The dystopian genre can be used in novels, films, comic books, graphic novels, and even video games. It typically uses an extremely oppressed society as the basis of its story, which may have been driven to misery by ongoing war, terror, social oppression, lack of personal freedoms, racism, sexism, disease, or environmental deterioration.
Frequently in dystopian stories, characters lose their individualism, and sometimes the story centers on them trying to obtain it again or change the system so that they can freely identify as they wish and do what they desire.
More often than not, dystopian novels are driven by the authoritative force or totalitarian governments which dictate the behavior and actions of all citizens. Corporate, philosophical, religious, reproductive, bureaucratic, and technological systems are all used as a method of oppression and forced control within the dystopian genre.
The intention of dystopian novels is to highlight the ridiculousness and extremity of some of the things implemented in the real-life societies we live in. Many of these novels are ‘futuristic’ and explain what could potentially happen if certain ideologies were to dominate society or if certain social implementations were exaggerated.
For example, one of the most popular dystopian novels of all time, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, follows a society in which women are repressed and used only for their fertility. The story begins in modern-day America which quickly becomes the oppressive state called the Republic of Gilead. While the novel is extreme, it demonstrates a situation women may find themselves in if reproductive rights are tightened in our real societies. Considering the very current discussions of abortion and contraception following the re-emergence of the Roe vs Wade case, this novel has more significance now than it has done in the past decade or so.
One of the other significant dystopian novels is George Orwell’s 1984. This English author has written numerous novels that use clever characters and plot lines to criticize the lack of functionality and overbearing injustice prevalent in modern-day societies.
1984 was one of the most inspirational novels of its time, published in 1949 and criticizing the way in which authorities can watch over citizens and reduce their freedoms in the process.
The story follows Winston Smith, who is a low-profile member of ‘the Party’, the totalitarian organization that keeps a strict watch on everyone in the state, ensuring that they adhere to regulations.
Winston gets frustrated by the amount of control imposed by ‘the Party’ and begins to question its motives.
1984 explores numerous themes such as censorship, propaganda, and authoritarianism, and highlights the importance of personal freedoms, such as freedom of expression, sexuality, identification, and actions.
Reading dystopian fiction can be really beneficial. Although the situations are frequently exaggerated, these novels can help you gain more social and political awareness and allow you to realize how crucial your freedom is. It may make you question the way current governmental systems are run and may provoke internal debates about control, wealth divides, reproductive rights, individual repression, and political systems.
If you’ve read and loved dystopian novels like 1984 and you’re keen to find some similar reading material this list is for you. It will include some of the classics for those who are new to the world of dystopian literature (you’re in for a treat) and will feature some of the more niche novels to help give dystopian regulars some food for thought.
So, here are 30 dystopian novels similar to 1984 for you to dive into. The first ten suggestions will be classic dystopian novels that most people will have heard of and dystopian lovers will likely have read, and then the following 20 will be lesser-known novels that are just as good!
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
This novel is one of the most famous dystopian books ever written. Canadian author Margaret Atwood tells of a fictional state called the Republic of Gilead, which imposes strict laws on women’s rights, with particular emphasis on fertility regulations and reproductive freedoms.
Within the Republic of Gilead, women cannot read and write, they can’t vote, they can’t own property, and they have no access to legal contraception. All of these things, while terrifyingly extreme in most modern-day societies, are frighteningly close to the realities of many women living across the world, particularly in third-world countries.
The ‘Handmaids’ in this tale are used solely for reproductive purposes and are given barely any agency over their personal choices, their actions, their relationships, or even their own children.
The Handmaid’s Tale cleverly blends her fictional totalitarian republic with the realities of many female experiences worldwide, proving that the line between reality and dystopia is blurring.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Guy Montag lives in an authoritative society in which all literature is burned in order to simplify the mentalities of its citizens.
He works as a fireman, who in this instance, starts fires instead of putting them out. All books are burned to eliminate contradiction, differences of opinion, and individual expression with the hope of creating an uncomplicated population thriving on simplicity.
Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of Montag’s development from a conforming fireman to a rebellious book lover and emphasizes the importance of free speech, education, and thought.
The Time Machine by H.G Wells
The Time Machine is a dystopian novel set in the year 802,700, the year that his time-traveling protagonist explores.
Everything seems perfect in this distant future – all species live harmoniously and there seems to be no political or social unrest. The time traveler uncovers this futuristic society’s secret to peaceful coexistence, hoping to implement it in his own society.
However, when his time machine disappears and he realizes he is stranded in the far future, dark secrets begin unraveling and cracks begin appearing in this idealistic society.
The Time Machine is often grouped with science-fiction books, quite rightly, because of its foundation in time travel. However, its discussion of political and social structures allows it to integrate within the dystopian genre too.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
This fantastic Burgess novel follows a psychopathic youth in futuristic England. His behavior is violent and he has little respect for anyone else.
He is soon arrested and jailed, charged with murder and rape, and out of desperation, he signs up for an experimental psychological project, with the aim of reducing his sentence.
The state-sponsored program aims to modify his behavior and rewire his brain, but it goes terribly wrong and he is left weak and helpless. When he reenters the society he once dominated with his gang of criminal friends, he discovers that the tables have turned and he now lives as the victim.
A Clockwork Orange has long been one of the most praised dystopian novels and intelligently uses futuristic technological advancements and social structures to criticize behavior that is already seen in our society.
Animal Farm by George Orwell
If you weren’t made to read this book under your school curriculum, you’re missing out. Many are put off by Animal Farm because they are forced to read it at a young age, but what many don’t realize is that this is a very important book that tackles complex themes and can be enjoyed at any age.
The premise is simple – a group of farmyard animals take over the farm and set up their own ‘society’. What begins as a revolution for equality, turns into a totalitarian control, in which certain animals are treated superior to others. The famous quote “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others” is taken from this novel and was considered a criticism of communist Russia when it was first published in 1945.
This novel is fantastically written and maintains an important message that still rings true today. It criticizes the class and wealth divide, with particular judgment targeted at the upper class and those in charge of distributing wealth.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s classic, Brave New World, concentrates on a futuristic society in which the arts are neglected and technology and science thrive.
The novel imagines human reproduction to be carried out genetically to ensure maximum genetic success and minimal anomalies or mutations. These people are forced into scientific education and roles and have limited agency to practice personal freedoms or experience emotive relationships.
Huxley criticizes the destructive nature of pigeon-holing the human experience in favor of social development and like 1984, illustrates the importance of personal choice, individualism, and liberty.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick
Published in 1968, this novel interestingly describes a futuristic society in a year we consider the past.
It is set in the ‘futuristic’ year of 2021, by which time war has destroyed the planet and killed many of its inhabitants. Androids are built with the same capabilities as humans and are almost indistinguishable from the human population. Scared of what consequences this will have, authorities ban them from Earth, but these androids are intelligent and recognize what danger they’re in and so decide to live amongst humans, disguised by their convincing human-like appearance.
Rick Deckard is hired as a bounty hunter to ‘retire’ androids, but what happens when they fight back?
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? inspired the film Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer, which has drawn many new readers to the original novel.
Divergent by Veronica Roth
This innovative novel is set in a futuristic society that is divided into 5 different factions. Upon reaching adolescence, each person must undergo tests and choose which faction suits their personality.
But those who do not fit in anywhere are called ‘divergents’ and should be removed from society. So, when Tris discovers she is a divergent, she must choose a faction and try to blend in with everyone else.
Divergent is the brilliant first novel in Roth’s trilogy that critiques a society that prevents the bloom of individualism. With references to class divide, wealth distribution, and emotional repression, this book is a fantastic starter book if you’re looking to enter the dystopian genre. It’s suitable for younger readers too and has a brilliant film adaptation attached starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner
This enthralling novel will have you on the edge of your seat until the last page. It follows Thomas, who wakes up in the middle of nowhere, unaware of anything, surrounded by strangers. With no memories, no idea where they are, and only the recollection of their names, Thomas and the rest of the abandoned boys must discover where they are, how they got there, and most importantly, how to get out.
