Dystopian novels every woman should read

Dystopian novels: 19 powerful and frightening books that every woman should read

Essential literature for uncertain times…

On 8 June, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four will celebrate its 71st anniversary – but there’s no denying that the iconic dystopian novel feels all the more relevant in 2020 than ever before.

Orwell’s novel follows Winston Smith as he works feverishly in the Record Department of the sprawling Ministry of Truth. And yet, as he attempts to rewrite history in order to suit the needs of the Party, he inwardly rebels against the totalitarian world he lives in. Big Brother demands absolute obedience in both thought and action, though, which means that Winston is already a “thoughtcriminal” – it’s only a matter of time before he gets caught. 

When he embarks on a torrid love affair with his colleague Julia, though, he soon learns that the price of freedom is betrayal.

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Nineteen Eighty-Four coined the terms “groupthink” and “enemy of the people”, the second of which US President Donald Trump regularly uses to describe the media (the book’s sales surged in the week after Trump’s inauguration in 2017).

And – from shockingly biased rape trials and outdated abortion laws, to the coronavirus pandemicBritain’s attempts to barricade itself away from the rest of Europe, the world turning its back on refugees fleeing war torn countries, and global warming is making its effects felt across the planet –it often feels as if we are on the cusp of a real-life dystopia.

With that in mind, then, which dystopian novels should feminist readers be adding to their bookshelves? Well, from Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Jennie Melamed’s Gather The Daughters, Sophie Mackintosh’s The Water Cure and Christine Dalcher’s Vox, we have picked out the best and must-read feminist dystopian novels – or, as we prefer to call them, ‘vital reading for our brave new world’. 

Hopefully these will jolt us into action and inspire us to rise up and rebel, to speak out for those most in need, and to strike a blow for victims of discrimination everywhere.

Scroll through to find out which novels you need to download to your Kindle, asap…

  • The Power – Naomi Alderman

    The Power by Naomi Alderman

    Naomi Alderman’s novel, which was first published in 2016, won the 2017 Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction for its depiction of our world with a peculiar, electrifying (literally) twist of nature.

    Set in a near-future world, The Power sees teenage girls suddenly gain the ability to electrocute anyone they want to, simply by touching them with their hands.

    The book follows four characters: Allie, a vulnerable American foster child who reinvents herself as a faith leader; Roxy, the daughter of a London crime boss, who revels in her new abilities; Tunde, a Nigerian journalist reporting on seismic global change; and Margot Cleary-Lopez, the Mayor of Seattle, loving wife and doting mother to three children.

    And, as the book is due to be adapted into a TV show very soon, now is definitely the time to read it.

  • Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Spencer

    Parable of the Sower
    Parable of the Sower

    This novel, which was written in the 1930s, takes place in a worryingly familiar 2020. 

    Set in an alternate California, The Sower of the Seed tells of a society that has largely collapsed due to climate change, growing wealth inequality and corporate greed. Young teenager Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community, where she is sheltered from the surrounding anarchy as outsiders prepare to do whatever they must to combat global water shortages.

    There is more to Lauren than meets the eye, though: she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others’ emotions. And she soon realises that this dubious gift is key to the survival of humankind. Will she be able to make her voice heard? How can she ever hope to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores? And what will happen to humankind?

  • The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

    Margaret Atwood’s terrifying tale of a misogynistic totalitarian state captured our imaginations when it was published in 1985 – and, all these years later, it feels more worryingly relevant than ever.

    Set in the not-so-distant future, it takes place in Gilead (formerly known as the United States of America); after a series of environmental disasters and plunging birth rates, the Commanders of Gilead strip away women’s rights and annex them as property of the state. They are soon forced into sexual servitude in a bid to repopulate a devastated world. Our narrator, Offred, is one such woman. Known as a ‘Handmaid’, she is given two equally bleak choices; to produce a baby for The Commander, or be sent to work – and die – in the radioactive colonies.

    With a real-life Gilead unfolding in front of our eyes, now is as good a time as any to read The Handmaid’s Tale (although, fair warning, it ends on a humdinger of a cliff-hanger).

  • Unwind – Neal Shusterman

    Neal Shusterman’s YA dystopia takes the battle that rages on between Pro-Life and Pro-Choice campaigners to an entirely new level, pitching them against one another in a bloody and terrifying Civil War.

    However we, the readers, see none of this; instead we join them in the dizzying aftermath of their war – and learn about the dark compromise they have come to. In this bleak new world, babies are granted sanctity of life – but, if they grow up to become problem teens, their parents have the right to send them away for organ harvesting.

    Beautiful, shocking, and deeply unsettling, Unwind is just the first in a powerful trilogy.

  • The Big Lie – Julie Mayhew

    Ever wondered what would have happened if Hitler had won the war? This book, set in a contemporary Nazi-England, weaves a bleak yet utterly compelling tale about Jessika Keller, a young teenage ice skating protégé determined to do right by her father, her country, and her Führer.

