13 Dystopian Novels Guaranteed to Make You Think

Here’s a look at some of the foundational works of dystopian fiction that helped build the genre, as well as thought-provoking modern-day dystopian novels for both adults and teens.

Person in a blue shirt holding a copy of Fahrenheit 451 up to the camera

The dystopian genre has seen a big resurgence of late, thanks to books like Suzanne Collins’s series The Hunger Games, which took the book world by storm in the early 2000s. The Hunger Games trilogy has sold over 100 million copies globally, and sparked a broader interest in dystopian literature. For anyone fascinated by this genre and wanting to deepen their experience of it, here’s a baker’s dozen of dystopian novels, including the big “must read” ones as well as lesser-known dystopian books and series.

What Is Dystopian Literature?

Before we begin, let me set up some parameters for what’s included in the dystopian genre. Dystopian literature is a subgenre of speculative fiction, and sometimes includes crossovers into the science fiction or post-apocalyptic genres. But whether or not a dystopian book has elements of sci-fi or apocalypse, for it to be dystopian it must explore societal structures at some level. Dystopias are societies that are ultimately problematic–dehumanizing, capitalizing on poverty and oppression, and only a utopia for an elite few. The best dystopian novels explore how the protagonists become aware of the flaws in their society and choose to act in response to their disillusionment.

Why Do People Read Dystopian Novels?

There’s no question this genre can be a bit bleak, so why is it important to still read dystopian fiction? I think it’s because dystopian novels give us a lens through which we can view and critique our own society, reminding us that sometimes it’s important–and even necessary–to go against the status quo.

Dystopian books are also exciting! Because of their page-turner nature, reading a well-written dystopian novel is one of the best ways to get back into reading books if you’ve lost the habit. Worth noting, dystopian literature tends to be more gritty, so if you come across a new-to-you title you may wish to vet it for content concerns.

Open book going up in flames

Classic Dystopian Books

Early dystopian fiction was often a response to the utopias posited in earlier books, such as Sir Thomas More’s seminal work Utopia, published in 1516. (In fact, More is the one who coined the term “utopia” in the first place!) Classic dystopian books also speculate on the trajectory of contemporary society in the twentieth century and beyond, satirizing the problems in government, technology, and propaganda that surged during the World Wars. Dystopian novels can hold their own in the literary canon; several of the ones in this post are among my list of best classic books to read of all time.

The Time Machine (Penguin Classics)

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

H. G. Wells began his career as a novelist with a bang: The Time Machine was his first book, and remains one of the most influential science fiction novels ever written. Wells invented the concept of a machine as a means of time travel, sending his protagonist from Victorian England thousands of years into the distant future. 

Arriving in the year 802,701 the Time Traveler discovers a garden-like world where humans have apparently evolved into child-like, carefree beings called Eloi. Their society seems peaceful and idyllic, but there are traces of something lurking beneath the surface. The Eloi are terrified of the dark, especially on moonless nights, and sometimes Eloi go missing in the night, never to be heard from again. As the Time Traveler learns more about this strange civilization, he discovers the horrifying truth of the future the human race may one day face.

Another famous dystopian novel by H. G. Wells was The Sleeper Awakes, published in 1910. Wells also experimented with utopian fiction in novels like The Shape of Things to Come and Men Like Gods.

The Iron Heel: 100th Anniversary Collection

The Iron Heel by Jack London (1908)

London’s dystopian novel envisions a fictional world in which wealthy capitalists, feeling threatened by a rising tide of socialism, have established a tyrannical dictatorship in order to maintain control. Unusual for London–and for other male novelists of his day–The Iron Heel has a first-person female narrator. The heroine, Avis Everhard, is a critic and rebel against the Oligarch dictatorship. The bulk of the novel follows her documentation of the brutal horrors imposed against the working class, as well as her husband’s attempts to champion the masses.

We (Penguin Vitae)

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1921)

We is an early dystopian novel that paved the literary landscape for dystopian classics like Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. We takes place in the future, when the One State has conquered the entire world and now operates a totalitarian state whose citizens ostensibly live in perfect harmony and uniformity. The novel’s protagonist is a spacecraft engineer known as D-503, who dutifully works for the government and lives in a glass building monitored by the secret police. Everything changes when D-503 meets a most unusual woman, who introduces him to an underground organization plotting the destruction of the One State.

