21 best dystopian books for adults who’re fighting for a better future

21 Best Dystopian Books for Adults Who’re Fighting for a Better Future

In Reading Lists by Ashley McDonnell

21 best dystopian books for adults who’re fighting for a better future

Dystopian books for adults often take a back seat to their young adult counterparts like The Hunger Games. And while I’m a Hunger Games superfan who loves the verve of teenagers unwilling to tolerate the injustices baked into our governmental processes and societal norms, I’m not quite sold on the idea that people who can’t even vote are going to save us from self-annihilation.

As I age, I’ve started reading more dystopian novels meant for an adult crowd (and to be clear: I’m always on the lookout for a great dystopian novel). I try to find hope for our yet-undefined future when compared with these bleak, fictional options. I try to remember that even though I’m now an adult and my shoulders crack for absolutely no reason and my back hurts from existing, I too can fight for freedom should the worst come to pass.

Despite the temptation, no young adult books have snuck onto this list of best dystopian books for adults under the guise of being absorbing no matter your age. My personal favorites include Parable of the Sower and We, but you can’t go wrong with any of these.

1. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Butler’s book has been having a resurgence as of late, because it seems like she predicted the near-future pretty damn accurately. It was initially published in 1993, and the story starts in the year 2024 (oh no, that’s now!) when climate change has devastated Earth (I mean… we did just see the 13th consecutive month of global record heat).

As the world falls apart, protagonist Lauren learns to harness “hyperempathy” — the ability to feel the physical pain of those around her — as she protects her loved ones, flees to safety, and creates her own religion. 

Parable of the Sower is a vivid exploration of female bravery and leadership in a time of despair, pain, and danger — an apocalypse in progress, a dystopian government in the making. It’s a future that seems too close for comfort sometimes, yet Butler’s deft handling makes it absolutely absorbing. Follow it up with Parable of the Talents for a full, complicated picture of societal collapse and realignment. 

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2. Red Rising by Pierce Brown

If you ask people for dystopian books meant for adults and not teens, I’d bet good money that most people would immediately answer with Red Rising. It’s one that I’ve personally recommended a lot over the years, and anyone I’ve encountered in the wild who’s already read it always raves about it.

Red Rising is essentially an aged-up Hunger Games, set on Mars and told with the lyricism and swagger found in Patrick Rothfuss’ equally beloved fantasy, The Name of the Wind. Equal parts sci-fi, dystopian lit, and epic war fantasy, Red Rising paints a bleak picture of a futuristic, color-coded caste society. Members of the Red caste are relegated to backbreaking underground work to make the surface of Mars inhabitable for other castes. 

And then Darrow, our young protagonist, makes a world-shattering discovery: The colony broke through to the surface years ago and the Red caste has been living a life of slavery while others enjoy a self-indulgent lifestyle above. Driven by grief, rage, and a desire for justice, Darrow infiltrates a deadly competition in which ruling caste members fight to the death for power and control. 

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3. Wool by Hugh Howey

Dystopian novels are known for being brutal and fast-paced, since punishment or death is always nipping at the protagonist’s heels. And that’s what makes Wool stand out: It’s generally quiet and contemplative, with action sprinkled in, yet no less suspenseful. 

The first of Howey’s acclaimed Silo series finds a group of people living underground after the Earth’s surface becomes uninhabitable. The lyrical prose and a wide cast of characters makes for a nuanced adventure full of dark, delightfully unexpected twists and turns. 

Wool started out as a self-published short story that has since spawned the book trilogy, an Apple TV+ series (Silo), and a comic book adaptation. 

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4. Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich is one of America’s most lauded contemporary writers, and with Future Home of the Living God, she pushes the boundaries of her own vast storytelling abilities while paying obvious homage to dystopian great Margaret Atwood.

As humans have increasingly messed with genetics and the constitution of Earth, evolution has started to regress, with everyday reptiles becoming more dinosaur-like and some human babies being born as primitive, pre-agricultural humans. The religiously minded government of the United States steps in quickly, forcing all pregnant women to report into birthing centers and using the Internet as a mass surveillance tool.

Enter Cedar Hawk Songmaker: an adopted Native American woman who’s now 26, pregnant, and free-spirited enough to try to find her birth mother and defy the government mandate. 

Future Home of the Living God is admittedly bizarre and runs on atmospheric lyricism rather than gritty realism, but its themes and messages ring true nonetheless.

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5. Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Operating under the guise of military research, the Republic of Greater East Asia implements a program that forces 50 randomly selected students to fight to the death. The rules are brutal and sadistic: If 24 hours pass without at least one death, the metal collars around the students’ necks explode, eliminating all and leaving no winner. 

