Definitive Guide on the History of Dystopian Literature

Talking points during controversial times bring familiar titles like “1984” or “The Handmaid’s Tale.” These dystopian novels, after all, represent the frightening possibility of totalitarian governments and the destruction of human rights. Books like these provide a scenario of civilizational collapse, warning people who take the comforts of modernity for granted.

You will now read the definitive history of dystopian literature and explore the most influential books in this genre. This article will also show you their cultural and political impacts during their time and beyond.

Also see: Dystopian Books like the Hunger Games

Looking For A Perfect World

Before writers pondered on devastated societies and oppressive dictators, authors first imagined a utopia—a perfect world. Sir Thomas More, a 16th-century statesman, wrote his iconic book during a chaotic time in British politics. Until now, literary critics ponder Thomas More’s purpose. Does his book Utopia—from the Greek words meaning “no place” and “good place”—represent an unattainable ideal world? Or did Thomas More satirize his colleagues in the government? Whatever his reason, Thomas More contributed such an optimistic view to English literature and future ideologies.

But the complete opposite of a perfect worldview caught up three centuries later. In 1868, John Stuart Mill, an English philosopher and parliament member, first used the word “dystopian.” (Unfortunately, its alternative term “cacotopian” soon fell out of use.) Dystopia soon became a niche for novelists and authors who would face the horrors soon to engulf the world in the next century.

Dystopian Literature’s Roots (1868–Early 1900s)

During the later decades of the 1800s, the West enjoyed scientific revolutions and legendary innovations. Thomas Edison patented the light bulb, and electric grids soon emerged. Guglielmo Marconi then launched the telegraph, bringing instant communication across the world. Meanwhile, European scientists discovered radioactivity and germ theory.

Political ideologies, psychology, and literature also blossomed during these fast-paced times. Utopian books were much more popular as they depicted a positive future for humankind. For example, News from Nowhere by William Morris presents that societies will have joint ownership, production, and farms. Nothing is private—there is no marriage, prison, hierarchy, or currency. Instead, people just enjoy farming and taking care of nature.

But Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a Russian novelist, explored the depths of human evil, suffering, and longing for freedom in his works. His themes inspired psychoanalysts and philosophers like Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzche, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The Encyclopedia Britannica further says that he influenced the leaders of dystopian literature, especially in an age of mass murder and cataclysm.

Meanwhile, the prolific Herbert George Wells published these pioneering dystopian novels before the turn of the century:

1. The Time Machine

The Time Machine was his first novel. It was also the first book about time travel, aside from contributing to the rising science fiction genre. Moreover, it presents a grim future for humanity as a backward society because of abused capitalism and natural selection.

The protagonist traveled over eight hundred thousand years into the future. He saw that people have evolved into two kinds: the Eloi and the Morlocks. The happy and childish Eloi live above the ground, enjoying peace and satisfaction. They achieve this by using the Morlocks who live underground.

The Time Machine seems to attack the idealized socialist future dreamed of by utopian writers in their works.  Although the future it depicts is hundreds of thousands of years later, The Time Machine uses Darwin’s theory to explore capitalism, human nature, and the grim fate of humanity.

2. The War of The Worlds

The War of the Worlds is the first mainstream novel about an alien invasion. Although scholars still discuss if it belongs to this genre, The War of the Worlds safely remains within dystopian literature.

In this novel, Martians came to enslave the planet. Herbert George Wells used this story as a tirade against British imperialism on native Tasmanians.

The War of the Worlds was very popular until the decades following when Orson Welles adapted it for the radio. Its broadcast was so compelling that some listeners panicked, thinking that the Martians were invading Earth. The War of the Worlds also has a more profound, lasting legacy. It inspired Robert Goddard, a scientist who pioneered rocket science.

3. A Story of the Days to Come

Herbert George Wells published the five chapters of A Story of the Days to Come in The Pall Mall Magazines. This novella depicts London in the 2100s as it suffers from intense class divisions and urbanization. He also portrayed the promising technological innovations during this time should they become more extreme in the 22nd century.

In A Story of the Days to Come, poor people lived underground, while middle-class and wealthy people resided in skyscrapers. The rich enjoyed many privileges as well. Meanwhile, the countryside has died already as the urban areas have superhighways between them. The state endorses hypnosis as psychological treatment, while parents leave their children to professionals.

