Dystopian fiction books featured on Fantasy Book Review

An image illustrating the  sub-genre.

What is dystopia? Well, you could say it is the opposite of utopia (an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect), and that it is a society characterized by poverty, squalor, or oppression. Early examples of dystopian fiction would be The Time Machine by HG Wells (1895), Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell (1949) and Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954). Between 1960 and the year 2000 the classics would be regarded by many as A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962), This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (1970), The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin (1971) and The Running Man by Richard Bachman (1982). Since the turn of the century there have been some excellent additions to the dystopian fiction sub-genre with Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2004), Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2005), Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (2005) and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008). Fantasy Book Review favourites include The Stand by Stephen King (1978), Swan Song by Robert McCammon (1987), the Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody (1987-2008) and The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell (2010).

Our recommended trilogies/series
Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Hunger Games

Could you survive on your own, in the wild, with everyone out to make sure you don't live to see the morning? In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by 12 outlying districts. The Capitol is harsh and cruel and keeps the districts in line by forcing them all to send one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she steps forward to take her sister's place in the Games. But Katniss has been close to dead before - and survival, for her, is second nature. Without really meaning to, she becomes a contender. But if she is to win, she will have to start making choices that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.

"Collins is a fine writer worthy of her craft, and the book is compelling all the way through. I don't usually stay up late reading novels, but this time I did. It is a massive whirlwind of enjoyment and insight. It does not pull its punches, and for this reason The Hunger Games is also not free of controversy. Some religious groups have denounced the books as unacceptable for its presentation of violence and for the ever-present theme of looming death. Such readings are in fact misreadings, these groups having missed the obvious point of the series, which is that violence, while very real, is not a viable response. Katniss throughout the book avoids killing where she can, and only does so regretfully, in self-defense. The books are about how violence and vengeance destroys and lowers human life. Far from being a pro-violence or blood-letting message, the books end up being a strong anti-war tract by subverting the honor-warrior-noble-battle trope common in many stories today. Ultimately, the books are about self-sacrifice and the ability of love to overcome the might of totalitarianism, cruelty, and hatred. I do not believe I can recommend them highly enough." Fantasy Book Review

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Obernewtyn Chronicles by Isobelle Carmody
Obernewtyn Chronicles

In a world struggling back from the brink of apocalypse, life is harsh. But for Elspeth Gordie, born with enhanced mental abilities, it is also dangerous. Survival is only by secrecy and so she determines never to use her forbidden powers. But it is as if they have their own imperative and she is brought to the attention of the totalitarian Council that rules the Land. Banished to the remote mountain institution of Obernewtyn, she must throw off her cloak of concealment and pit herself against those that would resurrect the terrible forces of the apocalypse. Only then will she learn most truly who and what she is... Elspeth is determined to uncover the plot and so, accompanied only by her cat, Maruman, embarks on a terrible adventure full of danger, the conclusion to which promises not just uncertainty about her safety but also that of many around her.

"When you put your mind to considering some of the greatest writers of the English language, it is a source of continuing pity that Isobelle Carmody’s name is not up there along with some of the greats like Tolkien, Lewis and Hemmingway. Though some of her work has been criticized, writing science fiction, fantasy, children’s and young adult literature, Carmody is probably most well known and praised for her work on the Obernewtyn Chronicles." Fantasy Book Review

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Legends of the Red Sun by Mark Charan Newton
Legends of the Red Sun

The ancient city of Villjamur is threatened by a long-expected ice age, and thousands of refugees from the coming freeze are camped outside its gates, causing alarm and the threat of disease for the existing population. When the Emperor commits suicide, his elder daughter, Rika, is brought home to inherit the Jamur Empire, but the sinister Chancellor plans to get rid of her and claim the throne for himself. Meanwhile an officer in the Inquisition, in pursuit of a mysterious killer, also uncovers a conspiracy within the Council to solve the refugee crisis by wholesale slaughter, and a cultist magician is causing a trail of havoc in his search for immortality and his obsessive quest to gain access into another world. To the far fringes of the Empire is despatched military commander to investigate a mysterious new race of undead that seems intent on genocide of the most gruesome nature. Gradually the separate strands of romance, jealousy, political intrigue and dark violence converge in a superb new action series of enthralling fantasy.

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Our recommended stand-alone books
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The Road

Cormac McCarthy is one of the USA's most important literary novelists. The Road has been hailed by critics as a masterpiece. This novel paints a bleak vision of a post-apocalyptic America; a land where no hope remains. A man and his son walk alone towards the coast, and this is the moving story of their journey. The Road is an unflinching exploration of human behavior - from ultimate destructiveness to extreme tenderness. Cormac McCarthy has written ten novels, including Blood Meridian and the Border Trilogy series. He has previously won the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

"Work of such terrible beauty that you will struggle to look away. It will knock the breath from your lungs." The Times

"The Road is many things, it is brilliantly-written, poetic, compelling and terrible in its beauty, but there is one thing that it certainly is not, and that is a fun read. It is, in fact, heart-breaking; playing strongly on the reader's basic human instinct to protect their young at all costs and the father’s sense of desperation, dread and isolation are almost palpable." Fantasy Book Review

1984 by George Orwell
1984

George Orwell's dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four is perhaps the most pervasively influential book of the twentieth century, making famous Big Brother, newspeak and Room 101. 'Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past'. Hidden away in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth, Winston Smith skilfully rewrites the past to suit the needs of the Party. Yet he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in, which demands absolute obedience and controls him through the all-seeing telescreens and the watchful eye of Big Brother, symbolic head of the Party. In his longing for truth and liberty, Smith begins a secret love affair with a fellow-worker Julia, but soon discovers the true price of freedom is betrayal.

