Recommended reads: dystopian literature
Did you love The Hunger Games series? The Divergent Series? Here is a list of some amazing works of dystopian literature for you to add to your reading list.
What is dystopian literature, exactly?
Well, the definition is literature that explores social and political structures in ‘a dark, nightmare world.’ These worlds are commonly characterised by poverty, squalor, or oppression.
Did you love The Hunger Games books? Ever heard of 1984?
Bearing in mind that this is not my definitive list of favourites (these are only my current recommendations) –
Here is my top ten recommendations for the dystopian novels you need to read:
1) Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell
1984 was published in 1949, looking to a dystopian future. It is the most iconic novel of the genre. Many of its terms and concepts, such as Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, Newspeak, Room 101, telescreen, 2 + 2 = 5, and memory hole, have entered into common use. Nineteen Eighty-Four popularised the adjective Orwellian, which describes official deception, secret surveillance, and the manipulation of recorded history.
Based on the current politics of the time, Orwell created the strictest of authoritarian societies. Big Brother is the ruling party, and everyone is watched by everyone else. Winston Smith lives alone in a one room London flat. There are telescreens in every building which allow the Thought Police to watch and regulate every member of society, informing on anyone who might compromise the party’s regime. Even children are encouraged to report potential thought criminals. Winston works at the Ministry of Truth; he is given old articles and rewrites them as the party sees fit; he literally edits history.
Winston finds a small section of his flat that the telescreen can’t see. Here, he writes in his diary; a crime that would warrant the death penalty.
The novel is bleak and hopelessness is rife. Trust no longer exists – only basic survival. It seems impossible to break any rule of the regime until Winston meets Julia who turns his life on its head.
This is not a happy novel; but what did you expect? It’s dystopian literature, after all.
It is one of the most incredible novels you will ever read.
2) A Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
If you don’t like violence, then this is not the book for you. But, seriously, turning away from things you don’t like will leave you very much in the dark in the world of art.
A Clockwork Orange is set in a dangerous society, rife with violent gangs of youngsters who find joy in destruction, killing, and rape. The novel is written in its own dialect, Nadsat (largely based on the Russian language) – if your copy doesn’t include a dictionary, there’ll definitely be one online.
The novel is written in three parts, supposedly mirroring a symphony (Beethoven’s 9th is a big theme of this novel):
We read about Alex and his droogs (friends, or gang members) conduct their riotous violence and destruction. We see Alex through his rise and fall and, despite his disgusting behaviour, we come to care for him and his welfare and we even begin to learn his language, Nadsat.
This novel will reform your opinions on many different issues. It will blow your mind: you’ll feel all the extremes, and awe will be mixed with fascinated revulsion. It will shock you and you will shock yourself.
This novel changes you.
It is a bit difficult to get into, as it is in a new dialect, but it is SO worth it. It’s a work of art that I could write a whole a book on.
3) The Road – Cormack McCarthy
This is possibly the most bleak novel in the genre.
A man and a boy journey across a wasteland America; most people are dead, gangs have turned to cannibalism, ash rains from the sky – there is no hope left. Although referred to as father and son, it is always ambiguous as to whether they actually are father and son – it is alluded to that they both lost their family, so have adopted each other to fill the familial roles.
Forever journeying and surviving, the man and boy experiences traumatic events, but ‘the fire’ – the hope in the boy’s heart – still goes on.
It’s heartbreaking, it’s bleak, it has no plot…but it is revolutionary. McCarthy even did away with punctuation and chapter headings, to drive the point of endlessness.
I loved it. Bleak doesn’t have to mean boring or needlessly depressing. The Road is about the relationship between the man and the boy, and the never ending human capacity for hope.
4) Oryx & Crake series – Margaret Atwood
In time order, The Year of the Flood comes first, but Oryx and Crake was written first. MaddAdam comes last.
The Year of the Flood focuses on a religious sect called the God’s Gardeners, a small community of survivors of a biological catastrophe. The novel basically outlines how the world of Oryx and Crake came about.
Oryx and Crake focuses on a post-apocalyptic character called Snowman, living near a group of primitive human-like creatures whom he calls Crakers. We read about Snowman’s recollections of his younger years when he was called Jimmy. Jimmy befriends a brilliant scientist who he nicknames Crake and, together, they create a drug and spread it world-wide, but it has disastrous consequences.
In MaddAdam, characters from the two previous novels reunite with other survivors, develop a camp and start to rebuild civilization with the Crakers.
These novels are so different from any other kind of dystopia; they stretch the genre. They are written wonderfully and are great page-turners.
Margaret Atwood also wrote the infamous Handmaid’s Tale; a novel I really disliked and have had a vendetta against since. It is VERY different to the Oryx & Crake series but, by all means, give it a go.
5) Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro
Never Let Me Go is a dystopian science fiction. The story is focused around three students at a boarding school called Hailsham: Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy. A typical love triangle forms between the three. It turns out that every student at the boarding school is a clone of someone from the outside world, reared to provide their ‘real-world’ counterpart with organ and blood donations.