This novel presents the deterioration of social structures and the countryside as the consequence of excessive progress.

Dystopian Literature’s Rise To Infamy (The 1920s)

By the 1920s, the world was recovering from the Great War’s devastation. Revolutions and scientific achievements during the past two decades brought optimism and fear to this generation. The airplane, futurism, chemical weapons, new industrial warfare, and the collapse of many European monarchies are some of them.

Some imagined these innovations could be turned for humankind’s good, making warfare and poverty obsolete. Utopian fiction was still more popular, but the world was anxious and traumatized after the events of 1914 onwards. These emotions inspired dystopian literature into the public consciousness.

In 1921, the Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin published We, the first totalitarian dystopian novel. We established the genre’s themes and narrative styles, like cliffhanger endings, unresolved conflicts, and abusive governments. However, Zamyatin also emphasized the values of free will and suppressing the state’s power. Most importantly, this novel would influence future dystopian writers.

Dystopian Literature During The Lead-Up To The Second World War (The 1930s)

Shortly after We was published, fascism rose in Italy in 1925. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union also increased its control and tightened its rule across its territories. Meanwhile, the development of television transmission during this decade created a new avenue for propaganda and marketing among the masses.

In the 1930s, authoritarian regimes gained much power in Europe. Joseph Stalin starved millions of Ukrainians during the artificial Holodomor famine from 1932 to 1933. During that time, Adolf Hitler became the German Chancellor. Jews and minorities would be harassed, discriminated against, and victimized.

While these events played out, people debated capitalism, communism, democracy, authoritarianism, racial ideologies, and psychology—subjects that would soon bring out the deadliest war in history. Hence, dystopian writers had so much material. These are the pivotal dystopian novels of the 1930s:

1. Brave New World

The 1932 novel Brave New World criticized the “utopian” future ruled by the fusion of scientific progress, state control, and intellectualism. Aldous Huxley set his story in a society where babies are created in laboratories. They grow up worshiping and blindly obeying the government. These people are ranked and classed based on their intelligence—the Alphas think while the Deltas perform lowly jobs. Because they have been conditioned this way, this society has no moral accountability.

In Brave New World, Aldous Huxley sought to prove that people lose their humanity once they no longer feel guilt, sorrow, and remorse. Moreover, Aldous Huxley pioneered dystopian science fiction through this novel.

Over two decades after the successful release of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley reassessed it in Brave New World Revisited. In this non-fiction analysis, he raised the alarm about overpopulation, state propaganda, and manipulative consumerism.

Aldous Huxley also promoted the protection of personal freedom, morality, and education. Brave New World Revisited is pivotal because it influenced Anthony Burgess, one of the critical dystopian authors of the 60s.

2. It Can’t Happen Here

As the world watched how totalitarian regimes rose in Europe, It Can’t Happen Here seemed like a horror story for freedom-loving Americans. Published in 1935 by Sinclair Lewis, this novel depicts how a dictator might rise should the United States turn fascist.

It Can’t Happen Here starts its story when Senator Buzz Windrip won the Democratic nomination and the 1936 national election. The American people, who were suffering from the Great Depression, were hopeful that Windrip would bring prosperity and global respect to the United States. After all, he used patriotism and “traditional” values to inspire ordinary people.

Soon after his victory, however, he launched a paramilitary force and concentration camps to target his critics and opponents. He also imposed martial law, weakened Congress, and violently suppressed protests. Moreover, his corporate business administration also regrouped states into sectors.

The protagonists of It Can’t Happen Here is the opposition labeled the New Underground. Also, the book depicts the internal politics in Windrip’s totalitarian administration.

Dystopian Novels and the Second World War (the 1940s)

The most devastating conflict in human history, the Second World War, raged during the first half of the 1940s. It brought the horrors of industrial murder, propaganda, civilian casualties, and nuclear bombs.

Back then, dystopian writers focused on political themes that prevailed during the war. Here are the iconic examples of dystopian literature during the 1940s:

1. Animal Farm

George Orwell entered the dystopian genre through Animal Farm. He started writing this novel when the United Kingdom became an ally of the Soviet Union. As a critic of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union, George Orwell despised the Stalinist purges, repression, and propaganda that extended to outside countries. He quit working for the British Broadcasting Corporation because of its propagandistic methods of supporting the Soviet Union during the Second World War.

