20 Dystopian Novels To Feed Your Need For Escape

However crazy the real world may be sometimes, you can bet that novelists have dreamed up far more twisted and outlandish fates for humanity. A reality show bully with no political experience being elected leader of of the free world may seem like the perfect setup for dystopian satire (and don’t think everyone in Hollywood isn’t already scrambling for the rights). But reality has nothing on these books.

Bloodthirsty superhumans, talking pigs, child mercenaries, lovesick clones — call us crazy, but these are just the kinds of characters we’re itching to snuggle up with right now. From Aldous Huxley to Margaret Atwood, some of the greatest literary minds in history have pondered the consequences of the world going to shit one way or another. Usually, they’re trying to teach us a thing or two we'd do well to remember.

Our game plan? Dive into some postapocalyptic fare — then close the covers, look around, and rest assured that things could always be worse. These are prescient fantasies with a purpose, though, and we’d be remiss not to heed their warnings: The future, it seems, is now. Alternately thrilling and thought-provoking, terrifying and delicious, these dystopian novels will fuel your fire as much as they serve your need for escape.

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Photo: Courtesy of Random House Trade Paperbacks.
Super Sad True Love Story (2010)
By Gary Shteyngart

In the not-so-distant future, a hyper-consumerist America is on the verge of collapse into the hands of Chinese creditors. Mobile devices live-stream owners’ thoughts and “hotness quotients” to the world. Lenny, an unremarkable, middle-aged schlub, meets Eunice, a beautiful and cruelly insecure young Korean-American, and their unlikely, volatile romance unfolds in a New York City on the brink. Hysterical and thought-provoking, Shteyngart’s acclaimed novel will forever change the way you think about intimacy and technology.
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Books.
Animal Farm (1945)
By George Orwell

"All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others." (In other words, never trust a pig on two legs.)
Photo: Courtesy of Anchor.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
By Margaret Atwood

After a terrorist attack blamed on Islamic extremists wipes out the U.S. government, a religious group seizes power and suspends the Constitution. Women are completely stripped of their rights, and most are not allowed to read. The story is narrated by a handmaid named Offred, one of the women kept by the ruling class for purposes of reproduction. Atwood’s groundbreaking novel imagines what might happen if casual misogyny were taken to its most extreme ends. If you’ve been waiting for the right time to pick this one up — now is good.
Photo: Courtesy of Faber and Faber.
Never Let Me Go (2005)
By Kazuo Ishiguro

Imagine a health care system that requires human sacrifice. The good news is, we’re not there...yet. At a peculiar, isolated boarding school in the English countryside, we meet three friends — Ruth, Kathy, and Tommy — whose lives will intertwine in a way they never imagined. Ishiguro’s beautiful and haunting sci-fi romance explores what makes us human — and the power, and limits, of love.
Photo: Courtesy of St. Martin's Griffin.
The Leftovers (2011)
By Tom Perrotta

Perrotta’s novel is named for the people who remain after most of the world’s population vanishes in a Rapture-like event. A compelling exploration of loss and grieving, Perrotta’s book inspired HBO’s series of the same title, starring Justin Theroux.
Photo: Courtesy of Harper Perennial.
Brave New World (1932)
By Aldous Huxley

Huxley’s seminal work of dystopian fiction imagines society in the year 2,540, when a dictatorship known as the World State takes over human reproduction. Children are bred by the government and assigned to different castes, with lower classes psychologically conditioned not to strive for more. Literature is banned, critical thinking is discouraged, and consumption reigns. On the plus side? No one is afraid of death.
Photo: Courtesy of
The Hunger Games (2008)
Catching Fire (2009)
Mockingjay (2010)
By Suzanne Collins

A subtle reminder that things could be worse: We could be sending our youth into annual death battles for the sheer entertainment value of watching them kill each other. Also, may we all remember to channel a bit of Katniss Everdeen’s badassery every day.
Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
Fahrenheit 451 (1953)
By Ray Bradbury

In an unspecified future time, books have been outlawed, and “firemen” are charged with burning any they may find. The title of Bradbury’s chilling novel refers to the temperature at which books are thought to burn. Now might be a good time to back up your Kindles.
Photo: Courtesy of Atheneum Books for Young Readers.
The House Of The Scorpion (2002)
By Nancy Farmer

