Love dystopian books but want something without teenage saviors? Here are all the best dystopian novels for adults to read.
First off, let me say that there is nothing wrong with reading Young Adult dystopian novels. I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve enjoyed most of them myself.
However, sometimes you want something a little more mature. A book that feels like Literature with a capital L.
Unlike YA dystopian fiction, the best dystopian novels for adults aren’t afraid to tackle extremely deep topics.
Life in a post-apocalyptic world would be bleak, and it’s unlikely that teenagers would save the day. If the world can even be saved. Adult dystopian books aren’t afraid to say that sometimes things are hopeless.
Dystopian fiction paints a dark view of our future, hoping to help us avoid the worst-case scenario.
Humanity nature can equally tend to darkness and to light. Thus, both qualities are generally on display in dystopian novels.
As the coronavirus pandemic has shown us, life as we know it can change in an instant. What will happen next is anyone’s imagination.
And these authors have quite the imagination.
Best Dystopian Novels for Adults
Emily St. John Mandel
Of all the modern dystopian novels, Station Eleven is my favorite for its gorgeous literary feel. Though it’s set after an apocalypse, it’s not really about the apocalypse. This captivating book grabs your attention, not for its plot twists but its themes. It’s hard to adequately describe to you its power and beauty. So you’ll just have to read it for yourself.
Between the Hulu tv series and the recent sequel, Margaret Atwood’s modern classic The Handmaid’s Tale is experiencing a surge in popularity. After the fall of the United States, the theocratic patriarchal society Gilead is now in power. Due to an epidemic of infertility, most of the elite women cannot have children. Instead, they use handmaids, women of the lower caste forced to submit to men to bear a children. The Handmaid’s Tale is written as the diary of one such handmaiden, Offred, as she struggles to survive in a brutal society, hoping to one day escape.
Written as an oral history of the Zombie War, Brooks splits the book into a series of short stories, interviews of survivors of the war. Each tale focuses on a snippet of the conflict – from the discovery of Patient Zero to the complete invasion of Japan to the point where the balance shifts in favor of humans. Brooks expertly narrates each character to convey a diverse overview of a fictional world event. Don’t let the concept of zombies or Brad Pitt’s “meh” film adaptation put you off, the book (and the full-cast audiobook) is a five-star read among famous dystopian novels.
Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
One of my favorite classic dystopian fiction books is this 1977 release about the end of the world. With a gigantic comet headed straight for Earth, Niven and Pournelle spin a tale of surviving not only the resulting earthquakes and tsunamis but also living through the end of civilization. A gripping page-turner, Lucifer’s Hammer will have you questioning what you would do at the end of the world and hoping you never have to find out.
William R. Forstchen
Just imagine it: no electricity, no medicine, and no food. In his eye-opening novel, William R. Forstchen warns of an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) device detonating over the United States. In an instance, the electromagnetic wave destroys all technology, sending the US immediately back to the Dark Ages. Can one man save his small North Carolina mountain town from the fall of civilization? While Forstchen is far from the greatest novelist ever, with our outdated electrical grid and the reality of EMPs, he will make you wonder what you would do if the lights went out.
If you’re looking for unique books about future society, try David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. Told as six different interconnecting short stories, Mitchell seriously shows off his writing prowess in this original novel. You start with the journal of an explorer in 1850, then jump from a 1930s Belgian composer to a 1970s investigative journalist, present-day England, dystopian Korea, and post-apocalyptic Hawaii. Before you can catch your breath, the stories slingshot back in reverse order, revealing an overarching narrative that’s more than the sum of its parts.
Extremely Long Dystopian Books for Adults
Seeking to create a modern-day The Lord of the Rings, Stephen King penned what is often considered one of the best dystopian books ever written. After an influenza-like pandemic kills most of the world’s population, the remaining survivors must choose between good and evil. With a heavy dose of supernatural in typical Stephen King fashion, this dark fantasy is his longest standalone novel at over 800 pages.
Shana wakes up one morning to find her sister sleepwalking. She cannot be woken or stopped. She seems to be on a mission and is slowly joined by others. As society starts collapsing around the spreading epidemic, Chuck Wendig paints a tantalizing picture of the end of the world. If you are not intimidated by the whopping 800-page count, Wanderers is an epic science fiction novel that was the clear winner among the best dystopian novels of 2019.
