True story: Some of the best political novels aren’t explicitly about politics. Yes, some of the books on this list deal directly with governments and politicians, with laws and the ways they’re made or abused, and with the peril and promise inherent in every governing body. But some of them use adventure, parable, or satire to subtly explore our political system with a depth that wouldn’t be possible any other way. Many of the titles might be familiar to you — they’re pretty popular in college courses nationwide — but hopefully there are a few surprises as well. If you’ve got a thirst for politics and a love for good stories, you owe it to yourself to dig into these novels:
These novels examine the myriad ways a corrupt system can destroy society.
- Brave New World, Aldous Huxley: Aldous Huxley’s classic novel is set in a world where a global government limits procreation and forces its citizens into a cycle of endless economic consumption. A must-read for anyone interested in tales of the extent to which a body will go to control its subjects.
- 1984, George Orwell: Released in 1949, Orwell’s novel depicts a totalitarian society in which the government constantly revises historical records in order to appear blameless and correct. Chilling and ahead of its time.
- Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury: The controlling political system of Bradbury’s dystopia has outlawed reading and, by extension, free and critical thought. The novel revolves around the way people cede control of their lives to silent governing units.
- Blindness, Jose Saramago: Jose Saramago’s searing work won him the Nobel Prize for Literature. His novel deals with the citizens of an unnamed city as they succumb to a freak epidemic of global blindness. The splintered government quarantines more and more of the people as society devolves. A harrowing look at how oppressive systems exist on all levels.
- Seeing, Jose Saramago: The sequel to Blindness finds many of the same characters returning, this time for a more direct attack on corrupt politics. The populace casts blank ballots at an election to protest the government’s distance and detachment, spurring the government to greater heights of alienation and control.
- The Trial, Franz Kafka: Kafka cooked up some truly terrifying works in his time, including this unnerving novel about a man arrested for a crime that’s never revealed and persecuted by an authority he can’t contact.
- The Castle, Franz Kafka: Another bleak novel about the abuse of power, Kafka’s The Castle revolves around a land surveyor perpetually at odds with the incompetent and inaccessible bureaucracy that resides in a high castle and dominates the activity of the village below.
- Animal Farm, George Orwell: Orwell’s political allegory is an English course staple, thanks to its trenchant insights into human nature and heartbreaking examination of the methods by which political systems are established, run, and ultimately corrupted. The central animals in the tale are based on Stalin, Trostsky, Marx, Lenin, and more.
- Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: A novel enjoying a recent surge in popularity thanks to some far-right pundits’ embrace of its politics, Ayn Rand’s epic novel about the government’s role in business lays out the tenets of her philosophy of Objectivism and rational self-interest. A compelling read for those curious to learn more about enterprise.
- V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd: Regarded as one of the best comic books ever written, this graphic novel from Alan Moore follows a masked revolutionary known only as V as he sets out to take down the totalitarian government that’s set up in the United Kingdom. A fantastic exploration at freedom and anarchy in a police state.
- The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood: A fantastic tale in which a totalitarian government overthrows the U.S. government and rules with a cruel political will based partly on Old Testament theology.
- The Children of Men, P.D. James: Similar to The Handmaid’s Tale in that it deals with infertility, P.D. James’ novel is set in a future England ruled by an all-powerful government that takes power when a depressed populace loses interest in voting. It’s a smart sci-fi novel and a powerful warning about the danger of ignoring the creep of governmental power.
- The Plague, Albert Camus: Albert Camus, a key thinker in the existentialist area, crafted this bleak but unforgettable novel to explore the nature of humanity when confronted with a disease that threatens to destroy it. Many interpret the novel as a discussion of the Nazi occupation of France during World War II.
- Lord of the Flies, William Golding: Another high school classic, William Golding’s novel uses a group of shipwrecked boys as an allegory for the evil in all of us and the way that all groups — societies, governments, etc. — become tainted.
These Russian masters used the backdrop of war and struggle to create some of the best novels ever written.
- One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Based on the author’s experience in the Gulag, this slender but moving novel highlights the horrors of governmental oppression and torture.
- Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak: Boris Pasternak’s classic love story is set against the Russian Revolution and following Russian Civil War.
- The White Guard, Mikhail Bulgakov: This lesser known but wonderful work of historical fiction follows one family’s ups and downs through the Russian Civil War, with real-life historical figures touching their lives.
- Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler: Set in 1938, Arthur Koestler’s famous novel centers on a man who participated in the 1917 revolution and is now suffering through the Great Purge of the Stalin era. A fantastic novel about totalitarian authority.
- The Possessed, Fyodor Dostoevsky: Dostoevsky’s written some of the most well-regarded books in history, and The Possessed is a fine example of what made him great. His novel examines the conflict in clashing ideologies in the Russia of the late 1800s, with equal criticism given to the idealism of the left and the corruption of the right.
- War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy: There’s a reason this is a global classic. Tolstoy’s epic novel — the 2006 paperback version runs 1,475 (!) pages — traces a group of families as they deal with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the aftermath in the 19th century. An indispensable entry for lovers of history and politics.
American Civil War
The era when the United States government splintered makes for compelling fictional stories.
- The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara: Michael Shaara won a Pulitzer for his moving novel about the Battle of Gettysburg.
- Gods and Generals, Jeff Shaara: Jess Shaara, son of Michael, amplified his father’s work with this winning prequel that traces the beginnings of the Civil War.
- Andersonville, MacKinlay Kantor: MacKinlay Kantor’s historical novel uses real and invented characters in this fascinating story about a Civil War POW camp.
- Democracy: An American Novel, Henry Adams: Henry Adams’ political novel was published anonymously in 1880, with his authorship only revealed after his death. The book uses real figures like Johnson and Grant to describe how governments are run and how easily power can be abused.