In this satirical fable,  he represented the 1917 Russian Revolution and attacked Stalin’s regime. The animals wanted to expel the farmer to make themselves equal and accessible. However, their rebellion worsened their condition, while their fellow pig proclaimed himself as their dictator.

2. 1984

1984 by George Orwell is arguably the most famous dystopian classic. Terms like  “Orwellian,” “1984,” and “Big Brother” resurface when governments gradually increase their power—and for a good reason. 1984 can be seen as a warning by the population, but states can interpret this novel as a manual. Such is the beauty of 1984.

In 1984, the world was split into three states: Eurasia, Eastasia, and Oceania. The latter is the novel’s setting. According to the all-powerful Ingsoc, the ruling party in Britain (called Airstrip One), these nations fought an unending war. The citizens are subjected to ceaseless propaganda and surveillance. Through “newspeak,” a corrupted language full of contradictions, Ingsoc manipulates citizens to accept lies and lose logic. For example, people believe they find freedom and peace as enslaved people at war.

Literary critics and scholars have often compared 1984 and Brave New World because they both present totalitarian regimes. Here are how they analyze the two classic dystopian novels together:

  • Brave New World depicts the corruption of society through extreme scientism, lack of accountability, and intelligence-based hierarchies. But 1984 emphasizes how the dictator party brainwashes people through propaganda, torture, and the corruption of language.
  • George Orwell feared state censorship and banning so the public would have less information. But Aldous Huxley implied that it is further terrifying if people no longer want to read books out of ego and complacency.
  • Regarding truth, 1984 says that hiding the truth is dangerous to society. While this is true, Brave New World says it is more perilous if the truth becomes irrelevant because people only care about short-term pleasures and desires.

1984 and Brave New World portray corrupt authoritarianism and powerful governments. But they present the values of free will and limit the state’s power.

Also Enjoy: Door Sliding Closing Sound Effect

Dystopian novels and The Cold War (the 1950s and 60s)

The Second World War had just ended—fascism and Nazism were destroyed. Decolonization is underway as democracy, liberty, and self-determination seem to prevail. But the globe is far from feeling peaceful and hopeful. Nuclear warfare threatens humankind with utter destruction while the Soviet Union and the Western allies tread delicate diplomacy. The wars in Korea and China, including Moscow’s violent response to the Hungarian uprising, upended the societies of millions. World War III could happen anytime.

This rebuilding period mostly did not bring much optimism. Likewise, according to Goodreads’ data, more dystopian books ramped up during the 50s. Many writers explored apocalyptic scenarios and wars between superpowers. But, as always, dystopian literature in this decade still portrayed censorship, dictatorships, and suppression of human rights.

1. A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange’s theme is state-sponsored brainwashing and psychological punishment. Teen gangs run wild and commit brutalities in a future where Britain has become a dystopian totalitarian regime. They performed orgies, rapes, murders, and theft. But once they get caught by the authorities, these juvenile criminals face severe aversion therapy. This “treatment” makes them feel sick while thinking of committing crimes.

This critically acclaimed novel makes readers ponder on free will. If goodness is forced into a person, are his actions morally legitimate? The answer is left to the reader to decide. Nonetheless, A Clockwork Orange achieved the Hall of Fame Prometheus Award and a spot in Time Magazine’s list of the best 100 English books (1925–2005).

2. The Wanting Seed

The Wanting Seed portrays a state that persecutes reproduction. In their fight against overpopulation, London’s authorities regulate pregnancy through its Ministry of Infertility. It also encourages same-sex relationships. However, a famine made people resort to cannibalism and war.

This book, also written by Anthony Burgess, discusses sexual freedom, war, and ethics under a strictly repressive government. He even said once that he wanted to expand this book, given its powerful themes.

3. Player Piano

Most of the novels here so far show extreme cases of despotic rule. Player Piano is eerily prophetic of what we might soon experience because of artificial intelligence and advanced robotics. What will happen if human laborers are rendered obsolete by automation? Player Piano explores the world where a few engineers and experts dominate over jobless and “useless” masses.

Its writer, Kurt Vonnegut Jr, ultimately seeks to warn humanity from blindly trusting technological progress. His novel also reminds readers never to dehumanize or oppress poor people as technology continues to alter society. 

