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Check Out: A Dozen Top Dystopian Novels

I'm an avid reader of dystopian novels and I was asked to give a list of my favourite ones. I have read so very many of this type of book over almost 60 years, it is frankly impossible to remember them all and many are not worth remembering! However, below are a dozen of the ones I find most memorable today, some of the summaries are from Wikipedia or Goodreads with a little note added by myself:

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M Miller Jr. (1959)

A post-apocalyptic social science fiction. Set in a Catholic monastery in the desert of the southwestern United States after a devastating nuclear war, the book spans thousands of years as civilisation rebuilds itself. The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz preserve the surviving remnants of man's scientific knowledge until the world is again ready for it. This book very slowly introduces you to this new world through a lowly monk who does not know many things, but understands his church’s need to preserve the archives. It unfolds into a very complex world created by the mistakes of mankind in the middle of the 20th century.

[Much of what it says is very prescient, but mostly it is great world building and lovely writing.]

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis (1980)

Mockingbird is a powerful novel of a future world where humans are dying. Those that survive spend their days in a narcotic bliss or choose a quick suicide rather than slow extinction. Humanity's salvation rests with an android who has no desire to live, and a man and a woman who must discover love, hope, and dreams of a world reborn.

[oh, and all humans have forgotten how to read]

No Blade of Grass by John Christopher (1956)

The Death of Grass (published in the United States both in book form, and serialised in The Saturday Evening Post, as No Blade of Grass) is a 1956 post-apocalyptic science fiction novel written by the English author Sam Youd under the pen name John Christopher. The plot concerns a virus that kills off all forms of grass, including rice and wheat. Its publication in The Saturday Evening Post provoked considerable reaction amongst its readers on account of its portrayal of government's response to the unfolding worldwide crisis. The Death of Grass was the first of several post-apocalyptic novels written by Christopher.

{This was probably the first dystopian novel I ever read and it had a rather profound effect on me as a young teen. Therefore, it may not be as good as I remember}

An audacious and powerful debut novel: a second American Civil War, a devastating plague, and one family caught deep in the middle a story that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself.

Sarat Chestnut, born in Louisiana, is only six when the Second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. But even she knows that oil is outlawed, that Louisiana is half underwater, and that unmanned drones fill the sky. When her father is killed and her family is forced into Camp Patience for displaced persons, she begins to grow up shaped by her particular time and place. But not everyone at Camp Patience is who they claim to be. Eventually Sarat is befriended by a mysterious functionary, under whose influence she is turned into a deadly instrument of war. The decisions that she makes will have tremendous consequences not just for Sarat but for her family and her country, rippling through generations of strangers and kin alike.

[This book flips the standard US way of interfering in the governments of people of colour. A very good way to see the world in a different way. And it is a rocking good story as well!]

World Made by Hand by James Howard Kunstler (2008)

A captivating, utterly realistic novel, World Made by Hand takes speculative fiction beyond the apocalypse and shows what happens when life gets extremely local. Set in the fictional town of Union Grove, New York, the novel follows a cast of characters as they navigate a world stripped of its modern comforts, ravaged by terrorism, epidemics, and the economic upheaval of peak oil, all of which are exacerbated by global warming.

[This book is a squishy masculine liberal fantasy of what happens after society collapses and it has many flaws. What I like about it is the completeness of the world and how he explores the many ways this particular community recreates community and political structure. It is one of three, but it is fine as a standalone book.]

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (1993)

This is a post-apocalyptic science fiction novel that provides commentary on climate change and social inequality. The novel follows Lauren Olamina in her quest for freedom. Several characters from various walks of life join her on her journey north and learn of a religion she has crafted titled Earthseed. In this religion, the destiny for believers is to inhabit other planets. Parable of the Sower was the winner of multiple awards, including the 1994 New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and has been adapted into a concert and a graphic novel. Parable of the Sower has influenced music and essays on social justice.