- Lincoln, Gore Vidal: Vidal’s novel examines the politics behind the war through the viewpoints of multiple characters, including Lincoln, William H. Seward, and John Wilkes Booth.
These biting novels offer a sharp critique of modern political systems.
- Catch-22, Joseph Heller: Heller’s brilliant critique of war and bureaucracy is so potent that "Catch-22" entered the language.
- MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors, Richard Hooker: The novel that spawned a media franchise, Hooker’s book is a dark but hilarious look at the armed forces through the eyes of military surgeons.
- Wag the Dog, Larry Beinhart: Originally published as American Hero before getting repackaged to go with the film version, Beinhart’s novel is an all-too-real satire about the U.S. government’s efforts to stage a fictional war in order to distract the public from the president’s sexual indiscretions.
- Primary Colors, Anonymous (Joe Klein): Joe Klein’s novel was originally released anonymously, though intrepid reporters soon tied him to it. The book is a fictionalized version of Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for president, from the scheming advisors to the extramarital affairs. Political junkies should be able to recognize the real-life counterparts for most of the characters, but if not, here’s a chart.
- It Can’t Happen Here, Sinclair Lewis: Sinclair Lewis’ dark novel centers on a U.S. president elected on a populist platform who quickly becomes a dictator, imprisoning his enemies. The title comes from the passive, disbelieving protests that such a change could never happen in America.
- The Way We Live Now, Anthony Trollope: Hailed as one of Trollope’s best, this dense, lengthy novel is a critique of corrupt systems in general, from political to religious.
From government to race relations, these novels explore the American way of political life.
- All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and adapted multiple times for stage and screen, Warren’s seminal novel about Southern politics in the 1930s draws its inspiration from Huey Long, the Louisiana governor with a thirst for power.
- To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: Harper Lee only ever wrote one novel, but it was a perfect one. Her story of race relations in the U.S. South during the Depression is a wonderful examination of systemic oppression and the costs of fighting for justice.
- The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne: Every student slogs through this one in high school, but Hawthorne’s story still has some interesting (if occasionally stuffy) things to say about how a strict morality can lead to political alienation.
- The Marrow of Tradition, Charles Chesnutt: Published in 1901, Chesnutt’s historical novel dramatizes the white supremacist movement of the era.
- Advise and Consent, Allen Drury: Drury’s literary thriller won the Pulitzer in 1960 for its gripping account of a heated confirmation battle over a Secretary of State.
- The Manchurian Candidate, Richard Condon: A classic thriller from the Cold War, Condon’s novel draws from the Korean War and the growing strength of McCarthyism for its powerful story of a soldier brainwashed into being an assassin.
- Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison: Based in part on Ellison’s life, this novel digs into the politics of discrimination as viewed by a socially "invisible" African-American man.
- Seven Days in May, Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey: A political thriller later made into a movie with Kirk Douglas, this novel imagines a nightmare scenario in which the president’s advisors conspire to commit a coup d’etat and force him from office.
These novels follow England throughout the 20th century.
- The Prime Minister, Anthony Trollope: First appearing in 1876, Trollope’s novel centers on a divided, coalition government that’s unable to function because of partisan divisions. (Sound familiar?)
- No Telephone to Heaven, Michelle Cliff: Primarily set in Jamaica, this novel deals with the social effects of imperialism and colonization in deft and tragic ways. A great novel for those looking to gain more perspective on global empires.
- The Ghost, Robert Harris: Loosely based on the life of Tony Blair, Harris’ novel is an espionage tale about a disgraced British prime minister and the ghost writer hired to pen his autobiography. Plenty of ties and allusions to the Iraq War and other modern happenings make this novel as timely as it is entertaining.
- A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin: Insidious overthrows of the government are a staple of political fiction, and Chris Mullin returns to that well with A Very British Coup, which involves a conspiracy between the U.K. and the U.S. to topple the prime minister.
Europe and Asia
Just a (very small) fraction of the fictional works set across the Atlantic.
- Death of a Red Heroine, Qiu Xiaolong: This mystery novel involves politicians at every level, offering a realistic portrayal of the life of power.
- Les Miserables, Author: Victor Hugo’s timeless classic grapples with issues like justice and love against the backdrop of the June Revolution of 1832. Even if you wind up tackling an abridged version, don’t miss this story.
- Candide, Voltaire: Voltaire’s humorous and often sarcastic novel uses historical events like the Seven Years’ War to discuss political philosophy.
These novels examine the political issues of today by imagining a different past.
- The Man in the High Castle, Philip K. Dick: Philip K. Dick is a titan in sci-fi circles for his imaginative and gripping tales about personal identity, whether explored through cyborgs, cloning, or memory erasure. This novel takes place in a world in which the Axis Powers won World War II and now share territory in what used to be the United States.
- The Plot Against America, Philip Roth: Imagining a world in which Franklin Roosevelt lost the 1940 presidential election to Charles Lindbergh, Roth’s novel is a first-person dispatch from another universe that explores politics, oppression, and society.
- The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, Michael Chabon: Michael Chabon’s inventive detective story is set in Sitka, Alaska. In his world, Sitka became the site of a Jewish refugee camp during World War II, a plan based on the real-life Slattery Report that was never implemented. The story’s parallels with our own world make it a wonderful what-if version of politics.
- Fatherland, Robert Harris: You can’t blame authors for turning again and again to World War II as the jump-off point for alternative history; it was the biggest global event of the 20th century, and it’s packed with loads of potential turning points for new worlds. Harris’ bestseller is set in Nazi Germany 1964, years after they won the war, and follows a detective who gets caught up in political intrigue while investigating a death. Definitely one to read.