12 Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your Mind

A fan-curated list of the best dystopian books and series.

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I was standing in a LONG line of shoppers waiting for the employee to let us in, one at a time, to the grocery store. The line was longer than it needed to be as we kept our “social distancing” six-foot radius. I was at store number 7, hoping to find flour and toilet paper.

Standing in line awaiting entry to a grocery store.
The new normal; standing in line to get in to find what you need is not there.

This was the new normal.

After I finally made it inside, I realized that, yet again, I would leave bereft of both my targets. Instead, I carried out two packages of Oreos (one vanilla, the other lemon; both quite tasty BTW). I gave up my quest and went home to share the cookies with my family.

“This feels a lot like the beginning of Octavia Butler’s, Parable of the Sower,” I mused. Well, maybe the situation was not as dire as in Butler’s novel, but there was a dystopian ambiance to our new normal; scavenging multiple stores for essential but not-to-be-had supplies. Are Oreos essential? Would these two packages be the last ever? Maybe I should have bought more.

And, like the mouse given the proverbial cookie, that made me think about all of my favorite dystopian fiction.

And that got me thinking about my daughter and son and wondering what were their dystopian fiction recommendations.

And that got me reaching out to friends for more suggestions.

And that led me to this list of the 12 best dystopian books.

I have prepared it just for you.

At last, my reading concentration is returning, and I am settling into the new COVID-19 normal. Some days, I want to read uplifting books, but other days, the black-humor side of me gravitates towards some good, robust dystopian literature. Consequently, I have one of each genre at hand on my nightstand.

The list includes some of our family’s and friend’s favorites. It expressly doesn’t include some of the classics English teachers assign you to read (e.g., Brave New World) because, well, those are not our favorites. Further, I left off some books many have already read or show up everywhere (e.g., The Handmaid’s Tale) because you don’t need to hear about those books.

Notably, most of the books on the list are first books in a series – so you can double or triple your reading adventure for the books you enjoy.

The books on this list are loved and read by genuine dystopian literature fans.

I expect the books that follow are likely books you have not come across unless you are also a dystopian fiction fan. Each book tells gripping, compelling stories that excel at world-building and character development. Give one a try. You can even read or listen to it while you stand in line to buy toilet paper (or Oreo’s).

Empty grocery store shelves reminiscent of a dystopian book

Empty grocery store shelves that bring up thoughts of a dystopian future

Books 1-5 are my favorites, 6-10 my son’s and daughter’s favorites, and 11 and 12 my friend Linda’s favorites. Thanks, to everyone for helping me put the best books on the list.

The best dystopian book list:

1. The 5th Wave by Rick Yancy

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindThe 5th Wave (The 5th Wave, #1) by Rick Yancey
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers on May 7, 2013
Pages: 457
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After the 1st wave, only darkness remains. After the 2nd, only the lucky escape. And after the 3rd, only the unlucky survive. After the 4th wave, only one rule applies: trust no one.
Now, it's the dawn of the 5th wave, and on a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs from Them. The beings who only look human, who roam the countryside killing anyone they see. Who have scattered Earth's last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, Cassie believes, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan Walker may be Cassie's only hope for rescuing her brother-or even saving herself. But Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

