Books + Comics

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Dystopian Fiction

The future is bleak, unless we change it.

Illustration by Beth.

Illustration by Beth.

My rural school district used some very old English textbooks. If you flipped through enough of them, you might find your parents’ names written inside one of the covers. When I was in middle school in 1999, I found this gem in one such book: a creative writing assignment that asked readers to imagine life in the year 2000. The accompanying illustration was of flying cars. While I obviously wouldn’t mind owning an airborne vehicle of my own, the technological advancements we enjoy now seem even cooler to me. Like, my phone is also a tiny computer that can take videos, hold a library’s worth of books, or even teach me Spanish! I’m living in a future that’s even more “futuristic” than those old textbooks predicted, and I love it. But no matter how advanced our world becomes, I’ll always be interested in thinking even farther ahead. This is one reason I adore dystopian science fiction, which explores how political and/or technological changes can destroy a society.

You’ve probably read at least one dystopian novel. The Hunger Games trilogy takes place in a dystopia, which is an imagined civilization or community where, usually because of a totalitarian authority, things have gone horribly wrong. So do Brave New World, the Delirium series, and Cloud Atlas. Some end well and some badly, but they always warn against some horrible outcome that we might be headed toward—unless we start paying attention now. And in doing so, they get us to pay that attention.

Another thing I love about these stories is that, regardless of how weird or terrible or wondrous the futures they foretell may be, they’re still about people. They eat, sleep, and fall in and out of love the way you and I do today…just in completely bizarre and complex settings. While I have major issues with author Orson Scott Card’s personal views, the characters and plots of his Ender’s Game series shaped my childhood. If you’re not familiar, those books are set on a futuristic Earth under threat of alien invasion. In order to protect the planet, its smartest, toughest children, including the titular main character, Ender Wiggin, are sent to a space station to train to become officers who will direct Earth’s military fleets.

Pretty much all the children in 1994′s Ender’s Game and its four sequels are super-geniuses, but they have the same desires, relationships, and problems as you and me and anyone we know. Ender’s sister, Valentine, was always my favorite. She and their other brother, Peter, take the book’s version of the internet by storm and subtly influence the entire world’s media by inventing a couple of political pundits and setting them against each other online. As a kid, I couldn’t picture myself as an interplanetary soldier, but I always admired Valentine’s power with words. The book taught me that no matter what the future held, there would be people doing cool things that I wanted to be a part of in it.

Ender’s Game wasn’t just aspirational for me, though—it also felt relevant to my life on boring old present-day Earth. When I read a scene where Ender is taunted by one of the other young commanders, his struggle felt like an outsize version of what happened on the schoolyards in my past. When (spoiler ahead) Ender finally beats his antagonist in an unlikely but incredibly satisfying manner, I felt like I had defeated my own bullies. That feeling of satisfaction stuck with me in a very meaningful way.

While space dramas like Ender’s Game are always going to seem extra cool to me (even when you’re lost in a distant galaxy with Cylons or Wraiths picking you off one by one, you’re still hanging out with the stars in zero gravity), other works of science fiction focus on a bleaker future right here on our home turf, or an analogue planet that’s also inhabited by humans. In Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale, the protagonist, Offred, grows up fairly unremarkably in the United States. But during a period of national turmoil, including an unexplained drop in fertility, the U.S. government is taken over by a hyper-religious oppressive regime that enslaves women—including Offred—and forces them to bear children for members of the new government and military. This book is way scarier than anything in the horror section, because Atwood renders every detail so realistically that I felt like I could easily meet the same fate as Offred. (And Atwood hints that the infertility epidemic came about because of environmental instabilities similar to the ones that our real-world planet faces now.) I love stuff like this! When I mentioned my love of dystopian fiction in our staff Facebook cubbyhole, my girl Ragini took the words out of my mouth: “The best (and scariest) dystopias don’t seem like possible futures to me—they seem like very real presents we’re actually living through.”

In The Handmaid’s Tale, as well as in 1984 and The Hunger Games, the enemy is the government. In R.U.R., it’s technology. In The Giver (in which pain, hunger, and uncertainty have been extinguished at the expense of love, freedom, and choice) it’s our own aversion to discomfort. What they all have in common is a paranoia about power and progress that doesn’t seem unreasonable, given the way things are going. I mean, the NSA could be reading my emails RIGHT NOW. My internet history is being shared with advertisers as we speak. Heck, someone could be hoarding bits of my DNA, waiting for the invention of some technology that will enable them to creepy clone. ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE.

