The best dystopian novels about the underdog

Who am I?

I think of dystopian fiction as simulations writers conduct to see how things will go if we don’t wise up. Given that the nonsense of everyday life today leads to these future scenarios, we are inherently part of their stories. That makes them personal. Optimistic tales of future utopias don’t manage the same trick. There’s no part of life today that appears to be the seed for Star Fleet to form and dedicate itself to exploration and knowledge. We can hope for that, but any turning point towards it hasn’t happened. When I look at futures of ecological ruin or commodified genetic code, I feel connected because those seeds are being cultivated as we speak.

I wrote...

Piggyback to the End of the World

By David Thurlow,

Book cover of Piggyback to the End of the World

What is my book about?

Nil Steivenson and Lucy Wu are not exactly mad scientists. They are a pair of furious, misanthropic bio-engineers. Nil has lost his family to horrifying legislation, coupled with the perverse misuse of technology he pioneered. Lucy, a genius by any standard, has had the future she was promised all her life abruptly crushed by a glass ceiling set so low she’s stuck in her parent’s basement.

Having lost everything but their friendship, the pair enlist the help of a stolen corporate artificial intelligence to beat the world at its own game and set humanity on a better course. That’s plan A, anyway. Unfortunately, Plan B is much more likely. Plan B keeps them up at night. Plan B might be the end of the world.

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The books I picked & why

All Systems Red

By Martha Wells,

Book cover of All Systems Red

Why did I love 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.

By Martha Wells,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked All Systems Red as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

All Systems Red by Martha Wells begins The Murderbot Diaries, a new science fiction action and adventure series that tackles questions of the ethics of sentient robotics. It appeals to fans of Westworld, Ex Machina, Ann Leckie's Imperial Raadch series, or lain M. Banks' Culture novels. The main character is a deadly security droid that has bucked its restrictive programming and is balanced between contemplative self discovery and an idle instinct to kill all humans. In a corporate dominated s pa cef a ring future, planetary missions must be approved and supplied by the Company. Exploratory teams are accompanied by…

Player Piano

By Kurt Vonnegut,

Book cover of Player Piano

Why did I love 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.

By Kurt Vonnegut,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Player Piano as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Player Piano is the debut novel from one of history's most innovative authors, published on Vonnegut's 100th birthday.

In Player Piano, the first of Vonnegut's wildly funny and deadly serious novels, automata have dramatically reduced the need for America's work force. Ten years after the introduction of these robot labourers, the only people still working are the engineers and their managers, who live in Ilium; everyone else lives in Homestead, an impoverished part of town characterised by purposelessness and mass produced houses.

Paul Proteus is the manager of Ilium Works. While grateful to be held in high regard, Paul begins…

Chronic City

By Jonathan Lethem,

Book cover of Chronic City

Why did I love 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.

By Jonathan Lethem,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Chase Insteadman is a handsome, inoffensive former child-star, living a vague routine of dinner parties and glamorous engagements on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Meanwhile, his astronaut fiancee, trapped on the International Space Station, sends him rapturous love letters. Like Janice, Chase is adrift.

Into Chase's life enters Perkus Tooth, a wall-eyed free-range pop-critic, whose soaring conspiratorial riffs are fueled by high-grade marijuana, mammoth cheeseburgers and a desperate ache for meaning. Together, Chase and Perkus attempt to unearth the Truth - that rarest of artifacts on an island where everything can be bought.

At once beautiful and tawdry, poignant and funny,…

Book cover of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Why did I love 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.

By Philip K. Dick,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As the eagerly-anticipated new film Blade Runner 2049 finally comes to the screen, rediscover the world of Blade Runner . . .

World War Terminus had left the Earth devastated. Through its ruins, bounty hunter Rick Deckard stalked, in search of the renegade replicants who were his prey. When he wasn't 'retiring' them with his laser weapon, he dreamed of owning a live animal - the ultimate status symbol in a world all but bereft of animal life.

Then Rick got his chance: the assignment to kill six Nexus-6 targets, for a huge reward. But in Deckard's world things were…

The Windup Girl

By Paolo Bacigalupi,

Book cover of The Windup Girl

Why did I love 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.

By Paolo Bacigalupi,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The Windup Girl as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


The Windup Girl is the ground-breaking and visionary modern classic that swept the board for every major science fiction award it its year of publication.

Anderson Lake is a company man, AgriGen's calorie representative in Thailand. Under cover as a factory manager, he combs Bangkok's street markets in search of foodstuffs long thought to be extinct. There he meets the windup girl - the beautiful and enigmatic Emiko - now abandoned to the slums. She is one of the New People, bred to suit the whims of…

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