45 Dystopian Books That’ll Change Your Worldview
Pandemics, climate change and ethical dilemmas about technology make these dystopian books feel eerily realistic
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Reality reflected in dystopian books
Dystopian books are once again having a moment, and we’re here for every new read and back-in-vogue classic. Of all the book genres, dystopian literature has the best chance of changing our perspectives on one another and the world.
Startlingly realistic for science fiction novels, dystopian books challenge readers to imagine a future in which society struggles against things like political oppression, devastating climate change, loss of individuality and controlling technology. The classics will sweep you up in what could happen after a world-changing event (like a pandemic), while a new subgenre of eco-dystopian stories takes place in the aftermath of an ecological catastrophe.
Because dystopian fiction begins with a kernel of the real world, it’s often a harsh commentary on modern life and a warning about what our lives could become if we’re not careful. In fact, several forward-thinking authors have even written books that predicted the future. It’s hard to read some of these stories without nodding your head at the moments and messages that could apply to your own life.
How we chose the best dystopian books
To offer something for everyone, we selected the top dystopian books from a variety of subgenres. Curated with the help of librarians and other book experts, our roundup includes everything from classic novels to modern masterpieces. If you’re new to dystopian novels, this list will introduce you to feminist books, novels for children and teens, banned books and some of the best books of all time, all with a dystopian twist. And if you’ve been a fan for a while, you’ll find some new picks for your reading pile.
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1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Hailed by the New York Times as “the patron saint of feminist dystopian fiction,” Margaret Atwood crafted a novel that feels as relevant today as it did when it was published in 1985. The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a near-future New England ruled by a regime that treats women as property of the state. The main character, Offred, is among the handmaids forced to produce children for the ruling class of men. The classic book has been adapted into a film, an opera and a four-season Hulu TV series (Seasons 5 of The Handmaid’s Tale is currently airing). In 2019, Atwood released the highly anticipated sequel, The Testaments, another must-read dystopian novel.
2. 1984 by George Orwell
While nearly four decades have passed since the title year, this book’s themes of surveillance and censorship are still relevant today. (Ironically, it’s the book’s critique of those themes that has led to its inclusion in book bans.) “No novel of the past century has had more influence than George Orwell’s 1984,” reads an article in the Atlantic. Need proof? Consider the idea of Big Brother, the personified party in the novel and an apt descriptor for surveilling governments and tech companies. The 1949 work of dystopian fiction has been adapted into a radio program, films, and television and theatrical productions; it’s a classic book everyone should read at least once.
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3. The Stand by Stephen King
One of the most relatable dystopian books, Stephen King‘s 1978 bestseller is set in a world forever altered by a pandemic. A strain of super-flu will kill most people in the world within a few weeks, and the few who are left will need a leader. Who will it be: a peaceful old woman or a violent man who loves chaos? The stakes are high in The Stand: Whoever wins the survivors’ support determines the fate of the world.
4. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Twenty years after a pandemic changed the world forever, Kirsten Raymonde and a group of actors and musicians try to keep the arts alive. But a prophet threatens their existence. This 2014 dystopian novel, a National Book Award finalist and now HBO Max TV series, contains flashbacks, flash-forwards and a big twist. But don’t expect an action-packed apocalyptic novel; Station Eleven is a thoughtful, lyrical exploration of life in the aftermath of tragedy. It also contains one of the best book quotes: “First we only want to be seen, but once we’re seen, that’s not enough anymore. After that, we want to be remembered.”
5. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, this 2005 story takes readers to a boarding school in England, where Kathy and her friends are raised without knowledge of the outside world. It’s an idyllic life, but when Kathy grows into a young adult, her time at the school takes on new meaning. Part literary exploration of what it means to be human, part engrossing mystery, Never Let Me Go proves Kazuo Ishiguro is a master of his craft. Once you’ve finished the book, check out the 2010 film adaptation.
6. Maximillian Fly by Angie Sage
Named one of the New York Public Library’s best books of 2019, Maximillian Fly takes place in a universe in which some people grow up, like Maximillian, to be isolated, insect-like creatures. When two kids need his help, he discovers there are advantages to making friends. One of a growing number of dystopian books for children ages 8 to 12, “it’s full of fun, adventure, humor, irony, friendship, loyalty and nonstop action,” according to School Library Journal.
