All the Dystopian books listed here are available for purchase at Amazon. Please see the Buy option under each review.
The internet has produced numerous book lists over the years about the best books in various genres. But due to confinement of space, and a general predisposition towards certain works, more or less similar books are listed in every list while talking about a particular genre. Although those classic books are worthy of the attention they deserve, what it does is that some other excellent novels are frequently ignored.
Similarly, when we talk about dystopian works, books like “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” “Brave New World,” “A Clockwork Orange,” and “We” always seem to steal the spotlight. So, in order to rectify that, in no particular order, we present a list of 10 dystopian novels which are often overshadowed by other champions of the genre but which are nevertheless worthy of some – and in some cases, even equal – praise.
10. One by David Karp (1953)
“One”, also published as “Escape To Nowhere”, is another dystopian novel which explores the theme of stringent control of a police state over its citizens. The State purports itself of being benevolent and seeker of perfection, and routinely adheres to control its people through malevolent practices of surveillance, re-education, and brainwashing. Professor Burden, who regards himself as a loyal citizen of the state, is named a “heretic” and the plot revolves around his reeducation by the state to make him a truehearted citizen once again. Not being as political as “1984”, the book instead focuses on the thought processes of the torturers and the tortured.
9. The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov (1987, English Edition)
Russian writers are the masters of black humor. Even in a totally melancholy work such as “The Gulag Archipelago”, Solzhenitsyn did not fail to include certain events – which although tragic in nature – that showed his dry Russian wit.
Platanov’s satirical “The Foundation Pit” is a short novel set in the early Soviet Union period and follows a group of workers who are attempting to dig an immense foundation pit, on the base of which a gigantic house will be built for the proletarians, where everyone will live happily and ‘in silence’ (of course). The book is chock-filled with allegories, with subtle and not-so-subtle anti-communist remarks and with the tragic-comic motivations and misgivings of all the characters who try to justify their life and work under the Communist rule of 1920’s.
Although this book might be well-known to ardent fans of Soviet literature, “The Foundation Pit” remains criminally under-read among the broader audience.
8. Kallocain by Karin Boye (1940)
Karin Boye is one of Sweden’s most celebrated writers, but unfortunately her works remain almost unknown to the rest of the modern world. Published 9 years before “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, “Kallocain” is a dystopian novel written as the diary of an idealistic scientist and the anti-hero, Leo Kall, who invents a truth-serum named Kallocain which is used to detect individual acts and thoughts of rebellion in people.
Filled with chilling social commentary and criticism, the main theme of the book is that it is impossible to eradicate individualism and people will always dream of something that will not conform to the rules slated by the state. Although having been translated into more than 10 languages and even being adopted into a television miniseries in 1981, Kallocain, like many novels on this list, has succumbed into obscurity over the years.
7. Vurt by Jeff Noon (1993)
“Neuromancer” still sits at the top of cyberpunk sub-genre, but fans of psychedelic cyberpunk novels would not be unaware of Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”. Winner of 1994 Arthur C. Clarke award, “Vurt” takes the reader through the drug-riddled streets of future Manchester, England, where society has been shaped by Vurt, a hallucinogenic drug/shared alternate reality, accessed by sucking on color-coded feathers. It follows a group, the Stash Riders, and its leader, Scribble, who is searching for his missing sister-lover (yes, you read that right), Desdemona, who has been replaced by a blob-like creature that might be from another dimension. All crazy things are possible in “Vurt”, you can grow your hair to enormous lengths, you can eat aliens, anything; you just have to choose the right feather to tickle your senses.
Although “Vurt” achieved critical and commercial success at the time of its publication, it has been overshadowed over the years by other champions of the genre.
6. Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch (1968)
We are sure most of you have read “Flowers for Algernon” or the movie based on the book. But few readers would be aware about a grimmer version of that book, “Camp Concentration”. Written by one of the most under-rated writers of our times, Thomas M. Disch, “Camp Concentration” shares some of its basic idea with “Flowers For Algernon” where the protagonist, Louis Sacchetti, a poet as well as pacifist, is imprisoned for refusing to enlist in the war against Third World guerillas (the book was published at the time of Vietnam War). Sacchetti along with other inmates is used in deplorable scientific experiments worthy of Josef Mangele by the military, and is infected with a syphilis causing germ that raises intelligence to unprecedented levels. But there is a catch; the germ gradually causes decay and death is imminent within 9 months.
As in “Flowers for Algernon”, the book is written by the protagonist, Louis Sacchetti, in a diary format, when Sacchetti is assigned to report on the project from a literary perspective. Filled with scathing black humor and more polished than Algernon, Disch’s book deserves more recognition than it is getting in the modern times.
5. The Mount by Carol Emshwiller (2002)
Even the plot of “The Mount” is intriguing enough to send you searching for the book right away. Winner of the Philip K. Dick Award in 2002, “The Mount” is a science fantasy novel by Carol Emshwiller, where earth is dominated by an alien race, Hoots, who use humans as their riding mounts, not unlike horses. The herbivorous Hoots have developed a master-slave relationship with the humans as they have very weak leg muscles (but stronger arms), so they need human mounts to move about.
The book is narrated by a human mount, Charley, who curiously enough, is faithful to his alien rider (future leader of the Hoots) and whose only desire is to be well-fed and groomed so that he can grow into the strongest breed considered for a mount, a Seattle. But rebellion is brewing among the mounts and Charlie (or Smiley, as called by his Hoots masters), must decide whose side he wants to take when time for the reckoning comes.