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2. Year One by Nora Roberts

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindYear One (Chronicles of The One, #1) by Nora Roberts
Published by St. Martin's Press on December 5, 2017
Pages: 419
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It began on New Year's Eve.
The sickness came on suddenly, and spread quickly. The fear spread even faster. Within weeks, everything people counted on began to fail them. The electrical grid sputtered; law and government collapsed--and more than half of the world's population was decimated.
Where there had been order, there was now chaos. And as the power of science and technology receded, magic rose up in its place. Some of it is good, like the witchcraft worked by Lana Bingham, practicing in the loft apartment she shares with her lover, Max. Some of it is unimaginably evil, and it can lurk anywhere, around a corner, in fetid tunnels beneath the river--or in the ones you know and love the most.
As word spreads that neither the immune nor the gifted are safe from the authorities who patrol the ravaged streets, and with nothing left to count on but each other, Lana and Max make their way out of a wrecked New York City. At the same time, other travelers are heading west too, into a new frontier. Chuck, a tech genius trying to hack his way through a world gone offline. Arlys, a journalist who has lost her audience but uses pen and paper to record the truth. Fred, her young colleague, possessed of burgeoning abilities and an optimism that seems out of place in this bleak landscape. And Rachel and Jonah, a resourceful doctor and a paramedic who fend off despair with their determination to keep a young mother and three infants in their care alive.
In a world of survivors where every stranger encountered could be either a savage or a savior, none of them knows exactly where they are heading, or why. But a purpose awaits them that will shape their lives and the lives of all those who remain.
The end has come. The beginning comes next.

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3. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindParable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Published by Grand Central Publishing on January 1, 2000
Genres: Fiction, Dystopian, African American, Women, Science Fiction, Apocalyptic & Post-Apocalyptic, Coming of Age
Pages: 352
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This highly acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel of hope and terror from award-winning author Octavia E. Butler "pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid's Tale" (John Green, New York Times)--now with a new foreword by N. K. Jemisin.
When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others' emotions.
Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith . . . and a startling vision of human destiny.

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4. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindThe Book of the Unnamed Midwife (The Road to Nowhere, #1) by Meg Elison
Published by 47North on October 11, 2016
Pages: 291
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Philip K. Dick Award Winner for Distinguished Science Fiction
When she fell asleep, the world was doomed. When she awoke, it was dead.
In the wake of a fever that decimated the earth’s population—killing women and children and making childbirth deadly for the mother and infant—the midwife must pick her way through the bones of the world she once knew to find her place in this dangerous new one. Gone are the pillars of civilization. All that remains is power—and the strong who possess it.
A few women like her survived, though they are scarce. Even fewer are safe from the clans of men, who, driven by fear, seek to control those remaining. To preserve her freedom, she dons men’s clothing, goes by false names, and avoids as many people as possible. But as the world continues to grapple with its terrible circumstances, she’ll discover a role greater than chasing a pale imitation of independence.
After all, if humanity is to be reborn, someone must be its guide.

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5. To Be Taught if Fortunate by Becky Chambers

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindTo Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers
Published by Harper Voyager on September 3, 2019
Pages: 153
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In her new novella, Sunday Times best-selling author Becky Chambers imagines a future in which, instead of terraforming planets to sustain human life, explorers of the solar system instead transform themselves.
Ariadne is one such explorer. As an astronaut on an extrasolar research vessel, she and her fellow crewmates sleep between worlds and wake up each time with different features. Her experience is one of fluid body and stable mind and of a unique perspective on the passage of time. Back on Earth, society changes dramatically from decade to decade, as it always does.
Ariadne may awaken to find that support for space exploration back home has waned, or that her country of birth no longer exists, or that a cult has arisen around their cosmic findings, only to dissolve once more by the next waking. But the moods of Earth have little bearing on their mission: to explore, to study, and to send their learnings home.
Carrying all the trademarks of her other beloved works, including brilliant writing, fantastic world-building and exceptional, diverse characters, Becky's first audiobook outside of the Wayfarers series is sure to capture the imagination of listeners all over the world.

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6. Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindTrail of Lightning (The Sixth World, #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse
Published by Saga Press on June 26, 2018
Pages: 287
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While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.
Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last—and best—hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much larger and more terrifying than anything she could imagine.
Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel to the rez to unravel clues from ancient legends, trade favors with tricksters, and battle dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.
As Maggie discovers the truth behind the disappearances, she will have to confront her past—if she wants to survive.
Welcome to the Sixth World.

