Five Dystopian Novels I’ve Read

I’m much more of an optimist than a pessimist, sometimes a silly one particularly regarding the weather although an excellent German app is helping me over that. Perhaps that’s why dystopian fiction is far from my favourite genre. That said, I’m surprised by how many novels I’ve read which might be described in that way. Below are five which explore the direction our world might take if we don’t pull our socks up fast, all with links to reviews on the blog.

Cover image for The Rain Heron by Robbie Arnott Set some time after a military coup against the backdrop of a world beset by weather extremes, Robbie Arnott’s The Rain Heron explores themes of love, redemption and hope in the face of a disaster of our own making through the stories of two women: Ren, a hermit living in the mountains and Harker, an army officer charged with hunting her down. Arnott’s novel begins with the fable of the rain heron, a gorgeous mythological bird, set against the backdrop of a world blasted alternately by extreme heat and extreme cold. The writing throughout is beautiful: Arnott is careful not to lard his novel with detail, instead letting his story unfold with the heron as a symbol of hope at its heart.

No stranger to writing about dystopia, Margaret Atwood injects the genre with a dash of humour in The Heart Goes Last, a Cover image for The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood sharp piece of satire set in a near future in which Stan and Charmaine are living in their car, part of the fallout from a financial meltdown. When Charmaine watches a promotional video offering an escape in the shape of a social experiment she jumps at it.  All they have to do is spend alternate months in prison while someone else lives in their new home, then switch – and all for the greater good. All goes well until Stan becomes obsessed with their female Alternate. Atwood is the consummate storyteller, slinging barbs as she reels her readers in to this tale of suburban utopia gone horribly wrong. Beneath the satire is deadly serious message: we humans are all too easily lulled into a soporific acceptance leaving us wide open for exploitation.

Cover image for The Body Tourists by Jane Rogers No laughs in Jane Rogers’ Body Tourists which is set in a future where scientists have developed a way of transferring the memories of the dead into the brains of fit young people. Intellectually sharp but lacking in empathy, Luke’s more interested in science than wealth but his aunt sees an opportunity to make money. The massive estates set up to house the unemployed since the advent of bots are stuffed with the impoverished, some prepared to ‘volunteer’ for medical research for a hefty fee. All they need do is spend two weeks unconscious so that the ageing rich can inhabit their bodies. Ryan jumps at the chance persuading Paula to join him but while she returns to her body he does not. This is such a clever novel, depicting an all too believable world where death is the last frontier the rich have failed to overcome.

There’s humour to be found in Jenni Fagan’s The Sunlight Pilgrims which sees Dylan about to be made homeless, making his Cover image for The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan way to Scotland where there’s a caravan for him, according to a note left by his late mother. The next day he meets Stella, his neighbour’s daughter, once her son, who gives him the lowdown on the inhabitants of Ash Lane, from Ida the porn star to the Satan-worshipping stoner. When Stella introduces him to Constance, Dylan becomes besotted. Stella’s battle to be recognised as a girl, the revelations about Dylan’s roots and his yearning for Constance all play out against a backdrop of ever-dropping temperatures and occasional news bulletins. Stella’s the star of the show with her determination to overcome all obstacles and her precocious intelligence. The world is off to hell in a handcart with bankers and big business out of control, temperatures plummeting and waves of violent crime reported on the news, but there’s no heavy-handed polemic here although the end is sobering.

Cover image for The End We Start From by Negan Hunter Megan Hunter is a poet which is what attracted me to The End We Start From. It begins in a London submerged by flood from which our unnamed narrator, her husband and her newborn son flee for their lives, taken in by R’s parents. As the situation deteriorates, R is persuaded to drive over the border to Scotland where they first live in their car, then a refugee camp which R tolerates for a few months before leaving. Throughout the catastrophe, Z has thrived, meeting each developmental milestone and adapting to whatever changes the world throws at him. Hunter’s novel is a mere 140 pages long – barely that given its fragmentary structure, some paragraphs no more than a sentence – but it’s an immensely powerful piece of work, and I’m pleased to say that it ends on a ringing note of optimism.

Any dystopian novels you’d like to share?

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47 thoughts on “Five Dystopian Novels I’ve Read”

  1. I tend to be a dystopia-refuser too. However, as I loved Limberlost, The Rain Heron’s been on my radar for a while. I read The Heart Goes Last a while back, and remember finding it heavy-handed. And I’ve just reserved from the library service The End We Start From. We’ll see about the others …

    1. As with Flames, Arnott’s debut, there’s a element of magic realism in The Rain Heron which is usually a no-no for me but he manages to carry it off. The End We Start From was all about the beauty of Hunter’s language for me. Hope you enjoy it!

  2. I rather enjoy a good dystopia! I’m very fond of Ballard’s early ones like The Drowned World. I liked the Megan Hunter too, but had a mixed experience with Jane Rogers and the lack of explanation of the science in it, although I came to see it differently by the end.

    1. I thought you were! I can see that a scientific background might make it a strain to suspend your disbelief. I did like the point Rogers was making. I’ve not read the Ballard. Adding it to my list.

