The best dystopian sci-fi books that are dear to my heart

Who am I?

I’ve been hooked on science fiction since I saw Westworld in its first run in 1973, at age 7 (it’s the first movie I saw in a theatre). I started drawing my own sci-fi comics at age 11, when the first Star Wars came out, and kept it up through adolescence. Eventually, my love of sci-fi led me to a passion for philosophy, which I majored in in college. And the philosophy I learned has since informed my later choices in sci-fi reading, and even more my sci-fi writing and illustration. The books I talk about below are very dear to my heart—I’m sure you won’t regret checking them out.

I wrote...

The Furnace: A Graphic Novel

By Prentis Rollins,

Book cover of The Furnace: A Graphic Novel

What is my book about?

2052: Walton Honderich, a physicist in haggard, alcoholic middle-age, is visiting New York City with his wife and young daughter when he is nearly unraveled by the sight of a floating drone. In a hotel room the next morning, he tells his daughter about his youthful complicity with what turned out to be a crime against humanity—a prison program that assigned drones to released criminals. The drones rendered their charges invisible and unable to communicate with the outside world. After 25 years, Honderich understands what he has wrought—and is horrified.

Told almost entirely in flashback, The Furnace is a cautionary tale about the dangers of solitary confinement—and in the end, also a story about the hazards of coming to terms with the past, and creating a legacy for the future.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of 1984

Prentis Rollins Why did I love this book?

1984 is the granddaddy and patron saint of dystopian sci-fi novels, period. I read it in 1984, shortly after seeing the film version with John Hurt, which deeply affected me. Written in 1947, it shows us London in 1984—but in an alternate reality in which the world has divided into three totalitarian superstates, in the wake of World War 2 and a small nuclear war in the early 1950s. Winston Smith is a mid-level party functionary in Airstrip One (formerly known as England), which is part of Oceania, one of the three superstates. Every facet of his life is scrutinized by the governing party and its dreaded Thought Police. He begins an illicit affair with another party functionary, and the two lovers begin to flirt with the resistance—with disastrous results. They are captured and subjected to the hellish, medieval, atomizing process of the State’s penal/interrogation system.

1984 is a relentlessly unhappy book—but for all the one of the most worthwhile books I could recommend. Orwell’s insight into the psychology of totalitarianism is astonishing, not least because totalitarianism still more-or-less had its baby teeth in 1947. He saw with blood-chilling clarity and precision the nature, logic, and inevitable outcome of the whole game, and not once did he pull a punch in laying it out for the reader. And needless to say, 1984 is a timeless piece of beautiful literature, and an astonishing feat of sci-fi worldbuilding. This is a must-read for anyone interested in sci-fi, history, politics, literature, and the interface of all these things.

By George Orwell,

Why should I read it?

41 authors picked 1984 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


1984 is the year in which it happens. The world is divided into three superstates. In Oceania, the Party's power is absolute. Every action, word, gesture and thought is monitored under the watchful eye of Big Brother and the Thought Police. In the Ministry of Truth, the Party's department for propaganda, Winston Smith's job is to edit the past. Over time, the impulse to escape the machine and live independently takes hold of him and he embarks on a secret and forbidden love affair. As he writes the words 'DOWN WITH BIG…

Book cover of Make Room! Make Room!: The Classic Novel of an Overpopulated Future

Prentis Rollins Why did I love this book?

Written in 1966, Make Room! Make Room! was the basis for the 1973 film Soylent Green—it’s one of those great books that (like The Exorcist) was totally overshadowed by its equally great film version. It’s set in 1999, in a grossly overpopulated and polluted world in which people are scrambling for ever-diminishing resources. It mainly follows the life of NYC detective Andy Rusch and his elderly roommate Sol—who has finagled a bicycle-powered generator to run the TV and refrigerator in their small apartment. Rusch falls in love with Shirl, the young mistress of a rich man whose murder Rusch is investigating, but Shirl dumps him when she realizes she has better options with the rich rather than the poor.