    Her neighbour Clementine is not so submissive. Outspoken and radical, Clem is delectably dangerous and rebellious. And the regime has noticed…

    It’s not long before Jess is treading a very fine line between what she has been told is right, and what is morally right – and it soon becomes clear that she cannot keep both her perfect life and the young woman she loves so dearly. But which can she live without?

    A powerful coming-of-age story, The Big Lie deftly takes on the big guns of dystopia, including sexism, feminism, sexuality, loyalty, propaganda, freedom and protest. Make sure you get a copy on your bookshelf, stat.

  • Vox – Christina Dalcher

    If you enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, then you need to read Christine Dalcher’s Vox. Set in a not-too-distant future, ultra-right wing religious fundamentalists have taken over the central belt of America and reduced women to mere possessions. Indeed, every female of speaking age (including small children) has been banned from speaking more than 100 words each day. Instead, they are asked to focus on values of modesty, submission, humility and purity. Just one word over 100 and the “bracelet” they are forced to wear will send over 1,000 volts surging through their body – a shock that increases in strength the more they breach their limit. An electrifying read.

  • The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

    The film adaptations, starring Jennifer Lawrence, made The Hunger Games a household name – and for good reason.

    Collins’ story is set in an unspecified post-apocalyptic future, focusing on North America’s fictional Panem. The country, consisting of a wealthy Capitol and twelve poverty-stricken districts, is ruled by a tyrannical dictator – and, every single year, one boy and one girl from each of district are selected by lottery to battle to the death in a lavish televised event.

    However President Snow and his cronies face a crisis on a national scale when 16-year-old hunter Katniss Everdeen volunteers as tribute; could she become the rallying symbol the people of Panem need to rise up against their rulers?

    Again, this is part of a trilogy – so be sure to read all of the books to get the full and thought-provoking story. 

  • Never Let Me Go – Kazuo Ishiguro

    We can’t give too much away about this one, as it will ruin the flow of the narrative entirely. All we can tell you, really, is that this dystopia feels quintessentially British, thanks to its English boarding school setting, and weaves a bittersweet tale of love, loss, and grief. Trust us when we say that Never Let Me Go is more than worth a read… 

  • Gather The Daughters – Jennie Melamed

    Dark, unsettling and horribly compelling, Gather The Daughters is the kind of book that stays with you long after you’ve put it down. Set on a small isolated island, it introduces readers to a community that lives by its own, warped rules… one which sees boys grow up knowing they will one day reign inside and outside the home, while girls know they will be married and pregnant within moments of hitting womanhood. But before that time comes, there is an island ritual that offers children an exhilarating reprieve. 

    Every summer they are turned out onto their doorsteps to roam wild: they run, they fight, they sleep on the beach and build camps in trees. They are free. It is at the end of one of these summers, as the first frost laces the ground, that one of the younger girls witnesses something she was never supposed to see. And she returns home, muddy and terrified, clutching in her small hand a truth that could unravel their carefully constructed island world forever…

  • The Children Of Men – P. D. James

    The Children of Men is one of those books everyone should read in their lifetime.

    Set in 2021, the human race faces extinction due to a global fertility crisis: no child has been born for 25 years. 

    With the UK steadily depopulating, the old are despairing and the young have become unspeakably cruel. Theo Faren lives a solitary life in this ominous atmosphere, until a chance encounter with a young woman leads him away from the disillusioned masses to a secret group of dissenters. 

    It isn’t long before Theo is faced with an agonising choices, one which could affect the future of mankind.

  • Only Ever Yours – Louise O’Neill

    Only Ever Yours spins a story about the ‘eves’ of a not-so-distant future, who are made, trained to be pretty, good, and to Always be Willing.

    Each will be selected to become a concubine, a companion, or for chastity – and, of course, this decision will be left entirely to the men of their society. In fact, to ensure that these girls don’t become too intelligent, they are isolated from boys from a very early age, and tutored to as to ensure that they anticipate nothing more than a life of servitude. Their goal is to reproduce – and that is all.

    Told through the eyes of 16-year-old Freida, this must-read novel is very Valley of the Dolls meets The Handmaid’s Tale. And, in this new era of Trump, it feels more relevant than ever before…

  • The Jewel – Amy Ewing

    This breath-taking YA novel follows the story of Violet Lasting, who loses her identity when she is auctioned off as a ‘surrogate’ in the Jewel of the Lone City.

    Her job, the job she has been preparing for since she was 12 years old, is to carry the child of the woman who buys her. But, when that woman is revealed to be the Duchess of the Lake, Violet soon finds herself “trapped in a living death”.

    When she meets another captive in the palace, Violet comes to realise exactly what’s at stake – her sanity, her freedom, and her life. Can she and Ash ever hope to be free of their engendered prisons? Or will their blossoming friendship put them in more danger, and render them even more disposable, than ever before?

    We mean it when we say that The Jewel is impossible to put down – and be sure to watch out for that insane plot twist…

  • The Passion of New Eve – Angela Carter

    It’s easy to fall in hate with the male protagonist of this novel; Evelyn has no respect for women, as is clear to see when he demands a young girl perform oral sex on him in the cinema, and his short relationship with Leilah is undeniably abusive. When he gets the her pregnant, he abandons her to a voodoo abortionist – and abandons her when things go wrong.

