Dystopian books have existed for over a century – long before Suzanne Collins's dystopian series, The Hunger Games, took the book world by storm in the early 2000s. The Hunger Games trilogy has sold over 100 million copies globally and sparked a broader interest in dystopian literature.
Here's a look at some of the foundational works of dystopian fiction that helped build the genre and modern-day dystopian books for both adults and teens.
What Is Dystopian Literature?
Before we begin, let me set up some parameters for what's included in the dystopian genre.
Dystopian literature is a subgenre of speculative fiction and sometimes includes crossovers into the science fiction or post-apocalyptic genres. But to be dystopian, it must also explore societal structures at some level.
Dystopias are ultimately complex societies – dehumanizing, capitalizing on poverty and oppression, and only a utopia for an elite few. The best dystopian novels explore how the protagonists become aware of the flaws in their society and choose to act in response to their disillusionment.
Why Do People Like Dystopian Novels?
Dystopian novels give us a lens through which we can view and critique our own society, reminding us that sometimes it's important – and even necessary – to go against the status quo.
Dystopian books are also exciting! Because of their page-turner nature, reading a well-written dystopian novel is one of the best ways to get back into reading books if you've lost the habit.
Classic Dystopian Books
Early dystopian fiction often responded to the utopias posited in earlier books, such as Sir Thomas More's seminal work Utopia, published in 1516. (In fact, More is the one who coined the term “utopia” in the first place!)
Classic dystopian books also speculate on the trajectory of contemporary society in the twentieth century and beyond, satirizing the problems in government, technology, and propaganda that surged during the World Wars.
Dystopian novels can hold their own in the literary canon; several on this list are among the best classic books of all time.
1. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (1895)
H. G. Wells began his career as a novelist with a bang: The Time Machine was his first book and remains one of the most influential science fiction novels ever written. Wells invented the concept of a machine as a means of time travel, sending his protagonist from Victorian England thousands of years into the distant future.
Arriving in the year 802701, the Time Traveler discovers a garden-like world where humans have evolved into child-like, carefree beings called Eloi. Their society seems peaceful and idyllic, but there are traces of something lurking beneath the surface.
The Eloi are terrified of the dark, especially on moonless nights, and sometimes Eloi go missing in the night, never to be heard from again.
As the Time Traveler learns more about this strange civilization, he discovers the horrifying truth of the future the human race may one day face.
Another famous dystopian novel by H. G. Wells was The Sleeper Awakes, published in 1910. Wells also experimented with utopian fiction in novels like The Shape of Things to Come and Men Like Gods.
2. The Iron Heel by Jack London (1908)
London's dystopian novel envisions a fictional world in which wealthy capitalists, feeling threatened by a rising tide of socialism, have established an authoritarian dictatorship to maintain control.
Unusual for London–and other male novelists of his day–The Iron Heel has a first-person female narrator. The heroine, Avis Everhard, is a critic and rebel against the Oligarch dictatorship. The bulk of the novel follows her documentation of the brutal horrors imposed against the working class and her husband's attempts to champion the masses.
3. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)
We is an early dystopian novel that paved the literary landscape for dystopian classics like Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. We takes place in the future, when the One State has conquered the entire world and now operates a totalitarian state whose citizens ostensibly live in perfect harmony and uniformity.
The novel's protagonist is a spacecraft engineer known as D-503, who dutifully works for the government and lives in a glass building monitored by the secret police. Everything changes when D-503 meets a most unusual woman who introduces him to an underground organization plotting the destruction of the One State.
We was censored and banned from publication in Russia, prompting Zamyatin to smuggle the book to the West for publication in 1924.
4. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Huxley's famous dystopian novel posits a meticulously-regulated, perfect society overseen by the World State. The government maintains peace among its citizens by administering “soma,” a soothing, happiness-inducing drug. Psychologist Bernard Marx is openly critical of the drug but is threatened with exile for his dangerous views.
To stave off expulsion, Marx travels to the nearby Savage Reservation. There he meets a young man whom he believes could help to re-establishing him in the good graces of the ruling class.
5. Kallocain by Karin Boye (1940)
Karin Boye was a Swedish poet and novelist who was inspired to write Kallocain after a visit to Germany, as Nazism and Fascism were on the rise.
Boye's novel centers around Leo Kall, a chemist who develops kallocain – a truth-serum drug. Kall hopes the drug will be a valuable tool for the World State he serves. But if Kall created such a boon for the government, why is he telling his story from prison? You'll have to read his narrative to find out!
6. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)
War rages in Orwell's bleak world, and Great Britain has been superseded by Oceania, a powerful state spearheaded by Big Brother. Unlike Huxley's Brave New World, where the people are controlled via pleasure and distraction, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, brute force, mass surveillance, and blatant propaganda rule the day.
