The best utopia-turned-dystopia novels

The Books I Picked & Why

The Time Machine

By H.G. Wells

Book cover of The Time Machine

Why this book?

Wells’s utopia-turned-dystopia is the novel that most directly inspired my Our Dried Voices. A scientist invents a time machine and travels thousands of years into Earth’s future, where he meets a group of blissfully ignorant humanoids called the Eloi. These Eloi lack for nothing and live a life of apparent ease and comfort—until night falls. I was fascinated by the idea of humans losing the intellectual curiosity and creativity that have defined our species when I first read The Time Machine. And while I have a different vision of humanity’s future than what plays out in Wells’s social commentary, it’s hard to ignore the influence of this early dystopian classic.

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Never Let Me Go

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Book cover of Never Let Me Go

Why this book?

The obvious metaphor for reading this book is peeling an onion, in that each of Ishiguro’s sentences unveils another hidden layer of the story. But reading his Twilight Zone-esque Never Let Me Go is more like unwrapping a mummy. The novel starts out with classmates reliving their days at an idyllic English boarding school and builds with masterful pacing to something quite different, with each new revelation adding to the disgust and horror at what lies beneath the seemingly innocuous surface. I read Never Let Me Go simultaneously in awe of Ishiguro’s prose and chilled by the content of the story.

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By George Orwell

Book cover of 1984

Why this book?

A utopia-turned-dystopia in the author’s mind, if not on the page. With its constant surveillance, altered histories, forceful crackdowns on dissenters, and even an invented language to nullify rebellious thoughts, the Big Brother-controlled totalitarian state of 1984 never looks close to a utopia. But in this novel, committed socialist Eric Blair (who wrote under the pen name George Orwell) takes an intellectually courageous look at his ideal political philosophy and imagines the nightmarish side of his socialist dream. The result is what I consider both the best dystopian novel and the most terrifying explication of state power ever put on paper.  

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The Giver

By Lois Lowry

Book cover of The Giver

Why this book?

Perhaps my favorite novel from my childhood, Lowry’s story of a twelve-year-old boy discovering the secrets of his apparently utopian society remains my standard for young adult dystopian fiction almost three decades after its publication. Though it lacks the technological wizardry and over-the-top thrills of many contemporary young adult dystopias, Lowry’s subtle prose and nuanced depiction of a supposedly ideal society make this novel a classic for child and adult readers alike.

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A Clockwork Orange

By Anthony Burgess

Book cover of A Clockwork Orange

Why this book?

There are many impressive aspects to this novel about the brainwashing of a teenage gang leader, a book that in my opinion far exceeds the 1971 Oscar-nominated Stanley Kubrick film adaptation. Burgess’s invented slang, his artful world-building, the way he flips the narrative to inspire equal measures of disgust, anger, righteousness, pity, hope, and fear—all of these elements make A Clockwork Orange a truly unique novel that switches from dystopia to utopia and back again, albeit in a very different incarnation of dystopia than the one that opened the story.

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