Yvonne Shiau, writing on Medium:
… the dystopian novel — as we know it, in its full totalitarian glory — is itself a relatively new phenomenon. Before 1900, only the British satirist Jonathan Swift wrote books that could, with one eye squinted, be called dystopian. So when did dystopias and dystopian themes start taking off in modern fiction? And is there a pattern to their rise and fall throughout the past?
We might be the most paranoid we’ve been—as a society—since the start of the Cold War. It can be argued that has given rise to populist leaders around the world, with their promises of sweeping change, easy fixes, and a group of others to blame for our problems.
Revolutions and civil wars are raging across the Middle East, eerily similar to the democratic (socialist, and liberal) revolutions that engulfed Europe following the First World War. The European unrest of the 1930s inspired Orwell’s 1984, and Huxley’s Brave New World.
While both are personal favorites (I read Brave New World every other year), I have not read the satire It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis. I think we would be well served to learn from the people who lived in 1930s. It’s too easy to cast nationalist leaders as sadistic madmen, when only hindsight informs so much of their true character.
If you prefer a non-fiction, I would recommend In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson. It follows William E. Dodd, who became the US Ambassador to Germany in 1933, and reads like fiction.
Shiau’s entire list is filled with books from the 20th Century’s most acclaimed writers. Fair warning: don’t read too many of these in a row.