The end of 2016 brought with it a spike in classic dystopian book sales. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale ― which will be released as a Hulu show this month ― each piqued the interest of book buyers, who might’ve drawn uncomfortable parallels between the stories and the world around them.
These books, of course, are not the only dystopian titles resonating with readers. The science fiction subgenre has enjoyed a long period of popularity thanks to YA installments like The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Maze Runner and The 100, each with its own onscreen offshoot.
There are those in the sci-fi genre who are tired of dystopia’s proliferation; there are, after all, many ways to speculate about the future, and not all of them need be pessimistic. Still, as the subgenre grows, its capacity for holding a mirror to today’s problems ― climate change, stringent definitions of gender, and discrimination based on race or gender or nationality ― persists.
If you still see the worth in dystopian stories ― for social change or for entertainment value ― there are, luckily, loads to choose from. Climate-fiction, or cli-fi, has emerged as a sub-subgenre of dystopian fiction, with authors like Lidia Yuknavitch and Jeff VanderMeer ― both of whom have upcoming film adaptations ― leading the charge. Other titles explore cryonics, religion, gender and more.
We’ve included a few we’re excited about below. Just note that our definition of dystopia is a broad one; any vision of the future that could go awry qualifies.
1. American War by Omar El Akkad
Fought amid a changing climate, America’s second Civil War ― lasting nearly 20 years ― was fought with homicide bombings and drones. An academic born during this period remembers the story of a girl who lived through it.
2. The Book of Etta by Meg Elison
In a town outside of Estiel ― what was once St. Louis ― a girl named Etta fulfills her duties as a forager, but must venture to face a tyrant called Lion when women from her community are kidnapped.
3. Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yukanavitch is skilled at writing poetically about the human body, and about nature, so this book ― her first foray into science fiction ― makes sense. It’s a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc, but in a world ravaged by radiation, and with few land-based survivors.
4. Borne by Jeff VanderMeer
Rachel and Wick live in a city destroyed by drought and terrorized by a giant bear, doing what they can to prioritize their survival ― until Rachel finds Borne, a plant-animal she’s immediately attached to.
5. New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson
When two coders go missing, an entire future society is at risk. Robinson’s work may not be squarely dystopian, but he has a knack for drawing imagined worlds and their societal problems. In his latest, rising tides leave New York partly submerged.
6. Void Star by Zachary Mason
If the future of the ever-growing tech industry has a physical home, it’s San Fransisco, where Mason’s novel is set. Life extension, artificial memory and rising waters converge in a sprawling future epic.
7. Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones
Kir has been asked to join a project working towards the possibility of humans inhabiting another planet ― a project designed to give Earthlings, living on a planet that’s overcrowded and climate change-wrecked, a chance at survival. Will her brain ― wired for optimism ― be able to heed the warnings of the artificial intelligence she hosts?
8. Tender by Sofia Samatar
Sofia Samatar’s stories are more fantasy than sci-fi, and she’s more likely to chronicle an alternate or parallel reality than a possible future. Her story “How to Get Back to the Forest” earned a spot among the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories 2015.
9. The Ship by Antonia Honeywell
Lalla’s father plans to escape the increasingly dangerous world of future-Britain via ship, but the boat turns out to be eerily different than expected.
10. All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai
What if the world we’re living in now was the dystopian version of some happier, more progressive alternate reality? That’s the premise of Elan Mastai’s debut, which is centered around protagonist Tom, who has to make a tough choice between a thrumming, messy world or a neat and perfect one.
11. The Weaver by Emmi Itäranta
On the surface, Eliana’s life is a pleasant one. She lives on an idyllic island where she works as a weaver, but she is forced to hide the fact that she’s capable of dreaming, lest she be cast out. The cracks in her perfect world begin to show when a young girl washes up on the shore, bearing a tattoo of Eliana’s name.
12. Zero K by Don DeLillo
Jeff’s father, Ross, has always been somewhat absent from his life; he’s a billionaire and he’s happily remarried. But when Ross’s second wife Artis gets sick, he invites his son to visit him at a mysterious cryogenics facility, where pseudo-science meets spiritual practice.
13. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
Patricia’s a witch. Laurence is a tech wunderkind. Their star-crossed relationship is a love story for the 21st century, where spirituality and intuition are at odds with scientific advancements.
14. Thirst by Benjamin Warner
Eddie and Laura’s suburban life devolves amid an ecological disaster, one that forces them each to reconsider what it is that they cherish most.
15. Black Wave by Michelle Tea
The world, it turns out, is ending. That doesn’t stop Michelle from dating, from writing, from relocating to a new city to distance herself from her drug-addled past, or from proceeding more or less as normal, except that now, the apocalypse looms.
16. Not Dark Yet by Berit Ellingsen
For Ellingsen, the personal is political. His story’s hero, Brandon, retreats to the wilderness after his professor and lover makes him commit an act of violence. From there, he fosters hope for a future threatened by rising temperatures and the attendant damage done to the environment.
17. Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
Near-future sci-fi may be all the rage; it would seem that it’s more capable of shedding new light on present dangers, anyway. But Palmer’s novel ― set in the 25th century, when society’s perceptions of gender and religion have morphed considerably ― gives those stories a run for their money.
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