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Image / Living / Culture

4 brilliant dystopian novels you absolutely must read

by Jennifer McShane
19th Oct 2020

Our next chapter is unknown and scary, so many have been using the term dystopia as a way to process the real-life reality of the world right now. And yet, there can be much comfort taken in the power of stories and words. We have chosen four brilliant, must-read feminist dystopian novels to get engrossed in.

Related: IMAGE Review: The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Never Let Me Go


Never Let Me Go is set in a dystopian world in which human clones are created so that they can donate their organs as young adults. The novel follows the life story of Kathy, a clone who is raised at a boarding school for future ‘donors’ and her relationship with her two best friends Ruth and Tommy. To say much more would give away the narrative of this extraordinary novel but it very much echoes Ishiguro’s famous The Remains of the Day.

Much has been said about the books sombre message but its powerful underlying ideas of hope serve as a reminder of why we shouldn’t wait for the best moments of life to pass us by. If you see happiness within your grasp, grab it, before it slips away. Oh, and skip the film adaptation for it won’t move you as the novel will.

The Power


Could you imagine a world where gender stereotyping was flipped on its head? A world where women were the persons who totally run the show? This is the concept that author Naomi Alderman explores in her intriguing novel The Power. Alderman worked with – and was mentored by – the great Margaret Atwood a year before this release and it shows. Like Atwood, she has created a unique dystopia; a universe in which teenage girls discover they develop a ‘skein’ – a muscle in their chest which then means have the ability to electrocute men at will – and they use it to their advantage; suddenly they are physically stronger than men.

There are many role reversals throughout the novel, but what jumps out is that even the secretaries are male, and referred to only as he for the most part. It’s not meant to be sexist or derogatory; it’s just the way it’s always been? or has it? This story is a fascinating look at what the world might be like if sexism went the other way. It will unnerve you, stay with you and after winning the esteemed Baileys Prize for Women’s Fiction, will become a classic.

Only Ever Yours


Louise O’Neill’s hugely powerful Asking For It and Almost Love are among her best but I always return to Only Ever Yours. This is a gripping Young Adult novel which looks at how society’s attitudes towards young women today might pan out in a dystopian future. We follow best friends Freida and Isabel as they venture into their 16th year where selection as a companion for a male is a growing concern – the alternative is too harrowing to contemplate. It’s a compelling, beautiful read from a brilliant writer.

The Passion of New Eve


Be warned: Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve is far from an easy read. Our dystopia takes place in the United States where civil war has broken out between different political, racial and gendered groups. Our narrator, Evelyn, a male, is at first, a hateful figure. He uses and abuses women for his own sexual gratification, never forming emotional attachments and abandoning them in their hour of need so, when he is captured by a group of tribeswomen, it’s hard to feel any sympathy; he does, you believe, have it coming.

However, when the tribes Mother Goddess performs a sex change operation on him (against his will), the tone of the narrative changes completely and the reader is forced to look at everything differently. It’s a dark and often brutal read, yet it is so so powerful. If you are brave enough to take it on, the glimmers of hope throughout will make the journey worth it.

Main photograph: Unsplash

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