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OTHER Best Lists
Best Dystopian Science Fiction Books
Science Fiction and Dystopias go together like Lindsay Lohan and court appearances, but the terms don’t necessarily have to co-exist. Both genres exist independently and are popular on their own.
Dystopias are a fictional world, worse than our current world, where oppressive societal control exists under the illusion of a perfect society created by corporate, technological, religious or other controls. Dystopian fiction criticizes politics, societal values, technology, corporate control, and religion, showing the reader a worst case scenario, and making him or her question social and political systems.
Science fiction is not necessarily as critical of the future in a negative way. It focuses on futuristic stories with plausible scientific or technological content, and explores the impact of science on society. Dystopias are a genre that many non-science fiction writers, even literary writers, cross into, writing stories that incorporate a science fiction setting or at least touch on the boundaries of it. Some literary authors (that's you, Margret Atwood) like to claim their science fiction dystopias are not in fact science fiction.
What is it that makes a novel dystopian science fiction? The existence of hard science fiction (an emphasis on scientific and/or technical detail and accuracy) or soft science fiction [based on soft, or “social” sciences like anthropology and psychology] in a dystopian setting. Dystopian science fiction also intersects with other subgenres of science fiction, like alternate artificial intelligence, post-apocalyptic worlds, cyberpunk, and dying earth fiction. This list goes through the dark, the depressing, and at times, the humorous worlds that occur when science fiction and dystopian fiction gets into bed together, and brings you the top 25 best novels in the genre.
Animal Farm is Orwell's other great dystopian novel. Disguised as a rather charming fable about animals taking over the running of their farm, it is really a chilling account of Soviet Russia as the pigs, particularly Napoleon, become all-powerful rulers indistinguishable from the humans they have displaced. And the great rallying cry: all animals are created equal, is subtly changed to read: all animals are created equal, but some are more equal than others.
We by Yevgeny Zamiatin (which appears elsewhere on this list) is the inspiration behind much of Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (which also appears elsewhere on this list) is the other great dystopian novel of the period.
One by David Karp is set in a near-future America that believes itself to be approaching perfection, though it is in fact a dystopia. An incredibly complex bureaucracy is in place to keep control of all citizens by encouraging a vast network of informers, but when one informer falls foul of the system he finds himself rounded up and subjected to torture.
The Trial by Franz Kafka gave us the word "Kafkaesque" for any nonsensical bureaucracy which gives no reasonable way forward. Although it is a contemporary mainstream novel, the way that the protagonist, Josef K, finds himself arrested for an unspecified crime by agents of an unspecified force, and brought to trial in the attic of a huge tenement building where the procedures remain ever mysterious to him, all adds up to a powerful and haunting dystopia.
Books in Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? Series (0)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch,
Books in St. Leibowitz Series (1)
Shortly before his death, Miller wrote a sequel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, which was completed by Terry Bisson. Unfortunately, like many belated sequels, it doesn't really have the power or the quality of the original.
Among the post-apocalyptic stories from around the same time, you should also check out Davy by Edgar Pangborn, a beautifully written and quite enchanting account of a young man growing up in a pseudo-medieval society centuries after an atomic war, where the all-powerful Church actively suppresses technology.
Books in Childe Cycle Series (24)
Neuromancer was just the start of the Sprawl trilogy, so you should certainly go on to read Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive, not to mention the stories in Burning Chrome, which tell us yet more about this future of jacked-in cyber jockeys and street samurai, simstim and emerging machine intelligence. You simply can't understand cyberpunk, or anything that happened in science fiction afterwards, without these books. Note that while these books take place in the same 'world' they are unique stories and as such you can read Neuromancer (or the other loosely connected books) as stand alones.
Gibson has recently returned to science fiction with a powerful new novel, The Peripheral, in which people riding shotgun on an immersive game in the run-down near future end up witnessing a murder in the more distant future, and get caught in a time-travelling mystery of escalating violence and ever-increasing mystery. It can be hard going at first, but boy is it worth keeping on with the book.
If Neuromancer got the ball rolling with cyberpunk, there were an awful lot of great writers who quickly joined him. So if this sets you on fire, you absolutely must go on to read Schismatrix Plus by Bruce Sterling, the novel and stories set in his Shaper/Mechanist universe, a future in which humanity is divided between those who go in for genetic modification of the body, the Shapers, and those who prefer mechanical augmentation, the Mechanists. This is the point where cyberpunk started to mutate into stories of post-humanity.
Then there's Pat Cadigan, especially Synners and Fools, both of which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award, making her the first person to win the award twice. These are dramatic stories of human/machine interface, and the way it affects our awareness of reality.
For more specific CYBERPUNK book recommendations, make sure you look at our 'Top 25 Best Cyberpunk Books list' and our Guide to the Cyberpunk Genre.
Books in Hainish Cycle Series (8)
Books in Maddaddam Series (2)
The picture that The Road paints is harsh and unsparing, and there are some few other accounts of our doom that have the same effect.
Golden Days by Carolyn See is a novel about the lives of a group of comfortably off women on the fringes of medialand in contemporary Los Angeles. But off stage, crises lead to World War Three, and the glamorous life is suddenly torn apart by nuclear devastation. What follows is a bleak, uncompromising account of the aches and sickness and hunger and horror of the few people struggling to survive, with prospects every bit as dismal as those in The Road.
This is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow imagines that the few survivors fleeing from World War Three are put on trial by those souls who would never be born because of the nuclear devastation. It proves to be a hauntingly effective way of conveying the anger and the horror of nuclear war.
