Dystopian Fantasy for Our Cultural Moment

It seems like hardly a month goes by without hearing that dystopian literature is trending, or it’s making a comeback, or that a certain classic dystopian novel is selling inordinately well for an octogenarian book. One thing’s for certain—whether you call it dystopian fantasy, YA, or dystopian novels—these stories are here to stay.

Dystopian literature uses fiction to critique current trends, societal norms, political systems, and other sociopolitical power structures. It gives writers a means of questioning the world around us, and challenging the status quo. Some would say we’re in the golden age of dystopian fiction—probably because many readers turn to books either to understand or escape the dystopia around them. That there’s no shortage of great dystopian literature seems clear: on the page, dystopia is in.

Here are a few dystopian novels—from classic to current, trending to ‘on the high school reading list’—that we think speak well to this particularly cultural moment. How many of them have you read?

The Power by Naomi Alderman

This dystopian novel has already stood the test of several re-reads—we wrote about The Power in March after the third or fourth re-read. In .The Power, an Earth that looks near-identical to ours shifts as women and girls wake to discover an astonishing power. The power changes society—at first slowly, then suddenly—as both men and women adjust to the new reality where, overnight, nearly all women become stronger than nearly all men. Throughout the novel, the effects of such a change ripple around the world. The Power is a novel that builds and builds to the eventual conclusion, a reminder (and a warning?) of the destructive power of humanity.

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin

Ursula Le Guin is the reining queen of sci-fi, and her dystopian worlds have inspired hundreds of budding writers. In The Lathe of Heaven, part of her dystopian series known as the Hainish cycle, the main character is capable of rewriting his reality. Of course, it wouldn’t be dystopian if his efforts to improve reality didn’t go horribly wrong. And the main character, George Orr, is a nod to the name of perhaps the most well-known American author of dystopian fiction: George Orwell.

1984 by George Orwell

Big Brother, doublethink, newspeak. All these terms come out of Orwell’s famous 1949 novel about a character struggling to express individuality in a dystopia where groupthink is encouraged, individuality is banned, and a surveillance state controls citizens through constant oversight. (Sound familiar?) The novel is such a part of our cultural imagination that 1984 has even been referenced in Supreme Court cases.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

In Brave New World, babies are grown in hatcheries, nobody ages, and the ‘World State’ separate people into classes during gestation—from Alphas, preordained to become leaders and thinkers, to Epsilons, those ‘destined’ for menial labor catering to this particular world’s leaders. The ‘lower’ classes in Brave New World are taught to seek consumerism and instant gratification above all else. While the novel’s narrator rebels against the status quo, the story at large (published in 1932) is certainly prescient about the future’s level of consumerism.

Social critic Neil Postman says:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism… Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture…”

What’s the last book you picked up? Were there fantastical, dark sci-fi elements?