It is 147 years since the first recorded use of the word “dystopia” was uttered by philosopher John Stuart Mill. At the time, Mill coined the phrase during a speech denouncing the British Government’s shameful colonial ‘Irish Land’ policy. Since then, of course, it has taken on a whole number of meanings and inspired multiple different trains of thought. The term does, admittedly, have human beings to thank for becoming so well known – after all, it’s difficult to witness two world wars, the rise and fall of colonial empires, genocide, environmental collapse and constant global conflict and not feel a little miffed about everything.
This is not, of course, to say that we are living in the end times – as some might suggest. Instead it is to simply illustrate how a long-term trend in human reality has been the occurrence of negative events. Of course, there have also been, in the past 150 years, fantastic events, too, which highlight the goodness of human beings and our ability to create great and beautiful things. But nobody really wants to talk about things being good – after a while doing so just starts to sound a bit smug.
Far more interesting, it could be said, is our cultural reaction to what might be seen as dystopian realities in the world we live. While the debate surrounding whether forms of culture reflect and proceed; or in fact influence and precede real life continues to whirl on, it is without doubt that a definite trend in our culture over the last 100 years has been toward creative forms that deal with dystopian realities – be they alternate or otherwise.
These cultural forms abound in myriad different spheres. Films, for example, which depicting mass catastrophe, death and destruction have been well analysed and critiqued – think of the words of internationally acclaimed philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who argued that Hollywood blockbusters showcasing the end of the world illustrated his point that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”.
Yet while films are all fine and dandy, perhaps the most intriguing cultural form to deal with ideas of dystopia is and has been for the better part of the last century, the novel.
In the wider publishing industry, of course, dystopian fiction remains a subset of a subset (somewhere following on from speculative fiction and science fiction). Yet it is undeniably a buzzword that provides us with an instant reaction – and the novels that work best within it provide us with fascinating room to read into; analyse; interrogate; deconstruct; and provide the inspiration for articles like this one.
And here, dear reader, we bring you what you’ve been waiting for. The highly subjective view of some of the best ever dystopian novels. Please do read our well-constructed list below and feel free to tell us how wrong (or how right on) you think the list is in the comments below. Tell us what books we’re missing – or, if for some reason we wake up to find the world of Fahrenheit 451 has somehow descended upon us, then tell us which single book we should learn and commit to memory as we strike out into the forest to go and live with fellow book people.
The highly subjective list of the best ever dystopian novels
1984 – George Orwell
A book that possibly needs no introduction. Eerily prescient in a disconcerting number of ways – from newspeak and jargon (in the media; workplace and politics); to Big Brother and Room 101. What is perhaps most intriguing is that we have become in so many ways the dystopian society featured in the novel not under a communist totalitarian dictatorship – as Orwell suggested – but under the guardianship of right wing conservatives and neoliberals. Irrespective of where your own politics lie, that this novel is a disturbing, dystopian world brilliantly depicted and fascinatingly detailed is surely without argument.
Professor Wu Says: “Orwell’s disturbing world of constant surveillance and government controlled media are uncomfortably recognisable. Another strong bonus point in this book’s favour is that it is just heavy enough to throw at any members of the thought police you think might be on your trail.”
Do androids dream of electric sheep? – Philip K Dick
A seminal novel from the excellent Philip K Dick, which gave us the wonderful Blade Runner film when Ridley Scott was still not terrible. The work is built in the futuristic, post-apocalyptic society featuring (but of course) hover cars and robots. Yes. You read that correctly. Hover cars. And Robots. Need we say more? Apart from creating a thoroughly convincing and involving futuristic world, Dick also uses the novel to expertly help us question what it is that makes us human, thanks to Deckard and the apparently unfeeling androids.