4. Make Room! Make Room!

Make Room! Make Room! details a crowded future for humankind as the population grows out of control and the elites take its resources. The novel takes different perspectives from residents in the predicted New York City in August 1999. Through this style, we can see how people suffer in this dystopian world.

Make Room! Make Room! has been adapted as a 1973 movie named Soylent Green, but that film used cannibalism and euthanasia to solve overpopulation.

5. Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 represents the fears brought by McCarthyism and the Red Scare during the 1950s. This novel, named after the temperature at which books burn, portrays a future where all books are banned in the United States. Ray Bradbury, the author, used the examples of the Nazi’s book burning events and the Soviet’s ideological purges. Through this book, he presented the dangers of political correctness and speech repression.

Fahrenheit 451 also embodies Ray Bradbury’s love for books from his childhood. Since his parents could not send him to college, he studied by himself at the Los Angeles Public Library. Ray Bradbury was horrified at the fate of the Library of Alexandria, one of the most significant collections of knowledge in classical antiquity. He also despised how the United States persecuted artists and directors during the Red Scare, which he believed to be as evil as the censorship done by the Nazis and the Soviets. Moreover, it was when television mass media started to become mainstream—a trend that Ray Bradbury believed distracted people from reading. From these influences, he wrote Fahrenheit 451.

This iconic dystopian novel received awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Commonwealth Club of California, and others. It has also been adapted as a movie, stage play, video game, and radio program.

6. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

This novel by Philip Dick shows San Francisco after a cataclysmic nuclear holocaust. Because the air has been polluted by radiation, the United Nations facilitated migrations to colonies outside the planet. They also provided androids manufactured on Mars to help the evacuating people. Unfortunately, they rebelled and hid on Earth. Because of this, the Americans and the Soviets send bounty hunters to kill the androids.

In this dystopian nightmare, most animals have been killed by the nuclear fallout. So having pets became a rare accessory, but poor people could only afford robot animals. This trend made people more empathetic, creating a religion called Mercerism to channel this feeling into hope and fulfillment.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep is the basis for the action movie Blade Runner in 1982 and its 2017 sequel. The novel was also adapted as a stage play, comic book, and radio program.

7. Penultimate Truth

Indeed, the fear of World War III and world destruction has been deeply ingrained in the Western psyche during these decades. Philip Dick again turned this passion into a dystopian science fiction masterpiece called Penultimate Truth, published in 1964.

In the story, most humans hid underground as robots fought World War III for the superpower nations. While this conflict ravaged the world, the population concealed in bunkers stayed safe. But the elites, on the surface, decided to keep the people there even if the war was over by fooling them that there was still a war above.

Read More: Top 5 Dystopian Books for Young Teens to Read

Dystopian Novels And The Last Three Decades Of The Century (The 70s–90s)

In the 1970s, the American public protested against their government because of the Vietnam War. New research made more people concerned about climate change, all while facing the threat of nuclear armageddon. Consumerism, excessive advertising, and marketeering were rampant. But it would soon end with economic stagnation by the decade’s end.

The 70s’ multifaceted concerns diversified dystopian literature. Feminism, literacy, crony capitalism, and the trends painted above made the future seem bleak. Hence, dystopian writers had fresher themes to write.

These are the landmark dystopian novels in the last three decades of the 20th century:

1. Neuromancer

Neuromancer by William Gibson pioneered cyberpunk, a genre that involves cybercriminals in decaying societies. This novel portrays the story of a hustler hacker who tapped into cyberspace and artificial intelligence. Because of its progressive themes, some analysts believe that William Gibson anticipated what would become the World Wide Web.

Neuromancer won prestigious recognition, including the Philip K. Dick and Nebula awards. It has also been adapted as a hypertext game, radio show, stage play, graphic novel, and movie.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale is the most iconic feminist dystopian novel, especially when abortion is debated. Margaret Atwood portrays a patriarchal theocracy called the Republic of Gilead that now rules the United States. Here, women no longer have reproductive rights, employment opportunities, or identities. The novel shows the story of different women as they resist this oppressive patriarchy.

Because of its literary and cultural impact, The Handmaid’s Tale won critical acclaim and exceptional awards. One is being included in the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s “Big Jubilee Read.”