The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)

Told with P. D. James's trademark suspense, insightful characterisation, and riveting storytelling, The Children of Men is a story of a world with no children and no future. The human race has become infertile, and the last generation to be born is now adult. Civilisation itself is crumbling as suicide and despair become commonplace. Oxford historian Theodore Faron, apathetic toward a future without a future, spends most of his time reminiscing. Then he is approached by Julian, a bright, attractive woman who wants him to help get her an audience with his cousin, the powerful Warden of England. She and her band of unlikely revolutionaries may just awaken his desire to live . . . and they may also hold the key to survival for the human race.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (2014)

Set in the days of civilisation's collapse, Station Eleven tells the story of a Hollywood star, his would-be saviour, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.

One snowy night a famous Hollywood actor slumps over and dies onstage during a production of King Lear. Hours later, the world as we know it begins to dissolve. Moving back and forth in time—from the actor's early days as a film star to fifteen years in the future, when a theatre troupe known as the Traveling Symphony roams the wasteland of what remains—this suspenseful, elegiac, spellbinding novel charts the strange twists of fate that connect five people: the actor, the man who tried to save him, the actor's first wife, his oldest friend, and a young actress with the Traveling Symphony, caught in the crosshairs of a dangerous self-proclaimed prophet. [rollicking good story telling!]

Silo by Hugh Howey (2011)

This is a series of post-apocalyptic science fiction books. The series started in 2011 with the short story "Wool", which was later published together with four sequel novellas as a novel with the same name. Along with Wool, the series consists of Shift, Dust, three short stories and Wool: The Graphic Novel.

The story of Wool takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth. Humanity clings to survival in the Silo, a subterranean city extending 144 stories beneath the surface. The series initially follows the character of Holston, the sheriff of the Silo, with subsequent volumes focusing on the characters of Juliette, Jahns, and Marnes. An ongoing storyline of the series is the focus on the mystery behind the Silo and the secrets it holds. Shift, which encompasses books six through eight, comprise a prequel to the series. Book nine, Dust, pulls the storylines together.

The intro teaser for the book is: "If the lies don't kill you, the truth will."

[Questions and mysteries remain unanswered for a very very long time in these stories. Great characters and riveting good storytelling]

Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (1966)

Harrison's novel of an overpopulated urban jungle, a divided class system—operating within an atmosphere of riots, food shortages, and senseless acts of violence—and a desperate hunt for the truth by a cynical NYC detective tells a classic tale of a dark future.Quite unlike the movie that is loosely based on it (Soylent Green), Make Room! Make Room! is a gloomy, glimpse into a New York burgeoning with too many people. Andy Rusch is a city cop who is overworked and underpaid. He has one friend, Sol, an old man who also shares a room with him. During the investigation of a bigwig's murder, Andy meets a gorgeous woman who was the mistress of the newly deceased. They hit it off. As Andy investigates the crime, he and Shirl get closer, but will she be satisfied with a common man after living the high life in a world in which very few live decently? [This book exemplifies my sister’s view of the end of the world - not with a bang but with a whimper]

The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk (1993)

The title refers to the classical elements of fire, earth, air, and water, plus the fifth element, spirit, accessible when one has balanced the other four. The novel describes a world set in the year 2048 after a catastrophe which has fractured the United States into several nations. The protagonists live in San Francisco and have evolved in the direction of Ecotopia, reverting to a sustainable economy, using wind power, local agriculture, and the like. San Francisco is presented as a mostly pagan city where the streets have been torn up for gardens and streams, no one starves or is homeless, and the city's defence council consists primarily of nine elderly women who "listen and dream". The novel describes "a utopia where women are leading societies but are doing so with the consent of men.To the south, an overtly-theocratic Christian fundamentalist nation has evolved and plans to wage war against the San Franciscans. The novel explores the events before and during the ensuing struggle between the two nations, pitting utopia and dystopia against each other.

The Second Sleep by Robert Harris (2019)

The Second Sleep is set in the small English village of Addicott St. George in Wessex in the year 1468 (but it is not "our" 1468; it's 800 years later than the 2020s) and follows the events of a priest, Christopher Fairfax, sent there to bury the previous priest, and the secrets he discovers: about the priest, the village, and the society in which they live.

[It is possible to read well into the book before realising this is not actual historical fiction. An interesting vision of townspeople and local/regional politics in any time. However, the ending seems rushed and a bit cobbled together - as though he was rushing for a deadline or simply got bored and wanted to wrap it all up.]


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