Twenty Must Read Dystopian Novels – An Introduction to the Genre

It’s been a while since we’ve given you a genre list, and it’s past time for this one. Suzanne Collins put dystopian literature back on the map as a major subgenre of speculative fiction with her Hunger Games trilogy. But what do you read when you set down Mockingjay? Or finish watching the films? What book will fill your need to see someone fighting back against the system? That’s where this list comes in.

First, a few words on how I’ve chosen to define dystopian literature. One major aspect I looked for was some sort of totalitarian, oppressive, and even outright abusive society and/or government. This creates the dystopia for which the genre is named. I also looked for a least one main character who was born and raised within this society and is fighting the system in some way. Sometimes they’re attempting to create a healthier society for everyone; sometimes they’re just trying to find a way out. Dystopian is also a subgenre that rarely appears on its own, and is often paired with the subgenres dying earth and post-apocalyptic. However, these subgenres shouldn’t be confused with one another as you can have each individually, as well. So if you don’t see a title on this list that you normally associate with dystopian, that may be why.

Because of the influence of The Hunger Games as well as the long history of dystopian literature (we had more than one hundred years of published novels to sort through!), I’ve included a large age range of material. Technically, young adult literature in the United States is defined as appropriate for ages twelve and up, but dystopian novels are often darker than average. If you’re at all familiar with The Hunger Games, you know that that particular trilogy pushes the envelope of age-appropriateness for many people. There are several titles on the list below that I would not recommend for readers as young as twelve for a variety of reasons. On the other hand, I’ve also included a few titles that can sometimes be found in the juvenile section of libraries and bookstores and are appropriate for a young teen who liked The Hunger Games. If you are a more mature reader who doesn’t enjoy the styles of writing often found in young adult and juvenile literature, there are a lot of adult novels on the list. I’ve included notations of which section you can find each title in. Lastly, I’ve included blockbusters, new favorites, and old classics, making this a deeply varied list.

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1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Following in the footsteps of Harry Potter and Twilight, The Hunger Games and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, are blockbusters not only in the publishing world but also in Hollywood. Katniss Everdeen is a sixteen-year-old who must compete to the death on television to pay for a rebellion that happened over seventy years ago. In order to survive, she must either outlive or kill her opponents, and then survive her government’s displeasure as she unwittingly becomes a figure head for a new rebellion. Dystopian literature has never been a light and fluffy genre, and The Hunger Games trilogy is no exception. Due to extreme violence, torture, and other adult content, this trilogy may not be appropriate for some teenagers.

Age Range: Young Adult
Check out our reviews of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay.
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2. The Iron Heel by Jack London
London is best known for his journalistic work and for his novels White Fang and Call of the Wild. So you may be surprised to learn that he is the author of what is considered the very first dystopian novel. The Iron Heel was first published in 1908, and it is set in both 2600 AD and 1912-1932. Because this novel is over a century old, it feels a bit like alternative history when reading it today rather than the near-future fiction it was when it was published. However, many of the labor pressures that were at the forefront of American politics in 1908 are back in 2013, making London’s exploration of the problems of capitalism as relevant today as it was then. Best of all, because The Iron Heel is now in the public domain, there are numerous editions available, including free electronic copies.

Age Range: Adult
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3. Article 5 by Kristen Simmons
In Simmons’ debut novel, the United States has just experienced a time of massive unrest. The country is now run by the ultra-conservative Federal Bureau for Reformation. Protagonist Ember was born out of wedlock sixteen years ago when the US was the democracy we know. Now, her very existence is illegal, and she and her mother are arrested. With the help of her disillusioned ex-boyfriend Chase, Ember needs to find a way to escape, break her mother out of federal prison, and find a place for them to live in a world that no longer makes sense. While there’s not as much death in this novel as in The Hunger Games, there is more outright torture that we see happening directly on the page. The second book in the series, Breaking Point, was released in February 2013.

Age Range: Young Adult
Check out our reviews of Article 5 and Breaking Point.
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4. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
No list of dystopian novels could hope to be complete without Ray Bradbury’s most enduring work. In a futuristic United States, books themselves have been banned, and firemen are tasked with burning down the houses which are found to contain them. People find entertainment in shallow television, radio shows, short sound bites of news. A seventeen year old girl, Clarisse, questions the world around her, which then challenges fireman Guy Montag’s ideas of the world in which he lives, leading him to question, as well. While this novel is often mentioned in terms of the dangers of censorship, it was originally written as a critique on a culture that thrives on quick access to partial knowledge as opposed to one that rewards those who dig for deeper meanings. In addition, there are both a stage play and a movie version of the book.