3. Snow Crash

Snow Crash revolves around many themes, from Sumerian religion to anthropology to the Metaverse. Yes, this 1992 science fiction dystopian novel talked about virtual reality and digital currencies. In this novel, the world economy suffered from hyperinflation and collapse. These crises started a humanitarian crisis and led to the digitalization of day-to-day life. The government also fell apart, so business people and corporations took control of the states.

4. Blindness

Blindness helped its author, Jose Saramago, win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. In this thrilling and intriguing novel, an epidemic of blindness causes society to collapse. This sickness affected the noble and the wicked, but the government and the elite still regained their power in this blinded world. In its story, Blindness also discusses ethics and human rights.

Blindness has been adapted as a movie, stage play, and opera.

5. The Giver

At first, The Giver seems like a utopian novel, but it is anything but. In its community, the residents removed their emotional depth so that they would no longer feel pain. They also cleared color, individuality, and memories to impose order and equality.

This novel has been a subject of philosophical and ethical discussions and debates because it handled eugenics and morality. Many Western libraries and schools seek to restrict it too, but it is considered one of the best children’s novels.

Dystopian Novels In The New Millennium (The 2000s–Present)

In fairness, the world greeted the 2000s relatively peacefully and prosperously. The Internet and personal computers rose in popularity, providing a new technological frontier for humankind. But this optimism died when hijackers attacked the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. This event would trigger the Global War on Terrorism and the near-dystopian Patriot Act.

Dystopian novels in our time primarily appealed to young adults. The most popular releases (one can quickly remember The Hunger Games) even became movies, generating hundreds of millions of dollars. Such literature combined the geopolitical anxieties of the time with the issues teenagers face. The comforts of modern life also made totalitarianism and dystopias even more frightening to younger readers.

Here are the best and leading dystopian novels since then:

1. Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is one of the most recognizable literary brands in the 2010s, generating a trilogy of novels and movies. It is set in a North American country called Panem, divided into thirteen districts and a Capitol. Panem has an annual death battle royal event called The Hunger Games to commemorate the Capitol’s victory over a national rebellion. During The Hunger Games, the government randomly chooses a teenage tribute from each district to fight to the death. The winner and his community will receive treasure, food, and provisions.

In total, The Hunger Games generated $2.97 billion.

2. Ready Player One

Ready Player One, released in 2011, is another famous young adult dystopian novel adapted into a movie.

According to this novel, the world has collapsed because of an energy crisis, overpopulation, and extreme weather. These disasters caused people to dwell in a virtual world called OASIS. But the inventor of this system announced that he left hidden treasure inside his system. Anyone who finds it will gain his trillion-dollar asset, company, and control over OASIS.

3. Uglies

Uglies explores a world where an all-encompassing government imposes rigid beauty standards. When people reach sixteen, they must receive extreme cosmetic surgery. Hence, society molds them into what they see as attractive.

This novel uniquely depicts the virtues of beauty and humanity in a dystopian and unethical society. It is not surprising, therefore, that Uglies has become appealing to critics and teenage audiences. The author also said that his book convinced many girl readers to reject plastic surgery. Nonetheless, many commentators assert that plastic surgery benefits those who genuinely need it.

4. The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner begins when the protagonist, Thomas, wakes up in a walled community surrounded by tall towers. He only remembers his name, like the boys who came there first. Outside the wall is an ever-changing maze. At first, this plot may not look dystopian, but why they are there… might reveal spoilers. Nonetheless, the dystopian elements of the ending are the basis for the next installments in the franchise.

The first movie adaptation of The Maze Runner surpassed $348 million in earnings, compared to its $34-million budget.

5. Divergent

Divergent focuses on the journey of its protagonist, Beatrice Prior, in a dystopian Chicago where the society is split between five factions. This novel takes the perspective of young adults as it portrays her relationship with her parents and the class-based society. It also has implicit themes on religion, social psychology, and adolescent coming-of-age.

According to Forbes, Divergent was such a success that its author, Veronica Roth, earned around $17 million from the book.

Now that the world is reeling from the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic woes, what kind of dystopian novels will appear? Only time will tell. But hopefully, may these grim predictions never come true!

Keep Reading: Best Dystopian Books of All Time For Adults Ranked

Dave P
Dave P
Be a little better today than yesterday.
Stay Connected

Read On