When they find a maze lying behind the lift they all used to enter this strange place, they realize it may be their only way out. But the maze changes every day and no one knows the dangers that lurk there.
When a girl mysteriously appears carrying one terrifying message, they must all figure out an escape route, quickly.
The Maze Runner is a brilliant novel with an equally brilliant film adaptation starring Dylan O’Brien, Will Poulter, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick
This excellent novel tends to sit more in the ‘alternate history’ genre, but its alternative, terrifying setting allows it to verge into the sphere of dystopian literature.
The story follows a hypothetical society in the American 1960s after Hitler won World War II. Slavery is legal, Jews live in fear and under fake names, and America is now ruled by Nazi Germany and Japan.
Philip K. Dick orchestrates this historical nightmare that offers an insight into what life could have been like, under totalitarian Nazi control. The Man in the High Castle is insightful, harrowing, and a definite must-read for historical or dystopian fans.
The Children of Men by Phyllis White
The Children of Men was written in 1992 and imagines life in 2021 England after men have been sterilized. It focuses primarily on mass infertility and covers a population desperate to repopulate, exploring every avenue to ensure that their race survives.
This novel follows the journey that several people undergo to prevent the extinction of the human race. It covers the technological avenues explored, the psychological impacts of accepting the end of the human line, and emphasizes the importance of parenthood and reproduction.
We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
This book, written in 1920 by Russian writer Zamyatin, inspired authors like George Orwell. It compares human existence to scientific basics, reducing individualism and human experience to collective mathematical principles.
It is set in the 26th century and follows D-503, a mathematician whose life is solely encapsulated in numbers and mathematical principles – he even dreams using numbers. But one day he realizes his individualism and is desperate to fight for it.
We is often seen as the ‘father’ of dystopian fiction, paving the way for modern classics, as mentioned above, to be written.
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
This innovative book critiques the superficial nature of our modern society. It is set in a world where everyone is ‘turned’ on their 16th birthday – their flaws are erased and they are promised immaculate beauty for the rest of their lives.
Tally is nearly 16 and can’t wait to be ‘turned’. She has waited years to look perfect and pretty. But when she meets Shay, her perception changes. Shay has no interest in changing and plans to escape before she is able to be ‘turned’ – Tally can’t understand why anyone would think like this.
But when it’s Tally’s turn she is sent to retrieve Shay and is denied treatment until she brings Shay back. But will what Tally learns about the system while she’s away put her off coming back?
Uglies is a brilliant criticism of our modern beauty standards. Westerfeld illuminates the problems with ‘perfecting’ society and compares it to a twisted attempt to normalize similarity and eliminate individualism.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
David is a young boy, whose life is dictated by his father, the local priest who dominates and regulates the community. His father aims to make the community as perfect as possible, almost verging on obsessive and authoritarian behavior in order to do so.
But when David realizes that he is a mutant with special abilities to telepathically communicate with others, he must hide his identity from his father and try his best to help free the community from his father’s rule.
The Chrysalids is a strange novel but its premise is interesting and enthralling. A brilliant dystopian choice, if not a little odd.
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
In the horrifyingly realistic near future, California is parched, suffering from drought and heat. The Californian population is panicking. Resources are tight, rations have been implemented and everyone is desperate to leave.
Gold Fame Citrus tells of human desperation and survival but focuses on the importance of loving relationships, which shine through despair despite the chaos. This novel is simultaneously harrowing and moving, it’ll force you through the emotional ringer – its message of human perseverance and the importance of emotional closeness may even bring you to tears.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
This brilliant novel is, believe it or not, Cline’s debut. Published in 2011, Ready Player One follows a society in 2045, whose reality has been merged with digital games.