"1984 is not only a classic of dystopian fiction, but one of the most influential works of fiction ever written." Fantasy Book Review

The Machine Stops by EM Forster
The Machine Stops

In such a short novel The Machine Stops holds more horror than any number of gothic ghost stories. Everybody should read it, and consider how far we may go ourselves down the road of technological ‘advancement’ and forget what it truly means to be alive.

Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky
Metro 2033

I would recommend Metro 2033 to anybody who likes fantasy, sci fi and horror and wants a very well written, immersive story with unnameable and unexplainable horrors lurking round each corner. It is a fascinating and claustrophobic exploration of a terrible future and how human nature adapts.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake

I loved the book's structure. It begins at the end. A haunted man called Snowman, the last human being, living in a tree and hearing voices. What has happened to the world? What happened to the boy that was Jimmy? Well, that is what the book is all about and the finding out always made for compelling reading. It was a bravely written book in that none of the characters are actually likeable and all are flawed, even by human standards, but very real. And Atwood does not judge, even when covering such difficult and emotive subjects as child prostitution and pornography. The hook of the book, and what kept me reading so enthusiastically, was to find out how the Earth had become what it was and who was responsible. It made for a great and eerily plausible story, one that highlighted human malice, greed and stupidity.

The Stand by Stephen King
The Stand

First came the days of the plague. Then came the dreams. Dark dreams that warned of the coming of the dark man. The apostate of death, his worn-down boot heels tramping the night roads. The warlord of the charnel house and Prince of Evil. His time is at hand. His empire grows in the west and the Apocalypse looms. For hundreds of thousands of fans who read The Stand in its original version and wanted more, this new edition is Stephen King's gift. And those who are listening to The Stand for the first time will discover a triumphant and eerily plausible work of the imagination that takes on the issues that will determine our survival.

"I first read The Stand in 1989 and I was completely blown away by it. The story, the characters, the tension - I had never read a book of its size so quickly. So, 23 years later I decided to read it again, finding that although I was able to remember certain parts, almost everything other than the memory of loving it had been forgotten. I found it interesting that King himself said, in the forward, that he doesn't think The Stand is amongst his best books, but the one he is asked most questions about. I would agree with the author here as books like It, Salem’s Lot and The Shining are better-written books but there is just something about The Stand, and if the reader connects with it they are in for a thrilling ride." Fantasy Book Review

The Last Man Standing by Davide Longo
The Last Man Standing

Italy is on the brink of collapse. Borders are closed, banks withhold money, the postal service stalls. Armed gangs of drug-fuelled youths roam the countryside. Leonardo was a famous writer and professor before a sex scandal ended his marriage and career. Heading north in search of her new husband, his ex-wife leaves their daughter and her son in his care. If he is to take them to safety, he will need to find a quality he has never possessed: courage.

"The Last Man Standing is a must read in the dystopian fiction genre, less bleak but no less moving than The Road and a book that’s ending is nothing short of perfection. A disturbing yet strangely uplifting look at a future we can all only pray never comes to be. A special mention must go to Silvester Mazzarella who has managed to lose nothing in translation and every sentence is precise, crisp and a joy to read." Fantasy Book Review

Without Warning by John Birmingham
Without Warning

All in all, Without Warning is a gripping, edge of your seat stuff that you can easily read instead of going to the cinema to watch an action movie, it is delivered right there in front of you. This book never goes dull for a moment and actually puts you to thinking “What if?” The thought experiment of John Birmingham has paid out fully. And it leaves you on quite the cliff-hanger, another great book to be recommended.

The Drowned World by JG Ballard
The Drowned World

As a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction this is a really interesting idea; usually it is a virus of some sort that wipes people out like in Frank Herbert’s The White Plague, or a nuclear-type disaster such as Walter M Miller Jr’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. I found it a shame that it is not discussed how people are living now most of the world is uninhabitable and the apocalypse itself is seemingly fading into the past, so it is a very narrowly-focused book. However, this does suit the increasing self-imposed isolation of Kerans, Dahl and Bodkin, who all seem indifferent to their future, or the future of the human race. Have they resigned themselves to the end or merely adapting to their landscape? This is an excellent example of post-apocalyptic fiction and well deserves to be hailed as a classic.

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse by John Joseph Adams
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

There is not a poor story in this anthology and they are all so different in the way they are written and the themes they cover that everyone will find something to like. Of the five stories I mentioned above it is only George R. R. Martin that I had previously read so I will shortly be going on to read novel-length publications by Dale Bailey, Catherine Wells, Nancy Kress and Neal Barrett. And that is exactly what I hoped to get from this collection. So if you're a fan of the post apocalyptic/dystopia genre then you must add this anthology to your collection as it is simply brilliant and if it still available for £2.99 then it is also an absolute bargain. I loved reading Wastelands and hope that many others do too. Very highly recommended.

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