Dystopian fiction has long been an enduring piece of the literary landscape stretching from H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine to George Orwell’s 1984 to the various works of Margaret Atwood and the recent explosion of young adult dystopias. Like much of great science fiction and speculative fiction, the best of the dystopian genre gains its considerable power by imagining worlds and futures not that far removed from our own – by positing terrifying outcomes that are often eerily and uncomfortably plausible. Whether it’s imagining the role of women in a theocratic autocracy or the chilling practical uses of cloning or the ever-further-reaching surveillance state, dystopias fascinate because they are often unnervingly plausible even if in a worst-case-scenario kind of way.
While dystopian fiction saw its arguable golden age with the likes of Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury, the genre has enjoyed a rekindling of sorts in the last decade or so – although the roots of that stretch back quite a bit farther. Interestingly, despite the intervening years and changing technologies, the imagined worlds of dystopian fiction in 2013 aren’t that different from those imagined in novels like Brave New World or Fahrenheit 451. With his bestseller The Circle, Dave Eggers contemplates a near-future that, while wholly modern, would likely not surprise Orwell. The Circle illustrates with chilling foresight that hive mind and mob rule are all-too-possible pitfalls in a time of big data, Edward Snowden, and ever-present smart devices. Dystopian fiction is as powerful and alluring today as it was decades ago and whether that’s cause for alarm sometimes feels less debatable than it probably should. Tales of collapsing societies and despotic future regimes remain an influential piece of the literary tapestry and with “The Circle,” an adaptation of Eggers’s bestselling novel, in theaters April 28, we’ve pulled together a handful of the most influential – and unnervingly prescient – contemporary dystopian novels.
Best-selling author and McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers stunned us all in 2000 with his searingly honest memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and he hasn’t slowed down since. In 2013 he published his tenth work of fiction, The Circle, a dark, fast-paced novel that addresses such ominously relevant issues as privacy, healthcare, and technology. For a point of view on just how bad it could get, read it now.
Any conversation about influential contemporary dystopian fiction has to begin with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It is a powerful, haunting, and enduring piece of speculative fiction and, upon its 1985 publication, positioned Atwood as one of the most celebrated authors of the latter twentieth century. Set in a near future version of the United States in the ironclad grip of a theocratic regime, The Handmaid’s Tale is not only a literary landmark, but remains as chillingly relevant today as when it was first published – and perhaps more so. The Handmaid’s Tale was recently adapted into a series by Hulu.
The Hunger Games is perhaps the best-known dystopia of the last decade and led the charge in a resurgence of dystopian literature focused on young adults that included titles like The Maze Runner, Divergent, and Ship Breaker. The story centers on Katniss Everdeen, a girl in District Twelve of the nation of Panem (formerly North America) who becomes a contestant in a deadly annual reality series known as The Hunger Games. The book is the first in a bestselling trilogy and served as the basis for a quartet of blockbuster films.
Cormac McCarthy is one of the most celebrated writers of his generation. His frank and often startling prose is as evocative as it is sparse and declarative. His novel No Country for Old Men was adapted into an Oscar-winning film. Blood Meridian was named to Time’s list of 100 Best English-Language Books Since 1923. McCarthy is also a MacArthur Fellow, and has won both National Book Award (All the Pretty Horses) and the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. The latter award was received for The Road, a searing post-apocalyptic tale of a father and son struggling to traverse the remains of North America. It is arguably his finest work.
Emily St. John Mandel
Set in the early days of the collapse of civilization following a brutal pandemic, Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, Station Eleven, follows a group of nomadic actors through the scattered outposts of the remnants of the Great Lakes region. Spanning decades and shifting between time periods, Station Eleven is a profound and elegiac work of dystopian fiction.
A Novel (Book One of The Passage Trilogy)
In this New York Times bestseller, Justin Cronin has crafted a sprawling and imaginative tale that spans decades and sees the collapse of society amid a government experiment gone horribly wrong. The novel largely centers around Amy, a young girl abandoned by her mother and eventually left to come of age wandering a desolate landscape with the terrifying knowledge that she may hold the key to saving what’s left of humanity.
Set in the year 2044, Ready Player One follows Wade Watts, a desperate and intelligent teenager obsessed with solving the puzzles hidden within the virtual reality utopia known as the OASIS – puzzles built around their creator’s pop culture obsessions and that promise power and fortune to whoever can crack them. Filled with clever allusions to videogame history and steeped in all manner of 1980s pop culture, Ernest Cline knows his target audience well.
Stephen King’s sprawling epic of a world ruined by pandemic and the cataclysmic struggle between good and evil that ensues is one of his most celebrated novels. Combining classic dystopian fiction with King’s trademark supernatural horror, The Stand spans dozens of characters and a vividly realized world where society has collapsed and the remnants of humanity struggle to find a way forward.
Never Let Me Go largely centers on three friends – Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy – at an isolated boarding school in the English countryside. The school is a mysterious and mercurial place with bizarre rules and constant reminders of how special the students are. It is only when the three unite years later that they begin to see the school for what it really was and precisely what made them special. It is a profound and haunting examination of power, love, and what it means to be human.
David Foster Wallace
There’s a very good chance that the word “sprawling” was crafted with the forthcoming birth of Infinite Jest in mind. Set in a dystopic version of North America, Infinite Jest defies easy characterization or summarization. In broad terms, the novel centers on the denizens of an elite junior tennis academy and a nearby substance abuse center. But those are only the broadest strokes, as Wallace’s satirical, metamodern magnum opus spans several years and dozens of characters and subplots while touching on subjects ranging from addiction to suicide to film theory and society’s increasing reliance on entertainment. It’s the deepest of deep dives, and a fascinating one at that.
Imagining a near-future with a hyper-consumerist American economy on the brink of collapse to Chinese creditors, Shteyngart crafts a thought-provoking, oft-hysterical romance. Centering on Lenny, an unremarkable man fascinated with “printed, bound media artifacts” and Eunice, a terribly insecure Korean American woman, Super Sad True Love Story chronicles their volatile romance against the backdrop of society’s impending collapse.
Beginning in in 1850 and rolling through a post-apocalyptic near future, Mitchell’s ambitious bestselling novel weaves a tapestry of characters inextricably connected across time periods. Moving between eras and characters seamlessly, Cloud Atlas is a complex and engrossing story of interconnecting fate and a mind-bending piece of speculative fiction. The novel was adapted into a film in 2012.
In a near-future society the human race has become infertile and the last generation of children have now become adults. The world has become a despondent place rife with suicide. The novel centers on Oxford historian Theo Faron who becomes entangled with a band of dissidents who refuse to accept humanity’s fate and may hold the key to survival. Children of Men was adapted into a film by Alfonso Cuaron in 2006.