15 timeless observations from history’s greatest dystopian novels

The dystopian novel has a long, dark and intriguing history. Kicking off in 1726 with Jonathan Swift’s rip-roaring satire Gulliver’s Travels, it’s gone through numerous transformations in the last three centuries. One thing all these books share, though, is that they make us think long and hard about the societies we live in.

Evolving not simply as a response to fictional utopian concerns, but also as a response to the prevalent or ominous ideals and politics of the writer’s time, the dystopian novel tends to use its make-believe guise as a front to critique the ideologies under which they’ve been forged. However, they also include enduring wisdom, which can be just as relevant to contemporary readers. To show just how relevant, we’ve unearthed 15 timeless insights from 15 of history’s greatest dystopias.


“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

1984 — George Orwell

“Stuff your eyes with wonder, he said, live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories.” 

Fahrenheit 451 — Ray Bradbury

“You cannot buy the revolution. You cannot make the revolution. You can only be the revolution. It is in your spirit, or it is nowhere.”

 The Dispossessed — Ursula K. Le Guin

“It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.”

The Trial Franz Kafka,

“Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no need of change.”

The Time Machine — H.G. Wells

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly — they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”

Brave New World — Aldous Huxley

“To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”

A Canticle for Leibowitz — Walter M. Miller Jr.

“Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.”

The Handmaid’s Tale — Margaret Atwood

“The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.”

Neuromancer— William Gibson

“You will be required to do wrong no matter where you go. It is the basic condition of life, to be required to violate your own identity. At some time, every creature which lives must do so. It is the ultimate shadow, the defeat of creation; this is the curse at work, the curse that feeds on all life. Everywhere in the universe.” 

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? — Philip K. Dick

“A man is like a novel: until the very last page you don’t know how it will end. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth reading.”

We — Yevgeny Zamyatin

“There is no God and we are his prophets.”

The Road — Cormac McCarthy


“The essential quality of life is living’ the essential quality of living is change; change is evolution; and we are part of it.

The Chrysalids — John Wyndham

“Americans… are forever searching for love in forms it never takes, in places it can never be. It must have something to do with the vanished frontier.”

Cat’s Cradle — Kurt Vonnegut

“When a man cannot choose, he ceases to be a man.”

A Clockwork Orange— Anthony Burgess

Image credit: Dylan Glynn

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bestshortstorywritersJoel Willans is a prize-winning copywriter, the founder of Ink Tank and author of the short story collection, SPELLBOUND: Stories of Women’s Magic over Men. His prize-winning fiction has been broadcast on BBC radio and published in dozens of magazines and anthologies worldwide. You can find him on Twitter and Ello.

10 replies

  1. Awesome post, thanks for putting this up. Those are a lot of great classics with lessons that are timeless, if one is willing to be open to them.

  2. Great Quotes. Especially love the Philip K Dick one. Although I would say that half of these are not really dystopias. The engineered world in The Dispossesed is supposed to be a Utopia (an ‘ambiguous’ one, but still better than the capitalist/statist world it opposes) and The Road, The Chrysalids and Cats Cradle don’t really have much in the way of civilisation at all, let alone a failed attempt at rigidly planned utopia. Still, good stuff.

    • Dystopias and utopias never exist exclusively from one another, so any place that is a dystopia is also a utopia, and any place that is a utopia is also a dystopia. Therefore, whether any given place is perceived as one or the other depends on the individual’s perspective, and specifically on whether he has conditioned himself to see only the good components or only the bad components of his surroundings.

      It does not matter whether the living condition is seemingly joyous or abysmal, because the true, harmful essence of duality is lack of freedom of choice. So whether a place is perceived as a utopia for its comfortable merits (eg. Brave New World), or perceived as a dystopia for its authoritarian regime (eg. 1984), a lack of freedom of choice still runs through the place regardless, and is the sole element which robs human beings of their humanity.

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