7. Flowers for the Sea by Zin E. Rocklyn
In this novella from 2021, refugees from a flooded kingdom gather in an ark. A short but powerful book, Zin E. Rocklyn’s Flowers for the Sea follows a pregnant refugee whose child might be more than human. Love classics like Rosemary’s Baby and The Children of Men? This is the dystopian novel for you.
8. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Willy Wonka meets The Matrix—that’s how USA Today described Ready Player One, and it’s an appropriate comparison: Set in 2045 in OASIS, a vast virtual world like the metaverse, the story launches into action when OASIS’s eccentric creator promises a fortune to the first player to solve a series of puzzles in the online universe. Wade Watts, our everyman hero, fights to crack the clues (and avoid rivals) in what is generally considered one of the greatest dystopian books ever written. Published in 2011, this YA novel was adapted into a movie directed by Steven Spielberg. No surprise, the book is much better.
9. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
This legendary title from 1953—one of the most well-known dystopian books and most borrowed books from the New York Public Library—follows a fireman’s journey from burning books to looking for a solution in them. It’s set in a futuristic American city in which people don’t think for themselves or communicate with one another in any meaningful way. With book banning on the rise in recent years and teens forced to create banned book clubs just to read off-limits titles, Fahrenheit 451 is a prescient tale of censorship and a warning for the future.
10. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
In this 2006 New York Times bestseller, an agent collects stories from people from all walks of life who lived through a Zombie plague that nearly destroyed the world. World War Z is a page-turner for those who enjoy horror fiction with realism at its core. “Probably the most topical and literate scare since Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds radio broadcast,” writes the Dallas Morning News. When you finish the book, catch the 2013 action horror film.
11. Gather the Daughters by Jennie Melamed
Told from the viewpoints of four girls who live on an isolated island with no modern conveniences, this 2017 book may remind you of The Handmaid’s Tale. When the girls reach puberty, they’re required to marry and have children. Gather the Daughters, which was nominated for the 2018 Arthur C. Clarke Award, contains a twist that makes it even more haunting than other dystopian books.
12. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This Pulitzer Prize winner about a father and son walking through the ash-covered United States to survive a post-apocalyptic world will give you all the feels. The spare prose adds urgency, and readers will keep flipping to find out whether the unnamed man and boy make it out OK. Though the world of The Road is harsh and the book itself a tearjerker, Cormac McCarthy intricately crafts his emotional tale with enough heart and hope to make it a must-read. Pick this 2006 novel for your next book club—it will undoubtedly spark conversation.
13. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
One of the oldest books on this list (it was published in 1932), Brave New World still feels relevant today. Set in a world in which citizens are engineered into an order based on their intelligence, it warns of the dangers of technology. The Wall Street Journal hailed it as “one of the most prophetic dystopian works of the 20th century.” It often makes an appearance on high school reading lists, but that doesn’t mean it’s been universally beloved since its publication—like many dystopian books, this one has been a victim of book banning as well.
14. The Giver by Lois Lowry
Published in 1993, “The Giver is the OG of dystopia for grades three to seven, offering a first go at ideological critique, right at the time when they might first be questioning their identity and interests outside of familial expectations,” says Liv Hanson, youth content curator at the Chicago Public Library. Telling the story of a 12-year-old who lives in a futuristic society and learns the truth of his utopia, the book challenges readers to think about pain, suffering and individuality in new ways. “It’s choice and identity affirming without skirting the risks we face when we depart from expectations,” Hanson says. Winner of the Newbery Medal, The Giver is a classic work of children’s fiction and a must-read for kids and parents alike. And good news: The Kindle book is free to read with Amazon Kids+.
15. A Wish in the Dark by Christina Soontornvat
Inspired by Les Misérables, this 2021 dystopian novel for kids ages 8 to 12 follows two young people from different social classes on a search for truth and justice. “The sweeping Thai-inspired setting is unique thus far in the genre, and the message is empowering: Be the light you wish to see,” says Hanson. A 2021 Newbery Honor book, A Wish in the Dark is just one of the many children’s books featuring diverse characters that your kids will want on their shelves.
16. Dry by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman
In the 2018 YA novel Dry, a water shortage hits California. A group of teens tries to survive as people quickly turn on one another, becoming violent dehydrated zombies. Then forest fires start. “This is one of the scariest books I’ve ever read, because it could really happen in the near future,” says Amy Duffy, a youth content curator at the Chicago Public Library.
17. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
In this 2011 YA dystopian novel, teens undergo plastic surgery when they turn 16. But what happens when some of them don’t want the surgery? Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies was a smash hit during the mid-2000s dystopian craze, and for good reason: It speaks directly to society’s obsession with beauty. If you’ve never heard of this one, now is your chance to read it before it becomes a movie—Netflix is set to adapt Uglies into a feature film.
18. The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline
Set in a futuristic Canada where acid rain constantly falls from the sky, Cherie Dimaline’s 2017 novel, The Marrow Thieves, asks what happens to Indigenous people in the face of a climate disaster. In this new and unsettling world, only Indigenous citizens can dream, and it’s a gift the rest of society is hungry to steal. The key lies in their bone marrow, which Recruiters want to steal, forcing them into hiding and a fight for survival. “It’s rare to find sci-fi or dystopian books featuring Indigenous characters, and this book really sticks with you for a long time,” says Duffy. This YA novel was the winner of the 2017 Kirkus Prize, among a handful of other literary awards.
19. Autonomous by Annalee Newitz
Written by the founder of go-to sci-fi website io9, this 2017 novel is an insightful and engaging look at hot-button issues, including artificial intelligence and the construction and perception of gender. Set in 2144, Autonomous follows the exploits of an anti-patent scientist and futuristic Robin Hood who delivers cheap drugs to the poor but finds herself in hot water when her latest delivery leads to major problems. On the case are a military agent and his robot partner, who, against all odds, find themselves falling in love.
20. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu
With a Netflix series in the works and plenty of accolades under its belt—it won a Hugo Award, a big deal in the sci-fi world—The Three-Body Problem is a stellar kickoff of a near-future trilogy. The 2014 novel features a secret military project and an alien civilization, plus a society split on whether to fight the invaders or welcome them with open arms. NPR praised it as a “meditation on technology, progress, morality, extinction and knowledge that doubles as a cosmos-in-the-balance thriller.” If you’ve made a point to read more books by Asian authors, this is a good place to start; it was penned by China’s most beloved science fiction writer.
21. Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Told through the journal of a young African American girl who can feel the pain of the people around her, this 1993 novel explores themes of climate change, financial inequality and corporate greed. “In the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time, Octavia Butler’s Parable books may be unmatched,” writes the New Yorker. A powerhouse of the genre, Octavia E. Butler is basically required reading for sci-fi fans. If you loved her novel Kindred, you’ll gobble up this one too.
22. The Power by Naomi Alderman
In the #MeToo era, Naomi Alderman’s The Power is a thought-provoking and often uncomfortable look at what our world might be like if the power dynamic suddenly flipped. Perfect for fans of The Handmaid’s Tale, the novel kicks into action as young women develop superpowers and change gender dynamics the world over. Now, it’s boys and men who fear walking home alone at night. Alderman, the recipient of the 2017 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, tackles the corruptive nature of power in this must-read book for women.
23. Sleep Donation by Karen Russell
A pandemic of insomnia sweeps the nation, and a few women come up with a black-market solution in Sleep Donation, Karen Russell’s 2014 novella, which was named one of Buzzfeed‘s Best Books of the Year. Here’s how it works: Healthy sleepers donate their slumber to insomniacs incapable of naturally catching z’s. But this is a dystopian novel, so the leading sleep-donation organization may not be as benign as protagonist Trish first assumed.
24. The Angel Experiment by James Patterson
In the first volume of the nine-book New York Times–bestselling Maximum Ride book series, half-human, half-wolf Erasers and sinister science experiments complicate life for kids with wings. Recommended for ages 10 and up, 2005’s The Angel Experiment offers James Patterson’s trademark page-turning style, with plenty of action and adventure. A sci-fi film based on the book came out in 2016, but children will probably enjoy the book more.
25. Scythe by Neal Shusterman
Scythe sounds, at first, quite utopian: Humanity has done away with hunger, disease, war and even death. Of course, without death, the population would boom. But there are scythes for that. In this Printz Honor book from 2016, two teen scythe apprentices must learn how to kill people to keep the population under control. Through this compulsively readable YA novel, Neal Shusterman asks what price we’d pay for the ideal world. “Elegant and elegiac, brooding but imbued with gallows humor, Shusterman’s dark tale thrusts realistic, likeable teens into a surreal situation and raises deep philosophic questions,” writes Kirkus Reviews. Fans of the novel will be pleased to know that Universal is producing Scythe as a feature film.