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7. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindDread Nation (Dread Nation, #1) by Justina Ireland
Published by Balzer + Bray on April 3, 2018
Pages: 455
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Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

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8. Dies the Fire by S. M. Sterling

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindDies the Fire (Emberverse, #1) by S.M. Stirling
Published by Ace Books on September 6, 2005
Pages: 573
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The Change occurred when an electrical storm centered over the island of Nantucket produced a blinding white flash that rendered all electronic devices and fuels inoperable. What follows is the most terrible global catastrophe in the history of the human race-and a Dark Age more universal and complete than could possibly be imagined.

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9. Lucifer’s Hammer by Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindLucifer's Hammer by Larry NivenJerry Pournelle
Published by Fawcett Crest on 1983
Genres: Fiction, Science Fiction, General
Pages: 640
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"The first satisfying end-of-the-world novel in years . . . an ultimate one . . . massively entertaining."--Cleveland Plain-Dealer
The gigantic comet had slammed into Earth, forging earthquakes a thousand times too powerful to measure on the Richter scale, tidal waves thousands of feet high. Cities were turned into oceans; oceans turned into steam. It was the beginning of a new Ice Age and the end of civilization.
But for the terrified men and women chance had saved, it was also the dawn of a new struggle for survival--a struggle more dangerous and challenging than any they had ever known. . . .
"Take your earthquakes, waterlogged condominiums, swarms of bugs, colliding airplanes and flaming what-nots, wrap them up and they wouldn't match one page of Lucifer's Hammer for sweaty-palmed suspense."--Chicago Daily News

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10. Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindTerms of Enlistment (Frontlines #1) by Marko Kloos
on March 14, 2013
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The year is 2108, and the North American Commonwealth is bursting at the seams. For welfare rats like Andrew Grayson, there are only two ways out of the crime-ridden and filthy welfare tenements, where you're restricted to two thousand calories of badly flavored soy every day:
You can hope to win the lottery and draw a ticket on a colony ship settling off-world, or you can join the service.
With the colony lottery a pipe dream, Andrew chooses to enlist in the armed forces for a shot at real food, a retirement bonus, and maybe a ticket off Earth. But as he starts a career of supposed privilege, he soon learns that the good food and decent health care come at a steep price…and that the settled galaxy holds far greater dangers than military bureaucrats or the gangs that rule the slums.
The debut novel from Marko Kloos, Terms of Enlistment is a new addition to the great military sci-fi tradition of Robert Heinlein, Joe Haldeman, and John Scalzi.

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11. The Road by Cormac McCarthy

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindThe Road by Cormac McCarthy
Published by Alfred A. Knopf on September 26, 2006
Pages: 241
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A searing, postapocalyptic novel destined to become Cormac McCarthy’s masterpiece.
A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones, and when the snow falls it is gray. The sky is dark. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves against the lawless bands that stalk the road, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food—and each other.
The Road is the profoundly moving story of a journey. It boldly imagines a future in which no hope remains, but in which the father and his son, “each the other’s world entire,” are sustained by love. Awesome in the totality of its vision, it is an unflinching meditation on the worst and the best that we are capable of: ultimate destructiveness, desperate tenacity, and the tenderness that keeps two people alive in the face of total devastation.(front flap)

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12. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

12  Fantastic Dystopian Books Sure to Blow Your MindOryx and Crake (MaddAddam, #1) by Margaret Atwood
Published by Anchor Books on March 30, 2004
Pages: 389
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Oryx and Crake is at once an unforgettable love story and a compelling vision of the future. Snowman, known as Jimmy before mankind was overwhelmed by a plague, is struggling to survive in a world where he may be the last human, and mourning the loss of his best friend, Crake, and the beautiful and elusive Oryx whom they both loved. In search of answers, Snowman embarks on a journey–with the help of the green-eyed Children of Crake–through the lush wilderness that was so recently a great city, until powerful corporations took mankind on an uncontrolled genetic engineering ride. Margaret Atwood projects us into a near future that is both all too familiar and beyond our imagining.

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Your Turn

Who else reads sci-fi and fantasy? Are there dystopian book fans out there? Please share your recommendations in the comments. I am hungry to find more books. Even more, please share your favorite Oreo flavor – in case I find them in a store sometime soon.

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