“Big brother is watching you…” the utterance has come to encapsulate the terrifying yoke of state power in the 20th century. Orwell’s vision of a horrifying future was written in 1948 amidst the rising forces of fascism and communism, but his vision of omnipotent surveillance was alarmingly prescient. In the digital age, the cold gaze of Big Brother is more relevant than ever. Rather than grow dated, 1984 became that strangest of things, a novel which articulates the fears of its own age, as well as our own.
Dystopian novels are more than just pessimistic stories. They are protests, thought experiments. Below you will find a list of thought-provoking books like 1984.
1. We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin
In many ways the forerunner to 1984, Zamyatin’s 1924 novel We was refused publication in native Russia for decades. Instead, a manuscript made it out of the country and an English translation was published in New York later that year. In the 26th century, citizens live in the One State. They are known only by a number and live rigid, uniform lives in glass houses observed by the Guardians. D-503 is an engineer working on the Spaceship Integral, whose mission is for the One State to conquer other planets. D-503 enjoys the uniformity and rationality of his life, until one day he meets the beautiful rebel, l-330. Increasingly discomposed by the feelings she stirs in him, he is drawn out of his stable existence. Like many on this list, We explores the rebellion of the human spirit against the sterile, mechanised One State. In Zamyatin’s vision, there is no final revolution.
2. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
If We is the father of 1984, then Brave New World is its sister novel. Of the three, it is perhaps the livelier, more enjoyable read. Published in 1932, Brave New World is set in a world 600 years in the future. Humans are genetically engineered and conditioned for their role in society in an inhumane caste system. It is a rampantly consumerist society. Citizens live empty lives drugged into a pleasant haze and distracted by superficial pleasures and mindless entertainment. Into this consumerist society comes John the Savage, brought back from a Savage Reservation in New Mexico to see this “brave new world” where he quickly becomes a celebrity. However John, who had been educated by a collection of Shakespeare’s works, quickly becomes horrified at what he finds.
3. The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
First published in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s great feminist dystopia has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, with the uniform of its handmaids becoming a potent symbol of women-led protest from Argentina to the U.S., the U.K., and Ireland. In the Republic of Gilead, a theocratic rebellion has overthrown the former United States Government to create a male-run, religiously fanatic military dictatorship. With women completely subjugated under this regime and birthrates plummeting, the state forcibly assigns handmaids to bear children for elite couples. Like other handmaidens, Offred is raped in a monthly ritual. But as her flashbacks reveal how the revolution took place and Gilead was established, Offred is offered a dim prospect of hope. The book has been adapted to television in an enormously popular Hulu series beginning in 2017, and in 2019 Margaret Atwood published her much-anticipated sequel, The Testaments.
4. Animal Farm, by George Orwell
Readers of 1984 will enjoy Orwell’s earlier novel Animal Farm. His political fable satirises the story of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin. A group of barnyard animals rise up against their exploitative human masters (“Four legs good, two legs bad.”) However, the animal’s jubilance doesn’t last long as the pigs take charge of the rebellion in ever more dictatorial ways. As the animals discover, “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It was this political fable that first brought Orwell fame.
5. Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
Fahrenheit 451 is “the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns.” Ray Bradbury’s classic work published in 1953 presents a dystopian American future where books are outlawed. The story is told from the point of view of Guy Montag, a “fireman” whose job is to destroy all books. As he grows more sick of his society’s mind-numbing and knowledge-stifling mass media, Guy grows disillusioned with his work, until one day he begins hiding the books he is tasked with destroying. Bradbury’s warnings about censorship, ignorance, and the media feel as compelling today as on publication.
6. Anthem, by Ayn Rand
A contemporary of Zamyatin, Huxley, and Orwell, Ayn Rand’s novella Anthem makes a passionate and hopeful defence of human individuality. Set at an unspecified period in the future, mankind has entered a second Dark Age in which the concept of individuality has been eliminated. In this world, there is no “I,” only “we” and “our.” Equality 7-2521 is a young man “cursed with curiosity.” He begins conducting scientific experiments in a tunnel by candlelight and writing his story on stolen paper. When he meets a young woman named Liberty 5-3000, his curiosity threatens to take him beyond the boundaries of his world.
7. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Published in 2005, Kazuo Ishiguro breaks the moulds of science fiction and dystopia with a haunting, emotive literary work set in an alternative past. Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy are students together at an English boarding school called Hailsham. Permitted little contact with the outside world, it is only upon leaving the grounds of the school that they realise the full horror of what Hailsham is. Less plot-driven than the genre fiction it superficially resembles, Never Let Me Go is a parable of innocence and mortality. But, like other books on this list, it depicts a wicked, uncaring world.
8. Vox, by Christina Dalcher
The dramatic, resurgent popularity of A Handmaid’s Tale in recent years has prompted its own literary trend for feminist dystopian fiction. Vox was published in 2018 and paints the picture of a dark dystopian world in which women are limited to using just 100 words per day. In this near-future world, the authoritarian, patriarchal government seeks to reduce women’s role in society to child-rearing in the home. Soon women are not permitted to hold jobs or taught to read or write. In a harrowing decree, the state issues silver counters which are strapped to women’s wrists and will administer electric shocks should they go over their set number of words. Horrified at these developments, neuro-linguist Dr. Jean McClellan will stop at nothing to fight for the voice of her own and her daughter.
9. The Power, by Naomi Alderman
An electrical energy within women is awakened overnight. Women begin to develop the ability to release electrical jolts from their fingers. Suddenly, teenage girls have immense physical power. With just a touch, they can cause agonising pain or death. This 2016 science fiction novel speculates how this shift in power relations would reverberate, destabilizing every aspect of the world we live in. It is a powerful experiment in “what if,” imagining women as the newly dominant gender. Wild and pacey, with great breadth of focus, Alderman’s alternative reality explores the mechanism of power and the shocking speed with which it corrupts those who hold it.