26. Gone Dark by Amanda Panitch
The world-building is eerily realistic in this feminist YA survival novel from 2022. In Amanda Panitch’s Gone Dark, a teen girl must traverse societal, environmental and technical struggles and lead her friends to safety following a power failure that leaves the country in dire straights. “Panitch pulls no punches in this evocative portrayal of a modern-day apocalypse,” writes Publishers Weekly.
27. Legend by Marie Lu
Set in Los Angeles and featuring a diverse cast of characters, high tension and political intrigue, this 2011 dystopian YA thriller will keep readers glued to the page. A criminal and a military prodigy uncover how far their country will go to keep its secrets in a gripping start to one of the most beloved teen book series of all time. Readers will be on the edge of their seats as protagonists June and Day engage in a cat-and-mouse game and, against all odds, fall into an unexpected romance.
28. The Electric Kingdom by David Arnold
If The Walking Dead and The Phantom Tollbooth had a baby, it would be The Electric Kingdom, according to one Goodreads reviewer. A catastrophic “fly flu” sweeps the earth, leaving few survivors. Set in post-apocalyptic New England, this New York Times–bestselling YA novel from 2021 takes readers on a journey through the woods as Nico and other survivors search for a mythical haven.
29. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
This 1962 dystopian satire, which literary legend Roald Dahl called “a terrifying and marvelous book,” follows a teen boy who leads a gang of criminals. A Clockwork Orange is set in a society in which violence is raging—and yes, it is indeed a violent read, but with purpose. Peppered with clever made-up slang, the novel explores the concepts of good and evil and of free will. The book was made into a 1971 film, a classic you should watch (or rewatch) when you’re done with the book.
30. The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
A powerful start to the Broken Earth science-fiction fantasy series, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season takes place in a world in which some people can control earthquakes and other geological features—for good and for evil. Masterfully plotted and featuring themes of loss, power and hope in dark times, the story begins at the end of the world and doesn’t release its grip on readers for a moment.
31. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This 2008 YA blockbuster—the first in a trilogy—took the world by storm, reigniting readers’ hunger for the genre and giving rise to a dystopian craze. The Hunger Games was to the early 2000s dystopian YA scene what Harry Potter was to middle-grade fantasy in the late ’90s. (Harry Potter, however, is firmly fantasy.) It quickly became one of the most popular dystopian novels ever written, leading to loads of merch and four movies. The book focuses on a corrupt government that forces children to battle to the death in televised contests. Sixteen-year-old Katniss volunteers to compete in place of her younger sister and in doing so kicks off a revolution that hinges on basic human rights.
32. Blindness by José Saramago
In this 1997 book by Nobel Prize–winning author José Saramago, characters suddenly go blind when a contagious disease sweeps a city. The afflicted are quarantined in a hospital, but the conditions deteriorate fast. In Blindness, Saramago presents a realistic and frightening tale of human depravity and human triumph. You may need something lighter when you’re done, though, so check out these feel-good books.
33. The Resisters by Gish Jen
If 1984‘s Big Brother chilled you to the bone, The Resisters‘s Aunt Nettie will get you fretting about the future all over again. Gish Jen’s 2020 book is set in AutoAmerica, a country with a large AI-based surveillance presence. Gwen, the novel’s lower-class protagonist, is an exceptional baseball pitcher and has been recruited to play in the Olympics, a gig that could elevate her to an elite social class. The opportunity leads to ethical deliberations—and even readers will question whether an easy life is worth more than resistance to a totalitarian government based on inequality.
34. Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton
A Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018, Stronger, Faster, and More Beautiful explores the profound ethical considerations surrounding genetic manipulation and life extension. What seems like a good idea today—making ourselves stronger, healthier, more beautiful—takes a dark turn in Arwen Elys Dayton’s collection of interrelated stories that take place in a future in which science is no longer the limit. A cautionary tale for a society bent on perfection, the book’s synopsis says it best: “Perfection has a way of getting ugly.”
35. Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson
Fans of bestselling fantasy book author Brandon Sanderson will go wild for Steelheart, a dystopian YA novel that’s one part superhero story, one part post-apocalyptic adventure. The first entry in Sanderson’s The Reckoners series, 2013’s Steelheart is set in a futuristic version of Chicago in which a powerful superhero has declared himself ruler. David Charleston is hell-bent on joining a rebel group to take down the man who killed his father.
36. The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau
Selling more than 4 million copies, The City of Ember focuses on two friends who have to decode an ancient message to save a city that’s the last refuge for humankind. Adapted into a film in 2008, five years after its publication, the novel is a sure bet for kids ages 8 to 12. Bonus: It’s the first of four volumes in a series of dystopian books, which means there’s plenty of great reading ahead.
37. Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
Hailed by the Washington Post as “a work of high literary merit that deserves a place among the classics of dystopian literature,” this 2020 dystopian thriller explores how bonds are made (and reshaped) during troubling times. In Leave the World Behind, two families are forced together during a sudden blackout. They can trust one another … right? This page-turner tackles themes of race and class while keeping readers engaged and unnerved.
38. Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica
Push aside your dinner. You’re not going to want to read this one over a meal, but you are going to want to read it. Agustina Bazterrica’s horrifying Tender Is the Flesh wonders what humans might eat if a virus made animal meat inedible. And let’s just say, they don’t go vegan. This gripping 2017 novel takes society to task for its ability to dehumanize in the name of committing atrocities with clean consciences. It’s a dark, difficult but thought-provoking tale readers will gobble up. When you’re done, check out these other books by Latinx authors. (Trust us: You’ll want to add them all to your to-read list.)
39. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Groundbreaking when it was published in 1924 and paving the way for the dystopian genre, this classic by a Russian author is set in a city of glass 1,000 years in the future. It’s a totalitarian society devoid of passion and individuality that’s turned on its head when one man discovers he has an individual soul. If you read any of the dystopian novels on this list, you’ll no doubt see reflections of them in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s visionary novel that remains relevant nearly a century after it was published.
40. The Book of M by Peng Shepherd
The premise of this 2018 story will instantly hook you: At an outdoor market in India, a man’s shadow disappears. It happens to another person, and another, spreading like wildfire. But shadows aren’t the only things to have gone missing; memories have disappeared too. Amid the confusion, husband-and-wife duo Ory and Max have escaped with their memories intact—until Max loses her shadow. Peng Shepherd’s imaginative story tackles love, loss, survival and the hope we all carry with us. When you’re done, check out the author’s sophomore novel, The Cartographers, one of the best fiction books of 2022.
41. Divergent by Veronica Roth
A blockbuster first novel when it was released in 2011, Veronica Roth’s Divergent hit bestseller lists nationwide and led to a series of movies. The action happens in a dystopian Chicago, in which society is divided into five factions. All 16-year-olds must choose a faction, which will define their futures. As Tris Prior trains with her fearless Dauntless initiates, she’ll have to prove herself brave—and hold tight to a secret that threatens her life.
42. Shatter Me by Tahereh Mafi
The first in a six-book YA series, Shatter Me will grip you from page one: 17-year-old Juliette can kill people with a simple touch, and at the story’s open, she’s in jail to keep everyone safe. But leaders of the dystopian world think she may be their secret weapon. The flowery prose and frequent metaphors, along with stylistic choices that underscore Juliette’s fractured mind, may turn off some readers. But on a whole, teens go wild for this action-packed, romantic read.
43. Little Monarchs by Jonathan Case
In this new dystopian graphic novel for kids ages 8 to 12, Elvie and her biologist caretaker, Flora, found a way to better survive in a harsh world where sunlight has become lethal. Flora makes a potion from the scales of monarch butterfly wings. Can they create enough for everyone? “For a post-apocalyptic survival struggle, Little Monarchs is nothing short of a romp, vibrant with a sense of exploration, adventure and discovery,” raves Booklist.
44. The Wild Huntsboys by Martin Stewart
Love fairy tales? Wish they were a bit more dystopian? Meet The Wild Huntsboys, your new favorite novel. (And yes, this book is aimed at kids ages 8 to 12, but there’s no rule against adults enjoying middle-grade fiction alongside their kiddos.) In Martin Stewart’s action-packed story, three boys caught up in their country’s war accidentally anger the fairies. Now they need to find a solution to all kinds of problems. It’s in a thrilling, adventurous tale kids will love, according to Betsy Bird, collections development manager at the Evanston Public Library in Illinois.
45. H2O by Virginia Bergin
For the ultimate reading experience, pick up Virginia Bergin’s H2O on a dark and stormy night. The first in a dystopian duology, this 2014 YA novel drops readers into a world plagued by deadly rain. Teenage protagonist Ruby has had to grow up fast to survive, but living in such harsh times isn’t easy. She’s faced with a choice: go it alone or make a dangerous trek to find her father, who may or may not be alive. If you’re tightening your purse strings, this is the dystopian book for you—it’s available for free on Kindle Unlimited.