What begins as a government experiment to boost immunity ends up unleashing a wave of vampires upon the world. Remorseful for his part in the drama, FBI Agent Brad Wolgast is determined to protect Amy, a six-year-old orphan caught up in the disastrous experiment. The Passage covers a 90 years in its 700+ pages, and it’s only the first book in the trilogy.
If you are craving something a bit different, you might want to try this mind-bending work from famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami. In 1984, Aomame notices strange discrepancies and finds she has entered a parallel version of her life, 1Q84. Quickly caught up in a religious cult, Aomame wonders what is truly real. Meanwhile, ghostwriter Tengo accepts an assignment to rewrite a book, a decision that changes his whole life and leads him closer to Aomame.
L. Ron Hubbard
Do books set in the future, say the year 3000, count as dystopian? This science fiction saga is one of my favorites, so I’m going to count it regardless. For a thousand years, Earth has been ruled by the Psychlos, an alien race. However, a ragtag group of humans remains living like cavemen. Can their leader, Johnnie Goodboy Tyler, defeat an Empire? Just be willing to judge this one on its own merits and not because the movie was terrible or because L. Ron Hubbard is the founder of Scientology.
Check out the Best Dystopian Books for Teens!
Sci Fi Dystopian Books About Magical Powers
Surprisingly, acclaimed romance author Nora Roberts lands among the best new dystopian novels with Year One. On New Year’s Eve, a sickness sweeps through humanity, wiping out half the population and leaving civilization in tatters. As law and order recede, magic takes its place. Now a group of survivors must carefully reshape their lives in a chaotic world.
What if all women suddenly developed the power of sparking electricity with their hands? How would that ability change the balance of power in the world? Naomi Alderman does a good job of setting up this dystopian scenario. Her narrative follows several individuals who see opportunity in the shifting times and manage to change the world, but not always for better. While I thought the story was well-written, I just couldn’t quite fall in love. Be warned, there is quite a bit of language and violence in this story, which is common to dystopian future books.
Marcus Sakey delivers a grown-up dystopian book series where 1 percent of the population has developed supernatural powers. Federal Agent Nick Cooper’s special ability is to track terrorists. His latest target: another “brilliant” intent on provoking civil war. I found the action of the first book entertaining, though I didn’t think the second book lived up to its predecessor. I never did get around to finishing the series.
M. R. Carey
Young Melanie doesn’t quite understand why she must be escorted to school by armed guards or why her teacher looks so sad when Melanie talks about the future. What she doesn’t realize is that she is very special – a zombie child but with genius-level IQ. Unless she gets too close to human scent and loses all self-control. Could this miraculous zombie child bring the cure that humanity so badly needs?
More Adult Dystopian Novels
Unlike the young adult versions, adult dystopian books are not afraid to show a dark ending to humanity. In The Road, a father and son set off on a journey through the devastated remains of civilization with only a pistol to protect themselves. Praised for its gorgeous prose, McCarthy paints a bleak picture of life in a world with no hope.
Left behind when a worldwide crisis strikes Earth, aging astronomer Augustine finds himself all alone in an Artic observatory with only a forgotten little girl for company. Having run from responsibility all his life, Augie struggles to adapt to caring for Iris while being completely cut off from the world. Meanwhile, a group of astronauts returning from a mission to Jupiter are frightened when all communication with Earth ceases. Slow and enveloping with a focus more on feelings than plot, Good Morning, Midnight is a literary look at the desperate need for connection in a post-apocalyptic world.
Film adaptations of dystopian books are all the rage, and Netflix was the talk of 2018 with this post-apocalyptic horror story. Something has terrorized the world for years. A single glance will turn you into a violent madman. Thus, Malorie sets off blindfolded in a rowboat with her two young children, desperate to find other survivors.
After a nuclear holocaust, humanity lives in an underground city inside a silo. One rule is clear: going outside is a death sentence. Or so they say. Three years ago, Sheriff Holston’s wife demanded to go outside and then disappeared over a hill. Holston can’t stop wondering if maybe his wife had the right idea. Originally self-published as a dystopian series of five short novellas, Wool is a compendium of them in a single volume.
