LJ Best Books 2016

A jury of our peers discussed, debated, disagreed, and finally declared LJ’s annual Top Ten Best Books of the year, selected by our editors, as well as Top Five lists for genre fiction, nonfiction, poetry, graphic novels, and SELF-e titles. VISIT THE WEBSITE

What To Read (and Watch) After “1984”

George Orwell’s 1984 recently shot up to number one on Amazon and iBooks. With its themes on governmental lying (the ironically named Ministry of Truth), the manipulation of language and media (“doublespeak”), the oppressive use of technology in service of totalitarianism (“telescreens”), and the ever-present threat of state-sanctioned violence against citizens (“Big Brother Is Watching”), many readers are turning to this classic dystopia, first published in 1949, to gain perspective or reflect upon the current social and political climate.

The following list features books—including other classic (and chilling) visions of a dystopic future, contemporary fiction, nonfiction works on political philosophy, history, and media criticism, and titles for kids and teens—as well as films and TV shows ideal for the readers who have finished Orwell’s work and are looking for more on similar themes.

This list was compiled by several of the LJ editors, with additional suggestions crowdsourced from librarians via social media. Have your own favorite Orwellian read-alike? Please share it below in the comments section.

Dystopia & Alt-History

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. 1985.

A totalitarian, extreme Christian theocracy overthrows the U.S. government, and women’s rights The Handmaid's Taleare obliterated.

Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. 2003.

In a postapocalyptic wasteland, Snowman tends the Crakers, an odd group of humanlike creatures, while looking back on the years that led up to the devastating event that killed off the rest of humanity and reflecting on his own unwitting role in the destruction.

Bradbury, Ray. Fahrenheit 451.1953.

Conceiving of a world where possessing books is a crime and where firemen burn the belongings of those who read, Bradbury follows a fireman who defies the rules when he picks up a book one day.

Brooks, Max. World War Z. 2006.

Through a series of interviews, characters describe the zombie apocalypse, offering a glimpse into the governmental corruption and ineptitude that stymied efforts at control and containment.

Brown, Pierce. Red Rising. 2014.

In a distant future, humankind has colonized other planets and enforced a strict hierarchy based on color. A lowly Red disguises himself as a Gold in order to infiltrate the ruling class and bring it down.

Brunner, John. The Shockwave Rider. 1975.

A high-tech future in which economic turmoil and natural disasters fragment society along ethnic, religious, and class lines. Data is king, and those with access wield the most power.

Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. 1967.

Satan goes to Moscow.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. 1962

In a world where criminals gleefully run wild, a juvenile delinquent is subjected to psychological conditioning to eradicate his antisocial impulses. Burgess poses thought-provoking questions on the nature of humanity.

Parable of the SowerButler, Octavia E. The Parable of the Sower. 1993.

Economic and environmental ruin lead to governmental and social collapse. A new president promises to “Make America Great Again.”

Crace, Jim. The Pesthouse. 2008.

In a crumbling and chaotic United States, the only hope for the remaining survivors is to book passage aboard a ship bound for Europe.

DeLillo, Don. Underworld. 1997.

Starting with both baseball and the atomic bomb, DeLillo presents a rich, sprawling narrative on America’s history and future.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. 1954.

When a group of English schoolboys are stranded on an island, they initially work together to be rescued, but eventually destructive impulses tear them apart.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. 1961.

This satirical look at U.S Army soldiers during World War II exposes the absurdity of bureaucracy, using humor to examine the utter horror that results when power is placed into the hands of the ignorant.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. 1932.

Huxley draws back the curtain on what initially appears to be a utopia, revealing a society soothed into a state of ignorant bliss.

Ishiguro, Kazuo. Never Let Me Go. 2005.

As Kathy looks back on her time at Hailsham, readers eventually learn the purpose of this strange boarding school and, with dawning horror, begin to ponder the implications of a society that could conceive of such an institution.

Jackson, Shirley. The Lottery. 1948

Inspiring one of the most famous scenes of The Hunger Games, Jackson’s now legendary short story uses spare prose to present a haunting look at the role of ritual in society.

James, P.D. The Children of Men. 1992.The Children of Men

Mystery writer James creates a world plagued by mass infertility, where the declining population has led to an authoritarian government, with the rights of immigrants, convicts, and the elderly severely curtailed.