  3. I’ve read the Fagan and the Hunter—I’d forgotten how Hunter subverts expectations by having the little boy Z adapt perfectly well to the changing environment! My grump, though, is that these are mostly post-apocalyptic (or post-catastrophic) books, since a dystopia technically requires its characters to believe that they’re living in a utopia, or at least to have that concept be part of some official line (and then the plot often revolves around discovering the truth of the situation). The Atwood would definitely count!

      1. It’s fun to think about! Like, I would count The Hunger Games as a genuine dystopia (largely because of the way society functions in The Capitol) as well as Never Let Me Go (because of how the children are raised to believe in the innate worth of what they’re doing), but not The Road (it’s pure post-apocalyptica, there’s no government or authority to be dis- or u- about) or Station Eleven (likewise).

        1. I agree with Elle, we (and I include myself here) tend to glibly use the word dystopia to refer to societies that have failed through catastrophe/apocalypse. Technically in Hunter’s novella, the government haven’t failed and are trying to sort it out… Funnily, over the years I have thought of writing a post about this precise thing, but haven’t – yet.

          1. I think you should. I’d be interested in reading it. As I’ve replied to Elle, I’ve been somewhat thoughtless in my use of the word here but it’s got me thinking about novels that might truly fit the bill.

          1. Don’t mind me—it’s just one of my few (but cherished) literary hills-I-will-die-on! Publishers’ marketing definitely doesn’t help.

  4. Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army is strikingly good and memorable, in The Handmaid’s Tale line. John Christopher’s The Death of Grass about the chaos ensuing from a virus that kills all arable crops another.

  5. Weirdly, although I always get heavily emotionally invested in whatever I read (and so can’t read crime or horror), I find dystopian novels fascinating.
    We by Yevgeny Zamyatin was I think the first I ever read (I’m sure 1984 must be inspired by it).
    Then there’s The Death of Grass by John Christopher, which is at times a difficult read (usually his prose is more page-turner) but I felt was an important read. He’s also written some great short children’s novels that are dystopian but a bit easier to read because of their target audience.
    Philip K Dick has explored some fascinating dystopian worlds in his books.
    The Hunger Games was also an interesting read for some of the themes put forward.
    More recently, I’d recommend Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr, only partially dystopian and definitely uplifting, it gives a lot to think about.

    1. Thanks so much for the recommendations. Interestingly, you’re the second person to have mentioned The Death of Grass which I’d not heard of before. Nor had I come across We. Lots here to check out!

  6. I’m not a big fan of dystopian fiction either, but like you I enjoyed the Atwood and the Hunter. I’m really tempted by the others you mention too, so maybe I am a reader of dystopian fiction after all 😉

  7. It’s not a genre I gravitate towards, but it seems impossible to avoid in contemporary fiction! Recent examples I enjoyed were Under the Blue by Oana Aristide and How High We Go in the Dark by Sequoia Nagamatsu.

  8. Although I don’t read huge amounts of it I do enjoy Dystopian fiction sometimes. I loved Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy but was underwhelmed by The Heart Goes Last. I enjoyed the beginning but then it began annoying me. I really like the sound of The Rain Heron.

  9. Omar El-Akkad’s American War would fit, I believe, as the focus is on the societal change (there is no key event which has precipitated an immediate response, it’s not post-apocalyptic) although the characters certainly do not believe they’re inhabiting a uptopia, they just are grateful (mostly) to be alive, though in hard times. He’s a smart and challenging writer, who holds the thread of plot taut but pulls readers into uncomfortable positions when it comes to character. (Which is to say, you have to be interested in character to care enough to read on, but there’s more plot than in your average literary novel.)

    1. Thanks, Marcie. No idea why I haven’t come across this one before as it’s published by one of my favourite imprints over here. I tend to prefer character (and language) to plot so it might work for me.

  10. I quite like dystopian fiction but in small amounts! Australian contemporary lit is full of dystopian fiction and it’s mainly written by women. Examples include:

    The Hush, Sarah Foster (2021)
    Michelle de Kretser, Scary Monsters (2021)
    Laura Jean McKay, The Animals in that Country (2020)
    Meg Mundell, The Trespassers (2019)
    Lois Murphy, Soon (2018)

    (We also have a lot of cli-fi)

  11. Body Tourists does sound intriguing and I like the cover of Heron very much (still to get to Limberlost). I think possibly with the exception of 1984 and more recently Saha by Cho Nam-Joo, any dystopian fiction I’ve read has been in the young adult category.

  12. Interesting list, I haven’t heard of any of those titles before. Dystopian is not a genre I particularly like either, particularly where there’s a post apocalyptic element. I guess they often feel a bit tired to me. That being said I really liked Nicola Barker’s H(a)ppy which approaches the genre in a unique way. J G Ballard is excellent at dystopias, I guess he lived through one so he knew what he was talking about. And one of the titles you mentioned put me in mind of Never Let Me Go, which I also found a quite refreshing approach. So I guess I like them a bit after all!

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