The best books about weirdly hopeful dystopias (dys-hopias?)

The Books I Picked & Why

Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel

Book cover of Station Eleven

Why this book?

Station Eleven reminded me why I fell in love with reading in the first place. Its post-apocalypse still has Shakespeare and comics (yay!) and airports (boo!) and it’s shockingly life-affirming for a book about what happens after most of human life is extinguished. Even though it jumps around in time and space, it feels like it’s capturing a single moment, specifically the moment life as you know it slips through your hands and you appreciate it for the first time in all its beauty at the exact second you lose it.


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Zone One

By Colson Whitehead

Book cover of Zone One

Why this book?

In Zone One, the frantic oh-*expletive* bloodbath phase of a zombie apocalypse has clicked over into something like a new normal. In lower Manhattan, our hero “Mark Spitz” mops up straggler zombies seemingly stuck in mindless loops from their past lives and reflects on the transformed yet familiar landscape. Zone One made me realize how specific streets are encoded in my own memories, and made me want to be more present in my own life, to move through the world less like a zombie.


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Snow Crash

By Neal Stephenson

Book cover of Snow Crash

Why this book?

When my dad first gave me this foundational cyberpunk novel as a teen, I was obsessed and inspired — and apparently so were many of today’s billionaire tech gods (this is the book that gave us the phrase “metaverse,” after all). Samurai swords, ancient curses, the Mafia, floating cities, robot dogs, pizza, what’s not to love? I’m kinda skeptical of how its inspiration is playing out in Silicon Valley, but its humor, imagination, and attitude still stick with me and are a worthy benchmark for anyone trying to build fictional worlds of their own.


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On A Sunbeam

By Tillie Walden

Book cover of On A Sunbeam

Why this book?

So, I’m stretching the definition of “dystopia” here, but I’ll use any excuse to tout this gorgeous graphic novel. It’s about a young crew who travel around in a goldfish-shaped craft fixing up free-floating space ruins until embarking on a mission to help one member reconnect with a lost love. My elementary school best friend and I bonded over drawing comics and On A Sunbeam made me wonder what might have been if we never stopped. 


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Cloud Atlas

By David Mitchell

Book cover of Cloud Atlas

Why this book?

A gleaming futuristic dystopia and a post-apocalyptic Hawaii are just two of the times and places in which this mind-bogglingly ambitious novel takes place. When my dad died a few years ago, this book reminded me that our lives extend beyond our lives in ways we can’t possibly imagine. It was comforting. Oh, also, I’m super jealous of David Mitchell as a writer: seems like you’d need at least six reincarnated lifetimes to get that good.


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