Kafka, Franz. The Trial. 1925.

Kafka’s critique of totalitarianism centers on a man arrested for a crime (whose nature is never revealed to readers) whose attempts to vindicate himself clash with a bizarre, even paradoxical, legal system.

King, Stephen. The Long Walk. 1979.

Set in a dystopian world ruled by a totalitarian government, this spare novella centers on a game in which 100 teenage boys take part in a brutal race, with only one survivor.

King, Stephen. The Running Man. 1982.

In a terrifyingly bleak future, the poor and desperate are lured into participating in violent reality TV programs.

Lee, Chang-Rae. On Such a Full Sea. 2014.

In a decayed American landscape, tightly controlled cities are walled off and organized into labor colonies. A young woman goes in search of her lost love.

Le Guin, Ursula K. The Lathe of Heaven. 1971.

A man in Portland, OR, has the ability to change reality with his dreams. But each attempt to better the world results in unintended consequences and may rip apart reality itself.

It Can’t Happen HereLewis, Sinclair. It Can’t Happen Here. 1935.

Written during the Great Depression and before Americans became conscious of Hitler’s rise to power, this is a chilling vision of how fascism could envelop U.S. democracy.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road. 2006.

A father and son journey across a perilous postapocalyptic America.

Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven. 2014.

After a flu pandemic devastates the world population, a band of actors continue to tour the Midwest, finding their humanity in performance.

 

Miéville, China. The City & the City. 2009.

In this surreal police procedural, a shared geographical space is divided into two separate cities and residents are trained to “unsee” and ignore reality under threat of a secret governmental power known as The Breach.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. 1945.

This allegory featuring barnyard animals satirizes Stalin’s rise to power and the brutal realities of dictatorship.

Rich, Frederic C. Christian Nation. 2013.

Sarah Palin is president, and the Christian right takes control of the government as constitutional boundaries are eroded.

Roth, Philip. The Plot Against America. 2004.The Plot Against America

In an alternate reality where Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940, a Jewish American family looks ahead to a frightening future.

Shakespeare, William. The Tempest. 1623.

One of the Bard’s most famous tragicomic plays, from which Aldous Huxley derived the title for his American dystopia and, scholars contend, borrowed themes on authoritarianism.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver’s Travels. 1726.

Master satirist Swift details the journeys of Lemuel Gulliver, in the process delivering sharp and scathing parody of government and the nature of man.

Takami, Koushun. Battle Royale. 1999.

In order to keep the population in an obedient state of fear, every year, the authoritarian Japanese government randomly selects high school students to take part in a battle against their fellow classmates to the death, with only one survivor.

Thompson, Rupert. Divided Kingdom. 2005.

The UK is divided into four distinct regions based on personality type, and citizens are “rearranged” into their corresponding type.

WeVonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five. 1969.

Through the experiences of the time-traveling Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut presents one of the greatest, most original antiwar novels.

Zamyatin, Yevgeny. We. 1924.

In a future dystopian city run by “the Benefactor” and surrounded by a giant Green Wall, citizens are referred to by numerals, emotion is outlawed, and privacy is nonexistent.

 

Power & Politics

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. 1951.

An erudite analysis of the rise of Nazism and Stalinism.

Chomsky, Noam. Who Rules the World? 2016.The Origins of Totalitarianism

Chomsky casts a shrewd eye on the arena of international politics, asserting that the United States is wreaking havoc on the rest of the world.

Daley, David. Ratf**ked : The True Story Behind the Secret Plan To Steal America’s Democracy. 2016.

Following Barack Obama’s 2008 win, many assumed that the Republican party would never recover from the loss. Daley details how several Republicans used underhanded tricks to regain power.

Hayes, Chris. Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. 2012.

MSNBC’s Hayes explores the competing forces wreaking havoc on America’s economy, media, and environment.

Jones, Owen. The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It. 2014.

A glimpse into the powerful elites who threaten democracy in the UK.

Winter Is Coming- Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be StoppedKasparov, Garry. Winter Is Coming: Why Vladimir Putin and the Enemies of the Free World Must Be Stopped. 2015.

An outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, Kasparov examines how Russia has become a dictatorship and how the West has been complicit.

The Politics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. 2013.

Covering the philosophies of great thinkers, from Confucius to Mary Wollstonecraft to Nelson Mandela, DK presents a zippy, visually enticing look at political thought throughout the ages.