Richard Matheson wrote not one but two indisputable classics of the genre. Alongside I Am Legend you also have to read The Shrinking Man. After accidentally being exposed to a radioactive spray, Scott Carey begins to shrink at a rate of approximately 1/7th of an inch every day. At first the loss is so gradual that he hardly notices, but in time, because he is shorter, he starts to lose the respect of his family and is subject to taunts by local youths. But the shrinkage continues, until he is chased by the family cat, attacked by a spider, and engages in a vicious battle with a towering black widow spider. And still the shrinking continues.
Joanna Russ's work is never easy, she deliberately undermines our expectations, shifts perspective, and challenges our prejudices. But the result can be refreshing and invigorating.
The way she subverts the comforting myths of science fiction is vividly displayed in We Who Are About To which tells the familiar story of a small group of people stranded on an uninhabited planet. The men, as always in such stories, dream of colonising and repopulating the planet, but the woman doesn't believe that survival is possible. In a famously bleak ending she has to kill the men in order to defend herself against rape.
Books in Takeshi Kovacs Series (2)
I would suggest the works of Philip K. Dick, since this book won the award named after him. Dick had numerous dystopian societies.
Books in The Book Of The New Sun Series (7)
The Book of the New Sun was only the start of the story, Gene Wolfe went on to write a further volume about Severian and then two further series set in the same universe.
The Urth of the New Sun is set several years after the events recounted in the quartet. Severian is now travelling in a massive spaceship to meet the all-powerful alien who can rejuvenate Urth's dying sun. Along the way he has to encounter all the dead people he has known, and, upon his return to Urth, he finds himself once again facing the enemies he had to battle in the first quartet.
The Book of the Long Sun is another four-book series, Nightside the Long Sun, The Lake of the Long Sun, Call of the Long Sun and Exodus from the Long Sun, which follows the adventures of Patera Silk. As the series opens he is a lowly priest in a small neighbourhood 'manteion', but in his efforts to save the manteion he discovers that he is actually aborad a generation starship now nearing its destination.
The Book of the Short Sun concludes what has been known as the 'Solar Cycle' with three novels, On Blue's Waters, In Green's Jungles and Return to the Whorl. A direct sequel to The Book of the Long Sun, the plot concerns the search for Patera Silk across the two habitable worlds, Blue and Green, that the generation starship Whorl has reached. By the end of the sequence we realise that these events immediately precede
If you love Gene Wolfe's allusive writing and subtle world building, then don't miss The Fifth Head of Cerberus. These three linked novellas concern two planets once colonised by the French, where the population has a rich if rather decadent lifestyle. But there's a mystery concerning the aboriginal inhabitants of the planets who seem to have disappeared, but who are rumoured to have been shapeshifters. Could the humans actually be the natives in disguise?
As The Fifth Head of Cerberus indicates, before he embarked on The Book of the New Sun Gene Wolfe was best known for his multiple award-winning stories, many of which are gathered in The Best of Gene Wolfe; look out in particular for "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories", "The Death of Doctor Island", "Seven American Nights", and "The Hero as Werwolf".
The dying earth that we encounter in The Book of the New Sun has a long tradition in science fiction. Don't miss the book that gave its name to the subgenre, The Dying Earth by Jack Vance, set in a distant future when the Moon has disappeared, the sun is burning out, and predatory monsters from another age now infest the cold and barren landscapes of Earth.
If there is one novel that matches the awesome inventive language of A Clockwork Orange it has to be Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. Set far in the future after society has collapsed, it is told in a broken and deformed language that suits the setting: On my naming day when I come 12 I to gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the laswyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. Read it aloud, and you really get the sense of it, and the authentic voice of young Riddley, the tribal priest who interprets the messages of the "Gummint" communicated through Punch and Judy puppet shows. The novel won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, is perhaps the most original post-apocalyptic tale ever written, full of riddles and mysteries and echoes of things long past that pull you in and hold you enthralled.
Also, you shouldn't miss FeersumEndjinn by Iain M. Banks, a sharp and witty tale of the end of the Earth. The dead are digitally stored in the crypt, but as the Earth approaches "the Encroachment" that could end life on Earth, four characters within the vast edifice that is the crypt attempt to activate the fearsome engine of the title that could solve the problem. Part of the story is narrated by Bascule in a broken language that resembles text messaging: "Spoke wifErgatesthi ant who seditzjuss been wurkwurkwurk 4 u lately master Bascule, Y dont u Â½ a holiday? & I agreed & that woz how we decided we otter go 2 c Mr Zoliparia in thi I-ball ovthi gargoyle Rosbrith."
Books in Cloud Atlas Series (0)
Like a greatly extended Cloud Atlas, all of Mitchell's novels feel very different, for instance there's a crime story set in contemporary Japan, the story of a boy growing up in 1970s England, a historical novel about European traders in 18th century Japan. Yet in all of these novels, characters recur, images are repeated, there are distinct and deliberate links. All of this interconnection becomes explicit in The Bone Clocks. What we learn in this novel is that there are two warring clans of immortals, one survives by killing ordinary people, one survives by their consciousness passing into another body when they die. Their war ends up revolving around a young woman whose brother disappeared mysteriously when she was a child, who goes on to become a well-known author, and who ends her days in post-apocalypse rural Ireland. It's not the best thing Mitchell has written (that remains Cloud Atlas) but it is fun and fascinating, and in the way it ties all his other books together it becomes like a big intriguing puzzle.