Age Range: Adult
Check out our review of Fahrenheit 451.
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5. Divergent by Veronica Roth
The first in a trilogy which is scheduled to finish in October 2013, Roth’s debut novel follows Beatrice “Tris” Prior who is born into a strict caste-based society. Just once in everyone’s lifetime, a chance is offered for teenagers to change from the faction they were born into to the one they will live in as adults based on aptitude tests. Beatrice’s test reveals aptitude for an unprecedented three factions, placing her future in question and her life in danger. Beatrice decides to move to a faction which only accepts ten new members every year. With close to thirty applicants, Beatrice must fight to survive—or find herself left to die on the fringes of society. But is life in a faction really better than the alternative? The second novel, Insurgent, was published in 2012, with the third installment, Allegiant, scheduled for release later this year. A movie adaptation of Divergent is expected to be released in 2014.

Age Range: Young Adult
Check out our reviews of Divergent and Insurgent.
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6. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
This is the only title on this list that is not originally written in English. It also has the distinction of being the second oldest on the list. Originally completed in 1921 in the Soviet Union, it was banned by the Soviet Censorship Board before it could be published. Zamyatin smuggled it out of the country, had it translated to English, and published it in New York in 1924. In the distant future, the One State has conquered the world and is building a spaceship to expand off planet. No one has names anymore, simply a numerical designation. They wear identical uniforms and live in glass buildings which provide no privacy. Everything a person does, right down to whom they sleep with, is controlled by the state. But can a government truly strip an individual of all expression? Engineer D-503 is about to find out, as several people in his life challenge the system. In the end, to what lengths will the One State go to remain in control? This a great example of Russian literature that not only provides a unique view on the questions Russians had immediately following the Soviet Revolution, but also directly influenced many later works, some of which are also on this list.

Age Range: Adult
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7. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Three hundred years from now, the world has entered a post-scarcity economy. Every sixteen-year-old is provided with plastic surgery as a marker of their coming of age. Tally is almost sixteen, but when her friend Shay runs away before her surgery, the government tasks Tally to find Shay in the rebel city of Smoke and to report the location to them. But when Tally finds Smoke, she discovers more than she bargained for, learning secrets the government would kill to protect. What really happens when one turns from an Ugly to a Pretty? The series continues with Pretties, Specials, and Extras.

Age Range: Young Adult
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8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
In the Republic of Gilead, fertility is a prime commodity. Most women have lost the ability to have children, and the few who can are assigned the role of Handmaid. Handmaids live with high ranking officials and their trophy wives in the hopes that the Handmaid will become pregnant. Any children are then raised by the wife as the Handmaid moves on to another official. Offred, a Handmaid to the Commander, remembers what life was like before a deeply conservative religion became the answer to a fertility crisis—a time when women could read, could choose their husbands, and could keep their children. The Handmaid’s Tale is deeply disturbing on many levels, and lands firmly in the adult genre for sexual content.

Age Range: Adult
Check out our review of The Handmaid’s Tale.
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9. The White Mountains by John Christopher
This is the most accessible entry on our list for younger readers. First published in the early 1970s, it’s now rated for readers ages 9 and up. Thirteen-year-old Will lives in an England that has returned to pre-industrial life following the appearance of the Tripods. In a few months, Will and his cousin Henry will undergo the transition to adulthood when they are “capped” by the Tripods. As they’ve learned from their older cousin Jack, the non-removable silver cap on their heads will end all questions about how their society works and about the world whose ruins surround them. The ceremony will mark a sudden change to a new adult personality. Instead, Will and Henry run away, and along the way they find all the answers they wanted and more. While this is a juvenile chapter book, it’s still accessible to an older audience looking for a quick read. The White Mountains is followed by The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire. The trilogy also has a prequel, When the Tripods Came.

Age Range: Juvenile
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10. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd
Most of you are likely familiar with the 2006 film adaptation of this graphic novel. You might even be familiar with the use of the character V’s Guy Fawkes mask by the web group Anonymous and by various Occupy protestors. Originally published during the 1980s as an ongoing comic before being consolidated into a graphic novel, V for Vendetta takes place in late-1990s Britain. After a plague, the government has taken a decided turn to totalitarianism, but a string of terrorist attacks shows that someone is capable and willing to fight back. The film does the graphic novel a grave disservice, concentrating only on the first and final third of the story, and, like many film adaptations, greatly simplified the tale.