Prins, Nomi. All the Presidents’ Bankers: The Hidden Alliances That Drive American Power. 2014.

Prins exposes the link between Wall Street and the White House—and the economic and political ramifications.

Stephens, Bret. America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. 2014.

As America withdraws from foreign diplomacy, enemies see opportunities.

 

History

Arendt, Hannah. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. 1963.

Arendt, a Jew who escaped Nazi Germany, details the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the SS-Obersturmbannführer and one of the main architects of the Holocaust who claimed he was just “following orders.” See also: Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961).

Larson, Erik. In the Garden of Beasts. 2011.

The author of Devil in the White City tells the true tale of William E. Dodd, the U.S. ambassador to Germany who watched and recorded the development of the Third Reich.

Mayer, Jane. Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the A People’s History of the United StatesRadical Right. 2016.

Mayer painstakingly explores the goals and inner workings of organizations such as Americans for Prosperity, the rise of the Tea Party, and the Citizens United court decision.

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. 1960.

A detailed analysis of how the Nazi Party came to power in Germany; important, unforgettable reading.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. 1980.

Zinn argues that the history that most children are taught in school is mere propaganda, instead asserting that America’s rise as a nation was predicated on the exploitation and oppression of Native Americans, African Americans, women, immigrants, and the lower classes.

 

Media Criticism

Chomsky, Noam. Media Control: The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. 1997.

“Propaganda is to democracy as the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state,” argues Chomsky in this examination of how mass media and PR have been used to manipulate public support.

Amusing Ourselves to Death- Public Discourse in the Age of Show BusinessHedges, Chris. Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle. 2009.

An analysis of the “two societies” into which American culture has splintered: one that can separate truth from lies and one that cannot.

Herman, Edward S. & Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. 1988.

Using what they call the “Propaganda Model,” Herman and Chomsky assert that what we see in the media is distorted by both government and corporations.

Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. 1985.

Arguing that our society resembles more the world of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World than that of George Orwell’s 1984—a society dulled into submission through entertainment rather than through force—Postman examines how everything, from politics to religion to journalism, is presented through the lens of entertainment.

 

Government Surveillance

Greenwald, Glenn. No Place To Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State. 2014.

Greenwald chronicles his 2013 meetings with Edward Snowden, the NSA contractor with evidence of government spying.

Reeves, Joshua. Citizen Spies: The Long Rise of America’s Surveillance Society. Mar. Citizen Spies- The Long Rise of America's Surveillance Society2017.

“If You See Something, Say Something” may have deeper—and more sinister—roots than previously imagined.

Scheer, Robert. They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and Snooping Government Agencies Are Destroying Democracy. 2015.

“Welcome to the brave new world—a wired panopticon that even Huxley couldn’t have imagined,” Scheer bleakly intones, revealing how the government has eroded our personal freedom in the name of security.

Soldatov, Andrei & Irina Borogan. The Red Web: The Struggle Between Russia’s Digital Dictators and the New Online Revolutionaries. 2015.

Two Russian journalists document the “monumental battle for the future of the Internet.”

 

Facts & Language

Denying to the Grave- Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us.Gorman, Sara E. & Jack M. Gorman. Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us. 2016.

Though science-based evidence for many issues is overwhelming, many refuse to see the facts; the Gormans explain the psychology of just why some people make seemingly irrational decisions such as deciding against vaccination.

Thompson, Mark. Enough Said: What’s Gone Wrong with the Language of Politics? 2016.

The President and CEO of The New York Times Company argues that the rising tide of distrust in traditional politicians—and the glorification of political outsiders—is a result of the erosion of language and its meaning.

 

Uprisings & Resistance

Coleman, Gabriella. Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous. 2015.

Coleman, who has been close to the key players within the worldwide and shadowy movement Necessary Trouble- Americans in Revoltknown as Anonymous, gives readers an intimate peek at the digital activists who participated in Wikileaks, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street.

Jaffe, Sarah. Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt. 2016.

Asserting that the 2008 financial crisis was responsible for a variety of political movements, Jaffe covers everything from the Tea Party to Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street.

 

Films/TV

Animal Farm (John Halas & Joy Batchelor, 1954)

An animated version of Orwell’s 1945 allegory. It ain’t no Charlotte’s Web.

