16 Dystopian Novels To Read When You Need A Break From the News

The canon of Western literature has never been stingy when it comes to trying to scare the pants off readers with nearly believable situations that can only be called post-apocalyptic or dystopian in nature. For what seems like too long, Americans have been finding the never-ending news cycle exhausting and not a little too close for comfort to some of their old favorite reads. Here are some of my favorite dystopian tomes from the last 50 years that will have you wondering if you should be stocking a shelter with non-perishables.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

You’re going to want to pick this up before the most recent television adaptation that will premiere on Hulu in April hits. America has fallen to ultra-conservativism coupled with sterilization thanks to various disasters. As a result, the only women left capable of procreation are sheltered and shuttled between powerful families as breeding stock. The book is filled with whispers of rebellion and cultural touch points like fascism and Playboy.

1984 &  Animal Farm by George Orwell

You probably had the chance to read at least one of these classic novels in high school, and if you didn’t, I would recommend you rush over to the library to try and snag a copy before you jump to Amazon. Apparently, in the past two weeks, demand for 1984 has surged so high that places are selling out of all their stock. 1984 features perpetual war and thought police plus credit for the infamous line, “Big Brother is watching.” Animal Farm focuses specifically on the influence of Stalin in Europe through allegory. Both are incredible and worthy of a reread if you did happen to catch one as a teenager.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I will be completely honest: I have not read this book. The very idea of it is too horrible for my book-loving heart to fathom. But I will still recommend it as a classic tale of big government gone bad. Set sometime in a future America, books are burned to control any free-thinking from the populace. In case you were wondering, fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which paper burns.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Unlike many dystopian novels of the late 20th century that feature dictatorial governments or horrific war, Station Eleven tells the story of a very real possible future: pandemic wiping out the majority of human life on Earth. Set around Chicago and the neighboring state of Michigan, Mandel tells the tale of the end of civilization and rise of what comes next when a flu is carried from continent to continent via air travel. This is not a clean future world, but the immediate chaotic details of life in the days after an outbreak.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

If you’ve seen  Blade Runner you will be familiar with this world as it is the novel on which the movie is based. Nuclear war has driven so many animals to extinction that owning one in this future world is a status symbol while most people make do with robotic copies. If you’re a fan of the film, you’ll want to read this seminal source work.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

As you might guess by the title of this novel, a road features prominently as a man and his son embark on a journey on post-nameless disaster Earth. Cannibals abound. Talk of good guys and bad guys abound. McCarthy’s novels tend towards darkness, and this may be one of his darkest. But at the center is a relationship between father and son you won’t soon forget.

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Stephenson loves to play with language, history, politics, and philosophy in his novels, and his 1992 novel features themes that weave around these ideas. In a post-government America, the reintroduction of a potentially society-changing virus that would allow for virtual mind control is imminent. As is the grand tradition with dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, all hinges on a small group of people thrown together by circumstance.

Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson

Lives in virtual reality, a city sprawl unimaginable, mobs, and drugs, oh my! This is the third novel in Gibson’s classic Sprawl series. You really should read all three and maybe pay close attention to the methods used by the powerful to control their prey in this one.

The Dewey Decimal System by Nathan Larson

Have you ever seen the classic  Twilight Zone episode with the man who just wants to read in peace? If it gave you the heebee jeebees, this book is for you. A veteran living in post-Wall Street collapse, post-terrorist attack, post-flu epidemic New York City, with a soft spot for literature, makes it his mission to reassemble part of the New York Public Library. It can’t be that easy though. Adventure ensues, and you will find yourself wishing this guy just had a pair of glasses and quiet room.

Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway

Rather than nuclear disaster, this dystopian future features a weapon too horrible to truly identify even in the story. All we really know is that it has changed the very shape of reality from England all the way across the Eurasian continent. Some people are fine. Others are literal shadows of their former selves. Others still are both. It’s a gorgeous take on a number of terrifying possibilities as science, humanity, and greed converge.

Ready Player One by Ernie Cline

America is again a dustbowl and lives are lived online. Everyone reads this delightful adventure for the pop culture landmarks and video game playing, but don’t forget to pay attention to the very real power corporations and money have in this technology-centric future.

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Don’t tell me this isn’t dystopian in nature. Post-alien attack Earth monitors its children and trains them for a future return in Battle School. The story of Ender is known to fans of Nerdist, but I urge you to revisit this classic novel and pay attention to the story of Valentine and Peter back on Earth as they play a completely different type of war with politicians through the news media. Sound familiar?

The Circle by Dave Eggers

Sensing a theme in these last few? The Circle will hit the big screen this year with famous actors, but take a second and read the novel first. For all that you’re likely to be reading it on paper, you will feel like you are plugged into a LinkedIn-Twitter-Facebook hybrid by the end of the first quarter. And let your mind wrap around the world that puts cameras around the necks of every single person and marries private businesses with government with frightening ease.

World War Z by Max Brooks

Do not see the movie. In fact, I’d argue this is one you should actually just listen to. The audioplay of Brook’s aural history of the Zombie Wars will teach you more about human nature, war theory, and what can become the necessary actions that make sure a civilization survives. It’s gorgeous and horrible, and you will never look at other zombie tales in the same way.

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Do I really need to explain why you should want to pick this up again? If nothing else, rereading the megapopular series will at least give you an escape as executive order after executive order is announced from Washington.These recommendations reached the world as early 1949, and we are still learning the lessons they teach so poorly that fiction writers all over are compelled to continue warning us off the possibilities that abound when society breaks down. Some are more horrible than others. Others are more fanciful. You may think some of these situations completely impossible and some may hit far too close to home as a very real possibility as protests and rallies abound. But remember, they are fiction and finite. We cannot change the way these stories end, but always believe we can change our own future.If I missed one of your favorites, or you just think I absolutely have to give another title a try, find me on Twitter. I’m always looking for a good book to read.

Images: Penguin/Random House/Hulu/Dimension Films/Summit Entertainment/Paramount Pictures

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