4. This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (1970)
Better known for his works like “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Stepford Wives”, Ira Levin created a relatively lesser known but chilling technocratic dystopia in “This Perfect Day” in which a central computer known as UniComp manages all facets of lives of everyone on earth. People are mandatorily drugged every month in the name of treatments to keep their individual urges in check. UniComp decides everything for the people, including marriage, procreation, and type of their jobs. Even natural phenomena like rain is state controlled. Everyone is given a numbered badge which is to be worn at all the times through which they are tracked constantly and are allowed to wander only in a personally designated area.
The plot follows the protagonist Li RM35M4419, also called Chip, who at the start is as docile as anybody else but eventually starts acting a bit seditiously, which attracts the attention of an underground nonconformist group. He falls in love with a female member of the group, Lilac, and together they dream to escape to some islands where – supposedly – the state does not have any control over the lives of its occupants.
There are lots of twists in the book, which keeps the reader guessing about the possible outcome right till the end. The writing feels choppy in the latter half of the book and to some, even the ending of the novel might feel a bit rushed, but the fact remains that “This Perfect Day” deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the other classics of the genre like “Nineteen Eighty-Four” and “Brave New World”.
3. Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (1966)
Overpopulation was a recurring theme in the dystopias written in 1960’s and 1970’s. One book that would immediately come to the mind of many readers would the multiple awards winner “Stand On Zanzibar” by John Brunner. “Stand On Zanzibar” is an exceptional book, but it’s a tragedy that it completely overshadows another good book written on the same theme of overpopulated earth; “Make Room! Make Room!” by Harry Harrison (which was also the basis of the movie “Soylent Green”).
But if you think that you don’t need to read “Make Room! Make Room!” because you have already seen the movie, think again. While the movie is a classic of the genre, its plot is completely different from the book. The book surpasses it on almost every level as it creates a terrific sense of environment through cleverly placed stochastic details about life in future overpopulated New York. The book manages to induce dreariness of life seamlessly into its narrative without burdening a reader’s mind with incessant info dump.
“Make Room! Make Room!” follows the life of police detective Andy Rusch who lives in an overpopulated New York City in the year 1999. The primary plot follows Andy’s investigation of a murder of a rich racketeer named “Big Mike.” While Rusch is investigating his case, Harrison creates an absolute mesmerizing background atmosphere where reader is introduced to things such as food riots, dreary foodstuffs made from plankton (yummy?), soy bean and lentil steaks, and to the ever increasing prices of commodities, water shortages, and debates about birth control. Most of the characters suffer from physical ailments resulting from mal-nutrition.
For such a relatively short book, world-building in “Make Room! Make Room!” is second to none in the genre which is bound to compel the reader to read the book in one sitting.
2. Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm (1976)
Perhaps the most well-known book on this list and winner of Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, “Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang” is a bit different from other books on this list as it covers both post-apocalyptic and dystopian scenarios. Civilization has collapsed due to large-scale pollution which has devastated the planet’s environment. The population declines at an alarming rate as incurable diseases affect the masses. Meanwhile, a wealthy family builds an isolated community for themselves for survival where they discover that they have become infertile. So, they adhere to the last possible option for their survival, cloning, thinking that they might become fertile after a few generations.
But eventually when the clones grow-up, they prefer the idea of further cloning over natural reproduction, and their actions eliminate any individual thoughts from the society over a passage of time.
But amongst them is a kid named Mark, who is a natural-born human who has abilities to survive on his own, unlike the clones. Mark is portrayed as an arrogant kid who doesn’t think much of his cloned relatives and often makes cruel jokes of them, but he has one quality which the clones lack for other human beings outside of their community – empathy. And as being empathetic and acting like a jerk are some of the special human traits, the book’s core aim is to explore the concept of individuality and what it means to be human.
1. Mockingbird by Walter Tevis (1980)
Walter Tevis is better known for his novels like “The Hustler” and “The Colour of Money” which were adopted for the screen resulting in creation of some all-time great movies. But he also wrote a dystopian novel called “Mockingbird” in 1980, which ironically, is often overlooked by most readers in predisposition to Tevis’s own aforementioned more famous works.
Man is an endangered species in “Mockingbird”. But unlike the book from which the first sentence is borrowed, “Mockingbird” is a highly interesting novel which manages to avoid all the standard clichés of dystopian fiction. Robots do all the toiling for humans – be it cooking, cleaning, or driving. Perpetually stoned, suicidal, illiterate, and inevitably moving towards extinction, humanity’s only salvation rests with an android named Spofforth who himself has no desire to live (but was designed in such a way that he couldn’t commit suicide), and with a man named Paul Bentley and a woman named Mary Lou, who must rekindle the human desire to live through love.
Set in a dilapidating 25th century New York, the book follows a university professor Paul Bentley, who himself doesn’t know how to read. Comically enough, while watching old silent movies, he notices the subtitles at the bottom of the screen and it dawns on him that it represents what is actually being said in the movie. Eventually, he starts learning basic words of English language by watching numerous movies. A clash of motives happens between the human and the android when Bentley expresses his desire to teach other human beings to read to Spufford, because the android considers reading a crime as it deviates from the norm of the society.