Arrival (Denis Villeneuve, 2016)

A linguist is called in to communicate with an extraterrestrial being, but human greed and fear may jeopardize the mission and bring the world to the brink of war. It has a 94 percent rating onbrazil-523e36697dd3b Rotten Tomatoes.

Brazil (Terry Gilliam, 1985)

Though it didn’t make box office waves in the United States when it debuted, Gilliam’s darkly humorous satire about a highly bureaucratic and technology-obsessed society has since become a cult classic. Starring Jonathan Pryce and Robert De Niro. It has a 98 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Children of Men (Alfonso Cuarón, 2006)

In a future where women have mysteriously become infertile, the discovery of a lone pregnant woman rekindles hope for humanity. Starring Clive Owen, Michael Caine, and Julianne Moore.

A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)

One of the most controversial films of all time. An “ultraviolent” thug, after getting arrested, agrees to an experimental aversion therapy developed by the government—it doesn’t go as planned.

Equilibrium (Kurt Wimmer, 2002)

In a bleak future in which the government outlaws emotion and forces its citizenry to ingest a soul-deadening pharmaceutical, Christian Bale’s John Preston misses his dose and opens his mind. More style than substance, this is still an entertaining sf thriller.

Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1966)

Different from Ray Bradbury’s novel of the same name in some key areas, including the ending, this film got mixed reviews when it came out but has seen more positive critical reception as it has aged. Starring Julie Christie.

Gattica (Andrew Niccol, 1997)

In a world where parents genetically modify their kids to be perfect, Vincent Freeman, who was born outside of the eugenics program, struggles against genetic discrimination in order to achieve his dream of traveling into space.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Volker Schlondorff, 1990)

Despite the impressive cast (Natasha Richardson, Robert Duvall, Faye Dunaway, Aidan Quinn), this 1990s HBO production saw dismal reviews. Still, a new TV adaptation coming to Hulu this April, starring Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes, and Alexis Bledel, looks promising.

The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

An adaptation of the wildly popular YA book by Suzanne Collins, starring Jennifer Lawrence.

Idiocracy (Mike Judge, 2006)

A scathing satirical film in which two people who take part in a hibernation experiment wake up 500 years later to find America is run by an anti-intellectual, commercialized society with no notions of common decency or morality.

I, Robot (Alex Proyas, 2004)

Loosely based on the short story by Isaac Asimov. Robots threaten to make humanity extinct by attempting to strip individual humans of their free will. Those pesky robots.

Man in the High Castle

Image from The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Prime).

The Man in the High Castle (Amazon Original Series, 2015)

Based on a short story by Philip K. Dick. America has lost World War II, Germany and Japan have split the country down the middle, and a small band of resistance fighters attempt to rewrite history after finding a series of propaganda tapes that show a vastly different time line of the war.

Minority Report (Steven Spielberg, 2002)

Three psychics can predict murders in 2057 Washington’s “PreCrime” unit, virtually eliminating violent crime. When the PreCrime “precogs” predict that Captain John Anderton (Tom Cruise) is going to kill a man he doesn’t know, he becomes a fugitive on the run.

Never Let Me Go (Mark Romanek, 2010)

Adapted from Kazuo Ishiguro’s best-selling novel, this is an atypical sf film, with leisurely pacing and a focus on characterization over action.

1984 (Michael Radford, 1984)

This adaptation of George Orwell’s book features John Hurt and Richard Burton. Though the film is not nearly as chilling as its source material, the moody lighting and drab set pieces give it an appropriately oppressive visual atmosphere. It has an 81 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Okkupert (English title: Occupied). (TV2, 2015)

A Norwegian television series created by Jo Nesbø, set in a near future in which the United States withdraws from NATO, Russia occupies Norway, and Europe experiences an energy crisis. Available on Netflix.    

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Gareth Edwards, 2016)

A young woman joins the resistance to help destroy the Death Star plans.

Soylent Green (Richard Fleischer, 1973)

In a future world devastated by environmental collapse, those who are left survive on Soylent Green rations.

Star Wars, Episodes IV–VI (George Lucas, 1977–83)

A small band—the Rebel Alliance—goes toe-to-toe with the evil Empire in order to prevent the takeover of the galaxy. One of the greatest stories of good vs. evil of all time, but you knew that already, right?

