How far would you travel to find your way home? Jamie Allenby wakes, alone, and realises her fever has broken. But could everyone she knows be dead? Months earlier, Jamie had left her partner Daniel, mourning the miscarriage of their baby. She'd just had to get away, so took a job on a distant planet. Then the virus hit. Jamie survived as it swept through our far-flung colonies. Now she feels desperate and isolated, until she receives a garbled message from Earth. If someone from her past is still alive - perhaps Daniel - she knows she must find a way to return. She meets others seeking Earth, and their ill-matched group will travel across space to achieve their dream. But they'll clash with survivors intent on repeating humanity's past mistakes, threatening their precious fresh start. Jamie will also get a second chance at happiness.
But can she escape her troubled past, to embrace a hopeful future?
My top 5 dystopian novels
When I was asked to put this post together, I expected to find it pretty easy, but when it came to it, I had to think really hard about the books to include. The problem wasn’t with finding five really good reads – it was about what actually constitutes dystopian fiction. Before going into my reasons and choices, I should probably say that I made the decision to leave Orwell’s 1984 out of this list, simply because so much has been written about it that I’m not sure I have anything meaningful to add!
If you look at the dictionary definition, a dystopia is a society which is unpleasant in some way, often with an element of oppression. When it comes to discussions of dystopian fiction, there is often disagreement about what types of novels fall under the dystopian umbrella. There is an interesting discussion about this on on the Tor.com website, with some commentators disagreeing with the writer of the original post in relation to the fairly narrow scope of his definition.
I’m inclined to side with the commentators who prefer a wider definition. When I first tried to compile this list, I kept coming up with books set in the immediate aftermath of disasters. While the days following a nuclear war or a deadly virus would certainly be unpleasant, as per the dictionary definition of utopia, I think that the difference between post-apocalyptic fiction and dystopian fiction has to do with the timeframe, and how much of a society has been reclaimed from the ashes of the old world. While I would have liked to include books such as The End of the World Running Club by Adrian Walker or Nod by Adrian Barnes (I seem to have an Adrian theme going here!) I think that dystopian novels need to have something of a new – but established - world order about them. The characters need to be grappling with some aspects of a new society, rather than struggling to come to terms with the loss of the old world.
With that in mind, this is my selection of recommended dystopian reads.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I read this book for the first time when I was quite a young teenager – probably too young to appreciate some of the themes and subtleties. I came back to it as an adult and found its impact undiminished, and was able to appreciate the skill with which Atwood weaves together the familiar, the unfamiliar and the almost-familiar to create a terrifyingly plausible web of oppression, fear and feminine degradation.
This is probably a timely read for those unfamiliar with Atwood’s classic dystopia, given the ongoing narrative around reproductive rights in Trump’s America, and with a new television version about to hit UK screens.
The Mistress of Silence by Jacqueline Harpman
I wasn’t quite sure whether to include this, since it doesn’t deal with an established society or new world order. In fact, the whole point of the book is the complete lack of any recognisable society. I decided to stick it in because it is set some years after an unspecified breakdown in society which leads to the main character being imprisoned with a group of older women in an underground bunker. When they are finally able to leave their prison, the world in which they find themselves bears no resemblance to the world in which they lived before their imprisonment.
If you like uplifting, upbeat endings, then this is categorically not the novel for you. It is bleak – almost unrelentingly so – but the beauty of the author’s writing, and her insights into the mind of a young girl growing up in unimaginably restricted circumstances are such that I found myself captivated.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
This book is probably what most people think of when they think of young adult dystopian fiction. Its central idea is devastatingly simple – horrific and brutal, but Collins makes it feel close and plausible by drawing in elements from our own world of reality TV and celebrity. Collins balances external tension, internal conflict, and emotion with ease and skill, creating a book that has as much to offer adult readers as it does its younger target audience.
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
This is probably one of Wyndham’s lesser known novels but it is well worth a read. It deals with issues of religion and intolerance, and explores what it is like to be different within a society that tolerates no diversion from the norm. It is set in a world which has endured some sort of global disaster, probably a nuclear war, but it focuses on a very small, claustrophobic community, in which it is almost impossible to keep any sort of secret for long.
Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
This is another book which almost didn’t make it onto this list. I couldn’t quite decide whether it should have the dystopian label or the post-apocalyptic label. The truth is that it could fit into either category, since the author weaves together two different timeframes – a present-day storyline in which the world has just been struck by a deadly strain of flu, and the story of a travelling theatre company trying to make their way in the fragmented society that has emerged some years after the disaster. The author paints a credible picture of a future in which society has broken down into small, scattered communities, all trying to build their own version of the new world.
Anne Corlett has an MA in Creative Writing from Bath Spa University and has won a number of awards for her short stories, including the H. E. Bates Award. She works as a criminal solicitor and freelance writer, and lives with her partner and three young boys in Somerset. The Space Between The Stars is her first novel.