The Dystopia Literary Canon

So you loved Hunger Games and Divergent–what’s next? How about checking out some of the classics and major players of the dystopia genre? In honor of the Sci-Fi Summer Reading Challenge I joined earlier this month, I figured I would delve into one of my favorite sci-fi subgenres. These first five are what I would consider the classics of dystopian literature, and the last two are some early dystopian YA works that stuck with me through the years. If the end of the world, totalitarian governments, and utopian societies gone wrong are your jam, you’ll definitely want to pick up some of these.  Read down to the bottom to see how I’m doing on my reading challenge. 

  1. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley — Published in 1931, Brave New World was not the first dystopian work ever, but it is probably one of the earliest ones that is still popular today. Brave New World earned its place in the Dystopia Literary Canon by staying on banned lists and school curricula for decades and decades. The novel takes place in London in the year 2540. The World Controllers claim to have fixed every problem and created a perfect society, but at least one citizen, Bernard Marx, is dissatisfied by their attempts to keep the population content and complacent. He goes on holiday to a “savage reservation” and falls in with other outcasts, who struggle with the rigid and caste-based society of the World State. The trope of genetically-induced complacency and brainwashing will be continued in other works, including #7 on this list, Scott Westerfeld’s The Uglies.
  2. Anthem by Ayn Rand — Although I have mixed feelings about Ayn Rand, I cannot deny the place this 1938 novella has on the list of dystopian classics. In the society depicted by this work, the advancement of science and technology is deliberately controlled and stunted, and the concept of the individual is eliminated through the eradication of singular pronouns. This notion of controlling thought by controlling speech is also evident in the next work on this list, 1984. The protagonist, Equality 7-2521, is a street sweeper who falls in love with a peasant girl named Liberty 5-3000. Together they rediscover individualism, love, and the joys of the pursuit of knowledge.
  3. 1984 by George Orwell — Writing in 1948, Orwell flipped the last two digits of the date to determine the setting for his war-torn future. You’ve heard of this book if you’ve ever heard the phrase “Big Brother is watching you.” Big Brother is the leader of Oceania, the totalitarian superstate in which the novel takes place. The government discourages individualism by placing the entire population under constant surveillance and reinventing the language, creating “Newspeak.” 1984 is number nine on the American Library Association’s list of Banned & Challenged Classics, so you know it must be good.
  4. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury — This book came out in 1953 and describes a society where the government controls the thoughts of the people by burning all books. Guy Montag is a “fireman,” someone whose job it is to burn any contraband books found among the citizenry. Due to his constant contact with people who are willing to flaunt the law and risk their lives to harbor books, he begins to question his job and even save books from the fire. As giant book nerds here at DG, we would definitely view a society that outlaws and burns books as apocalyptic. An obvious commentary on the dangers of censorship, Fahrenheit 451 is a must-read for everyone, not just dystopia and sci-fi fans.
    fahrenheit 451
  5. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood — Published in 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale explores women’s pursuit of agency in a restrictive totalitarian theocracy. When a religious faction known as the Sons of Jacob took over the U.S. after a terrorist attack, one of the first things they did was strip women of all of their rights. The protagonist Offred is a “handmaid,” essentially a concubine assigned to a member of the upper class for reproductive purposes. She finds herself in a delicate position between fulfilling the requests of her husband, his wife, and the law, while struggling with her desire for sexual freedom and memories of the time before the Republic of Gilead took away her rights and family.
  6. The Bar Code Tattoo by Suzanne Weyn — This 2004 novel may have been one of the first dystopian works I ever read. It stands out strongly in my memory and fueled my interest in other dystopian novels. In the future, everybody’s getting a bar code tattooed on their arm. No need to carry a wallet or ID around, you can just get your tattoo scanned to pay for goods, apply for jobs, and more. But apparently the bar code contains more information than just your credit card and address. People with illnesses or other secrets are finding themselves discriminated against by those who have access to their bar code information. High school student Kayla begins to think she doesn’t like the idea of getting her identity tattooed on her skin, but it turns out she might not get a choice in the matter. I would consider this a good introductory book to the genre of dystopia for high schoolers.
  7. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld — Thought control, segregation, mandatory surgery, this 2005 book has all the dystopia staples couched in the vivid imagination and superb prose of Scott Westerfeld. Uglies follows the perspective of Tally Youngblood, a fifteen-year-old girl living in a town full of other “Uglies” — kids under the age of sixteen who have not yet had the cosmetic surgery that transforms them into “Pretties” and allows them to move across the river to live with the other Pretties in a world of fun and partying. But not everyone wants that life, and Tally is sent on a mission to discover a hideout of runaways that are avoiding the surgery. There, Tally learns from the rebels that the Pretty procedure not only alters the body but the mind, too. I cannot praise this book enough, and I consider it one of Westerfeld’s best works.

Are there any books you would add to the Dystopia Literary Canon? What do you think of my selections? Let us know in the comments!


~ Sci-Fi Summer Reading Challenge Updates ~

Books in progress:

Empire in Black and Gold (Shadow of the Apt #1) by Adrian Tchaikovsky — Okay this one is really more fantasy than sci-fi but has sci-fi elements/aesthetic and really straddles the line.

The Young Elite by Marie Lu — I had been hearing a lot about this book at last Book Expo, so finally got around to reading it.

Books finished:

Clockwork Fairy Tales: A Collection of Steampunk Fables Edited by Stephan L. Antczak and James C. Basset — I have to say I wasn’t impressed. Most of the contributors seemed to have poor writing (or maybe just don’t do short stories well), and many of the steampunk tropes were overdone.

Current level: Red Shirt


4 thoughts on “The Dystopia Literary Canon

  1. Excellent choices! I would also add “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin (published 1921) There’s also The Island (also by Aldous Huxley), which is (sort of) dystopian in nature. I loved Brave New World, but the ending makes me so sad every single time.

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