Famed for its no-holds-barred graphic violence, Battle Royale is definitely not for the faint of heart. It may sound like a young adult novel in the vein of Lord of the Flies and The Hunger Games, but it’s clear that this is meant to motivate an adult audience to change societal expectations to protect the young. (School probably shouldn’t be so demanding that it turns your classmates into deadly competitors instead of kind collaborators.) 

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6. Prophet Song by Paul Lynch

In a contemporary (but alternate) Ireland, Eilish Stack and her family try to navigate an increasingly oppressive totalitarian government. The story opens as Eilish’s husband, a union worker, is taken in for questioning — and never seen again. 

Lynch weaves a claustrophobic dystopian nightmare that, eerily, doesn’t feel very far-fetched. That might partially explain why Prophet Song won the Booker Prize in 2023; the judges said it’s “propulsive and unsparing” and that “it flinches away from nothing.”

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7. Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

What could possibly be more ironic than Bradbury’s dystopian sci-fi classic Fahrenheit 451, a book about the importance of books, holding a prominent place on lists of the most banned and challenged books of all time

Guy Montag is a fireman. But he doesn’t put out fires — he starts them. In Bradbury’s imagined future, books are anathema, and any citizen found in possession of such contraband has their homes and possessions consumed by flames. But as Montag carries out his duties, he meets a cast of characters that leave him questioning the path humanity has taken and the future it may yet obtain.

Much of the brilliance of Fahrenheit 451 lies in Bradbury’s powerful, elegant prose. There’s a reason the novel often ends up assigned in high school English classes. Books are the great enemy of the government in Bradbury’s future because they represent individualism, abstract thought, and intelligence. And, in the author’s mind, these are things worth fighting and possibly even dying for.

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8. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

In case you’ve somehow missed all the hullabaloo around The Handmaid’s Tale in recent years, here’s the quick gist: Abortion and birth control have been outlawed in the United States, and a woman’s primary duty is reproduction. The story follows Offred the handmaid — a dolled up word for a concubine — as she navigates this new world order, comparing this society where sex is no longer allowed to be sexy to the snippets of her past, supposedly sinful life full of second-wave feminists like her mother.

With the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022, The Handmaid’s Tale has felt more relevant than ever. And while Atwood’s tale clearly picks a side in the abortion debate, she’s critical of everything. And if I’m being honest, The Handmaid’s Tale often doesn’t feel like it’s narrowly just about women’s rights, but more generally about the effects of dehumanization, of putting law above love, of the dangers of picking sides and uncritically sticking with them in the first place.

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9. The Iron Heel by Jack London

Most people picture the great outdoors and wolves when they think of London, who’s well-known for The Call of the Wild and White Fang. But he also authored The Iron Heel in 1908, about the rise of class strife in the U.S. as organized labor strikes and socialism swept the nation. This novel influenced George Orwell’s 1984, and Margaret Atwood credits it as perhaps the first 20th-century dystopia.

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10. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, translated by Mirra Ginsburg

It’s hard to overstate the influence of We on the burgeoning dystopian genre that became popular starting in the early 1900s. The novel depicts a society where people are given numbers instead of names and have their free will taken away by a surveillance state, called the One State, that purports to be a logic-loving utopia looking out for its citizens’ best interests. 

The dystopian crux of We can be summed up in this quote: “Those two, in paradise, were given a choice: happiness without freedom, or freedom without happiness. There was no third alternative.” All hail the totalitarian One State!

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11. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

People often say it can be hard to see what’s so dystopian about Brave New World, and that’s probably because it’s such a sharp, cutting satire of utopian literature of yore. 

Brave New World feels simultaneously of a specific time — the years are measured in After Ford, after all — yet still a futuristic dystopian nightmare that continues to haunt us. The people in Huxley’s novel take drugs to manage their feelings of happiness, and generally don’t question the caste system they were born into. Even the main cast, consisting of people who do see how morally corrupt and emotionally distant this societal structure is making them, get crushed under these social mores.

Huxley’s classic is often assigned to high schoolers for English class (though again, it’s not a young adult novel!), which makes it a prime candidate to revisit as an adult. 

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12. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

What if Nazi Germany and Japan had won World War II? As our collective memory about WWII fades the further we get from the destruction and with neo-Nazism on the rise, Dick’s genre-defining, Hugo Award–winning work — where Jewish people have nearly been eradicated and the threat of nuclear war looms large — doesn’t seem so implausible. 