Make Room! Make Room! is a cautionary tale about unchecked population, and it’s driven not so much by plot as by what Harry Harrison had on his mind: pollution, the problem of feeding teeming masses of people, dwindling educational resources, and the general degradation of the human spirit in crowded conditions. Funnily enough, the Earth’s population is now well in excess of the 7 billion that inhabit the world of Harrison’s novel—there are of course massive challenges facing us, but things aren’t nearly as bad as Harrison’s dark novel paints them to be. Still, this is a fascinating and moving book, not least because of the ways in which Harrison draws you into the lives of his struggling, desperate characters.

By Harry Harrison,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Make Room! Make Room! as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A gangster is murdered during a blistering Manhattan heat wave. City cop Andy Rusch is under pressure solve the crime and captivated by the victim's beautiful girlfriend. But it is difficult to catch a killer, let alone get the girl, in crazy streets crammed full of people. The planet's population has exploded. The 35 million inhabitants of New York City run their TVs off pedal power, riot for water, loot and trample for lentil 'steaks' and are controlled by sinister barbed wire dropped from the sky.

Written in 1966 and set in 1999, Make Room! Make Room! is a witty…

Book cover of Greybeard

Prentis Rollins Why did I love this book?

Late in the 20th Century, an ‘accident’ occurred whereby nuclear bombs detonated in orbit above earth—the resulting radiation has rendered mankind sterile. Algy Timberlane—aka ‘Greybeard’—is in his mid-50’s, a veritable stripling in an increasingly geriatric world. He, his wife Martha, and a few aging friends set off on an odyssey down the river Thames, to explore what’s left of their crumbling, dying world—and maybe find some spark of hope for the future.

Greybeard is a marvel to behold.  It’s one of the few books that’s not only about the hideous injustices of growing old, but also about a world that’s grown old and is facing death. What would people do if they knew that theirs was literally the last generation, that there would be no one to carry on their work? It’s an unsettling question to wrap your mind around—but Greybeard faces it without flinching, and with moving, thought-provoking effect. 

By Brian W. Aldiss,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Human reproduction has ceased and society slowly spirals in this “adult Lord of the Flies” by a Grand Master of Science Fiction (San Francisco Chronicle).

After the “Accident,” all males on Earth become sterile. Society ages and falls apart bit by bit. First, toy companies go under. Then record companies. Then cities cease to function. Now Earth’s population lives in spread‑out, isolated villages, with its youngest members in their fifties. When the people of Sparcot begin to make claims of gnomes and man‑eating rodents lurking around their village, Greybeard and his wife set out for the coast with the hope…

Book cover of This Perfect Day

Prentis Rollins Why did I love this book?

Ira Levin wrote 7 novels; I wish he’d written more. He was that very rare bird: a literary writer who wrote for readers, and not for himself. He’s all story, never showmanship—his beautiful flourishes are stunning because they’re so rare.  

This Perfect Day is one of his novels that hasn’t been turned into a film (the only other one is Son of Rosemary, his sequel to Rosemary’s Baby). This is a head-scratcher to me just because it’s easily his most cinematic novel—in the sense of lending itself to stunning visuals. It’s very much in the same school of dystopian sci-fi as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World—both depict a futuristic, technological dystopia in which people are perpetually drugged into complaisance and compliance. In the world of This Perfect Day, races have been merged into one, there is only one language, and the world is run by a computer called Unicomp. In the course of the novel, Chip, the non-conformist protagonist, uncovers the real power structure of the world, and the ugly motives behind Unicomp and its still-living creator.  

This Perfect Day is not long on originality; Huxley said most of it before, but I don’t think he said it better. Levin’s book is a masterpiece of entertaining, page-turning suspense. It was the first Levin novel I read, and it’s a great starting point. Be warned: if you start with This Perfect Day, you will want to read the other six.