Professor Wu says: “Did you ever notice that the Voight-Kampff test (the test Deckard gives to determine humanity) doesn’t really use questions? Rather, Deckard describes a scene and the subject of the test reacts to it. What one might be tempted – I know I certainly am – to read into here, is that this stands as a perfect example of what literature is to the reader. Books – including Dick’s novel – are our Voight-Kampff test. And our reaction to the words on the page and the scenes we read is what is perhaps the most distinguishing feature that proves our humanity. An excellent work on so many levels, and part of an deliciously intriguing train of thought concerning AI and the Turing Test. You see a turtle in plight. What do you feel?”
V for Vendetta – Alan Moore
Okay. So not strictly a novel – rather a graphic one – but still, this is a hugely influential dystopian book, and arguably one of the most popular of contemporary dystopias. The work follows the classic line of establishment conspiracies, depicting an authoritarian government, which maintains itself in power through exploiting people’s fears and indolence. While critics have described it as ‘an adolescent fantasy’, Moore’s work has an undeniably inspiring message – that the people can resist those who abuse power. Demonstrators in Britain and around the world wear the ‘V’ Guy Fawkes mask; while the symbol has also become synonymous with hacker group anonymous.
Professor Wu Says: “Verily, the vivacious and vivid V for Vendetta shows us yet another cultural example of the very real, deep mistrust that exists between the people and those supposedly elected to represent them. It is built on the basis of deep mistrust of those exerting political authority – something recognisable by all of us living in Western Democracies today. UKIP voters should read the book and beware; voting for a party that draws support by preaching fear and anger can lead us down very dark alleyways.”
Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
Blood Meridian is perhaps a contentious one, considering the obvious McCarthy dystopian novel is perhaps, ‘The Road’; but The Road is just too obvious, if anything. And it just wouldn’t do to put Cormac McCarthy on any list more than once – while he most probably deserves to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature at some point, his ego may not quite yet be able to cope with the honour of being featured twice in an NITRB article. So why have we plumped for Blood Meridian anyway? It’s not just that we’re trying to be out there (which of course we are); it’s also because this is quite possibly one of the greatest novels in the dystopian genre, despite being set more than a century ago. This is because it depicts, simply, the end of the world. The image of barren prairies, carpeted as far as the eye can see with piles of bleached buffalo bones is haunting. Indeed, the general depiction in the novel of the violence at the heart of human nature – a violence so close to being somewhere between chaos and orchestrated evil – leads us to confront that nameless, faceless thing in us and in the world that is, at its heart, about subverting something recognisable (the human being) and turning it inside out to the point that it is at once both terrifyingly ‘other’ and – yet more terrible – also frighteningly close to home.
Professor Wu says: “More than protagonists, this is a novel about landscape, and the vivid descriptions of it make it come alive in a way that reflects a savagery in McCarthy’s vision of human beings. With too many hellish landscapes to count, it’s possibly not one to recommend to your lovely but somewhat doddery old vicar who lives at the end of your street.”
A clockwork orange – Anthony Burgess
Quite an unforgettable book, which Burgess came close to refusing to publish because he apparently felt repulsed by what he had written. The work paints a vivid, depressing future of violent gangs and extreme youthful violence, which the duplicitous state authorities try to maintain through ever more disturbing methods. Muses intriguingly on what it means to be free.
Professor Wu says: “Personally, I think this book is overrated, and not as good as those who like it claim. Yet it makes it onto this list because it is so hugely influential. Burgess’s work gave birth to many new words – such as ultraviolence – and as such deserves credit for its linguistical tricks. It muses on what it means to be free, while it also gave us a Kubrick film, which itself gave us Malcolm McDowell sporting a fabulous cod piece. And nobody can complain about that – or can they?”
World War Z – Max Brooks
Is Zombie fiction dystopian fiction? For the purposes of this list, yes. Yes it is. It’s a highly subjective list, after all, so we can put what we want here. Perhaps we could call it ‘apocalit’. Would that work? The point is that this is a great piece of modern, original storytelling. The beauty of a zombie piece is that it takes what we know and takes away all the rules – allowing anarchy to reign supreme. It is a novel less about zombies than of human beings and how they react in a world without law. The depiction of national governments, in particular, is certainly in the tradition of dystopian literature – as they do everything from force their citizens to live underground, poison and drop bombs on their own populations, and conspire secretly with devious schemes and plots.