They Live

Image from They Live (Universal Studios)

They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)

“Rowdy” Roddy Piper plays a tough-talking construction worker who finds a pair of sunglasses that reveal the true—and deeply unsettling—faces beneath the facade of the ruling elites who control the populace through subliminal messages to “OBEY,” “CONSUME,” “CONFORM,” and “BUY.”

THX 1138 (George Lucas, 1971)

This is George Lucas’s directorial debut, starring Robert Duvall and Donald Pleasence. In a world where sexual desire is illegal, robotic police enforce the mandatory human consumption of a drug that suppresses emotion.

The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998)

Jim Carrey is the fool in a reality TV paradise. Prophetic in its depiction of the artifice of media and the ease with which humans participate in their own deception.

V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2006)

The mysterious V, an anarchist trying to overthrow the fascist government of the United Kingdom, completes a series of terrorist attacks in order to start a revolution. Based on the graphic novels by Alan Moore, and starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman.

 

For Kids & Teens

Anderson, M.T. Feed. 2002.

In the near future, everyone has a feed implanted directly in their brain that enables access toFeed the Internet, instantaneous chat function with others, and a nonstop barrage of targeted advertising. A biting satire and commentary on the erosion of privacy and individual choice in the face of technology.

Barnhill, Kelly. The Girl Who Drank the Moon. 2016.

This Newbery Medal–winning middle grade fantasy follows the coming-of-age of a young girl with incredible powers, raised by a benevolent witch and a swamp monster, who must save those she loves from the formidable rulers who seek to mollify the villagers through deception and fear.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. 2008.

The YA dystopian novel that launched the genre, this story is set in a bleak world where teenagers are forced to fight to the death before a live televised audience.  

Deedy, Carmen Agra. The Rooster Who Would Not Be Quiet. 2017.

A despotic mayor outlaws singing in his town, but despite the decrees, one loud rooster persists. This cheerfully illustrated picture book folds in a subtle yet subversive message about standing up in the face of injustice.

Doctorow, Cory. Little Brother. 2008.Little Brother

When a major terrorist attack hits San Francisco, a group of teens, including skilled hacker Marcus, battle against the Department of Homeland Security’s totalitarian actions and assault on constitutional rights.

Dr Seuss. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories. 1950.

Three tales from Seuss (including one on his famous power-hungry turtle) that take sly aim at the greedy, corrupt, and vain.

Floreen, Tim. Willful Machines. 2015.

Lee, son of the ultraconservative U.S. president, keeps his gay identity a secret until a nefarious artificial intelligence called Charlotte begins terrorizing the citizenry.

Gidwitz, Adam. The Inquisitor’s Tale. 2016.

In 1242 France, the paths of a Muslim-born oblate, a Jewish boy, and a gifted peasant girl collide as they run for their lives and fight to save precious holy texts from the fires of the Inquisition.

Glory-OBriens-History-of-the-FutureKing, A.S. Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future. 2014.

In this work of magical realism, Glory O’Brien gains the ability to see the past and future of those around her and soon fears that a truly disturbing era, in which the rights of women and girls are severely curtailed, lies ahead.

Lowry, Lois. The Giver. 1993.

In this classic work of children’s literature, 12-year-old Jonas comes to realize that the harmony and bliss of his so-called perfect society has come at a horrifying cost.

O’Neill, Louise. Only Ever Yours. 2014.

Reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale, this YA novel takes place in a future society in which baby girls are bred, not born, and trained to become “companions” whose main purpose is to breed sons.

Shusterman, Neal. Scythe. 2016.

In a very distant future, a benevolent artificial intelligence runs all human andScythe governmental affairs, eliminating war, poverty, and even death. The only problem is overpopulation. Enter the Scythes.

Shusterman, Neal. Unwind. 2007.

After the United States experiences a second Civil War and abortion is outlawed, parents reserve the right to “unwind” children between the ages of 13 and 18 (their body parts are harvested for transplants).

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Comments

  1. Liz French Liz French says:

    Great list! I would add Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel MAUS, Pat Frank’s 1959 classic ALAS, BABYLON, & Neville Shute’s ON THE BEACH (1957).

  2. dodge says:

    Fantastic List. I would also add Ayn Rand’s 1957 classic ATLAS SHRUGGED

  3. E. Cook says:

    Two Stephen King works are mentioned but you forgot to include The Stand, which is really worthy of being on this list.

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