Age Range: Adult
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11. Across the Universe by Beth Revis
When seventeen-year-old Amy agreed to join her parents on a mission to colonize a new planet, she expected to be woken from a cryogenically frozen state planetside, ready to start building a new society. She didn’t expect to be woken early by a boy named Elder, the future leader of the spaceship Godspeed. Life onboard hasn’t been easy, and now Amy needs to help Elder re-shape a society where no one has choices while on board a spaceship that is falling apart around them. Sequels A Million Suns and Shades of Earth complete the trilogy.

Age Range: Young Adult
Check out our review of Across the Universe.
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12. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Oil has run out and the land is poisoned, leading to massive food shortages across the globe. Humanity huddles together in post-industrial cities. Those who have resources live in luxury with completely automated houses. Most people have nothing, precariously living in falling-down skyscrapers of stacked trailers. But everyone, rich or poor, plugs into the online multi-player world OASIS. Jobs within the OASIS are better than those in the real world, and OASIS money is the highest valued currency in the world. High school senior Wade Watts even goes to school there. Hidden within OASIS is an Easter egg; whoever finds it becomes the heir of the now dead OASIS creator and, thus, the richest and most powerful person in the world. Wade has dedicated his short life to finding the egg, but there are those who will stop at nothing to find it first.

Age Range: Adult
Check out our review of Ready Player One.
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13. Partials by Dan Wells
In the mid-twenty-first century, civilization as we know it fell apart under the sudden onslaught of the extremely virulent virus RM. The few survivors of the plague huddle on Long Island, looting the ruins of the surrounding city for supplies. In the eleven years since the world collapsed, RM has killed every infant born to the survivors, who are still carriers of the disease. On the mainland, genetically engineered soldiers called Partials are also beginning to die. Sixteen-year-old human Kira Walker is a medic in training, and she is desperate to cure RM. She hypotheses that the Partials may hold a key to the cure and risks everything to see if she’s right. The sequel, Fragments, was published in 2013 and a prequel, Isolation, is available only as an ebook.

Age Range: Young Adult
Check out our reviews of Partials and Fragments.
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14. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Another classic, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley was published in 1931 and shares a number of similarities with We. Rather than the socialist One State, Brave New World takes place in a highly capitalistic future World State, where known religions have been replaced with an all encompassing idolization of Henry Ford. In this future, people are born from test tubes: genetically designed for their roles in life and conditioned from the minute they’re born. But not even that can make people perfect cogs in the machine. Brave New World is as relevant today as it was on the day it was published, and remains one of the most challenged books in American libraries and schools. Even if you’ve read this before, its depth and detail deserve a second (or further) read.

Age Range: Adult
Check out our review of Brave New World.
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15. Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow
In a near-future Britain, Trent McCauley enjoys making his own films out of film clips he’s downloaded from the internet. All of the films he uses are under copyright by someone else, and what he’s doing is highly illegal. When his hobby causes the government to shut off the internet for his entire family, he runs away to London where he meets other teens just like himself. Living on the fringes and off the grid, Trent and his friends decide to take on the media giants to change the laws that have become too oppressive.

Age Range: Young Adult
Check out our review of Pirate Cinema.
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16. 1984 by George Orwell
1984 is beyond classic: it’s iconic, the cornerstone in Orwell’s bibliography. Published in 1949, it takes its cues very heavily from the events leading up to World War II and the aftermath of that war. The world of Oceania is perpetually at war, and the province of Airstrip One is ruled by an omnipresent and omniscient government that takes full advantage of available technology to gather more power to itself. Today, more than 60 years after its publication, it serves as a benchmark against which many English speaking people measure the power of their government to deterine if we are living already in a dystopian future. “Big Brother is watching” has so much meaning that even if you haven’t read the book, maybe even if you’ve never heard of it, you know what that phrase means.

Age Range: Adult
Check out our review of 1984.
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17. The Giver by Lois Lowry
This is another classic tale about losing individuality. Jonas is eleven years old, quickly approaching the time when he and his classmates will be given career assignments that they will follow for the rest of their lives. In the Community, everyone follows directions and no one steps out of line. So even when Jonas is assigned to become the next Receiver of Memory, a job filled with pain which will isolate him from the rest of the Community, he doesn’t protest. But what happens to the person who remembers what it is like to feel, to be different, the way things once were? How much will they change from the person they once were? Can they stand idly by and watch the Community continue? The Giver is followed by Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son as companion books rather than direct sequels.

Age Range: Juvenile/Young Adult
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18. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Phillip K. Dick
Published in 1968, this was made into the 1982 film Blade Runner. In 1992, another World War and radioactive fallout have ruined most of the Earth. Humanity has reached for the stars, slowly colonizing Mars as well as several other places in an attempt to escape the ruined Earth. To help with a smaller population, androids have been developed for the off-world colonies. Early androids were easy to decipher from humans, but soon advanced models become increasingly difficult to identify. When androids escape from the colonies to Earth, it is up to bounty hunters like Rick Deckard to hunt them down. But what happens when Deckard finds the androids too human to “retire?”