But as terrifying as dystopian stories can feel, the greatest among them, in my opinion, are defined by their optimistic faith in the human spirit. You can’t create a great hero in a perfect world—that hero has to have something to fight against. The fictional environments in my favorite sci-fi novels are inhabited by regular people who rise to great heights to make their dreary presents a better place. The Hunger Games’ Katniss isn’t some godlike superhuman figure—she’s a teenage girl, and we understand her. In the beginning, her goals are small. She wants her family to be well-fed and safe in a world where those things aren’t guaranteed. She volunteers to fight to the death as a Hunger Games tribute to save her little sister. My lived reality might not be as terrifying as hers, but I can relate to her anyway—I can share in, and learn from, her fear and determination.

Stephanie has a really cool view on why dystopias with young heroes work especially well: “I love any dystopia where the kids/teens have to fend for themselves and save the world because that is reality in a lot of ways. As a young person, it can feel like you’re constantly hearing, ‘Hey, all the generations before you really fucked up the Earth, and now you have to fix it.’ It takes a strong Katniss (or Rookie!) generation to make that happen. So in that way, dystopian [fiction] gives me hope.”

I love sci-fi so much because it allows us to explore so many new ideas and possible futures—ranging from cool technologies to the fall of society—while showing us that, no matter where or how we live, the essence of what it means to be human will never change. I can relate to Offred’s joys and struggles, Katniss’s deep love for her family, and Ender’s and Valentine’s commitment to doing things their own way. Works of dystopian fiction are so wonderful because they empower people like you and me to change the world. And that, to me, will always be cooler than any flying car could be. ♦

39 Comments

  • ebcstar January 14th, 2014 7:20 PM

    I love dystopian novels, one of my favorites though is The Road. It feels very real, and it’s very terrifying, the prose is also achingly beautiful. Brave New World is also really good, like the giver it’s about a society that extinguishes hunger, uncertainty, and poverty, while also killing love,families, choice, freedom, and intellect (as well as the works of shakespeare).

    • annalucy1997 January 15th, 2014 5:28 AM

      The Road is such a fantastic book, I totally agree! I think what makes it so scary is that the people who form the ‘gangs’ and turn against other humans are people who could hold the door open for you on a normal day. It makes you question how much people would change and what lengths they would go to stay alive in a dystopian society.

  • K8 is Gr8 January 14th, 2014 7:50 PM

    OMG. I love love LOVE this. Dystopian books are one of my favorite genres. I really liked Ender’s Game, but I also loved Matched by Allie Condie and Divergent by Veronica Roth. Even if in Allegiant ***SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER*** we find out that the world of Divergent really is not all that far into the future, I love the whole idea of the factions. It made me realize that all of us are Erudite AND Abnegation AND Candor AND Dauntless AND Amity. And that’s kinda awesome.

  • Abby January 14th, 2014 8:04 PM

    YOU GUYS YOU GUYSSSS. Dystopian fiction is probably my favorite genre. Why is it so GOOD?? Brave New World was the book everyone else hated reading for AP English but I LOVED it. I DEVOURED The Giver in 6th grade. The Road killed me, but I loved it. 1984 is terrifying. And there are so many otherrrrsss…. YOU GUYS I CAN’T.

  • yuemao January 14th, 2014 8:07 PM

    I’ve always loved dystopian novels, even from a young age. They have a sort of dark allure to them. I was excited to see this article and thought maybe there’ll be a book in here I haven’t read yet so I can add it to my list! No such luck, but I’m in the middle of 1984 and just bought The Handmaid’s Tale. Every book mentioned in the article is fantastic.

  • tangratoe January 14th, 2014 8:20 PM

    1984 and Animal Farm are two of my all time favorite novels, because they are so relatable, to history and present day. But I think the best thing about dystopian fiction is it reminds us of humans true nature and to constantly question what is “truth” and “fact,” which is always important to consider!

  • loopdeshor January 14th, 2014 8:56 PM

    I love dystopian books, they really make me think about problems that will just snowball into something huge in the future

    http://delightfuldreaming.blogspot.com

  • umi January 14th, 2014 9:28 PM

    i’ve been paranoid about the future since i was 6 bc of the movies these types of books create.

  • periwinkle_dreams January 14th, 2014 9:32 PM

    YES! I love this genre so much. I’ve read The Handmaid’s Tale, 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Hunger Games series, Lord of the Flies, and The Giver.

    I would love any suggestions for any cool dystopian novels to read next! :)

    • Maryse89 January 14th, 2014 10:12 PM

      If you liked the Handmaid’s Tale, I would also recommend Oryx and Crake, also by Margaret Atwood, which to me dealt with science the way that Handmaid’s Tale dealt with religion…it has two sequels which I haven’t gotten around to reading, but I heard they were really good as well!