We was censored and banned from publication in Russia, prompting Zamyatin to smuggle the book to the West for publication in 1924.

Brave New World and Brave New World Revisited

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)

Huxley’s famous dystopian novel posits a meticulously-regulated, perfect society overseen by the World State. The government maintains peace among its citizens by administering “soma,” a soothing, happiness-inducing drug. Psychologist Bernard Marx is openly critical of the drug, but he is soon threatened with exile for his dangerous views. To stave off expulsion, Marx travels to the nearby Savage Reservation. There he meets a young man whom he believes could hold the key to re-establishing him in the good graces of the ruling class.


Kallocain by Karin Boye (1940)

Karin Boye was a Swedish poet and novelist who was inspired to write Kallocain after a visit to Germany, as Nazism and Fascism were on the rise. Boye’s novel centers around Leo Kall, a chemist who develops kallocain–a truth-serum drug. Kall hopes the drug will be a useful tool for the World State he serves. But if Kall created such a boon for the government, why is he telling his story from prison? You’ll have to read his narrative to find out!

Nineteen Eighty-Four: George Orwell (Penguin Clothbound Classics)

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949)

War rages in Orwell’s bleak world, and Great Britain has been superseded by Oceania, a powerful state spearheaded by Big Brother. Unlike Huxley’s Brave New World, where the people are controlled via pleasure and distraction, in Nineteen Eighty-Four brute force, mass surveillance, and blatant propaganda rule the day. Winston Smith serves as the novel’s protagonist and everyman, who is a dutiful worker but secretly chafes against the repressive, authoritarian regime. Smith finds a glimmer of hope when he learns about The Brotherhood, a secret resistance organization. But does The Brotherhood really stand a chance against Big Brother? And who can Smith trust with his true feelings about the State?

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel imagines a future society that is technologically-advanced, yet full of people who are unable to think for themselves. Books are illegal because they introduce dangerous ideas, and therefore the government employs “firefighters” to burn contraband books and the houses that shelter them. The protagonist Guy Montag is a firefighter, but one day while on the job he steals a book and brings it home to read. Searching for meaning in his empty life, Montag begins reading books in secret–but this act of defiance will not go unpunished. Bradbury’s novel is a chilling indictment against censorship and conformity to mass media and entertainment-based technology. But unlike many dystopian books, Fahrenheit 451 ends with a flicker of hope.

Lord of the Flies: Text, Notes & Criticism

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)

In a presumably post-apocalyptic world, a plane of boy evacuees crashes on a tropical island. Exhilarated by the prospect of living in an island paradise with no adults to tell them what to do, the boys begin to form their own society with rudimentary rules. Golding expertly weaves allegory and symbolism into a riveting plot as the boys’ utopia quickly devolves into a nightmare, exposing the darkness lurking at the core of human nature.

Contemporary Dystopian Books

Modern-day dystopian fiction explores themes common in earlier dystopian literature such as surveillance, propaganda, and homogenization, while also probing more contemporary themes like genetics and human engineering. A good contemporary dystopian novel is a book that will make you think, because you’ll see that the problems in the world of the book may reflect the ones we face in our own society today.

The Children of Men

The Children of Men by P. D. James (1992)

Although P. D. James is mostly known for her mystery novels, her book The Children of Men is an important addition to the canon of dystopian fiction. The book describes a bleak contemporary world where men have become completely infertile. With no collective future to look forward to, humankind adopts a trivial and apathetic view of life. The novel is partially narrated by Theo Faron, an Oxford professor who is approached by a group of revolutionaries hoping to gain access to Faron’s cousin, the despotic Warden of England. Initially, the Warden refuses to take the revolutionaries seriously. Then something shocking occurs, sending the dissidents on the run and putting the future of the human race once again at stake.

The Giver: A Newbery Award Winner (Giver Quartet, 1)

The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)

Although written for a young adult audience, no list of dystopian books is complete without Lowry’s The Giver. Winner of the 1994 Newberry Medal, the book remains one of the bestselling children’s novels of all time. The Giver takes place in what appears to be a utopian society, where everyone in the Community exists peaceably and free of pain. This calm existence comes at a price, however, as the Community has also given up any strong emotion at all, and the landscape is devoid of colors, terrain features, and climate. 

