7 Dystopian Novels That Will Haunt Your Present

Human beings have always been fascinated with the collapse of their contemporary social order. Since the beginning of human civilization, the end of human civilization has remained a recurring theme in our religious, cultural, philosophical, and popular imagination. From the biblical Book of Revelation’s world-ending Apocalypse and the Norse legend’s cycle of Ragnarok and rebirth to modern science fiction, we have always used our dystopian fantasies as a potent and powerful instrument of imagining the end of our world and the beginning of another. Here are 7 haunting novels that imagine and explore near and distant dystopian futures to make us rethink our present:

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

In many ways, Russian writer Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 science fiction novel We was the prototype for dystopia as a literary genre. Zamyatin’s seminal work inspired generations of science fiction and fantasy writers and influenced classics of the genre such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Set in a future post-war unipolar world, We follows the narrator-protagonist D-503 as he navigates the totalitarian society of the One State while a revolution gathers outside its Green Wall. Long before the invention of global social media, mass surveillance machines, and authoritarian regimes that control every aspect of life—including who one loves—We grappled with ideas of a global regime, the ability of the media to manufacture alternate realities, mass surveillance states, and the seeming short-comings of popular revolution in the face of a totalitarian state.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Set in a future American society where books have been outlawed, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451—a reference to the temperature at which book paper spontaneously catches fire and burns—follows fireman Guy Montag, who becomes disillusioned with his role in burning books, censoring literature, and destroying knowledge, and eventually quits his job and joins the drifters who memorise books in a bid to preserve them for future generations. At a time when censorship, disinformation, and book banning—be it for political or cultural reasons—is at an all-time high across the world, and especially in America where the novel is set in, Fahrenheit 451 stands out as a singularly prescient parable of our times.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a near-future patriarchal totalitarian theocratic nation-state known as the Republic of Gilead which occupies the territory of what used to be the United States of America. Gilead is ruled by a revolutionary radical political group called the “Sons of Jacob” who staged a coup, killed the president, suspended the constitution, and established a religio-fascist military regime where women do not have the right to own money or property, read and write, or even control their own reproductive functions. Offred, the novel’s narrator-protagonist, is one such woman, and the novel follows her life as a handmaid whose social function is to bear children for the ruling class and how she resists and defies the regime in her attempts to survive and escape Gilead.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World takes place in a future London, then a city of the technocratic World State, where citizens are engineered through artificial wombs and sleep-learning indoctrination programmes into predetermined social classes based on their intelligence and attractiveness. The novel follows the lives of Bernard, a psychologist; Lenina, a popular, attractive hatchery worker; and John, a “savage” outsider, as they navigate this brave new world built on Fordist principles of mass production, homogeneity, predictability, and consumerism where any and all remaining feelings of unhappiness is eradicated by a psychedelic antidepressant called ‘soma.’

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is set in a retro-futuristic England during the 1990s. The novel takes place in Hailsham, a boarding school, where children are closely monitored and are instructed on the importance of producing art and staying healthy. Narrated by Kathy H, a former student of Hailsham, the novel follows her life at the school and her relationship with Tommy and Ruth — whose lives entangled with hers when she fell in love with Tommy and the students learned a terrible secret from one of their teachers.

The Memory Police by Yōko Ogawa

Yōko Ogawa’s sci-fi classic The Memory Police is a lyrical, dream-like novel that takes place on an island controlled by the Memory Police. As an unknown force causes the people of the island to collectively ‘forget’ objects or concepts and move on from their disappearance, the Memory Police enforce the removal of the disappeared objects from the island, erasing every trace of their existence from the islanders’ memory. The people who continue to remember meanwhile—such as the narrator’s mother—attempt to escape from the island or hide in safe houses to evade capture by the Police.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

The events of Haruki Murakami’s three-part magnum opus 1Q84 take place in Tokyo during a fictionalised 1984. The first two books focus on the parallel narratives of Tengo Kawana, a novelist, and Aomame, a hitwoman, whose stories draw closer together and eventually unite into one narrative. The story begins with Aomame getting out of a taxi on the Shuto Expressway and, after descending a flight of stairs, realising that she has crossed into an alternate dimension that is very similar to hers but slightly different — the most obvious of which is that this Earth has two moons. She is quickly caught up in a plot involving a religious cult, and 1Q84’s labyrinthine magical realist plot unfolds as Aomame and Tengo, who had known each other when they were children, attempt to find one another, both believing that they are destined to fall in love.

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Drishya Maity

About the author:

Drishya (he/him ⸱ b. 1997) is a writer + artist based in Kolkata, India. He was shortlisted for the Mogford Prize for Food & Drink Writing and nominated for the BBA Photography Prize – One Shot Award in 2022.
He is @drishyadotxyz on Instagram and Twitter.

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