Cleverly playing on the dominance of electronic entertainment and gaming in young people’s lives, Cline’s narrative contemplates human drive, greed, and the distortion of reality by digital advancement.
The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
Written in 1962, The Drowned World is frighteningly close to our reality. It is set in the year 2145 and details the decline of our planet thanks to global warming and climate change.
Ballard’s imaginative (but very real) futuristic world has been transformed from a world of human domination and technological development to a widespread tropical jungle, which thrives on the excess water produced from melting ice caps and contains a plethora of jungle species, such as insects and lizards, that have started to dominate what used to be modern London.
Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdich
In an apocalyptic world, every creature that once happily roamed the Earth has been affected by the reversal of evolution. The new generation of humans is a primitive species and so when 32-year-old Cedar falls pregnant, she is uncertain about what her child will look like and what implications it may have for the future of the human race.
As an adopted child, Cedar begins tracing her roots back to her birth mother in an attempt to discover more about the genetic makeup of the baby she carries.
Future Home of the Living God merges biology, religion, and human thought to create one masterpiece of dystopian horror. A must-read for science fans!
American War by Omar El Akkad
Set in the year 2074, Akkad’s novel details a new American Civil War which has broken out as a result of chaos – drones circulate the skies, oil is illegal, much of the Earth’s land is now underwater, disease is rife, and humanity is in crisis.
American War is the story of Sarat Chestnut, who must fight in this war to save herself, her family, and her generation. Her story is told by her nephew, Benjamin.
The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
As a last resort, the City of Ember was built as a home for the remaining members of the human race. It has been a place of refuge for 200 years with no issues. But now the lights begin to flicker, cracks start emerging, and secrets are uncovered.
The City of Ember follows Lina and her friend Doon find themselves at the core of the issue. They are being sent a message. With no idea who’s behind it and no idea how to decipher it, the two must uncover the message and help save the city before the lights turn out.
The Trial by Franz Kafka
From the popular author of the classic Metamorphosis, is this dystopian tale that tells the story of Josef, who is arrested unexplainably and must defend himself using the little information he can access.
The Trial criticizes the justice system, totalitarianism, and the blurred binary of guilty and innocent.
The Women Could Fly by Megan Giddings
This dystopian, feminist tale is set in a world where witches are real, all women must marry by the age of 30, and mysterious things happen to those who disobey.
Jo’s mother disappeared out of the blue 14 years ago and has been the recipient of many conspiracy theories from people offering their help and condolences.
Jo is 28 and must think of marriage soon but she’s distracted by an unexplainable presence she reckons is her mother.
The Women Could Fly is a brilliant novel telling of the importance of mother-daughter relationships, familial connection, female repression, and grief.
The Iron Heel by Jack London
First published in 1908, The Iron Heel follows a society driven by authoritarian rule and oligarchy. The novel is set a few years into the future, detailing realities between 1912 and 1932 and covers the global recognition of America’s backward regulations.
It offers interesting comparisons of empirical states in Asia and socialist nations in Europe and follows the events leading up to the inevitable American revolution.
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi
This dystopian novel covers the reality of AI development in a futuristic world thriving on ‘calorie companies’ and rife with disease.
It follows Anderson Lake who works for a ‘calorie company’ in Thailand. He comes across Emiko who is labeled as one of the New People, a genetically engineered artificial being, not human, not robot. These people are considered slaves and property, used for whatever purpose necessary, whether it’s to fulfill sexual desires or military roles.
The Windup Girl is an innovative novel discussing digital and technological advancement and questioning the boundaries of human experience.
Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shtenyagart
This tale, set in the near American future, details what life would look like if the human population was illiterate.
Lenny, the protagonist, is one of the few that can still read and write and he makes sure to note every detail of his life in what could be the world’s last written diary.
Lenny ends up writing his own love story as he falls in love with Korean-American, Eunice, who is obsessed with Korean tradition and materialism. Perplexed at the differences between them both, Lenny writes Super Sad True Love Story as a way of venting his frustrations and encapsulating the social chaos they both live in.
