Do you plan on binging the upcoming Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale? Us too, and afterwards, we’ll be left looking for the next engaging — if not a bit disturbing — world to jump into. If you’re looking for some suggestions, including some great dystopian books, check out this list of books recommended by Margaret Atwood. Publishers’ descriptions included below.
1984 by George Orwell
In 1984, London is a grim city where Big Brother is always watching you and the Thought Police can practically read your mind. Winston is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he hazards his life in a deadly match against the powers that be.
Atwood’s recommendation: “Orwell became a direct model for me much later in my life – in the real 1984, the year in which I began writing a somewhat different dystopia, The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Now more than ever: Aldous Huxley’s enduring “masterpiece… one of the most prophetic dystopian works of the 20th century” (Wall Street Journal) must be read and understood by anyone concerned with preserving the human spirit in the face of our “brave new world”
Aldous Huxley’s profoundly important classic of world literature, Brave New World is a searching vision of an unequal, technologically-advanced future where humans are genetically bred, socially indoctrinated, and pharmaceutically anesthetized to passively uphold an authoritarian ruling order–all at the cost of our freedom, full humanity, and perhaps also our souls. “A genius [who] who spent his life decrying the onward march of the Machine” (The New Yorker), Huxley was a man of incomparable talents: equally an artist, a spiritual seeker, and one of history’s keenest observers of human nature and civilization. Brave New World, his masterpiece, has enthralled and terrified millions of readers, and retains its urgent relevance to this day as both a warning to be heeded as we head into tomorrow and as thought-provoking, satisfying work of literature. Written in the shadow of the rise of fascism during the 1930s, Brave New World likewise speaks to a 21st-century world dominated by mass-entertainment, technology, medicine and pharmaceuticals, the arts of persuasion, and the hidden influence of elites.
Atwood’s recommendation: “It’s still as vibrant, fresh, and somehow shocking as it was when I first read it.”
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
In the near future, the Colorado River has dwindled to a trickle. Detective, assassin, and spy, Angel Velasquez “cuts” water for the Southern Nevada Water Authority, ensuring that its lush arcology developments can bloom in Las Vegas. When rumors of a game-changing water source surface in Phoenix, Angel is sent south, hunting for answers that seem to evaporate as the heat index soars and the landscape becomes more and more oppressive. There, he encounters Lucy Monroe, a hardened journalist with her own agenda, and Maria Villarosa, a young Texas migrant, who dreams of escaping north. As bodies begin to pile up, the three find themselves pawns in a game far bigger and more corrupt than they could have imagined, and when water is more valuable than gold, alliances shift like sand, and the only truth in the desert is that someone will have to bleed if anyone hopes to drink.
Atwood’s recommendation: Atwood is clearly fond of Bacigalupi’s main character as she compares him to legendary fictional detective Philip Marlowe, calling him “Philip Marlowe on speed”.
The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler
Lauren Olamina and her family live in one of the only safe neighborhoods remaining on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Behind the walls of their defended enclave, Lauren’s father, a preacher, and a handful of other citizens try to salvage what remains of a culture that has been destroyed by drugs, war, and chronic shortages of water, gasoline, and more. While her father tries to lead people on the righteous path, Lauren struggles with hyperempathy, a condition that makes her extraordinarily sensitive to the pain of others.
When fire destroys their compound, Lauren’s family is killed and she is forced out into a world that is facing apocalypse. With a handful of other refugees, Lauren must make her way north to safety, along the way conceiving a revolutionary idea that may mean salvation for all mankind.
Atwood’s recommendation: Atwood notes that Butler’s Parable series is “now a classic” and offers “much to ponder.”
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
One day in early spring, Dorrit Weger is checked into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. She is promised a nicely furnished apartment inside the Unit, where she will make new friends, enjoy the state of the art recreation facilities, and live the few remaining days of her life in comfort with people who are just like her. Here, women over the age of 50 and men over 60 — single, childless, and without jobs in progressive industries–are sequestered for their final few years; they are considered outsiders. In the Unit they are expected to contribute themselves for drug and psychological testing, and ultimately donate their organs, little by little, until the final donation. Despite the ruthless nature of this practice, the ethos of this near-future society and the Unit is to take care of others, and Dorrit finds herself living under very pleasant conditions: well-housed, well-fed, and well-attended. She is resigned to her fate and discovers her days there to be rather consoling and peaceful. But when she meets a man inside the Unit and falls in love, the extraordinary becomes a reality and life suddenly turns unbearable. Dorrit is faced with compliance or escape, and… well, then what?
The Unit is a gripping exploration of a society in the throes of an experiment, in which the “dispensable” ones are convinced under gentle coercion of the importance of sacrificing for the “necessary” ones. Ninni Holmqvist has created a debut novel of humor, sorrow, and rage about love, the close bonds of friendship, and about a cynical, utilitarian way of thinking disguised as care.
Atwood’s recommendation: “I liked The Unit very much.”
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
Originally published in 1941, Arthur Koestler’s modern masterpiece, Darkness At Noon, is a powerful and haunting portrait of a Communist revolutionary caught in the vicious fray of the Moscow show trials of the late 1930s.
During Stalin’s purges, Nicholas Rubashov, an aging revolutionary, is imprisoned and psychologically tortured by the party he has devoted his life to. Under mounting pressure to confess to crimes he did not commit, Rubashov relives a career that embodies the ironies and betrayals of a revolutionary dictatorship that believes it is an instrument of liberation.
A seminal work of 20th-century literature, Darkness At Noon is a penetrating exploration of the moral danger inherent in a system that is willing to enforce its beliefs by any means necessary.
Atwood’s recommendation: When asked what books bring her solace, Atwood said named Darkness at Noon, adding: “Not exactly consoling, but forewarned is sometimes forearmed.”
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
Hailed as a classic of speculative fiction, Marge Piercy’s landmark novel is a transformative vision of two futures — and what it takes to will one or the other into reality. Harrowing and prescient, Woman on the Edge of Time speaks to a new generation on whom these choices weigh more heavily than ever before.
Connie Ramos is a Mexican American woman living on the streets of New York. Once ambitious and proud, she has lost her child, her husband, her dignity — and now they want to take her sanity. After being unjustly committed to a mental institution, Connie is contacted by an envoy from the year 2137, who shows her a time of sexual and racial equality, environmental purity, and unprecedented self-actualization. But Connie also bears witness to another potential outcome: a society of grotesque exploitation in which the barrier between person and commodity has finally been eroded. One will become our world. And Connie herself may strike the decisive blow.
Atwood’s recommendation: “It tackles various social issues, especially those concerning gender, unsparingly and with considerable ferocity, and forces the reader to decide how he or she might solve these problems.”
The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
Tis some visitor,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door —
Only this, and nothing more.” ― Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven
This collection from the master of the macabre, Edgar Allan Poe, is sure to scare and delight readers.
Atwood’s recommendation: According to The Paris Review, Atwood began writing poetry inspired by Poe in high school.
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
Long ago, in a time forgotten, a preternatural event threw the seasons out of balance. In a land where summers can last decades and winters a lifetime, trouble is brewing. The cold is returning, and in the frozen wastes to the north of Winterfell, sinister forces are massing beyond the kingdom’s protective Wall. To the south, the king’s powers are failing — his most trusted adviser dead under mysterious circumstances and his enemies emerging from the shadows of the throne. At the center of the conflict lie the Starks of Winterfell, a family as harsh and unyielding as the frozen land they were born to. Now Lord Eddard Stark is reluctantly summoned to serve as the king’s new Hand, an appointment that threatens to sunder not only his family but the kingdom itself.
Sweeping from a harsh land of cold to a summertime kingdom of epicurean plenty, A Game of Thrones tells a tale of lords and ladies, soldiers and sorcerers, assassins and bastards, who come together in a time of grim omens. Here an enigmatic band of warriors bear swords of no human metal; a tribe of fierce wildlings carry men off into madness; a cruel young dragon prince barters his sister to win back his throne; a child is lost in the twilight between life and death; and a determined woman undertakes a treacherous journey to protect all she holds dear. Amid plots and counter-plots, tragedy and betrayal, victory and terror, allies and enemies, the fate of the Starks hangs perilously in the balance, as each side endeavors to win that deadliest of conflicts: the game of thrones.
Unparalleled in scope and execution, A Game of Thrones is one of those rare reading experiences that catch you up from the opening pages, won’t let you go until the end, and leave you yearning for more.
Atwood’s recommendation: “Once sucked in, you stay sucked. Be warned.”
Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin
The misery of waiting for a connecting flight at an airport leads to the accidental discovery of alighting on other planes — not airplanes but planes of existence. Ursula Le Guin’s deadpan premise frames a series of travel accounts by the tourist-narrator who describes bizarre societies and cultures that sometimes mirror our own, and sometimes open puzzling doors into the alien.