A boy named Matt is cloned from the drug lord ruling over Opium, a strip of poppy fields between the U.S. and what was once Mexico. Humans implanted with computer chips tend the crop. Farmer’s acclaimed YA novel explores what it means to be human and proves there are no easy answers.
Photo: Courtesy of Random House Trade Paperbacks.
Cloud Atlas (2004)
By David Mitchell

If you even saw a trailer for the Tom Hanks-Halle Berry movie based on this book, you know there is a lot going on. While only one of Mitchell’s six nesting narratives is set in a dystopian future (in Korea), the book basically ditches the whole idea of time and makes the case that apocalypses unfold perpetually rather than take place all at once. Whoa.
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
Children Of Men (1992)
By P.D. James

Set around the corner in 2021, James’ novel imagines the results of mass infertility on the human race. Hope arises in the form of a pregnant woman. Alfonso Cuarón directed the 2006 film adaptation starring Clive Owen and Julianne Moore.
Photo: Courtesy of Penguin Classics.
A Clockwork Orange (1962)
By Anthony Burgess

How do you solve a problem like Alex? In near-future England, the youth have gone wild. Our vicious 15-year-old narrator is arrested for murder and the authorities try to reform him. It does not exactly go well.
Photo: Courtesy of Katherine Tegen Books.
Divergent (2011)
Insurgent (2012)
Allegiant (2013)
By Veronica Roth

Survivors in Roth’s post-apocalyptic Chicago are divided based on character traits into five factions, to which they’re assigned at the age of 16. Protagonist Tris Potter (played by Shailene Woodley in the film series) is, of course, too many things, and risks disrupting the system. With plans for the fourth film-turned-TV-movie still in the balance, you’ll just have to read the books to find out how it all ends.
Photo: Courtesy of Ballantine Books.
Jurassic Park (1990)
By Michael Crichton

Bringing dinosaurs back to life, what could go wrong?
Photo: Courtesy of HMH Books for Young Readers.
The Giver (1993)
By Lois Lowry

After society eradicates pain, grief, and war in favor of “sameness,” a 12-year-old boy is chosen as the Receiver of Memory — someone who remembers what it was like before, so his community can draw on lessons from history. Ultimately, Lowry’s acclaimed YA novel illustrates the symbiotic relationship between pleasure and pain — how can you tell what one is without having experienced the other?
Photo: Courtesy of Vintage.
Station Eleven (2014)
By Emily St. John Mandel

After a swine flu pandemic decimates most of humanity, a troupe of actors and musicians travels around the Great Lakes performing Shakespeare and Bach for settlements of survivors. Weaving back and forth through time, Mandel’s novel explores the fleeting nature of fame and the sustaining power of love and art.
Photo: Courtesy of Ballantine Books.
The Passage (2010)
By Justin Cronin

This not-so-distant futuristic novel begins in 2016, when death row inmates injected with a deadly virus gain superhuman strength and basically become bloodthirsty vampires. At the request of Cronin’s daughter, a little girl is the only one who can save the world.
Photo: Courtesy of Spectra.
The Gate To Women’s Country (1988)
By Sheri S. Tepper

Set 300 years in the future, Tepper’s novel imagines a U.S. fractured into different nations after a great war. Women’s Country, in the Pacific Northwest, has developed a sustainable matriarchy, wherein women and children live inside the walls while men, pretty much only good for making war, live in warrior camps. Sounds about right.
Photo: Courtesy of Vertigo.
V For Vendetta (1988)
By Alan Moore

In a post-apocalyptic U.K., nuclear war in the 1980s has given rise to a brutal fascist regime in the ‘90s. “V” is a revolutionary who takes up the dual cause of personal revenge and democracy for the people. The DC Comics graphic novel was made into a 2006 movie of the same name starring Natalie Portman and and Hugo Weaving.
Photo: Courtesy of Anchor.
The Stand (1978)
By Stephen King

Another instance of plague wiping out most of humanity, only this time, two of the survivors rise up and become rival leaders, and the others must choose sides between the forces of good and evil. Moral of the story: Seriously people, get a flu shot.
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