Blindness by José Saramago
A pandemic of ‘white blindness’ spreads ferociously throughout a city, hospitalizing thousands and generating turmoil that quickly dismantles social structure and creates panic among the population.
This vivid story is a fantastic read considering the implications that COVID-19 has had globally. Blindness illustrates how similar dystopia and reality can be.
The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
In an apocalyptic setting, Jemisin creates a harrowing and emotive story about a woman who sets out to find her daughter after finding her son murdered.
She fights the ash, heat, and darkness, driven by the connection she has to her daughter and the desperation to seek justice for her son.
The Fifth Season is a gripping, heart wrenching read, guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings of any parent and give readers a clear view of what the apocalypse may look like.
Zone One by Colson Whitehead
This novel may be a little too close for comfort for many readers, as it follows a post-apocalyptic world that has been destroyed by a deadly pandemic.
The few survivors are attempting to rebuild the life they once knew, constructing Manhattan brick by brick. But there are people still infected, some hide away in abandoned buildings while others attempt to fit in. It’s a battle of survival and no one is safe.
Zone One is an excellent dystopian novel that many may relate to. Fantastically gripping, wonderfully written, and constantly leaving readers guessing.
It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
This book was originally published in 1935, during a fragile period in American history. Americans were too concerned with the Great Depression to realize the extent of European chaos and many didn’t even know Hitler’s name.
It Can’t Happen Here is a brilliant dystopian novel, using Nazi Germany as a springboard for the criticism of fascism. Lewis imagines a fascist leader winning American elections and forcing America down a similar path to the Germans. Once he has secured power, totalitarian control is soon installed and Americans start to realize that they voted for their rights to be stripped away from them.
To Paradise by Hanya Yanaginara
This novel can also be deemed alternate history, but its frequent jumping between time periods and descriptions of illness, wealth disparities, mysterious disappearances, revolutionaries, and emotional drive allows it a place on this list.
To Paradise flicks between 1893, 1993, and 2093 America. The conformity of 1893, the AIDS epidemic seen in 1993, and the totalitarian rule of 2093 are all wonderfully compared, contrasted, and linked in Yanaginara’s portrayal of family life.
Picking the perfect dystopian novel can be tricky because there are so many different sub-genres out there! If you’ve decided you like the sound of dystopian literature, the next thing to do is find out what kind of thing you like reading about, whether that’s global themes like political turmoil or environmental destruction, or more personal themes like reproduction, sexism, racism, or repression of sexuality.
There are so many dystopian novels out there to choose from, you’re guaranteed to find something you love, so have a little dig around and see what takes your fancy.
If you’re new to the genre, we recommend reading any of the classics first. These are top-rated and widely acknowledged, so pick one of the first 10 books in the list that sounds appealing and go from there.
Whether you’re new to the genre or you’ve been reading dystopian literature for years, hopefully this article has inspired you with some new book recommendations – who knows, one of them could be your next favorite!
Frequently Asked Questions
What is dystopian fiction?
Any books that imagine a suffering civilization. This can be a certain social group that is oppressed or restricted due to identity or interest, or can be a collective suffering due to authoritative regimes, disease, oppression, war, or environmental decay.
Is dystopian fiction real?
No – the fact that it’s ‘fiction’ tells us that the stories are made up. However, some of the themes that run throughout some of the most popular dystopian novels often describe what society would be like if real, current ideologies were widespread or if a certain social factor was dramatized.
Is dystopian fiction suitable for children?
On the whole, probably not. While there are some books that are less graphic and use easier language, the themes of suffering, oppression, lack of freedom, and even sexual, identity, or personal repression, are probably not appropriate for children to read.
What makes a novel dystopian?
There must be an element of control in dystopian novels – worlds or societies should be dominated by a political, authoritative force that drives characters into an oppressed and limited state.
What is the most famous dystopian novel?
1984 by George Orwell is a favorite worldwide but some of the other best-sellers include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.