Age Range: Adult
Check out our review of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
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19. Children of Men by P. D. James
While P. D. James is best known for her work in the crime and thriller genres, her dystopian Children of Men may become her most enduring work, thanks in part to the 2006 film adaptation. In the mid 1990s, a mass infertility crisis struck. Now in 2021, the youngest surviving humans have reach adulthood. Oxford Don Theodore Fallon is reminiscing about the world that was when revolutionary Xan Lyppiat convinces Theo to help Xan contact the Warden of England. The journey reawakens Theo’s will to live, and it may just hold the key to the survival of the human race.

Age Range: Adult
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20. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Last, but certainly not least, is Anthony Burgess’ most famous work. The book follows Alex in a near-future England. He’s a teenaged gang-leader enjoying nightly bouts of “ultra-violence.” He’s soon arrested and charged with murder, and the state undertakes the job of “redeeming” him. How far will the state go, and what cost will they pay? This book has been made into a film by Stanley Kubrick that has also reached classic status.

Age Range: Adult
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What do you think of our list? Anything we missed? Anything you loved?

About Janea Schimmel

Janea Schimmel
Janea is an avid fantasy reader who after college inexplicably found herself working in a library. She was the only one surprised by this strange turn of events. When not surrounded by books, she enjoys working on her own fantastical fiction (thereby restoring order to her universe by having a book nearby), as well as making music (clarinet, vocals, renaissance recorder), cooking, and honing various skills made obsolete by the industrial revolution.

View all articles written by Janea Schimmel.

24 comments

  1. Some very awesome titles listed here. Some I’ve read, and others I wan to read, and I can’t think of any title listed that I would particularly disagree with. Great list!

  2. I would replace A Clockwork Orange with The Wanting Seed. I’ve found the concept of pelphase/interphase/gusphase to be something that’s stuck with me through the years as a way to think about politics (much like phrases like “newspeak” or the concept of “soma”). Clockwork is fun, don’t get me wrong, but let’s be honest, it’s on this list because of Kubrick’s film, not because it’s a particularly brilliant novel (at least when one considers other novels Burgess has written).

    • Well said but me personally, i would replace quite a lot. Legend by Marie Lu isnt here, neither is Maze Runner by James Dashner or The Testing Series by Joelle Charbonneau

  3. Not a terrible list but I’d rank hunger games WAY further on the list and Brave New World should be on the top. Also I would definitely have included Watchmen on the list but at least you got allan moore’s V for Vendetta on the list.

    • Janea S

      I don’t think I’d pull V for Vendetta for Watchmen. V focuses much more on the dystopia of the society itself, while Watchmen (though a wonderful work) is about the psychosis of the superheros, not the society they live in. The Watchmen area also not out to change society, merely save it from one of their own.

  4. Oryx and Crake would be a better choice if you are going to put Atwood on this list… actually, you should put more Atwood on this list as this is really her cup of tea.

  5. Another one to consider is This Perfect Day by Ira Levin, which is my favorite in the genre.

  6. The Passage by Justin Cronin should have been in the list. The Hunger Games at no. 1 is laughable.

  7. I would add Wool by Hugh Howey to this list.

  8. Battle royal ie the book hunger games ripped off.

  9. I know of a few others that are pretty good too. In between the other genres, there are a few dystopians on my favorite list…. just go to the books tab of majesticgoldenrose.tripod.com

  10. The mortal instruments?

  11. IQ84? No love for Murakami?

  12. No Unwind Dystology by Neal Schusterman? Amazing and more than worthy of inclusion!

  13. Wool Omnibus should be on the list. Deathlands, too.

  14. Delirium by Lauren Oliver

  15. Delirium series by Lauren Oliver please :)

  16. Alas, Babylon is another incredible read! Probably my favorite dystopian novel thus far.

  17. I REALLY think Legend by Marie Lu should be on this list. It came out the same year as Divergent, but didn’t get as much hype, unfortunately. Personally, I feel Legend is better, but I still like Divergent a lot as well.

  18. What about Make Room Make Room which became the movie Soylent Green?!

    • you missed the the most important dystopian novel that was the prime influence of all the rest, “The Trial by Franz Kafka”. Get a clue!

  19. No Ayn Rand? Atlas Shrugged and Anthem.

  20. The Hunger Games in first place & 1984 on sixteen???!!! :shock:
    Ridiculous!!! What is HAPPENING to people??!!!

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