Dystopia! That sounds sad. Right? Might be better to give it a miss altogether? Go watch something fun. No! These tales are great. This article will explore which dystopia writers are the best, and why you should read them!
The best dystopia writers are Margaret Atwood, Mary Shelly, Cormac McCarthy, George Orwell, and Kazuo Ishiguro. You can’t go wrong by starting with these authors. Below we explore what a dystopia is, provide examples, examine the popularity of these tales, and take a closer look at the work of the best dystopia writers.
What is a Dystopia?
The word dystopia is created using ‘dys’ from the Greek for ‘bad’ and ‘topia’ meaning ‘place’. So it’s a bad place.
It’s often regarded to be the opposite of a utopia (or perfect society), but a dystopia does not have to be the exact opposite of a utopia as many utopian elements may exist in a dystopia.
Dystopian stories are usually speculative tales about worlds in which things have terribly wrong. They often function as tales of warning, in an attempt to influence the development of society in a better direction.
For instance, in dystopias we often see oppressive governments (1984), or destroyed natural environments (The Road), or political hypocrisy and ineptitude (Don’t Look Up).
What are some Examples of Dystopian Stories?
Dystopian stories have been around for hundreds of years! It’s arguable that even writers like Homer featured dystopian elements in their work, when they portrayed scenes of horrific violence or political injustice.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy was published in 2006, and features a father and son who are trying to survive in a world that has been destroyed by a disaster which is not specified. In one scene, the father sees flashes on the horizon, before the world collapses: perhaps this is a nuclear blast? Perhaps a meteor. It doesn’t necessarily matter.
The story functions as a warning about how the quality of our lives, and our continued existence, is completely dependent on the state of the natural world. We like to imagine that we are above, and divorced from, nature because of the creation of indoor spaces. McCarthy is warning that if the natural world collapses, the impact on our lives will be unthinkable.
Another very popular dystopian tale is 1984 by George Orwell. This is a world in which non-democratic forces have taken control, and lies and hypocrisy rule. He is warning about the dangers of allowing non-democrats to steer us into a world which is robbed of its authenticity, truthfulness, and beauty. It’s a cruel world in which citizens are tortured into compliance.
Why are Dystopian Novels Popular?
So if these stories are so dark, why are they so popular?
This is a complex question. First of all, it’s wrong to assume that in matters of story telling that we enjoy things which are positive and dislike stories which are negative.
Check out theories of the sublime for a well researched investigation of the thrill we receive from the dark and scary things. People love horror right?
One explanation is that we enjoy catharsis, or a sense of emotional release when we experience pity and fear.
Another is that anything that is dangerous is pleasurable so long as that danger does not press too close (Edmund Burke).
Finally, these tales are intellectually satisfying. We sense the author has really thought about what they are warning us about, and it’s hugely intellectually satisfying to ponder a reality we detest, and plan out how we can contribute to making the world a better place.
Are Dystopian Novels Fun to Read?
Yep – weirdly!
The Road for instance is as much about a family, a father and son, as it is about any abstract political or environmental messages.
Good dystopian stories are usually human focussed: they are not essays. They take us into a compelling world, with characters that we enjoy spending time with, on compelling missions that we hope they will succeed in.
We are introduced to bad characters which we hope will receive comeuppance.
In other words, dystopian stories utilize all of the literary devices and techniques which make every other form of story enjoyable too. And remember, dystopian tales can have happy endings!
Who are the Best Dystopian Writers?
The best dystopian writers are Mary Shelly, Cormac McCarthy, George Orwell, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Margaret Atwood.
We know this name from classics like Frankenstein. In this work we can see many of the elements of dystopia: a frightening world in which the laws of nature and of man are subverted and challenged to create beings beyond the realm of human control.
But Mary Shelley also wrote a novel entitled ‘That Last Man.’ It’s about a plague which kills everyone in Europe, leaving one gentleman. Unfortunately, it got annihilated by the critics at the time, and only really resurfaced in the 60s.
It’s one of the earliest examples of dystopian fiction in the form that we recognise today. Stories like ‘I am Legend’ likely owe a lot to this tale.
This guy loves a dystopia. Boy oh boy. Dark.
The early novels are really … really dark.
They start to lighten up a bit as his career progresses, and as they lighten they get more popular with the masses.
Novels like Blood Meridian are historical tales which do not shy away from the worst episodes of American history.
McCarthy’s philosophy appears to be that war is an inherent part of the human experience, and that polite society is a thin veneer.
He also shows humans not only as enlightened and rational beings, but simultaneously as monsters who fight viciously and thoughtlessly for their own advancement. It’s tempting to resist this messaging, but when you pick up a history book it’s hard to argue with these sentiments. This is partially what makes his books so intellectually satisfying: you sense he really is on to something.
The Road in 2006 is his dystopian smash hit which won the Pulitzer Prize and cemented him as possibly the greatest living writer. Dystopian novels can propel you right to the top of the literary establishment!
Nearly everyone has studied this guy.
1984 is the classic high school text which appeals to teenagers and adults alike. It certainly appealed to me.
Society has been taken over by a regime that is non-democratic, and the rights and freedoms of the individual have been trashed as a result. Lies and hypocrisy rule, and fear is the political tool of the day. Life has lost its … authenticity. It’s beauty.
Love is stifled, and can only be found beyond the clutches of the political regime.
Orwell was writing at a time in the first half of the 20th Century during which democratic ideals were tested to their very limits by fascist and communist regimes. It’s only by some miracle, in the form of the USA really, that Europe wasn’t consumed by the type of regime Orwell depicts.
1984 is a dystopian work of unparalleled power and influence.
This guy knows how to draw a tear. Not a cheap and easy tear. But organise a whole tale around a premise so tragic, and a sadness so … endemic that when he lands his emotional blows they strike right to the core of your being.
Try chatting with someone who has read ‘Never Let Me Go’ or ‘The Remains of the Day.’ Watch the far away look enter their eyes as they slide back into a world that is so real, and so … achingly … oof.
This writer has set the world on fire in recent times with her dystopias which focus inter alia on women’s rights, and environmental destruction.
She’s prolific: eighteen collections of poetry, eighteen novels, eleven nonfiction books, nine short story collections, eight children’s books, and two graphic novels.
She’s won a very large number of awards: two booker awards and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, for starters … many others too.
Her novel The Handmaid’s Tale has recently been turned into a television series which captured the current concerns women face regarding their autonomy and reproductive rights, among many other brilliant thematic threads.
Don’t miss out on Atwood!
Dystopias are required reading: they may be a little bit sad, but let’s be honest, we actually like sad things don’t we? We respect the intellectual effort that’s gone into constructing a dystopia, which warns of all that we don’t want to become. Make sure to start your reading journey by reading these writers, who are amongst the best dystopia writers.