Five dystopian novels for the 21st century

Dystopia is one of the most popular genres of fiction for a reason.

I know I’m not alone in loving to peel back the skin of the society I’m living in to reveal my worst fears about where the world is going. Even better when they’re set in the future and you can indulge in the paranoia of what is to come.

Dystopian fiction lets readers get to grips with their pessimistic fears about society through a fully realized lens. With the last two years spent dealing with a global pandemic and now it seems like another Cold War could be on the cards, it’s no wonder the genre has piqued the interest of the most morbid of book readers.

But who isn’t also a bit bored with the standard canon of dystopian books. Yes, 1984, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 are masterpieces. But they were all written over 70 years ago.

We need a new canon of the must-reads of dystopian fiction. Books by authors who have seen how the world actually looks in the 21st century and can then tell our futures with that info.

Here’s a list of some of the best dystopian novels we’ve read in recent years at EuronewsCulture.

  • To Paradise – Hanya Yanagihara

From the acclaimed author of the beautiful but distressing ‘A Little Life’ comes 2022’s follow up ‘To Paradise’. Actually three stories set across 1893, 1993 and 2093, it’s the final book that presents Yanagihara’s upsetting viewpoint of the world in all its glory.

In New York in 2093, Charlie lives in Lower Manhattan, now renamed Zone 8. After several increasingly devastating pandemics have wreaked havoc across the United States, the country has installed severe restrictions on people’s movements, access to information and freedoms to expression.

Yanagihara’s 2093 is an oppressive state where the constant and unrelenting threat of fatal illness has created societies stripped of all freedom in an attempt to guarantee a semblance of safety. The novel, started before the COVID pandemic, hits in a raw way as it taps into the anxieties of the 2020s extrapolating what a century living in lockdown would feel like.

  • Oryx and Crake – Margaret Atwood

From the author of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ comes this near-future story of genetic experiments gone wrong. Jumping between flashbacks of a young Jimmy’s life in a genetic research facility and the present-tense narration of Jimmy’s future alter-ego Snowman, we slowly piece together the details for how the world went so wrong.

Atwood’s world is one that starts rife with poverty, inequality, and troubling scientific research. The future that it shows within it is one that is bare of anything resembling society and shows a rough image of humanity scrambling to reform itself, wiped clean of history and left to avoid the calamitous weather and deadly animals on the prowl.

Paced like a detective novel as you unwind the truth behind Snowman’s past, Atwood’s dystopia is the go-to for those anxious about the limits of scientific testing.

  • Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

Nobel Prize-winning author Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopia is set inside a boarding school in an alternate universe where cloning is fully legalized and regularly occurs. The story focuses on a set of people who have been cloned from originals with the express interest in organ harvesting.

The nature of being grown just to be an organ donor is bleak, but Ishiguro’s premise lets readers invest in the huge philosophical questions of morality and identity every dystopia reader loves. How can the characters define themselves knowing they are a copy and what they can do to fight a system that seems unbreakable?

It’s a novel that also raises ethical questions, asking the reader to assess the value of an artificial life compared with a real one. But the heartbreak comes when realization hits, which Ishiguro times to perfection.

  • The Book of Dave – Will Self

Like all the best dystopian novels, Will Self’s ‘The Book of Dave’ starts with a map and is split between a narrative of the present day and one in the future. What makes The Book of Dave unique is that in the future, the narrative is written with a form of cockney patois. As readers piece together the puzzle, they realize the Isle of Ham is actually London, centuries after a post-apocalyptic event that left society with only the ramblings of a mad taxi driver to reform culture around.

In Self’s Isle of Ham, readers can imagine a Britain that has been so severely flooded by generations of climate disaster that the only part of London remaining is the type of Hampstead Heath. As characters make their way to other parts of England, they traverse an archipelago that dismantles the sense of a country’s borders lasting beyond an eco-crisis.

  • American War – Omar El Akkad

In American War, El Akkad envisions an America split by its future response to the climate crisis. When a group of southern States secede from the union over their refusal to stop using fossil fuels, the second civil war begins in 2074.

The action follows how eco-collapse will lead to instability as Sarat, a climate refugee, is drawn to a terrorist group. American War is a frank look at the way our morals and our decisions are only a product of our environment. And if we carry on the way we are going, the environment is going to decline in quite a dramatic fashion.

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