What is it we love so much about dystopian fiction? You know, the kind of book in which everything in the world has gone to hell thanks to a virus/zombie plague/unexplained environmental catastrophe. It’s great stuff, but also potentially bleak, so why do we flock to it in unseemly numbers?

YA fiction is littered with dystopian novels (think Charlie Higson’s The Enemy series, Veronica Roth’s Divergent books, Michael Grant’s Gone series and obviously The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins). In one sense it’s easy to figure out why it’s so popular in YA fiction: it’s a convenient literary device that rids the teenage protagonists of all adult interference. Enid Blyton did the same thing in her Famous Five books – only her adults were just inexplicably absent, not, you know, dead. But the effect is the same: there are no parents to mess with the kids and what they want to do. Except in the Charlie Higson books where the flesh-eating zombie adults just want to munch their lower intestines. That could be considered interfering. But even then that’s great because the kids get to belt mum and dad’s heads in with a blunt instrument – a great literary release for all that teenage angst.

But what about us crusty old grown-ups? What’s in it for us? I’ve always loved dystopian fiction, ever since they made us read The Day of the Triffids in high school. I loved the idea that the world was thrown on its head and nothing would ever be the same. It was terrifying and exciting at the same time.

Of course, when we’re reading dystopian fiction we never imagine ourselves one of the countless dead. Usually, we assume we’d be right there with the good guys, fighting to survive, helping strangers, slaughtering the armies of the undead. It helps us to imagine ourselves stepping outside of our own lives which can be routine at times (taking out the bins, putting another load of washing on the line, commuting to work). Dystopian fiction takes ordinary people and forces them to do extraordinary things to survive. And we’re right there with them. We assume we’d have the courage to be the hero and at the same time we empathise with the cowardy custard who just curls up and cries (because deep down we suspect that’s what we’d do, too. Well, I do).

But, I think it’s not just the thrill that sucks us in. I suspect that maybe a large part of the point is that it helps us to have perspective. I mean, if we’re not being overrun by zombie hordes, fighting off a plague of vampire creatures or dragging our one surviving child through a blackened wasteland, then our life in comparison can’t be that bad, right? Somehow, in the face of all that mayhem and loss, the washing, the commute and the cat litter trays, don’t seem so terrible. Well, actually the cat litter trays still seems pretty bad – on par with a nuclear apocalypse I’d say.

So there you have it, dystopian fiction has it all really – thrills, chills and a philosophical shot in the arm. Just about the only thing it doesn’t often give you is a happy ending. But then, when you get to kill zombies, who cares?


  • The Twelve by Justin Cronin (best vampire book ever. I’m not really a fan of vamp fiction but this is like nothing you’ve ever read before)
  • The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham (the whole world goes blind and at the same time there’s an outbreak of mobile, flesh-eating plants? Brilliant!)
  • The Stand by Stephen King (Mr King does like a tale of who’s been naughty and nice. And the naughty ones in this book are real, real naughty.)
  • World War Z by Max Brooks (way, way better than the movie – don’t get me wrong I love a good disaster flick, but in this case the book is a whole lot more clever and complex than the movie could ever be. Fun fact: If you didn’t know, Max Brooks is the son on the late comedian Mel Brooks).
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (Ms Atwood wrote this in the early 80s when far right Christian conservatism was first making inroads into US politics. Let’s hope it’s not prophetic.)

Do you read dystopian fiction? Got any you think everyone has to know about?