Off the Shelf – Dystopian Fiction

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So, we’re all trapped inside for the foreseeable future and I have been preparing for this for many years by hoarding books. I have enough unread books on my shelves to keep me reading for the next decade.

If you haven’t already dipped your toes into dystopian literature – maybe now’s the time to start since we seem to be living in a dystopia.

Dystopian literature is a form of speculative fiction (a genre of fiction that encompasses works in which the setting is other than the real world, involving supernatural, futuristic, or other imagined elements) that began as a response to utopian fiction, which is a term coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516 with his book Utopia (Greek for no place). So we have come to understand a utopia as a perfect world – clearly not the world we are currently living in.  Dystopian literature explores the dangerous effects of political and social structures on humanity’s future. When the structures that are meant to keep us safe start to break down, we are heading into dystopian territory.

According to, the central themes of dystopian novels generally fall under these topics:

  1. Government control
  2. Environmental destruction
  3. Technological control
  4. Survival
  5. Loss of individualism

If you are interested in seeing how authors imagine a future world, there’s lots of great titles out there.

Margaret Atwood is considered one of the very best writers of dystopian literature and her novel The Handmaid’s Tale is widely regarded as one of the great dystopian novels. After  some sort of environmental disaster, America has reorganized itself into a patriarchy where women are basically used as baby-makers. This novel is 35 years old, but it certainly rings true today and although I can’t say that I am huge Atwood fan, this novel is probably required reading. The sequel The Testaments was co-winner of the Booker prize last year. One Atwood book I did enjoy was Oryx and Crake, which is another book that makes you think Atwood must have had a crystal ball. It’s the first book in a trilogy about a guy named Snowman who is – seemingly – the last person alive on earth. The landscape has been devastated, there’s no food and scientists have created scary genetic mutations.

Another masterpiece of dystopian literature is Stephen King’s novel The Stand. The National Post just published an article titled “Stephen King’s The Stand (1978) is either the perfect distraction from COVID-19 or too eerily accurate to consider” The article’s author, Calum Marsh says The Stand is “an engrossing, sweat-inducing, eerily plausible 1,400-page epic about the inception and spread of an extremely deadly global pandemic, kick-started inside an underground biological testing facility in the Mojave desert and sent hurtling in all directions across the world with irrepressible speed.”

The Stand is about  a deadly strain of influenza has ravaged America killing most of the population. The American government tries to cover it all up…and the fun begins.

The Stand is considered King’s masterpiece, but I have never been able to finish it – and I would consider myself a King fan…just there’s a lot of characters to keep track of in the beginning, but maybe now’s the time to give it another go because from all accounts it’s totally worth it…and hey, I’ve got the time.

The Girl With All the Gifts– M.R. Carey is a great book if zombies are your thing…and,17235026 really, what’s more dystopian than a zombie novel. In this book ten-year-old Melanie is kept caged up with a bunch of other kids because they are flesh eaters. This is happens after some horrific event in England. This is actually quite a philosophical novel which asks questions about what makes us human…and how we react to catastrophe. I am not a zombie girl, but I really liked this book. Total page-turner.

And then I have a couple titles for young adult readers:

Monument 14 – Emmy Laybourne – an environmental disaster forces brothers Dean and Alex to hole up with the other kids on their school bus in a huge superstore.

The Knife of Never Letting Go– Patrick Ness – one of my absolute favourite series about a kid named Todd who lives in a world without women and where everyone can hear everyone else’s thoughts.

Ashes– Ilsa Bick 17-year-old encounters a post environmental disaster world filled with flesh eating teens and blurred morality

These are all first books in a series, which would definitely keep your teens reading.

I wonder if  part of the appeal of  reading dystopian fiction doesn’t have to do with the extreme nature of the stories? I mean, did you ever imagine you’d be confined to your house or have to follow arrows when you go to the grocery store? I don’t miss shopping; I miss my friends and my family. Dystopian fiction capitalizes on the fears of the characters and the readers and encourages them to make choices that will benefit the whole community. Perhaps some really good things will come out of Covid 19.

Looking for more great reads in the dystopian category?

Vulture’s Pandemic Reading List

Oprah’s List of the Best 20 Dystopian Novels of All-Time

Happy reading.

Stay safe.