With everything that has gone on in 2020, it’s easy to feel at times like you’ve slipped into an alternate reality – one that you’d usually expect to find in dystopian fiction. Now, with the American election on the horizon and Brexit coming to a head, those kinds of reads are more relevant today than ever before. Here, we’ve rounded up the very best of them, from prophetic narratives to sage warnings, to provide the perfect thought-provoking escapism to read right now.
Sephy, a Cross, falls in love with Callum, a nought, in this award-winning series of young adult fiction that remains relevant for all ages. In this inverted society, Crosses are the ruling dark-skinned elite, while noughts are ‘colourless’ members of an underclass who were once slaves to the Crosses. This reimagined Romeo and Juliet tale explores forbidden love against a backdrop of prejudice and distrust, and the implications of terrorist violence on a society attempting to take its first steps towards social equality.
Penguin Modern Classics (£3)
In 2020, Forster’s reimagined future in which people live underground in isolated cells, never seeing each other and only communicating through technology, sounds all too familiar. But original thought is also discouraged and ‘The Machine’ has overtaken humanity in meeting all our needs – except human contact. But what happens when the Machine stops? This short story is an astoundingly prescient and even more astonishing when you consider it was written over a century ago in 1909. No wonder it won a place in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
Pan Macmillan (£8.99)
Moving back and forth between the first days of a pandemic which ends civilization and its aftermath, Station Eleven follows the different groups of survivors who try to rebuild their lives twenty years later. Amidst them are a band of actors, who travel across the Canadian wilds performing old plays in exchange for food and reminiscing about the world they lost. A story more about self-discovery than survival, this genre-bending novel is strangely poetic and thrilling at the same time.
A classic post-apocalyptic thriller, this timely and terrifying new novel from Sunday Times best-selling author Beukes sees a mother and son on the run after a virus wiped out 99% of the men in the world three years ago. Now, a living boy is a priceless commodity that many would kill to lay their hands on. Mother Cole must leave her own sister for dead in an attempt to escape and save her son, but when she later tracks them down and reappears in their lives, how do they know they trust her?
The Women’s Prize for Fiction winner in 2017, The Power portrays a world in which women and girls develop the ability to inflict pain on others using a strange power which comes from their hands. But there’s a dark twist – this ability often develops as a response to violence, especially sexual violence. As it spreads, the power allows women to rebel against a society where pain and terror is routinely inflicted upon them and create a new world. But are they remaking society or destabilizing it?
Vintage Publishing (£8.99)
Frequently included in round-ups of the greatest novels of all time, Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World is set is the futuristic world state city of London, where humans are engineered in artificial wombs. Once ‘born’, they are educated via childhood indoctrination programmes into classes based on intelligence. Everyone seems to be satisfied with this system, but this is down to the widespread use of happiness drug, ‘soma’. So when two citizens take a trip outside the state and bring a natural-born person home with them, problems arise.
Vintage Publishing (£8.99)
Offred lives in The Republic of Gilead – a religious authoritarian state which was once known as the USA – where she has one role in life: to breed. Her sexual servitude is mandatory in order to repopulate a world devastated by radiation and, if Offred dissents, she’ll be hanged. This classic 80s work of feminist fiction about female resonance has worrying resonance in our times – just one of the reasons why Atwood’s long-awaited sequel, The Testaments, won the Booker Prize in 2019.
George Orwell’s classic post-war novel is set in the dystopian future of 1984, in which Great Britain has become a province of the totalitarian superstate, Oceania. In it, the Thought Police persecute individuality and Big Brother – the leader of the Party – rules supreme thanks to a cult of personality. Those who know their modern history will instantly spot the parallels – Orwell modelled 1984 on Stalinist Russia. However, his exploration of the importance of truth and facts in politics has never been more relevant than it is today.
St Martin’s Press (£15.99)
Kevin’s sister Ella has a powers, something she describes as the ‘Thing’. Thanks to them, she can see the future, teleport, make herself invisible and destroy objects with her mind. But when Kevin is incarcerated simply for the colour of his skin, Ella must use her gifts to keep him sane and survive the oppression that consistently surrounds her. Truly genre defying, this recently-released family narrative is as much a dystopian novel as it is a commentary on the Black experience in America today.
Harper Collins (£8.99)
Books are outlawed in Bradbury’s vision of a post-literate America – if one is found in your house, firemen will burn it down whether you are inside or not. After all, books are a source of discord and unhappiness. Yet fireman Montag is unhappy – could there be books in his house? A nod to the historical practise of burning books as a way of quelling dissent, this classic 1950s novel is an exploration of the mistakes mankind makes and whether its constant repetition of them is inevitable.
Faber & Faber (£8.99)
Described as a dystopian fable for our times, this latest novel from Lanchester was long-listed for the Booker Prize last year. In it, we see the UK in the not-too-distant future, walled like a fortress and patrolled by young conscripts. In fact, every beach in the world has gone, swallowed up by defence structures which stop the now forbidden movement between countries. In a world where immigration is still a controversial issue and politicians promise to build walls to keep them out, this is a pertinent read.
This 1930s novella was written by Ayn Rand, an American-Russian writer who moved to the US after witnessing first hand the dehumanizing conditions of Soviet Russia. Taking place sometime in the future, Anthem sees mankind living through a second Dark Age, where individual thought is now a crime. Here, even love is outlawed. But the spark of independence still burns in Equality 7-2521, a man who rediscovers electricity through science. However, daring to stand apart and love the woman of his choice means he is now marked for death. Can he survive?