The surprising thing about this novel is how each of them react to discovering their purpose in life. You shout at them to break the system; you are an individual! But they just don’t.
It teaches you a lot about the idea of ‘soul’ and individuality.
The novel appears to focus mostly on the relationship between the three main characters but, underneath it all, it is working through the concept of ‘what makes us human’.
6) Exodus – Julie Bertagna
The world is drowning. There is one village left in a giant ocean. It is hinted that the village is at the top of one of the mountains in Scotland.
Before the village is swept away by the sea, Mara must convince her fellow villages to take to the seas and find the ‘new world’. They don’t even know if the ‘new world’ is a fairy tale or not.
This novel is packed full of the most imaginative characters and places…you will want to revisit Mara’s story over and over.
It’s the kind of story that you can’t explain to those who haven’t read it without it sounding ridiculously silly…but, trust me, this is a whole new ball game when it comes to imaginative dystopia.
It’s been one of my favourite novels since I read it (over 10 years ago now, when I was about 11 years old). I’ve read it, I think, four times, and it has been different for me each time.
7) The Hunger Games series – Suzanne Collins
We’ve all heard of The Hunger Games by now. Not all of us have read the series.
The first two books are better than the films (though I thought the films were pretty damn good – and accurate!) but, strangely enough, I think the third film is better than the third book.
Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12; the poorest of all of the districts in Panem. To keep her family alive, she is forced to illegally hunt for food, alongside her best friend, Gael.
When her sister is chosen to take part in The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place.
The Hunger Games is an annual competition that serves as entertainment for the richest in Panem; the residents of the Capitol. Two members of each district are chosen at random to fight to the death. The winner is promised riches and fame.
Katniss’ involvement in the Games sparks a trilogy of authoritarianism, rebellion, love, and fear.
Though not written very well, the books are packed full of incredible ideas and political points that resonate with the politics of today – and they are wonderful page turners.
8) How I Live Now – Meg Rosoff
Fifteen-year-old Elizabeth (who goes by the name of Daisy) is sent to stay with cousins on a remote farm in the United Kingdom during the outbreak of a third world war. The family receives news that Daisy’s aunt Penn is stranded in Oslo. During this time, terrorists attack from an unknown enemy who occupies Britain.
One day, the farm is taken over by soldiers who separate the boys from the girls, sending them away to live at separate homes. They must learn to survive and find their way back home to each other.
Though the novel is set in a third world war, it is mostly about enduring love and the importance of family. I remember loving the book as a young teenager.
The film is also pretty damn good – though maybe I’m biased as know one of the actors! (He’s only in one scene…)
9) Divergent series – Veronica Roth
If you liked The Hunger Games I have no doubt you’ll also like this series. The protagonist is similar, there is a rebellion movement, there is a love interest…this kind of teenage dystopia is apparently a trend now
(Check out the recently released Gender Wars!).
Society has been divided into five factions based on their dispositions: Abnegation, for the selfless; Amity, for the peaceful; Candor, for the honest; Dauntless, for the brave; and Erudite, for the intellectual. Each year, all sixteen-year-olds take an aptitude test that determines the faction for which they are best suited. After receiving the results, test takers choose a faction at the Choosing Ceremony, no matter what their results were. Those who do not complete initiation into their new faction become ‘factionless’ and are forced to live in poverty on the streets of the city.
Sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior is born into an Abnegation family, the ruling faction, but chooses to join Dauntless – a choice nobody expected of her. We read about the development of Tris’ life in Dauntless, until the Erudite faction attempts a coup on Abnegation. All hell breaks loose and a rebellion begins.
The books are not written well, but you will get addicted. If you’re going to read these books, get all three at once and give yourself a free weekend. You’ll get no sleep and you’ll probably forget to eat, but you’ll get them read in maximum three days. They are gripping and undeniably addictive.
10) The Host – Stephanie Meyer
Yes, this is the woman who wrote the Twilight series. But, trust me, this novel is so much better. It is entirely different – well, okay, the main character is a lot like Bella Swan, but it’s totally different in every other aspect.
A parasitic race of aliens, called ‘Souls’ have come to Earth. They insert themselves as hosts inside a human’s mind. This is how they survive as a race. We follow one of the ‘Souls’ as her human host refuses to co-operate with the takeover of her body.
Other than that, the book is quite simplistic. An interesting relationship forms inside their mind, between the human host and the ‘Soul’. There is a rebellion, there is a love triangle, etc.
It’s not the best in the genre, but it’s a good read.
So there you have it! My list is complete. I hope this has helped to inform you!
Other dystopian novels include:
Cloud Atlas (the middle section of this crazy novel), Handmaid’s Tale, Gender Wars, Herland, Children of Men, Lord of the Flies, Fahrenheit 451, Fatherland, Brave New World, and many more.
Further reading: Utopia, by Thomas Moore. This is a fictional philosophical and political debate and conversation on what would make the perfect society and how to go about it.