A still from the TV adaptation of The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. Photo: Hulu

Image credit: Hulu

What makes a good dystopia? Perhaps it's about how much we can imagine the events happening in our world, and the creepy sense of dread that gives us. Or maybe it's that we want to get away from our own times into something we can never, ever imagine happening. Whatever it is, dystopians have been providing it for us for years.

From Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Handmaid's Tale to more modern nightmares like The Water Cure and The Power, these novels are chilling visions of where humanity could end up if it all goes really, really wrong.

And if you're still looking for more recommendations after you've worked your way through this list, take a look at our piece on the best science fiction books to take you to new worlds, or head to our 100 must-read classics list for reading inspiration.

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)

We said: The novel that gave birth to Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World? Perhaps. There's no denying the influence of this early dystopia in which, a thousand years after the world has been conquered, humanity lives in totalitarian 'harmony'. That is until D-503, a mathematician who dreams in numbers, makes a discovery: he has an individual soul. To quote from the book: "You're in a bad way! Apparently, you have developed a soul.”

They said: Nearly a century on, it continues to warn of the dangers of creating harmonious misery.

Nick S, Twitter

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985)

We said: You've seen the TV show. You've winced at the fancy dress costumes. Now read arguably the most pertinent dystopia of our times in which women's bodies are the battle ground between a repressive state and an underground rebellion. Offred the Handmaid is our guide through this hellish vision of America's future, as she is forced to carry children for a high-ranking Commander and his wife. The cultural resonance of Margaret Atwood's novel continues to grow, with a much-anticipated sequel due out this year.

They said: This is one of my favourite dystopian novels. It’s a quiet type of dystopia, in that it doesn’t feel totally impossible, which makes its impact all the greater in my opinion.

headinthepages, Instagram
 

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

We said: Are you an Alpha, a Beta or a Gamma? Surely not a Delta... Geniocracy - that's intelligence-based social hierarchies - is the primary subject of arguably the world's third-best known dystopia (no prizes for guessing the first two), in which World Controllers have created a utopian society where everyone is happy – or at least, taking happiness drugs. Our hero is psychologist Bernard who seems alone in his feelings of discontent, and longs to break free.

They said: For me, it's the ultimate dystopia. What seems utopian, is actually a nightmarish world beneath the surface, and all the more haunting for it.

Neil F, Twitter

The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster (1909)

We said: E. M. Forster's sci-fi novel predicted the rise of the Internet and our dependency on it - which is pretty damn prescient considering it was written 100 years ago. The omnipotent 'Machine' of the title provides a society driven below ground with its every need. It even has instant messenger. But who created the Machine in the first place? You can probably guess. The only novella on this list, you can comfortably read The Machine Stops in a day, leaving the night free to anxiously contemplate it.

They said: A book that is prescient about our addiction to technology and the Internet age from 1909.

Grace W, Twitter

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

We said: The book most people think of when they hear the word, Orwell's dystopia shot straight to the top of the bestseller charts when Donald Trump was inaugurated in 2017, which may be the most damning verdict on his presidency yet. You know the story: the year is 1984 and Winston is living in a world ruled by state interference where even intimate thoughts are a crime. Cue a love interest, and a scene with a rat that'll scuttle through your nightmares for weeks.

They said: I believe that Orwell had the power to travel to the future and back. That's why he wrote such a visionary book.

miliinlove, Instagram

Noughts & Crosses by Malorie Blackman (2001)

We said: Malorie Blackman's award-winning series depicts an alternative 21st-century Britain beset by racial tension and eruptions of violence. Sephy is a Cross: dark-skinned and beautiful, living a privileged life. Callum is a Nought: pale-skinned and poor. Naturally they fall in love and things don't work out quite to plan, in a story that seems to grow in influence and stature with every year. 

They said: Probably one of the first books I ever bought, and I am only just getting to it now. But I'm loving it!

itsamanda_jo, Instagram

It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (1935)

We said: A vain, unconventional, vehemently anti-immigrant demagogue wins the US presidency. Sound familiar? Lewis' satirical novel, written in the historical wake of Mussolini and Hitler, was meant as a commentary on European fascism but found terrifying new resonance closer to home for American audiences.

They said: Chillingly shatters the comforting idea we all cherish that dystopia is impossible in modern society.

jakesaviletucker, Instagram

The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016)

We said: Women all over the world discover they have the ability to inflict pain with a mere flick of their fingers, which, in Alderman's Women's Prize-winning novel, doesn't end well. A brilliant and urgent look at power and how it can be abused.

They said: The Power reverses centuries of patriarchal power with a huge ‘What if?'. A clever, disturbing and darkly funny novel.

Michelle R, Facebook

Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992)

We said: What would the world look like if Hitler had won the war? Harris' gripping Fatherland paints this picture. Set in the 60s long after the Nazi war has been won, conspiracies are discovered that could unravel it, in a chilling reimagining of history.

They said: Absolutely gripping both as a mystery and as a bleak 'what might have been' setting.

Paul L, Twitter

The Wool Trilogy by Hugh Howey (2014)

We said: In subterranean city Silo, humanity struggles to survive against terrible odds while under strict governmental control. Leaving Silo is a crime punishable by death, but when Jules is sent outside of the city on a job, what she learns changes everything. A post-apocalyptic trilogy for fans of The Hunger Games.

They said: There are so many levels to this book and it spans generations. The main character is unforgettable. You'll never want it to end.