    So, when he’s ambushed and captured by a group of tribeswomen, it’s hard to muster up any sympathy for Evelyn. However, when their Mother Goddess performs a sex change operation on him against his will, the tone of the tale shifts completely…

    Dark, uncomfortable, and often brutal, The Passion of New Eve will leave you feeling sick to your stomach on more than one occasion. But, if you’re brave enough to take it on, it’s well worth every single flinch of horror for those few glimmers of hope...

  • The Water Cure – Sophie Mackintosh

    The Water Cure is a brutal and eerie debut novel, one which makes for an anxiety-inducing read. It speaks of a world uncannily similar to our own, where women are not safe in their bodies, and where desperate measures are required to raise a daughter. And, in it, we are introduced to Grace, Lia and Sky, three girls who are kept apart from the world “for their own good” and taught the terrible things that every woman must learn about love. Unfortunately, though, they cannot be kept hidden forever. When three strangers are washed up by the sea, their gazes hungry and insistent, it quickly becomes apparent that they will leave nothing but desire and destruction in their wake.

  • The Stepford Wives – Ira Levin

    The Stepford Wives needs no introduction – after all, its title alone has become a phrase used in everyday conversation.

    However, for those who have somehow managed to miss the book (or both of the two movie adaptations), the story follows Joanna as she moves to idyllic Stepford with her husband and children. The women of the gated American community are perfect, submissive, docile, and utterly, utterly zombie-like.

    After growing more and more concerned by the mindless housewives that surround her (particularly when she learns that a number of them were once feminist activists), Joanna launches an investigation… but it’s not long before the men of Stepford grow sick of her questions.

    No spoilers, but the ending will make your blood run cold. Seriously.

  • The Stone Gods – Jeanette Winterson

    The Stone Gods isn’t so much a book, as it is the literary equivalent of being kicked in the stomach. And, annoyingly, we can’t give too much away about this post-apocalyptic love story without completely ruining it for you.

    One thing we can tell you, however, is that you should go in expecting the unexpected; think self-aware characters, a plot that winds around and in on itself, and a bittersweet concoction of hopelessness and hope.

    More crucially, it’s a bleak warning to modern day society as it forces us to ask ourselves: ‘why can’t we learn from our past mistakes?’

  • The Female Man – Joanna Russ

    Ever wondered what a literal battle of the sexes would look like? Then you absolutely need to read The Female Man.

    Sure, it’s a little complex in terms of the set-up; instead of one female protagonist, we follow four, each of whom is living in a different parallel world in terms of time and place. Think everything from Earth in the 1970s, right up to a futuristic utopia where men are now extinct. As such, their views on gender roles are extraordinarily, phenomenally, outstandingly different – and, when their paths cross, they’re forced to re-evaluate what it really means to be a woman.

    While each offers a unique view of the world, Jael’s World – a dystopia where men and women are engaged in a deadly battle to the death – is by far the most memorable. Expect to read about women trading their children for resources, men undergoing gender reassignment surgery in a bid to fulfil their own sexual needs, and the rise of ‘pleasure robots’.

    Considering scientists have already come up with the latter, and Trump’s rise to power has already sparked calls for women to be stripped of their right to vote, it may be prudent to read this one sooner rather than later…

  • The Year of the Flood – Margaret Atwood

    In The Year of the Flood, a plague has wiped almost all human life from the face of the Earth. Two women, however, have survived.

    Ren, a young trapeze dancer, has been locked inside the “sticky zone” of a high-end sex club (which professes to have the cleanest dirty girls in town). Meanwhile Toby, a member of vegetarian-religious cult God’s Gardeners, has barricaded herself inside a luxurious spa… where, thankfully, a large number of treatments prove to be edible.

    Outside, the waterless flood continues to wreak havoc on the world – and gene-spliced animals are thriving. But, as it quickly becomes apparent that Ren and Toby can’t stay where they are, readers are left wondering exactly what their next move will be. And, more importantly, whether there really is anyone else out there?

    Expect plenty of flashbacks in this novel (which is, officially, a sequel to Oryx and Crake), as well as hard-hitting messages, whiplash-sharp observations, and a very Atwoodish conclusion indeed. 

  • Amphibian – Christina Neuwirth

    If you prefer your dystopian fiction on the lighter side, look to Christina Neuwirth’s debut novella Amphibian. This unusual tome chronicles the very regular (read: boring) life of Rose Ellis, who works in a company that sells Bonds and Promises. One day, though, she turns up to find that the entire fourth floor has been flooded with water, in a desperate attempt to boost employee morale and improve productivity. As the water steadily rises, her working situation becomes more and more absurd: she is forced to get creative with her clothing and her working style, not to mention find a way to deal with the fact her chair keeps floating off in the waist-deep flood. But what will happen when the water finally rises over her head?

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Please note that this article was originally published in 2018.

Image: Getty


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