The best dystopian novels about the underdog

The Books I Picked & Why

All Systems Red

By Martha Wells

All Systems Red

Why this book?

I’m a character-driven reader and I find humanity frustrating. I’m watching people slowly slide or blindly jog towards cliffs of their own making and sincerely wish I could have been born a dinosaur, or an octopus, or anything else that didn’t involve this nonsense. But here I am. And so is Murderbot, the brilliantly cynical protagonist of Martha Wells' Murderbot Diaries. Murderbot is a self-named security cyborg (Sec-unit) slave, self-liberated, and wishing to escape both its past and present by being left alone to watch TV.

It observes the bald-faced stupidity, greed, and self-inflicted misery of humanity with confusion and disgust, commenting with an internal monologue reflecting my own and maybe yours. In spite of its own cynical realism and the grim realities of the universe it lives in, it manages to carve out a life that is nearly as rewarding to it as its favorite shows, so that’s nice too.


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Player Piano

By Kurt Vonnegut

Player Piano

Why this book?

Like many people, I went through a Vonnegut reading fest in my late teens or early twenties. The ending of Player Piano stuck with me. I’m sure it wasn’t my first exposure to the cycle of people creating their own messes, but it was blunt and solid and memorable. Tempered optimism is key to a good dystopian novel.

Also, science fiction stories of past eras are an opportunity for a glimpse into the psyche of their times. I like that sort of thing.


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Chronic City

By Jonathan Lethem

Chronic City

Why this book?

Jonathan Lethem’s language and story structure are wonderful just as their own experience. What I enjoy even more is that, while dystopian fiction almost inevitably leads to a parable, this book manages to lean into that while still insisting the characters live life as fully existing people. I felt welcomed to spend time with Chase Insteadman and his small circle of friends as they meandered through a harsh urban winter, confronting mortality in a world that doesn’t quite fit any of them. They were good company during a pandemic when actual friends couldn’t be while I was confronting mortality in a world that doesn’t quite fit me.


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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

By Philip K. Dick

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Why this book?

Philip K. Dick just plain entertains me with his frank oddness. He plunks his baffled characters down in impossible, absurd situations and watches as they endure, and inevitably maintain, whatever dystopia he’s created for them. This is a novel whose premise inspired the Blade Runner action-movie franchise with a sexy-noir Harrison Ford filling in as a Hollywood hero. But the android-hunting protagonist on the page is a pathetic nebbish of a man, struggling in marriage, failing at work, and making lazy attempts to find a way to something better.

In spite of all of this, Dick always maintains a sense of sympathy for his characters that keeps the work from heading down a cynical path and allows the reader to commiserate with, or at least pity, them. I love a writer who truly has sympathy for their creations. He’s been a tremendous influence on me.


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The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi

The Windup Girl

Why this book?

Paolo Bacigalupi is a creator of worlds. I love a good world. While I really would like to avoid the world he’s predicting, I can’t help but be amazed by his craftsmanship.

But what I enjoy most is that he manages to write about a genetically engineered sex worker with his “male gaze” checked firmly at the door. His story focuses instead on the hopelessness of being controlled right down the patent on your engineered chromosomes, and the hope of escape. In doing that he gives the reader a real opportunity to empathize with a good many marginalized people in the real world.


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