Dystopia: “an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible”. (Oxford English dictionary: a real honest-to-goodness book made of paper and everything.)
In The Hunger Games Katniss Everdeen is forced to fight in a televised competition against other teens. To the death. In Divergent Beatrice Prior struggles to find her own way in a society that forces people into factions based on their natural aptitudes. In The Maze Runner Thomas awakens in a teen society without his memory, and with the answers he needs hidden beyond a huge and deadly maze. In The Giver Jonas lives in a seeming utopia, a world that has eliminated pain…and also emotion.
These are four of the best known teen (or in library speak, Young Adult or YA) dystopian novels. Even if you haven’t read them you have probably heard of them, if for no other reason the big budget films adaptations they all have. But our real goal here is to talk about some of the books you may not know about. And while these are “teen” books, adults are allowed to read them. And will enjoy them.
All fiction goes through trends. One year political thrillers are all the rage and the next it is paranormal romances. The same holds true for YA fiction, and in recent years dystopia has been popular. This is well documented, as shown here, and here, and here. A more thorough overview can be found here.
Similar to dystopian books you have post-apocalyptic ones, where some tragic event such as war or disease has destroyed civilization. There is a lot of common ground between the genres. To me it seems that many times dystopian books deal with the bigger picture of civilization while post-apocalyptic ones focus more on individual stories, something that is quite evident in zombie fiction. I like how YA books often do a nice job of merging these tropes together.
Legend trilogy, by Marie Lu.
Legend features dueling protagonists. Day is a Robin Hood type, a teen who early on tries to steal the cure for a plague that afflicts his family in future Los Angeles. June is a prodigy of the Republic, a girl with a bright military future. She is sent undercover out into the world to try and find the notorious Day, who is also the suspected murderer of her brother.
When Day and June encounter each other they have no idea who the other one is. By the time they figure it out, not only do they both realize that the Republic has been telling lies, but that they also have feelings for each other.
Legend is one of the books I stick in people’s hands when they are looking for something to read after The Hunger Games.
Uglies quartet, by Scott Westerfeld
Three hundred years in the future, with the world’s petroleum supplies destroyed, the government controls all aspects of life, including your looks. At age 16 every citizen receives their “pretty” operation, cosmetic surgery transforming their looks to please society.
Days before her operation Tally Youngblood meets Shay, an “Ugly” who talks of rebellion. Found out, Tally is ordered to betray Shay, and to discover where he and his friends are hiding. Along the way Tally learns some hard truths, and suddenly becoming a Pretty doesn’t seem to be quite so appealing.
Delirium trilogy, by Lauren Oliver
Fellow blogger Stephanie says “I. Love. Lauren Oliver.” That should be enough of a recommendation, I think.
Another series where the government mandates operations. In this case the affliction is “amor deliria nervosa”, otherwise known as “love”. Lena Haloway has been eagerly awaiting the operation, when days before she meets Alex, a boy living in the Wilds, the rural areas fenced off from the cities. She experiences actual love, and now has to choose between love and remaining a part of society.
Life As We Knew It trilogy, by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Miranda is a normal 16 year old girl, living in Pennsylvania. Like everyone else she is excited to watch an asteroid crash into the moon. But when the moon’s orbit is shifted, things fall apart quickly.
This book does not have many of the features of other dystopian novels. There is no evil government entity, for instance. In fact the government is helpful, but is no longer efficient or effective. More so than any of the others this book gives you a good opportunity to put yourself in the place of the protagonist and ask “what would I do in that situation?”
The Chemical Garden trilogy, by Lauren DeStefano
In the future genetic engineering has cured man’s ills. All disease and defects are gone. However, the celebration is short as a plague comes with the cure, a plague that kills everyone once they reach their 20s.
Rhine Ellery is caught up in the chaos as society is torn by the plague, and the divide between the rich and poor grows ever wider. The writing in this series is a little uneven but the powerful themes make up for it.
The 5th Wave trilogy, by Rick Yancey
This one varies a bit, as it features aliens and is really at least as much science fiction as dystopian. An alien invasion quickly destroys all of human civilization, leaving the survivors to try to exist in a very different new world.
Cassie Sullivan is one of those survivors. Despite all the hardships she encounters, she keeps going, and learns that her younger brother Sammy is being held captive by the aliens, who are reconditioning humans to fit their needs. As she sets about to rescue him she learns that the few other free humans come in two types: those that can be trusted and those that can’t.
Matched trilogy, by Allie Condie
Cassie Reyes lives in a society that “matches” you with your life partner at age 17. She is matched with her best friend Xander. But a computer glitch seems to indicate that someone else was supposed to be her match. Are the results being manipulated?
Matched does a nice job of showing a world that initially seems utopian, but is slowly revealed to be the opposite. Food is calorie controlled but is bland and tasteless. Population control is strictly enforced. And the government is openly observing the populace, looking for misdeeds.
Reboot, by Amy Tintera
Like so many others, Connolly was killed by the virus. But she was strong, and was one of the few who “rebooted” and essentially returned to life. The reboots are no longer quite human, and she is trained with the others to be an elite crime fighter. She is very good at this; so good in fact that she is tapped to train new reboots.
Callum is one of these new recruits. He retains more of his humanity, which causes him to not follow orders the way he should. This is a big problem for Connolly, especially when she is ordered to eliminate this problem. She must then see if she can regain her own humanity, and her capability to love.
The Adoration of Jenna Fox trilogy, by Mary E. Pearson
Jenna Fox wakes up from a year long coma. Her memory is shattered, but she has lots of support from her adoring family, even if they won’t really talk about what happened to her. She has plenty of home movies to watch that help her start piecing her life back together.
But things don’t seem right to her. She starts to doubt that all of these memories are really hers. She realizes that a great secret is being kept from her, and she must decide if she really wants to find out the truth.
Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank
This is another outlier to the “standard” dystopian fare. It is by far the oldest book on this list, having been published in 1959, and is more post-apocalyptic than dystopian, although those two genres have similar traits.
Randy Bragg lives in a small town in central Florida, and thanks to a warning from his brother is able to help the town cope with the outcome of a nuclear war. The townspeople have to create their own new society in order to survive.
This is a fascinating read when done through the eyes of current times. The technology of the 50s was so different that it is fun to make the comparison and to think about life without all our modern conveniences.
Feed, by M. T. Anderson
Titus lives in a future where most people are directly wired into the “feednet”, a huge computer network that gives them instant access to a wealth of information. Of course the feed is controlled by corporate interests that adjust the content to fit the users preferences, and also strips away any notions of privacy.
When Titus and his friends meet Violet, they are stunned by her critical-thinking skills. Violet starts them down the road of resisting the feed, but there are consequences to doing so, and there are forces actively opposed to them doing so.
One of the things I really enjoy about dystopian fiction is that it makes you think about how things came to be so bad. It often serves as a warning about how as a society we must be careful about losing control of our lives. Teen dystopia often features exciting action sequences as a bonus, while adult ones tend to be more grim.
In any event, I am ready to do some reading! Also, here is a brief list of some great adult dystopian novels, and be sure to add your own recommendations to the comments below.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley (1932)
Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell (1949)
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)
A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess (1962)
The Children of Men, by P. D. James (1992)
A list of all the titles mentioned in this blog can be found here: