What to Read When You Want to See a World More F**ked up Than Ours

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We’re currently living in a world where actual Nazi parades—flags, salutes, literal torches—are happening, and I sometimes feel frivolous turning to fiction. But at the same time, fiction often offers a mirror to see our own times more clearly.

So here are reading suggestions for these fucked-up times: worlds more—or, okay, just differently—fucked up than ours. It’s not a coincidence that all the books below are written by women and/or people of color: after all, ask most women and people of color and they’ll tell you that the hate being espoused in recent marches has been with us all along. One of the things dystopian literature can do is to show us more clearly who we are and what we’re afraid of. Hopefully, it will also offer a lens to figure out what to do next.

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California by Edan Lepucki
Lepucki’s debut is a powerful look at how love and hope might evolve—and survive—in a barren world.

 

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
One of the best books of the young century, Mandel explores not only how quickly society might collapse, but also how art might help keep human connection alive.

 

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
If you don’t know Butler’s work, this is a great time to discover it. A black woman working in the field of science fiction, she was on the periphery in many ways, and her perspective allowed her to create brilliant work that’s eerily prescient today.

 

Dietland by Sarai Walker
The idea that white men’s needs are paramount fuels misogyny as well as racism. Walker’s debut novel is a delightful revenge fantasy in which women strike back against the expectations of—and violence visited on—their bodies.

 

American War by Omar El Akkad
Omar El Akkad is a war reporter, and he draws on that experience to explore what could happen if we fail to learn from our own history. All the things we associate with “other” places—civil war, refugee camps, radicalized teens—come home to the US in this terrifying vision of the future.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Whitehead’s novel technically takes place during the Civil War, but one of its genius qualities is that it gives a cross-section of the many atrocities visited on African Americans throughout the centuries. It’s impossible to read it and not see the parallels.

 

We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
This isn’t technically a dystopia, but the social experiment at the heart of Greenidge’s novel calls the horrifying Tuskegee Institute to mind—and this smart book asks us to look honestly at how sneaky and pervasive racism in our country can be.

 

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s novel is experiencing a renaissance of sorts, and that’s because it’s as relevant today as when it was published over thirty years ago. Like the bigotry now bubbling to the surface in America, this novel never really went away: some of us just stopped thinking about it, but now it’s harder and harder to ignore its truth.


Celeste grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Shaker Heights, Ohio. She attended Harvard University and earned an MFA from the University of Michigan. Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, won the Massachusetts Book Award, the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature, and the ALA’s Alex Award. She is a 2016 NEA fellow, and she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Her second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, was published by Penguin Press on September 12, 2017. More from this author →