Winston Smith, the novel's protagonist and everyman, is a dutiful worker who secretly chafes against the repressive, authoritarian regime. Smith finds a glimmer of hope when he learns about The Brotherhood, a secret resistance organization. But does The Brotherhood stand a chance against Big Brother? And who can Smith trust with his true feelings about the State?
7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)
Bradbury's classic dystopian novel imagines a technologically-advanced future society full of people who cannot think for themselves. Books are illegal because they introduce dangerous ideas, and therefore the government employs “firefighters” to burn contraband books and the houses that shelter them.
The protagonist Guy Montag is a firefighter, but one day while on the job, he steals a book and brings it home to read. Searching for meaning in his empty life, Montag begins reading books secretly–but this act of defiance will not go unpunished.
Bradbury's novel is a chilling indictment against censorship and conformity to mass media and entertainment-based technology. But unlike many dystopian books, Fahrenheit 451 ends with a flicker of hope.
8. Lord of The Flies by William Golding (1954)
In a presumably post-apocalyptic world, a plane of boy evacuees crashes on a tropical island. Exhilarated by the prospect of living in an island paradise with no adults to tell them what to do, the boys begin to form their own society with rudimentary rules.
Golding expertly weaves allegory and symbolism into a riveting plot as the boys' utopia quickly devolves into a nightmare, exposing the darkness lurking at the core of human nature.
Contemporary Dystopian Books
Modern-day dystopian fiction explores themes common in earlier dystopian literature, such as surveillance, propaganda, and homogenization, while also probing more contemporary themes like genetics and human engineering.
A good contemporary dystopian novel is a book that will make you think because you'll see the problems in the world of the book may reflect the ones we face in our society today.
9. The Children of Men by P. D. James (1992)
Although P. D. James is mainly known for her mystery novels, her book The Children of Men is an important addition to the canon of dystopian fiction. The book describes a bleak contemporary world where men have become completely infertile. With no collective future to look forward to, humankind adopts a trivial and apathetic view of life.
The novel is partially narrated by Theo Faron, an Oxford professor who is approached by a group of revolutionaries hoping to gain access to Faron's cousin, the despotic Warden of England. Initially, the Warden refuses to take the revolutionaries seriously. Then something shocking occurs, sending the dissidents on the run and putting the future of the human race once again at stake.
10. The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
Although written for a young adult audience, no list of dystopian books is complete without Lowry's The Giver. Winner of the 1994 Newberry Medal, the book remains one of the bestselling children's novels of all time.
The Giver takes place in what appears to be a utopian society, where everyone in the Community exists peaceably and free of pain. However, this calm existence comes at a price as the Community has also given up any strong emotion, and the landscape is devoid of colors, terrain features, and climate.
When the protagonist, Jonas, turns 12, he and each of his peers are assigned a role in society that will serve as their career for life. Jonas becomes the sole apprentice to the Receiver of Memory, who bears the burden of all the memories of suffering, grief, and pain from humanity's past, as well as its forbidden joys and the experiences of color, light, frost, and heat. As Jonas begins comprehending the system's flaws, he plans to change his Community forever.
Other books by Lois Lowry include Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son, which all occur in the same universe as The Giver.
11. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)
Never Let Me Go is a modern Gothic dystopian novel by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. The book is narrated in an understated, restrained style but explores universal themes of mortality, identity, and belonging.
Set in an alternate-reality version of England in the 1990s, the book follows three friends at an elite boarding school. They are constantly told they are special – but are never told why. Gradually, you learn the haunting truth about the children and the inevitable future that awaits them.
12. The Breeder Cycle by K. B. Hoyle
Anyone looking for a smart, page-turning YA dystopian series for teens that's not a rehash of The Hunger Games should make K. B. Hoyle's Breeder Cycle their next read.
The trilogy, which includes Breeder, Criminal, and Clone, tells the story of Pria, a beautiful young woman who enjoys a privileged status as a Breeder in the Unified World Order. But when a man named Pax breaks her out of the idyllic Sanctuary where she lives with other Breeders, Pria begins to question everything she knew about the “benevolent” society she's supposed to be populating.
Hoyle also wrote a standalone prequel to the Breeder Cycle, Hunter, an apocalyptic novel that occurs 200 years before the events in Breeder.
13. Poster Girl by Veronica Roth (2022)
Veronica Roth, who also authored the bestselling young adult novels in the Divergent series, offers an adult dystopian novel with Poster Girl.
The story takes place ten years after the overthrow of a totalitarian, surveillance-heavy regime known as the Delegation. Sonya Kantor is a former poster girl for the Delegation, serving a life sentence. When offered a chance at pardon in exchange for finding a missing girl, Sonya embarks on a journey that leads to startling discoveries about her family's past and reveals that corruption still festers within the new, rebuilt society.
Elsie Callender is the founder of Tea and Ink Society, a website and community dedicated to books and reading, with a particular emphasis on classic literature. Elsie is also the owner of the Seasonal Reading Box, a book and tea subscription box for people who love to match their reading to the seasons of the year.