The best dystopian books where cities pulsate with life and death

Why am I passionate about this?

I am an academic in rebellion. I have interviewed hundreds of urban leaders and professionals in nine divided urban areas throughout the world. I have written much on this subject, replete with footnotes and sophisticated writing. I am weary of writing more about this important topic—how people do or do not get along in urban settings—from an academic distance. I find the scholarly posture sterilized and insufficiently provocative. I entered into the fictional genre in order to reach a broader audience. I think that fictional futurist writing has the unique ability to portray extraordinary new worlds while at the same time addressing fundamental issues that we face now.

I wrote...

ReStart: Stories of the Cairn Age

By Scott A. Bollens,

Book cover of ReStart: Stories of the Cairn Age

What is my book about?

Computer dictatorship, puritanical humans, and ripped apart urbanity. In post-chaos 2052, a re-programmed investigator seeks to uncover the possibilities for independent human thinking after decades of humankind's addiction to a dominating computer network and catastrophic wars between computer-defined groups. Jared Rohde faces vexing challenges in his search for a dependable truth. Individuals struggle between the hard work of regaining independent cognition and addictive longing for the personal freedom of un-thinking instinctual reactivity to computer stimuli. As his investigation deepens, Rohde confronts shocking implications for the future of human consciousness.

ReStart presents a future eerily familiar and disturbing, an anthropological narrative of the effects of algorithmic sorting. It has unnerving relevance to today’s post-truth world of manipulated social media, fake news, competing narratives, and conspiracy theories.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of The City & the City

Scott A. Bollens Why did I love this book?

This book inspired me to morph my real-world research into a fictionalized account of an urban future. Mieville heads the “new weird” movement based on a type of urban, alternative-world fiction. A murder mystery wrapped inside a fantastical, dyadic city. A city divided physically, but also psychically as residents of the overlapping cities learn to “unsee” each other in their day-to-day affairs. Takes the two worlds of real-life unequal cities to its extreme and absurd level, where the “other” physically exists but is not acknowledged in the eyes of the non-other. Brilliant, illuminating fiction.

By China Miéville,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked The City & the City as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With shades of Kafka and Philip K. Dick, Raymond Chandler and 1984, the multi-award winning The City & The City by China Mieville is a murder mystery taken to dazzling metaphysical and artistic heights.

'You can't talk about Mieville without using the word "brilliant".' - Ursula Le Guin, author of the Earthsea series.

When the body of a murdered woman is found in the extraordinary, decaying city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks like a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he probes, the evidence begins to point to…

Book cover of City of Stairs

Scott A. Bollens Why did I love this book?

What could be more fun than Gods getting involved in city planning? Spy story wrapped inside a grand and mysterious history of once-supreme Gods now dormant (or not). Memorable characters. Don’t mess with the giant grunt Sigrud. Divine power with 6 Gods (light bearer, judge, warrior, seed-sower, trickster, and builder). Imagine holding a committee meeting with this group. Magical portals that enable back-and-forth between current gritty and past majestic city. A thought-provoking conclusion that speaks to worldwide conflict in real life today. 

By Robert Jackson Bennett,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked City of Stairs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Robert Jackson Bennett deserves a huge audience' - Brent Weeks, New York Times bestselling author of The Black Prism

In the city of stairs, nothing is as it seems.

You've got to be careful when you're chasing a murderer through Bulikov, for the world is not as it should be in that city. When the gods were destroyed and all worship of them banned by the Polis, reality folded; now stairs lead to nowhere, alleyways have become portals to the past, and criminals disappear into thin air.

The murder of Dr Efrem Pangyui, the Polis diplomat researching the Continent's past,…

Book cover of Recursion

Scott A. Bollens Why did I love this book?

The latter part of book has urban destruction on a massive scale done over and over. New York, just like a cat, has nine lives. But most of the book does not have an urban focus and it is somewhat of a misfit in this urban collection of best reads. Nonetheless, it is a sensational mind-spinning exposition on the precariousness of memory. It is the most mesmerizing and best page-turner on my list. What if your memory right now is not genuine but manufactured to feel very real? Now, suppose society at large absorbed these fabricated memories akin to a viral epidemic? You got it, multiple timelines and chaos. 

By Blake Crouch,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Recursion as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the bestselling author of Dark Matter and the Wayward Pines trilogy comes a relentless thriller about time, identity, and memory—his most mind-boggling, irresistible work to date, and the inspiration for Shondaland’s upcoming Netflix film.

