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Crossing Over Into the Brave New World of Adult Dystopian Fiction

Dystopian fiction. It’s everywhere — filling the local bookstore’s window displays, crowding the public library shelves, and invading Hollywood with an onslaught of recent novel-to-film adaptations. And as an avid reader and recommender of young adult literature, I’ve noticed a few distinct reactions to this particular trend among my fellow YA fiction fans. I like to divide these responses into three categories:

  1. Resource Exhaustion: “I’ve read everything from The Hunger Games to Wither and the new Veronica Roth book isn’t out yet. What do I read now?!”
  2. Rebellion: “I’ve never found dystopian stories interesting, and popular trends are not going to change my mind!”
  3. Disillusionment: “I like dystopian fiction but I feel like it’s getting a bit repetitive. I mean, once you’ve read a few, haven’t you read them all?”

Now, I’ve experienced all of these reactions over the last couple years, but luckily dystopian fiction hasn’t just been growing in the world of young adult lit. There have been exciting dystopian tales appearing on adult fiction shelves that are as thrilling and thought-provoking as their young adult counterparts. So whether readers are suffering from futuristic fiction fatigue or are desperate for a fresh fix of dystopian adventure, one of these titles is sure to please.

when she woke hillary jordan coverWhen She Woke by Hillary Jordan (2012 Amelia Bloomer List)
Fans of reimagined classics or imaginative explorations of religion, sexuality, and gender should pick up this Scarlet Letter-inspired dystopian tale. The story focuses on Hannah Payne, a former obedient daughter and church member who has been found guilty of abortion in a future America where the lines between church and state have all but disappeared. She has been sentenced to sixteen years as a Red, her skin biologically dyed bright scarlet, marking her a convicted murderer in the eyes of the public. Rejected by her family and thrown back into a hostile society, Hannah wrestles with her past choices and struggles to survive in her frightening new reality. Exploring the same themes charted by Hawthorne through the powerful story of one woman’s personal awakening, Jordan crafts an exciting and haunting vision of the future.

PurePure by Juliana Baggott (2013 Alex Award winner)
Readers on the hunt for a fresh take on the post-apocalyptic trilogy need look no further than Pure, the first in a thrilling new series. Fighting to survive in a nightmarish world of mutations and ash, Pressia treasures memories of life before the Detonations. Dwelling in the protective Dome, Partridge knows his memories of his mother hold critical secrets. He escapes the Dome determined to find her — and runs into Pressia. Bound together by necessity, Pressia and Patridge soon find that their pasts and futures are inexorably intertwined with each other — and with the truth behind their horrific present. From the terrifyingly vivid and stark imagery to the constant plot twists and turns, Pure grab readers by the throat and refuses to let go — forcing them to track down the second book, Fuse, as soon as possible.

office of mercy ariel djanikian coverThe Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian
This next mind-bending adventure also features a divided, post-apocalyptic America. Natasha Wiley loves her job in the Office of Mercy; she helps America-Five accomplish its lofty goals while getting a peek at the world outside their underground utopia. When her mentor, Jeffrey, offers her a place on a special team to explore the Outside, Natasha is thrilled. But the mission reveals secrets about America-Five that will challenge Natasha’s commitments to the society and the people she loves and push her to make a choice that will alter their world irrevocably. Pulling together classic dystopian elements in a fresh whole, Djanikian examines the potential price for humanity’s constant quest for a life without suffering or death.

never let me go kazuo ishiguro coverNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (2009 Outstanding Books for the College Bound selection, 2006 Alex Award winner)
This last title also investigates the search for immortality — in a disturbingly familiar setting. Kathy spent her childhood at Hailsham, a private school nestled in the middle of the English countryside. However, Kathy and her classmates were sheltered and nurtured for a purpose far beyond university acceptance or a steady income. Now, years later, Kathy has resisted connections with Hailsham — until her old friends Ruth and Tommy reenter her life and force Kathy to face the truth about their shared past — and future. Award-winning novelist Ishiguro takes a deceptively simple trope of British literature and turns it on its head to create an emotionally resonant and chilling look at the implications for some of our most controversial medical advancements.

Readers of many ages and interests will find these titles compelling and complex. YA lit fans will also notice that these novels do not flinch away from exploring the darkest corners of their imagined futures; the stories can be disquieting and disturbing — they are not for the faint of heart. Additionally, many of the protagonists are no longer teenagers and their experiences reflect their age.

In trends like the dystopian fiction boom, there’s always a danger of quantity outweighing quality. But the combination of adventure, mystery, ethical quandaries, and human drama necessary for a good dystopian novel produces some excellent fiction. It’s a subgenre suited to both coming-of-age stories and explorations of highly topical issues. Accordingly, dystopian fiction’s appeal crosses age and publishing markets. After all, aren’t we all curious about the frightening possibilities the future might hold?

How are you feeling about the unflagging appeal of dystopian fiction? What are some of your favorite adult dystopian crossovers?

— Kelly Dickinson, currently reading City of a Thousand Dolls by Miriam Forster

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I am a librarian at an independent girls' school in the DC-Metro area. I am a compulsive baker, book addict, and genre fiction fan with passion for social justice. Find me on Twitter as @onesmartcupcake.


  1. I love dystopian books! The concepts some author’s come up with is so fascinating. Also, when you discover the history of how things came to be how they are. I will admit some things are used over and over again but that happens in almost every genre, or I guess dystopian is more a theme. Sadly not every book is a winner.

    I haven’t read many adult fiction dystopian books but I will for sure add these to my list of books to read!

  2. Diane Colson Diane Colson

    The Pure Trilogy by Julianna Baggott is popular with teens. In a post-apocalyptic world that has been seared by the Detonation, an atomic-like blast that’s left survivors are forever welded to whatever they were touching. For example, one of the main characters, a girl named Pressia, has a doll’s head in place of one hand. The portrayal of the world’s devastation is grotesque and imaginative, quite a tour de force for fans of dystopian lit. In contrast to the horrors of the outside world, “Pures” live within a Dome environment. This setting is similar to other rigidly ordered societies. The “pures” do not realized that they have traded their individuality for superior, no-flaw physiques, making them tools of the Evil-Genius-Behind-Everything. When these two worlds collide, through the meeting of a boy and a girl, a whole lot of secrets and intrigue and romance all ignite.

  3. Susan Schab Susan Schab

    The Wool series by Hugh Howey is very good. Originally written as ebooks in a serial format, they have developed a huge following. A unique story with wide appeal.

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