The Man in the High Castle is a daring alternative history and a powerful novel of ideas told with hallucinatory clarity showcasing PKD at his strangest — and his best.

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13. 1984 by George Orwell

No list of dystopian books for adults would be complete without inclusion of 1984

Originally published in 1949, Orwell’s work is, arguably, the pinnacle of all dystopian novels. It’s a work that was influenced by many aforementioned titles, like We, and that has influenced every major dystopian novel published in its wake. 

Thanks to the proliferation of the Orwellian phrase “alternative facts” in the late 2010s, 1984 found its way back to a prominent place on society’s bookshelf. In a world increasingly reliant on Big Data and artificial intelligence, it’s perhaps good to remember that Big Brother is definitely watching you.

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14. A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess

As much a high school curriculum staple as it is the subject of attempted book bans, Burgess’ brutal satire persists as one of the most influential novels to come out of the 20th century. (Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film adaptation is a classic as well.) 

In a dystopian future where brutal gangs hope to overthrow the government, Alex and his cronies routinely wreak havoc on innocent people. When one is left dead, Alex winds up in jail, eventually agreeing to undergo conversion therapy that could cure his evil proclivities. Unfortunately for Alex, his own horrors are just beginning (though it’s hard to feel any empathy for this villain).

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15. The Running Man by Stephen King

First published under King’s Richard Bachman pseudonym, The Running Man is set in a dystopian America in 2025 (too close and highly possible for comfort now, but it likely felt very futuristic when King wrote it in 1982). 

Ben Richards enters a sick game show where he must survive for 30 days. The catch? The entire nation is watching, hunting, and determined to kill him (sort of Squid Game-esque, no?). 

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16. The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan

A scathing commentary on the assumptions and stereotypes about mothers and the government powers that separate families, Chan’s riveting dystopian drama is a page-turning triumph. 

Frida Liu’s recent divorce may be the last straw, but at least she has her 18-month-old daughter — until she doesn’t. When the single mom leaves her child home alone for two hours, she’s sent to a rehabilitation facility where she must be a surrogate mother to other children in order to earn back her own.

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17. The New Wilderness by Diane Cook

Shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize, The New Wilderness is a suspenseful, terrifying dystopian novel from the author of Man V. Nature

In the not-too-distant future, humans are dropping like flies due to climate change, pollution, and overpopulation. Five-year-old Agnes is failing fast, so when an experimental government study opens up, her mother, Bea, jumps at the chance to join a small group of survivalists in the last patch of unfettered nature.

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18. The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Set in a post-oil future ravaged by climate change, humanity is forced to grapple with the consequences of its mistakes. Corporations own the rights to the foods available to eat and calories are a precious commodity. 

Anderson, a calorie hunter, is in Bangkok searching for foods long thought to be extinct. He crosses paths with Emiko, one of the genetically engineered, humanoid New People. Emiko lives an enslaved life but yearns for freedom. 

Bacigalupi’s debut novel, which netted the Hugo and Nebula Awards, is an emotionally fraught tale of corporate greed, human resilience, and the dangers of unchecked technology. 

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19. Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica

Not for the faint of heart, this blend of science fiction and horror tells the tale of a future world where a mysterious virus has rendered all animal meat poisonous to humans. Unfortunately, humanity finds cannibalism a more appetizing option than going vegetarian. Pull up a chair and devour Bazterrica’s delectable debut.

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20. The Postmortal by Drew Magary

In The Postmortal, Magary’s first published work of fiction, he explores the simple idea that “immortality will kill us all.” Set in the near future, this book follows one man’s experience with the cure for aging. It’s a fine example of Magary’s digestible-meets-insightful writing style.

Magary’s witty and macabre sci-fi novel chronicles the life of John Farrellas he receives said aging cure and journeys into a postmortal life. One of the most intriguing aspects of The Postmortal is the in-depth exploration of how immortality would affect different aspects of society, including religion, government, and the family unit. 

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21. Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller

The world, destroyed by fire, floods, and climate wars, is nearly unrecognizable in the frighteningly near future. What’s left of humanity resides in gritty, floating cities in the Arctic Circle that are dominated by extreme wealth inequality, class disputes, and political corruption. Miller takes time to build a vivid portrait of a world that’s both alien and familiar all at once.

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About the Author: Ashley McDonnell

Ashley is an Everand editor who loves Ernest Hemingway, “The Hunger Games,” and EDM. When she’s not reading, she’s making nerdy podcasts about anime and manga and learning to DJ.