      • periwinkle_dreams January 16th, 2014 4:32 PM

        Thanks, I looked it up and it’s definitely going on my to-be-read list! :)

  • honorarygilmoregal January 14th, 2014 10:55 PM

    Dystopian novels are so cool. I love how different books/series have their own spin about what the future, no matter how many years from now it is, could be. They’re so creative and fantastical while still having relatable characters. :)

  • unefillecommetoi January 14th, 2014 11:12 PM

    I waited for the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Farenheit 451 reference… I didn’t get one but I loved it anyways. Rookie monthly theme proposal: Dystopia

    • bloated January 15th, 2014 9:07 AM

      that would be a PERFECT theme!!!!

  • book_kitty January 14th, 2014 11:24 PM

    YES DYSTOPIAN FICTION IS THE BEST.

    I relate with a lot of the ideas in this post, especially with the stuff about Valentine and Ender’s Game. I used to read mostly YA dystopian (reccomendations: Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, The Forsaken by Lisa M. Stasse) but now I’m on more of a classic hit (1984, Brave New World, The Day of the Triffids).

    Loved the article. :)

  • peace.love.music.grows January 14th, 2014 11:49 PM

    Great piece- I will never forget the first time I read the Giver, early elementary school. It changed EVERYTHING in my eyes, and I agree- that’s what’s so great about Dystopian novels. My friend was working on a musical about post-apocalyptic Missoula (town I live in). Something about it just… gets to your core. Have wanted to read “Handmaidens Tale” and “Cloud Atlas” for awhile. This might be the nudge I needed.

  • Nahs January 15th, 2014 12:15 AM

    Loved this!! I always was such a nerd for books and stuff like this, I really liked them.

    Phillip K Dick’s books are also a cool as hell read. Yet, some of his books can be quite hard to absorv on the first pages (It was more hard for me to engage in the “The man in the high castle” than with “Flow my tears said the police man” or “Ubik” which I was hooked inmediately)
    Other cool ones are:
    Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (which “Blade Runner” is based on).
    Also some Graphic novels like: The Invisibles (which can be considered as the mother ship of what would be later “Matrix”) or “TRANSMETROPOLITAN” (If you thought V of Vendetta was awsome this will just blow your brain)
    or the manga version of AKIRA (which is different from the movie but both works are IMPRESSIVE)
    Also de trilogy of the TRYPODS were my favorite in school, specially the first one “the white moutains” where, trypods like the ones in “War of the worlds” have taken over the planet, and humans are implanted a metallic plaque in their skulls at 14 years old, which turns them into slave automats, and the protagonist (A 13 year old boy about to be 14) tries to run away.

  • bekah January 15th, 2014 12:42 AM

    I’m a big fan of dystopias too, and even though his views are hard to deal with, I really like the rest of Orson Scott Card’s books about Ender and Bean and all the Battle School kids. They’re really deep and philosophical sci-fi and not as actiony as Ender is but I think they’re better.

    Also tiny nitpicky thing, Ender’s last name is Wiggin with no -s at the end.

  • Tayhla January 15th, 2014 3:35 AM

    At the moment I am reading DUST, the third book of the WOOL trilogy by Hugh Howey – a trilogy that would be classified as dystopian fiction. It is the best thing I’ve read in so long, I am recommending it to EVERYONE!! so if you’re looking for something new to read…

  • heike January 15th, 2014 5:06 AM

    My two favourite dystopian series are “Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld, and “Matched” by Ally Condie!
    Uglies is about a society where you get an operation at the age of 16 that makes you societies equivalent of beautiful and healthy. So you can imagine how body image is a very strong theme, which is super interesting! (The survival skills in this book are very cool as well).
    Matched is (also) about a very communistic society where the people are more aware that and how much they’re being controlled. The main concept is that your perfect partner is generated for you, and that you will be matched with them. So the whole freedom of whom you love and how many partners you have is taken away basically. (I listened a lot of Clams Casino while reading this, 10/10 yes I would recommend, haha)

    • 3LL3NH January 16th, 2014 3:16 AM

      The world of the Uglies series is, in my own opinion, the best imagined, and closest to possible reality, of most dystopias. Especially coming to Tally’s resolution, it seems so near, and in many ways, positive.

  • annalucy1997 January 15th, 2014 5:36 AM

    Loved this article! I never actually realised that dystopian fiction is one of my favourite genres until reading this. Definitely heading over to my local bookshop to pick up ‘The Giver’ as it has some fantastic reviews on here! :)

    ((In other news my Rookie yearbook two will be arriving in the next few days!! woo!))