Professor Wu says: “Zombies. Zombie capitalism anybody? There’s probably a link there. The most important thing, though, is zombies, okay? Zombies zombies zombies.”
Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
This stylish novel is another vision of globalised capitalism every bit as prescient as Orwell’s dystopia. Here we have a world of organised reproduction, brainwashing from birth and numbing drugs. Following the occupy movements and wide public awareness of the 99% vs the 1%, it is fitting that this world we encounter is controlled by just 10 “World Controllers”. With no concept of family, this depiction of cold, unfeeling world is made all the more compelling by the superficially hedonistic society Huxley depicts. But what is the point of never feeling pain, if you cannot feel joy?
Professor Wu says: “One character in the book tells us that “words can be like x-rays if you use them properly” and Huxley does this with aplomb. For some reason this is often a book everybody has heard of but nobody has read; yet not to read it is to do this book an injustice. In this work we see not the terror and fear of totalitarianism; but the stranger fears and dangers of rapacious consumerism, fuelled by the soft power of brainwashing *ahem* I mean advertising.”
Fahrenheit 41 – Ray Bradbury
How any writer or reader could possibly read this excellent novel and not find it brilliant is beyond us. This is the ultimate dystopia for literature lovers, describing a society where books are burned and intellectual thought illegal. The work tackles head on the nightmare world in which a free press and the dissemination of ideas is not possible. In a fantastic trick of irony, the book was banned upon release for containing “questionable themes”.
Professor Wu says: “Bradbury insists he wrote the book because of his concerns at the time – during the McCarthy era – about the threat of book burning in the USA. Yet to lock interpretations of this world into the historical context of its time is to do it a disservice, as this fantastic novel contains so many elements that persist today. The proliferation of sleeping pills and addiction to shallow TV dramas in the suburbia Bradbury depicts enables us to confront the glaring passivity of many people today – who remain indifferent to the suffering around them while the world spins into chaos.”
Logan’s Run – William Nolan & George Clayton Johnson
In many ways this is a lost science fiction and dystopian classic – with people far more familiar with the film than the book. It has been out of print since 1976, yet most probably deserves a return to the spotlight and easy accessibility, since this is a poetic and original work. Unlike the movie, people in the novel are killed at 21 – not 30, which gives an interesting edge, since killing takes place at a time when people are just beginning to know themselves. In this world, wisdom has been forgotten and machines think for humans. If that isn’t a frightening enough concept then we don’t know what is.
Professor Wu Says: “A simple but terrifying concept – imagines a world where resources maintained and the population controlled by the mandatory death of all humans when they reach the age of 21. The image of such a superficially perfect world, in which great darkness lurks beneath the surface, is the perfect example of a dystopian utopia.”
The Time Machine – H.G. Wells
Arguably the work that popularised time travel – so in that respect H.G Wells deserves all sorts of accolades from all sorts of people. His term ‘time machine’ is now the standard vehicle used in tales that depict this. Unfortunately for the time traveller in this novel, his machine takes him to some rather disturbing dystopian places – rather than oh, say, 2015 or 1955. Quite simply, the word influential does not do justice to how important this book is to the genres of dystopian or science fiction.
Professor Wu says: “Ahead of its time – in more ways than one. (See what I did there?)”
What are we missing?
So, there we have it. Our very own, highly subjective list of the very best dystopian novels of all time. To those of you in the publishing industry, you needn’t worry about publishing any new dystopian fictions, because they ain’t gonna be as good or as influential as this (we’re just kidding, obviously). But what are we missing out? What do you make of our list? Where have we erred and strayed? And which works have we forgotten? Let us know in the comments below.