the possessions of those caught reading books. One day, however, he mets his new neighbour – a teenage girl who causes him to question his own life and happiness. Slowly, he begins to wonder whether books really are the source of all unhappiness, when he has never read one and unhappy nevertheless. The novel has won numerous awards, including  American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature in 1954 and a ‘Retro’ Hugo Award, in 2004. It has also been adapted for film, theatre and radio several times.

Notable quote: “There must be something in books, something we can’t imagine, to make a woman stay in a burning house; there must be something there. You don’t stay for nothing.”


8. The Neuromancer, William Gibson (1984)

Henry Dorsett Case had been one of the most talented data-thieves in the system, before he was caught stealing from his employer. His central nervous system destroyed as a means of revenge, Case now finds himself locked out of the Matrix – the virtual reality dataspace. A mysterious new employer contacts him for a last-chance job: hack an infinitely powerful artificial intelliigence which orbits the earth. Besides winning several awards and being considered the quintessential cyberpunk novel, The Neuromancer has infiltrated popular culture and even our linguistic landscape – Gibson coined the term ‘cyberspace’.

Notable quote: “Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.”


9. The Children of Men, P.D. James (1992)

Set in England in 2021, the novel foresees a dystopian future in which humanity has become infertile and the last generation to be born has now reached adulthood. Despair has become commonplace, and suicide is not unusual. Meanwhile, as people have lost all interest in politics, a man called Xan Lyppiatt has appointed himself Warden of England. Democracy is abolished and the people are sold the lie that they live in an egalitarian state, when truly it is a dictatorship. The narrative shifts between first-person and third-person – the former in the form of a diary kept by Oxford scholar Theo Faron. The story is crafted masterfully by P.D. James and is a poignant, powerful analysis of politics and the importance of hope in hopelessness.

Notable quote: “Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being to be born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days.”
  • Hannah
    October 16, 2013

    #10 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

  • Punky
    October 17, 2013

    #11 – The Martian Chronicles – Ray Bradbury

    “They began by controlling books of cartoons and then detective books and, of course, films, one way or another, one group or another, political bias, religious prejudice, union pressure; there was always a minority afraid of something, and a great majority afraid of the dark, afraid of the future, afraid of the past, afraid of the present, afraid of themselves and shadows of themselves.”

    • admin
      October 17, 2013

      I still have to read that!

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