Dystopian literature is a form of speculative fiction that began as a response to utopian literature. A dystopia is an imagined community or society that is dehumanizing and frightening. I first read George Orwell's 1984 when I was 16, and I've been hooked on dystopian fiction ever since. Originally published in 1949, the book horrified and haunted me in its depiction of a hypothetical future totalitarian society. A compelling, striking nightmarish vision of a dystopian world, this remains one of the most chilling yet favourite books I've ever read and one of the best openings of a book ever: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
So much of it has entered our language, becoming an integrated part of our common cultural inheritance, that I'm sure many people don't even realise their beginnings.
It was followed shortly after by Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a book which I read a few years after it was published in 1985, a book introduced to our class of English A-Level students by the most wonderful teacher anyone could wish for, Mrs Barnes. From then on, dystopian fiction was in my heart.
Recently brought to the masses through the TV series starring Elisabeth Moss, this is the story about a terrifying dystopian world, ruled by a military and religious dictatorship. Infertility is rife, and the handmaid’s role is to bear children for the ruling class. The Republic of Gilead offers Offred only one function: to breed. Dissenters will be hanged at the wall or sent out to die slowly of radiation sickness. This chilling book imagines what a backlash to feminism might lead to and though it is horrifying there is also humanity, wit and humour in the writing.
More recently I have enjoyed the books of Christina Dalcher who I am increasingly dubbing the Queen of speculative fiction. Her 2019 debut VOX tells the story of an alternative world and is a searing dystopian debut explores a dissolute puritanical society in which women are silenced and wholly subjected to male control. Limited to just one hundred words a day, seventy million women lose their jobs overnight, young girls are no longer taught to read or write. For herself, her daughter, and for every woman silenced, Jean tries to reclaim her voice.
And keeping with the focus on debuts I must mention two more recently published dystopian gems. In The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird, women get even. Written before the current pandemic, this is a powerful, thought-provoking blast of speculative fiction, where a virus that only kills men hits the world.
Another dash into dystopia hit the shelves from debut author Nikki Erlick with The Measure. Every adult on earth suddenly shares the same surreal experience, when overnight a box arrives on the doorstep of everyone aged 22 and older across the world. The measure of your life lies within. Each person is presented with a string of a different length, and the string determines how long you have left on Earth. Would you open the box?
It's a brilliant concept, brilliantly written, brilliantly realised dystopian world which pits Long Stringers against Short Stringers, fear drives the divides in society as people struggle to come to terms with the new reality. And I loved it!
Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam is a magnetic novel that went straight into our Star Books category as soon as we read it. Two families who are strangers to each other are forced together on a long weekend gone terribly wrong. This is an eloquent, intense and chilling novel that merges psychological thriller with dystopian apocalyptic fiction. And once you've read it you can watch the new film adaptation on Netflix.
Naomi Alderman delivered a masterfully crafted piece of feminist science fiction when she wrote The Power. Her latest book, The Future is a wildly entertaining novel that sees a few billionaires go to destructive extremes as they prep for surviving the end of the world. A book that is part prophetic dystopian page-turner and part romance, and all exhilarating triumph and LoveReading Star Book.
Looking for something fiercely dark but full of gleeful provocative attitude? Look no further than She's a Killer by Kirsten McDougall. One of our Books of the Year, it's Eleanor Oliphant meets Killing Eve and a gloriously unhinged New Zealand sensation as 'wealthugees' flock to New Zealand as shelter from the climate crisis.
Find below a full selection of speculative fiction we have adored here at LoveReading. We hope you do too. Let us know what would be on your list of must-reads?