  • bloated January 15th, 2014 9:56 AM

    the South African author Lauren Beukes (whom I have a major writer-to-writer crush on) writes fantastic sci-fi and her debut novel, Moxyland, is a stunning dystopian/cyberpunk clash.
    on a less enthusiastic note, Bitch carried a piece on the lack of PoC in the Delirium series which I think is a pretty important reminder to both readers and budding writers out there. (http://bitchmagazine.org/post/young-adult-books-race-people-of-color-missing-delirium-lauren-oliver)

  • Flossy Mae January 15th, 2014 11:30 AM

    I love dystopian fiction! I’d love to write some one day….and on another note, Lauren Oliver is literally the loveliest person ever! I interviewed her for my writing blog, if anyone’s interested: http://inkymagazine.blogspot.co.uk/2013/07/a-chat-with-lauren-oliver.html

    PS – does anyone have any other good dystopian books to reccommend? I’ve read all the ones mentioned in the post, but any others?x

  • mangointhesky January 15th, 2014 3:05 PM

    This was really cool

    http://perfectlittledaisy.blogspot.com

  • almostqueen January 15th, 2014 3:08 PM

    By the way, if someone’s looking for recommendations, the (strangely obscure) Chaos Walking book trilogy deserves some love!! It’s got it all -gender expectation analysis, war themes, responsibility and guilt, a bit of religion as well, morality…

    • 3LL3NH January 16th, 2014 3:20 AM

      OH MY GOODNESS YES. This is my favourite series. People are sometimes turned off by the internal voices, especially of the dog, in the beginning, but these books were intensely real to me- of course the religion and morality, discrimination and segregation, as well as psychological aspects.

      This book series definitely deserves more recognition.

  • Sho-Sho January 15th, 2014 4:35 PM

    I would recommend the Wool trilogy by Hugh Howey. I’m half way through the third one now and am completely and utterly hooked. I almost don’t want to keep reading because I know it has to end soon.
    xxx

  • Ella W January 15th, 2014 5:45 PM

    I absolutely LOVE Dystopian fiction! I think possibly because I feel like if an apocalypse does happen, or something of the sort, I would know exactly what to do!! Well, ok probably not, but still..
    Ella x

  • Jane-Eyre January 16th, 2014 1:38 AM

    Dystopian fiction tends to scare me out of my wits, but I cannot seem to stay away! The stories are so confronting; and so real. It freaks me out. But it really makes you think; to look around and see what’s really going on instead of pulling the wool over my eyes. 1984 is the BEST!

  • wallflower152 January 16th, 2014 2:57 AM

    Dystopian fiction literally is the best thing ever! I read The Giver in 2001 and I still remember it clearly. Anything dystopian or post-apocalyptic, count me in! Great article. : )

  • Joyce January 16th, 2014 3:03 AM

    I agree with everyone here. Dystopian fiction is THE BEST. I will read any dystopian fiction anytime. And the fact that the greatest dystopian fiction was written a long time ago, that is really brilliant. There is just so much soul in them. Brave New World and The Giver are my absolute favorites, I knew they would be mentioned in this article. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro is also one of my favorites. I love how it doesn’t focus on the “dystopian” aspect. BEAUTIFUL.

  • 3LL3NH January 16th, 2014 3:23 AM

    In the middle of 1984 right now…

    There’s two that I quite like, neither exactly dystopian, but showing some dystopic elements, or what could turn into dystopia: the Hater book series by David Moody, and Orphan Black, my favourite TV show.

    Great love for this post.

  • RhiaSnape January 16th, 2014 4:51 AM

    I love dystopia, particularly in young adult novels. Lots of people seem to look down on me when I say they’re my favourites, as if they’re not nearly as credible as Jane Austen or Dickens, or Wilde, all of those classics. This frustrates me; I can never get into classics like I can with young adult dystopian novels, they’re so much more relatable and actually deal with modern crises! They may seem unrealistic and extremely fictatious but they have such important messages – as well as just being hella exciting to read! Some of my recommendations include The Hunger Games trilogy, the Chaos Walking trilogy, the Divergent trilogy, the Uglies trilogy, the Matched trilogy (a lot of trilogies!), The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, Ender’s Game, The Host, Unwind…there must be more! But these are all great.

  • Catastrophe Waitress January 16th, 2014 6:40 AM

    The Obernewtyn series by Isobelle Carmody!

  • taste test January 16th, 2014 3:00 PM

    YESSS. dystopias are my favorite and there are so many good recommendations in this comment thread, I’m taking notes!

    http://xyzzyzzyzx.blogspot.com/

  • Monroe January 18th, 2014 12:44 AM

    Not to be a hipster, but I have always had a thing for dystopian societies.
    I can’t put my finger on why exactly, but they are somehow so satisfying to read.
    Although actually now that I think about it, I prefer post apocalyptic to dystopian (there is a differance, however the lines are blurred as genres are often combined)
    Actually this post has made my head hurt, as I know there were several dystopian books I loved, but I can’t for the life of me remember them. I guess thats what I get for being an overly prolific reader. Everything I’ve ever read is all jumbled up or totally forgotten.
    Also lol is it bad that I’ve considered what I would want my pretty self to look like?

  • Monroe January 18th, 2014 12:50 AM

    Agh and don’t even get started on cyberpunk or futuristic dystopians, I will melt.