When the protagonist, Jonas, turns 12, he and each of his peers are assigned the role in society that will serve as their career for life. Jonas becomes the sole apprentice to the Receiver of Memory, who bears the burden of all the memories of suffering, grief, and pain from humanity’s past, as well as its forbidden joys and the experiences of color, light, frost, and heat. As Jonas begins to comprehend the flaws in the system, he makes a plan to change his Community forever.

Other books by Lois Lowry include Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son, which all take place in the same universe as The Giver. These can also be purchased in an omnibus volume.

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005)

Never Let Me Go is a modern Gothic dystopian novel by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2017. The book is narrated in an understated, restrained style but explores universal themes of mortality, identity, and belonging. Set in an alternate-reality version of England in the 1990s, the book follows three friends at an elite boarding school, who are constantly told that they are special–but are never told why. Gradually, you learn the haunting truth about the children and the inevitable future that awaits them.

Breeder (The Breeder Cycle)

The Breeder Cycle by K. B. Hoyle

Anyone looking for a smart, page-turning YA dystopian series for teens that’s not a rehash of The Hunger Games should make K. B. Hoyle’s Breeder Cycle their next read. The trilogy, which includes Breeder, Criminal, and Clone, tells the story of Pria, a beautiful young woman who enjoys a privileged status as a Breeder in the Unified World Order. But when a man named Pax breaks her out of the idyllic Sanctuary where she lives with other Breeders, Pria begins to question everything she thought she knew about the “benevolent” society she’s supposed to be populating. 
Hoyle also wrote a standalone prequel to the Breeder Cycle, Hunter, which is an apocalyptic novel that occurs 200 years prior to the events in Breeder.

Poster Girl: A Novel

Poster Girl by Veronica Roth (2022)

Veronica Roth–who also authored the bestseller young adult novels in the Divergent series–offers up an adult dystopian novel with Poster Girl. The story takes place ten years after the overthrow of a totalitarian, surveillance-heavy regime known as the Delegation. Sonya Kantor is a former poster girl for the Delegation, currently serving a life sentence in prison. When she’s offered a chance at pardon in exchange for finding a missing girl, Sonya embarks on a journey that leads to startling discoveries about her own family’s past, and reveals the corruption that still festers within the new, rebuilt society.

What dystopian novels have you read? What did you find compelling or thought provoking about them?

13 Dystopian Novels Guaranteed to Make You Think

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  1. The only book on this list that I’ve read is The Giver – my daughter and I listened to the four books in the series last school year during our drives to and from school. They gave us a lot of talking points. Otherwise, I enjoy less tense books as a general rule. 😉 One lighter dystopian book I’ve read is Ella Minnow Pea.

  2. I have not been a reader of dystopian novels, though I did read Lord of the Flies many years back. Many references to 1984 and Brave New World come to attention in discourses on the nature of the times. I did see the movie Fahrenheit 451 in past. I would recommend a contemporary novel, Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro as a now novel with AI and human like robots as “friends”…a thoughtful book about more purely friends.

    1. Oh, I forgot there was a movie version of Fahrenheit 451! I’ll have to give that a watch. Thanks for the other book recommendation, too!

  3. I guess I’m strange, but there are times when I *crave* a dystopian book. I would also put forward the Madd Addam triology and The Handmaid’s Tale, both by Margaret Atwood (one of my favorite authors!) There were only four books here I am familiar with, so as always, thank you for giving me a short list of books that I’ve never heard of or read before!

    1. You’re welcome! And wow–interesting palindrome title there! Does some type of mirroring play into the Madd Addam trilogy?

  4. So glad to see Never Let Me Go here!! I read that book last year and it has stuck with me ever since. I found it incredibly moving and thought-provoking, and it has helped me think differently about my own life and what I take for granted.

  5. Great list, can’t wait to pick one. I’m a fan of dystopian fiction, I don’t think it has to be depressing, more thought provoking! I also think John Wyndham would be a good pick, the Midwitch Cuckoos or Day of the Triffids are both great! Really enjoyed War of the Worlds last year too. Thanks as always x

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