BonnyLani, Twitter

The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

We said: In a post-apocalyptic world, humanity has been blinded by a freak meteor shower. If that's not enough, a huge, venomous and locomotive plant species known as 'Triffids' roam the Earth - with a taste for human flesh!  Will the plants overthrow the humans? Wydham's classic catastrophe novel and iconic storyline inspired countless copycats, while terrifying a generation.

They said: This book describes how easily society could collapse. Scary and still relevant.

Anne L, Twitter

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

We said: Named after a real-life slaughterhouse where Vonnegut was held captive as a prisoner-of-war, Slaughterhouse 5 is an intimate, anti-war masterpiece. Only Vonnegut could channel horrific experiences endured into a fictional novel: 'How nice -- to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive', he writes.

They said: In my opinion it contains many key elements of a classic dystopian: world war, an unreliable narrator, intersection with sci-fi, questions of free will, and the perception of unimportant human life.

Mia N, Twitter

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962)

We said: In a nightmarish future, teenager Alex is perversely rampaging with his gang of friends - think theft, murder and rape. That is, until the state authorities capture him and attempt to 'correct' him through a series of therapies. But what is the nature of his reconditioning? Burgess' darkly-humoured novel explores the fragility of freedom in the face of repression.

They said: The novel poses an intriguing philosophical question of whether a man ceases to be a man when stripped of his freedom of choice, and whether brainwashing is a greater crime against humanity than the deeds committed freely by a sociopath.

Steve E, Twitter

The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (1895)

We said: A time traveller from the Victorian era propels himself into the future to discover that Earth has become a utopia. But, when his time travelling device disappears, he has no choice but to venture down the deep, ominous tunnels in desperate search of returning to his own time. H. G. Wells defined a genre with his 1985 novel which questions everything we know about humanity and society. 

They said: This book shows primal examples of a futurist class divide that pretty much goes full circle. A very encapsulating read!

herowhelan, Instagram

Eve of Man by Giovanna & Tom Fletcher (2018)

We said:  After a mysterious decline in female births, the first girl is born in 50 years. They call her Eve, and raise her alone in the Tower with the fate of the human race resting in her hands. Three male suitors are selected, but when she meets commoner Bran, she begins to crave freedom. The first in a trilogy from bestselling authors Giovanna and Tom Fletcher. 

They said: This is such a beautiful love story, but also about a young woman finding herself in a world of power and technology. It draws parallels from today and how many young people feel like they have to live up to other people’s expectations of them.

mollyco21, Instagram

The Water Cure by Sophie Mackintosh (2018)

We said: A family lives on an isolated island, having fled society to avoid a 'sickness' that seems mysteriously attached to men. When a boat of male stowaways lands on their beach, the sisters are fearful but eventually, through their own untethered curiosity, welcome them in. Without their father to guide them, whose whereabouts are also ominous, their newfound companions lead to danger. An extraordinary debut that was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018. 

They said: Chilling as it shows how womanhood can be used as a weapon against us, a wool pulled over our eyes to exploit and manipulate.

deathsabforgutie, Instagram

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)

We said: An allegorical tale of a post-apocalyptic society who have the ability to communicate telepathically. Its themes of religious fundamentalism, persecution and intolerance make this classic deeply and terrifyingly relevant.

They said: In The Chrysalids, religious fundamentalism dominates a post-apocalyptic society. The narrative arc charting how the different are hunted and persecuted is frightening even now, when I read it as an adult.

Deborah B, Twitter

Anthem by Ayn Rand (1938)

We said: Fans of The Hunger Games and The Divergent series will recognise many similar themes in this modern classic. First published in 1938, the story explores a world where individualism is banned, and its inhabitants work as collectives, assigned their rightful place by The Council of Vocations. Our hero Equality 7-2521 knows he is different and attempts to find his own vocation and fall in love. It is a story highlighting the need for us all to claim our identity, individualism and the important fight for equality. 

They said: No matter what inequality faces humanity there will always be that one individual who'll always break free of the constraints.

David A, Facebook

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut (1963)

We said: The second Vonnegut novel to make the list is his entertaining and ironic take on the end of the world. With a missing lethal chemical weapon capable of freezing the entire planet, it is a race against time to find it. Behind the black humour is Vonnegut’s dark message highlighting the dangers of man’s relation to technology. 

They said: A cautionary tale of how human curiosity can go wrong, horribly wrong! 

Mildred F, Facebook

Animal Farm by George Orwell (1944)

We said: Orwell's classic fable is a lasting lesson in how revolution can go wrong and its relevance is still felt today.  When the animals at Manor Farm stage a revolt to drive against the humans, their new-found autonomy is briefly celebrated before a new form of tyranny is replaced. After all, 'All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.'

They said: This book is frighteningly apt in the current political climate. 

ginnyevvans44, Instagram

Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)

We said: Unsatisfied salesman Gregor wakes one morning transformed into a giant, cockroach-like insect that cannot speak. As his family struggle to accept his new 'form', their horror turns to a terrible indifference. There is so much to get from reading into each character as they all have to adapt to change.

They said: Kafka's Metamorphosis stayed with me a long time after I had finished reading it. The bleak themes of isolation and identity can also be easily translated from the page to society today.

Tom F, Instagram

China Dream by Ma Jian (2018)

We said: When the lecherous Ma Daode is appointed director of the Chinese Dream Bureau, his plans for totalitarianism are unravelled as sinister nightmares begin to invade his sleep, infecting his sanity. A brilliant satire in which buried dreams can have damaging effects. 

They said: China Dream is a bleakly funny and Orwellian satire on the consequences of totalitarianism and censorship. It feels very relevant to the world we all live in.

Sally W, Facebook

Books ranked in no particular order. Some answers have been edited for clarity and style.  

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