Atwood’s recommendation: “Le Guin, is a quintessentially American writer, of the sort for whom the quest for the Peaceable Kingdom is ongoing.”
Grimm’s Fairy Tales by The Brothers Grimm
From “Rapunzel” to “Hansel and Gretel” to “Briar Rose” to “Little Red Riding Hood,” the German folktales that the Brothers Grimm brought to the world’s attention have been captivating readers young and old for more than two centuries. These stories of wicked sorceresses, beautiful maidens, golden geese, and dashing princes have inspired countless adaptations and become part of the very fabric of our culture. To read them again is to be transported to enchanted forests and gothic castles, but also to childhood, and to a realm of the imagination where good always triumphs over evil and the most important life lessons are imparted through the irresistible magic of a story well told.
Atwood’s recommendation: “The Gothic, the supernatural fantasy and related forms have interested me for some time… This may or may not have something to do with the fact that in childhood… we were given the complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales… I loved it.”
Donovan’s Brain by Curt Siodmak
DEAD… Doomed by disease, then mangled in a plane crash, there was no doubt that Donovan was dead.
YET… floating in a tank of nutrient, linked to complex apparatus, Donovan’s brain still lived…
ALIVE… someone walked with Donovan’s gait, wrote his signature, knew his foulest secrets–and carried out his last, weirdest plan!
Atwood’s recommendation: Atwood read Donovan’s Brain in high school and said it “made a deep impression on me.”
Enough by Bill McKibben
Nearly 15 years ago, in The End of Nature, Bill McKibben demonstrated that humanity had begun to irrevocably alter and endanger our environment on a global scale. Now he turns his eye to an array of technologies that could change our relationship not with the rest of nature but with ourselves. He explores the frontiers of genetic engineering, robotics, and nanotechnology — all of which we are approaching with astonishing speed — and shows that each threatens to take us past a point of no return. We now stand, in Michael Pollan’s words, “on a moral and existential threshold,” poised between the human past and a post-human future. McKibben offers a celebration of what it means to be human, and a warning that we risk the loss of all meaning if we step across the threshold. Instantly acclaimed for its passion and insight, this wise and eloquent book argues that we cannot forever grow in reach and power — that we must at last learn how to say, “Enough.”
Atwood’s recommendation: “Passionate, succinct, chilling, closely argued, sometimes hilarious, touchingly well-intentioned, and essential.”
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
Angela Carter was a storytelling sorceress, the literary godmother of Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, Audrey Niffenegger, J. K. Rowling, Kelly Link, and other contemporary masters of supernatural fiction. In her masterpiece, The Bloody Chamber — which includes the story that is the basis of Neil Jordan’s 1984 movie The Company of Wolves — she spins subversively dark and sensual versions of familiar fairy tales and legends like “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard,” “Puss in Boots,” and “Beauty and the Beast,” giving them exhilarating new life in a style steeped in the romantic trappings of the gothic tradition.
Atwood’s recommendation: “A mix of finely tuned phrase, luscious adjective, witty aphorism, and hearty, up-theirs vulgarity.”
The Echo Maker by Richard Powers
On a winter night on a remote Nebraska road, 27-year-old Mark Schluter flips his truck in a near-fatal accident. His older sister Karin, his only near kin, returns reluctantly to their hometown to nurse Mark back from a traumatic head injury. But when he emerges from a protracted coma, Mark believes that this woman — who looks, acts, and sounds just like his sister — is really an identical impostor. Shattered by her brother’s refusal to recognize her, Karin contacts the cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber, famous for his case histories describing the infinitely bizarre worlds of brain disorder. Weber recognizes Mark as a rare case of Capgras Syndrome, a doubling delusion, and eagerly investigates. What he discovers in Mark slowly undermines even his own sense of being. Meanwhile, Mark, armed only with a note left by an anonymous witness, attempts to learn what happened the night of his inexplicable accident. The truth of that evening will change the lives of all three beyond recognition.
Set against the Platte River’s massive spring migrations — one of the greatest spectacles in nature — The Echo Maker is a gripping mystery that explores the improvised human self and the even more precarious brain that splits us from and joins us to the rest of creation.
Atwood’s recommendation: “The Echo Maker is probably the best Powers novel so far.”
Which of these books do you plan to read? Let us know in the comments!
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