Nowadays, dystopian is the new vampire. Almost like clockwork, Bella Swan handed off her mantle to Katniss Everdeen. Shows like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries have been supplanted by dystopian lit’s big screen adaptations, from Veronica Roth’s Divergent series to Lois Lowry’s grade-school classic The Giver.
Just as Twilight drew inspiration from Dracula—and a long line of lesser-known books sharing its basic genetic code—popular dystopian titles today are influenced by a sea of authors deserving your attention. So we rounded up 10 dystopian tales you may have never read (but really should).
Probably the most well-known title on this list, The Handmaid’s Tale highlights gender and class in a world dominated by a militant Christian theocracy. With Nebula Award and Booker Prize-winner Atwood at the helm, it’s a novel both sci-fi fans and readers who wouldn’t touch a Philip K. Dick book with a 10-foot pole will find compelling.
Social networking was just asking for a dystopian spin and, luckily, Eggers made it happen. The Circle highlights how our desire to connect with others online leads to less individualism, autonomy and, ironically, social connection itself. You’ll be struck by how eerily familiar the novel feels; leave it to Eggers to write a book as current as it is futuristic.
Whereas the first two books in Lewis’ Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra) highlight journeys to other worlds, That Hideous Strength features an Earth beginning to lose its sense of spiritual fortitude. Although Lewis’ Christian faith and predilection for allegory permeates his Space Trilogy, it’s far less heavy-handed here than it is in the Narnia novels. The main source of dystopian strife in the novel stems from the education system, which should come as no surprise given Lewis’ background as a professor. Fun fact: That Hideous Strength pre-dates Orwell’s dystopian Magna Carta, Nineteen Eighty-Four, by four years.
In the spirit of variety, we’ve included McDonagh’s play The Pillowman—and what a play it is. It’s gritty, it’s dark, it’s McDonagh (screenwriter of In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) through and through. Protagonist Katurian, a writer whose unsettling short stories bear more than a passing similarity to a number of child murders, lives in a police state. As Katurian’s story progresses, humanity’s desire to create—even in the face of great adversity—is on full display.
Until 1997, Miller was something of a dystopian J.D. Salinger. Similar to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz has influenced multiple generations of authors (and sci-fi fans). The novel features a group of monks struggling to keep man’s scientific discoveries alive after surviving a nuclear war, and the backdrop of a post-apocalyptic, dystopian Earth allows for poignant rumination on religion, science and human ingenuity.
You may have seen the movie, but everyone who has read the comic knows it’s far superior to the film adaptation (including Moore, who wanted his name taken off the movie’s credits). V—in his trademark Guy Fawkes mask—stars in this saga, rebelling against totalitarianism and championing the importance of liberty. There are a multitude of reasons Moore’s name reigns supreme in the comics world, but V for Vendetta will always be among the best.
The story of students placed in an arena to kill each other in order to survive may sound familiar (cough, The Hunger Games, cough), but Battle Royale’s execution is unique and constantly gripping. Published in 1999, the book slowly gained a cult following, which ultimately led to it being celebrated by Stephen King and (after it was adapted into a similarly gripping film) Quentin Tarantino. It’s violent, fast-paced, entertaining and unsettling.
Vaughan’s award-winning comic book series features a plague that wipes out every man on Earth except for Yorick Brown and his male pet monkey, Ampersand. It’s a Twilight Zone premise told over 60 issues, and, by the time you reach the end, you’ll wish there could be 60 more. Yorick’s witty, pop culture-savvy banter makes him a protagonist you’ll root for from the get-go, and his journey is a thought-provoking ride from the first issue to the last.
You can’t truly discuss cynical sci-fi without throwing a nod to Vonnegut’s Player Piano. The machines have taken over (under the supervision of a bureaucracy, of course), but protagonist Dr. Paul Proteus is more Henry David Thoreau than he is John Connor of the Terminator franchise. And Vonnegut’s dystopia is more mundane than it is sinister, but that makes it all the more startling. How do you keep the basic elements of our humanity alive (the desire to work, to love, etc.) when we “need” those elements less and less?
We had to put young adult fiction on the list, right? Uglies begins a series in which every youth has to undergo plastic surgery to become a “Pretty.” If that Stepford Wives scenario doesn’t make your skin crawl, what will? Westerfeld’s world terrifies, as everyone is coerced into extreme measures taken for the sake of attractiveness. It’s even more disturbing knowing many people today wouldn’t need to be coerced at all.