Broadly speaking, dystopian fiction is a science-fiction sub-genre that uses the problems of fictional societies to explore real contemporary issues like racism, conformity, the loss of privacy, anomie, and consumerism. While it has become very popular among YA readers, I’ve focused on adult literature in this list. Remember, these are just my personal recommends, and should not be considered a comprehensive or authoritative overview. Be sure to share your own suggestions in the comment section below!
George Orwell with a Foreword by Thomas Pynchon
Consider this book your introduction to dystopiana. Believe it or not, 1984 is totally hot right now. There have been reports of retailers actually selling out of copies of the book, so if you’re hoping to read this one you might have to do some scavenging. 1984 is the story of a bureaucrat in the Ministry of Truth: a government agency tasked with rewriting history in a futuristic totalitarian regime. 1984 was written as a critique of communism. However, there are aspects of the story that are broadly applicable to any kind of repressive, authoritarian government. Some current readers have seen parallels between the Ministry of Truth’s use of “newspeak” — a language created to advance the goals of the Ministry — and contemporary neologisms like “alternative truth”. Your mileage may vary.
Aldous Huxley; Introduction by John Sutherland
Another must-read that is hot on the heels of 1984, Brave New World takes place in a society in which people are grown in batches, divided into castes, and heavily conditioned for maximum conformity, minimal free thought, and little emotion. The only escape from this factory-like world is sex and frequent doses of a narcotic known as Soma. The book’s main characters start to question this supposed utopia after a visit to a primitive, but free, society. Warning: This is not a happy story, but that is almost always the case in dystopian fiction.
Mystery writer Phyllis Dorothy James wrote only one science-fiction, but wow, is it a doozy. It is the year 2021, and England has become a brutal dictatorship. Humanity is no longer capable of reproducing, and the final generation of babies, the Omegas, have grown into nihilistic adults with little compassion for their fear-stricken elders. Protagonist Theo is a college professor: a useless profession in a world with no more young people to educate. Life seems hopeless until the day he is approached by a group of dissidents who claim to know of a pregnant woman. If they’re telling the truth, it could mean there’s hope yet for humanity. This novel was adapted into the absolutely crushing 2006 film “Children of Men”, directed by Alfonso Cuarón.
The Handmaid’s Tale is a modern classic: a feminist science-fiction parable about reproductive liberty and religious oppression. The United States is no more following a coup and nuclear exchange. In its place is Gilead: a theocratic dictatorship. Radiation and pollution following the war has taken a toll on the residents of Gilead, many of whom have become sterile. Offred is a handmaid: one of countless fertile women held in bondage by Gilead’s ruling men. Offred, dehumanized and treated as little more than breeding stock, is expected to clean and bear her master’s children. Unwilling to accept a life of servitude, Offred hatches a plan to escape Gilead. The Handmaid’s Tale is set to be adapted as an original series by streaming entertainment company Hulu.
Lenny Abramov is a middle-aged man stuck in the past century: a time of paper books and face to face communication. Unfortunately for him, he’s madly in love with Eunice Park, a young Korean-American woman who is thoroughly a product of a modern age of hyper-consumerism and constant online connection. As Lenny and Eunice pursue their awkward courtship, a borderline illiterate America collapses into totalitarianism around them. Don’t be fooled by the title: Super Sad True Love Story packs quite a wallop. Rumor has it that Showtime will be adapting this as a series sometime in the future.