In Ishiguro’s imagined future, carer Kathy H reminisces about her childhood at the English boarding school Hailsham. Right away, you know something is off about these kids and this school. One of my least favorite books, Never Let Me Go gets a mention because it’s one of the most popular dystopian novels among adults. To me, it’s one of the most overrated bestsellers I’ve read.
One day, the government decrees that women are only allowed to speak 100 words daily. At first, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial. How could this be happening? Quickly she must adjust to this scary new reality and do everything she can to fight for the rights of herself and her daughter, along with the rights of all women. I found Vox to be one of the most unrealistic books on dystopian societies and don’t think it truly lived up to its haunting premise.
Karen Thompson Walker
An ordinary, if somewhat isolated, college town in California suddenly comes down with an epidemic. People are suddenly falling asleep and cannot be awoken by any means. Scans show unusually high brain wave activity indicating that the sleepers are dreaming. I loved the premise for this story, and the suspense as people slowly start to fall asleep kept me wanting more. Unfortunately, that ends up being literally the whole story. You keep expecting more, but it never arrives. Walker tries to cram in all her plot into the last 30 pages. By then, it’s just too little too late.
As science and technology can do more and more to improve our lives, how much of our humanity are we willing to give to reach utopia? Huxley paints a frightening picture of a world of total uniformity that will show you the downside of a world without suffering.
In a world where printed books are outlawed, firemen Guy Montag begins to wonder what’s so dangerous about books. Fahrenheit 451 is a classic and serves as a warning against the dangers of censorship and the consequences of an addiction to television. Good dystopian books stay with you for a long time and Ray Bradbury’s prophetic novel doesn’t disappoint.
Published in 1949, George Orwell’s terrifying vision of the future is just as important today as when it was written. Telling the story of Winston, a depressed Party worker who longs to join the Resistance, 1984 shows the horror of a totalitarian society continually at war. Commonly referenced in modern culture (i.e., Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime,), 1984 is one of the best dystopian novels of all time.
In a horrifying vision of the future, criminals rule society. Fifteen-year-old Alex and his friends participated in shockingly heinous and violent acts. After being captured by the State, authorities try to forcibly rehabilitate Alex. Questioning free will and morality, I can see why A Clockwork Orange is often listed as one of the best modern novels. Still, I will admit it’s one of my least favorite books, and not just because the entire story is written in a strange made-up slang.
At the end of World War III, a small group of survivors awaits for the coming nuclear fallout to descent upon them in southern Australia. When a faint morse code signal arrives, American submarine captain Commander Dwight Towers leads his crew into the ruined world in search of survivors.
In a coastal town in North Africa, a plague slowly begins to spread. Dr. Rieux tries to warn about the impending disaster, but authorities are slow to listen. Eventually, the entire town is sealed off, driving some to cowardly escape plans and others to unselfish heroism. Not exactly a dystopian story, I felt it fit given our current coronavirus crisis.
Just so you know, Sinclair Lewis is one of my favorite authors. He has some great books satirizing the hypocrisy of America’s middle class. However, with the start of the Great Depression, Lewis needed a new topic to write about. It Can’t Happen Here depicts the rise of a political demagogue to the Presidency of the United States. With surprising accurate parallels to Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency, Lewis’s novel has hit a second wind recently. However, the parallels don’t extend very far. In the novel, a dictatorship is set up within a week of the inauguration and America’s complacent citizens just let fascism steamroll them.
Check out the Best Dystopian Books for Teens!
Nonfiction Dystopian Books
Although COVID-19 has had far-reaching ramifications, its symptoms seem quite pleasant against those of ebola. The highly infectious virus which causes massive internal hemorrhaging is not as contagious but has over a 50% mortality rate. Preston thrillingly recounts the history of viral hemorrhagic diseases and details a terrifying incident where one was discovered at a primate facility outside of Washington, D.C.
Well-known Nightline anchor Ted Koppel reveals just how precarious our electrical grid is in his investigative book. With a targeted attack, terrorists could cripple the United States’ power grid, leaving tens of millions without power for weeks or even months. Koppel points out the failure of the US government to prepare for such a scenario and highlights how some individuals and communities have prepared for the worst. A terrifying look at an all-too-possible future.
What do you think are the best dystopian novels for adults?