By Ira Levin,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked This Perfect Day as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Marvellously entertaining. A cross between Brave New World and Doctor Who' Look Magazine

Considered one of the great dystopian thrillers - alongside A Clockwork Orange and Brave New World- Ira Levin's terrifying glimpse into the future continues to fascinate readers even forty years after publication.

Set in a seemingly perfect global society, where uniformity is the defining feature, one man leads the resistance against UniComp - a central computer that has been programmed to keep every single human on the surface of the earth in check. All ethnic groups have been eugenically merged into a single race called 'The Family',…

Book cover of It Can't Happen Here

Prentis Rollins Why did I love this book?

Sinclair Lewis was master of the ‘diagnostic novel’—America was always his sick patient, and in many of his novels he diagnosed what the problem was. In 1935, the problem was that America, like so much of the world, was in danger of falling under the spell of fascist demagoguery.  

It Can’t Happen Here isn’t a sci-fi novel—but it is certainly speculative fiction, with resemblances to both 1984 and Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It details the rise of populist demagogue Berzelius ‘Buzz’ Windrip, who is elected president after fomenting fear and promising a return to traditional values. With the help of well-placed supporters and his own version of the Nazi Brownshirts, Windrip becomes dictator; the constitution is abandoned, the 48 states are divided into three grand administrative regions, and rule of law comes to an end. All of this is seen through the eyes of Doremus Jessup, a traditional liberal journalist trying to maintain his commitment to the truth, and the safety of himself and his family, at a time when one or the other has to be sacrificed.  

In many ways It Can’t Happen Here is just as relentlessly brutal and insightful as 1984, which is preceded by 12 years—but the totalitarianism it describes has a restrained, American flavor. Orwell saw totalitarianism as the utterly new, deadly animal it was—committed only to power for its own sake, without prior loyalties to country, party, or faith. It Can’t Happen Here is an easier read due to the amiable humorousness of Lewis the man; this shined through in everything he wrote—even in this, his darkest novel. This was the first Sinclair Lewis novel I read—I’ve reread it several times, and can’t recommend it highly enough, especially given that the trends Lewis feared are as alive now as they were in 1935. 

By Sinclair Lewis,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked It Can't Happen Here as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

“The novel that foreshadowed Donald Trump’s authoritarian appeal.”—Salon

It Can’t Happen Here is the only one of Sinclair Lewis’s later novels to match the power of Main Street, Babbitt, and Arrowsmith. A cautionary tale about the fragility of democracy, it is an alarming, eerily timeless look at how fascism could take hold in America.

Written during the Great Depression, when the country was largely oblivious to Hitler’s aggression, it juxtaposes sharp political satire with the chillingly realistic rise of a president who becomes a dictator to save the nation from welfare cheats, sex, crime, and a liberal press.

Called “a…

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Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

By Michael Ruse,

Book cover of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

Michael Ruse Author Of Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Teacher (professor) Author Darwin specialist Charles Dickens fanatic

Michael's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Why We Hate asks why a social animal like Homo sapiens shows such hostility to fellow species members. The invasion of the Ukraine by Russia? The antisemitism found on US campuses in the last year? The answer and solution lies in the Darwinian theory of evolution through natural selection.

Being social is biology’s way of ensuring survival and reproduction. With the coming of agriculture 10,000 years ago, new conditions – primarily much-increased population numbers – meant that sociality broke down as we battled for our share of much-reduced resources. But, as cultural change brought about our troubles, so culture offers prospects of a future where our social natures can emerge and thrive again.

Why We Hate: Understanding the Roots of Human Conflict

By Michael Ruse,

What is this book about?

An insightful and probing exploration of the contradiction between humans' enormous capacity for hatred and their evolutionary development as a social species

Why We Hate tackles a pressing issue of both longstanding interest and fresh relevance: why a social species like Homo sapiens should nevertheless be so hateful to itself. We go to war and are prejudiced against our fellow human beings. We discriminate on the basis of nationality, class, race, sexual orientation, religion, and gender. Why are humans at once so social and so hateful to each other? In this book, prominent philosopher Michael Ruse looks at scientific

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