“Gloriously twisting . . . a heady campfire tale of a novel.”—The New York Times Book Review


Reality is broken.
At first, it looks like a disease. An epidemic that spreads through no known means, driving its victims mad with memories of a life they…

Book cover of American Estrangement: Stories

Scott A. Bollens Why did I love this book?

I am a big fan of the author’s nuanced and powerful writing style. The best-written book on my list. Collection of short stories that interweave personal details and idiosyncrasies with broader themes and omens. In “Scenic Route” (‘they have me up hard against the hood of the Cadillac Escalade, which is covered in the dust and dead insects of a thousand back roads’) and “Fairground” (‘school buses lined up like ducks at the crosswalk, waiting for the light to turn green, the faces of the secured population looking through the windows with indifference and resignation’), individuals dealing with internal tumult confront in matter-of-fact ways the stark presence of territories and people divided by check-point partitions. Sectoral partitions, segregated populations. Stark divisions in urban life normalized and routinized.

By Saïd Sayrafiezadeh,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Estrangement as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Said Sayrafiezadeh has been hailed by Philip Gourevitch as "a masterful storyteller working from deep in the American grain." His new collection of stories-some of which have appeared in The New Yorker, the Paris Review, and the Best American Short Stories-is set in a contemporary America full of the kind of emotionally bruised characters familiar to readers of Denis Johnson and George Saunders. These are people contending with internal struggles-a son's fractured relationship with his father, the death of a mother, the loss of a job, drug addiction-even as they are battered by larger, often invisible, economic, political, and racial…

Book cover of Concrete Island

Scott A. Bollens Why did I love this book?

I’ll never look at a highway median strip the same way again. The oldest entry on my list, a classic that describes in tortuous detail the epitome of urban alienation. The urban prison within which the Robinson Crusoe-ish protagonist finds himself is an external setting created by our impersonal, uncaring urban life, but it is also an inner state of mind of semi-comforting psychological detachment. Could we city-dwellers all be urban castaways, no matter our physical location? Ballard’s theme of cars perpetuating dehumanization in Concrete Island followed his urban-focused novel Crash published the previous year. 

By J.G. Ballard,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Concrete Island as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

On a day in April, just after three o'clock in the afternoon, Robert Maitland's car crashes over the concrete parapet of a high-speed highway onto the island below, where he is injured and, finally, trapped. What begins as an almost ludicrous predicament soon turns into horror as Maitland-a wickedly modern Robinson Crusoe-realizes that, despite evidence of other inhabitants, this doomed terrain has become a mirror of his own mind. Seeking the dark outer rim of the everyday, Ballard weaves private catastrophe into an intensely specular allegory in Concrete Island.

You might also like...

Love, Sex, and Other Calamities: 15 Stories and a Poem by Ralph Hickok

By Ralph Hickok,

Book cover of Love, Sex, and Other Calamities: 15 Stories and a Poem by Ralph Hickok

Ralph Hickok Author Of Vagabond Halfback: The Saga of Johnny Blood McNally

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in Green Bay and my dad was the official scorer for the Packers, so I was immersed in pro football history even as a child. During my careers as a newspaper feature writer and editor and as an advertising copywriter, I also became a sports historian. My magnum opus was “The Encyclopedia of North American Sports History,” 650,000 words. But my favorite by far is my biography of Johnny Blood. I was 12 or 13 when I decided I wanted to write it, 33 when I began working on it, 38 when I finished it, and 78 when it was finally published.

Ralph's book list on the history of pro football

What is my book about?

From Kirkus Reviews: "This debut short-story collection paints the wistful life of a newspaper journalist as seen through his sexual and romantic encounters...

Throughout, Hickok writes in an assured style, pulling readers along. The narrow sexual focus results in a distorted picture, yet other aspects of Art's life emerge at the edges—his intelligence, his career as a journalist, and even the sincerity with which he gives in to his male urges and construes sex as love... 

Subdued yet alluring; a pensive reflection on the male psyche."

Love, Sex, and Other Calamities: 15 Stories and a Poem by Ralph Hickok

By Ralph Hickok,

What is this book about?

A man arrives in a new city, hoping to start a new life, but he’s still haunted by memories of past loves…
A 12-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl have a brief romantic encounter when their families are vacationing in neighboring lakeside cottages…
Two teenagers enjoy sexual experimentation when she babysits for her little brother while her parents are out drinking…
A high school boy has a crush on an older woman who identifies with Molly Bloom…
A college freshman falls in love with a high school freshman and is amazed at the depths of her passion…
A guy wins…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in murder, murder mystery, and survival?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about murder, murder mystery, and survival.

Murder Explore 930 books about murder
Murder Mystery Explore 488 books about murder mystery
Survival Explore 191 books about survival