Dystopia vs. Post-apocalypse

dys·to·pia (dis tō′pē ə)
1. a hypothetical place, society, or situation in which conditions and the quality of life are dreadful
2. a novel or other work depicting a dystopian society or place
Source: YourDictionary.com

This afternoon at work, a co-worker and I found ourselves engaging in a lively discussion about books. Somehow, our conversation came ’round to books described and/or marketed as dystopian fiction. Probably because I’m a sucker for a good dystopia. Also, the end of the world (thus, the post-apocalyptic portion of this post). Our discussion turned onto the definition of a dystopia, and if half the books being described as such, actually are.

The above definition is not quite how I see it. Yes, the conditions and quality of life are dreadful. But for me, in a dystopian work that fact is shrouded in the idea that the society/place/situation is actually a utopia. It’s only through the telling of the story that the reader realizes this ideal setting is, in fact, not ideal at all. I’d say that rather than agree with the proper definition, I agree with that wonderful site, wikipedia: “… in literature, an often futuristic society that has degraded into a repressive and controlled state, though under the guise of being utopian.” Source: wikipedia:dystopia

Hand in hand with this is the post-apocalyptic society. I think many people view this as dystopia, but it’s really just a crappy situation brought about by a horrific act – much like the apocalypse would be. Go figure. Yes, the apocalypse can lead to a dystopian society, especially those defined as dreadful living conditions. Of course it can. In this case, I get two favourite things for the price of one. The end of the world, and creepy perfect societies that are inherently flawed.

But all this might be confusing. So let me break it down for you in the way I see things, with some handy book titles (all labeled dystopia at one time or another).

Dystopia: shrouded as utopia
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Giver by Lois Lowry
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
Genesis by Bernard Beckett

Dystopia: dreadful living conditions
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Gone by Michael Grant
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan
The Maze Runner by James Dashner

I guess what I’m getting at is that I view the dystopia genre as very large and convoluted. What I see as being merely post-apocalyptic another may see as dystopian. So what say you, readers and lovers of dystopian and/or post-apocalyptic fiction. Do you agree with my breakdown of the genre? Do you think a book needs certain criteria before it can be labeled as a dystopia? Should post-apocalyptic even have it’s own label (I think so)? And is anyone else as fascinated by the end of the world as I am?


12 thoughts on “Dystopia vs. Post-apocalypse

  1. Oh yes I agree with that, dystopians + post apocalyptic are one of my favorite things to read/write so I think you did a good job with breaking down those classifications of dystopians with post apocalyspse and dystopias without.

  2. I tend to agree with you. In a dystopia a government or group has created a situation in which people are oppressed and miserable all while telling them how wonderful that situation is- like 1984. But in a post-apocalyptic tale just about everyone is dead or is trying not to get dead because of some terrible misfortune.

    • Exactly! I’m totally on board with the idea that an apocalypse can lead to a dystopia, but then the book would have to have both features that you mention: mass amounts of people dead or living in fear, and a government/group that comes in and creates a new “perfect world” which is really just as flawed as the last one – the people just can’t see it. But you can also have each idea stand well on it’s own.

  3. I want to marry this post.

    Lately it feels (at least to me) like a lot of authors are jumping onto the dystopian trend when they’re really writing either a: a post-apocalyptic novel or b: a futuristic novel where times are tough. For me, personally (and I admit that I’m totally unqualified), to consider a book dystopian it must have some sort of element where a society is, or was, considered to be ideal but which was deeply flawed. The world in Logan’s Run looks great until you reach 30 (I think it’s 20 in the book), for example.

    I do, however, firmly believe there can be overlap between dystopia and post-apocalyptic. I had one project that I was never quite sure how to classify because it took place about 20 years after a dystopian society’s collapse in a world that was so broken it might as well have been post-apocalyptic.

    • a lot of authors are jumping onto the dystopian trend when they’re really writing either a: a post-apocalyptic novel or b: a futuristic novel where times are tough.
      Yes! Exactly. Brave New World is a great example of dystopia; ordered society, free love, recreational drug use, easy lives. But underneath it all is an undercurrent of fear that if one deviates from societies norms, then something horrible will happen (because something horrible does happen). That, for me, is a dystopia. Flawed perfection.

      there can be overlap between dystopia and post-apocalyptic.
      Absolutely. A see an apocalyptic situation as a perfect catalyst for society to abruptly change, and who wouldn’t want to try for utopia? It’s the ultimate dream. The two genres can mesh so well together, and I think that’s why there isn’t much distinction between them.

  4. this is one post i can totally get behind – i love both genres, but i do think there’s a recent trend in quickly labeling things as dystopian literature when it isn’t. i’ve always been lead to believe it was the ones shrouded as a utopia, but i guess the times slowly change! i’m okay with it, i guess, cause it just means more books i tend to love!

    • it just means more books i tend to love
      Haha, yea, me too. I love both genres, so throwing them together works well for me. One or the other is great; both is awesome!

  5. The hubs and I are always having this discussion, because, to be honest, I find the definition of dystopia to be so varied it confuses me.

    I tend to use the broader definition and will include post-apocalyptic literature, especially such books as The Forest of Hands and Teeth, primarily because of the Sisterhood, which was really a very controlling government body. Then again, I tend to use urban fantasy and paranormal interchangeably. I don’t really pay a lot of attention to strict definitions of different genres: if I like it I like it, regardless of what it’s called. 🙂

    • I’m usually not too strict about genre titles, either, and I agree with you on The Forest of Hands and Teeth. While I view it primarily as post-apocalyptic, there are definite tones of dystopia there.

      I think this post mainly came about because I just couldn’t figure out the exact definition people are now using for dystopia. What I was taught years ago is obviously still pertinent, but no longer the only criteria, it seems (dystopia shrouded as utopia), and it was hurting my brain a little to think about it. I’ve discovered it’s a genre that’s just too jumbled to define properly.

  6. I think the confusion comes from the fact that both dystopia and post-apocalyptic deal with futuristic societies where all is not right with the world. In my mind, a lot of the distinction is in how people in that world view the situation.

    In dystopia, there are at least some people who view the status quo as an ideal world. In a post-apocalyptic world, pretty much everyone would prefer things to be the way they used to be.

    Then again, the confusion might stem from the fact that many dystopias are born out of apocalypse. In The Hunger Games, the district system started after a catastrophic war. In Uglies, the world was rearranged after a nuclear fallout (I think? It’s been a while since I read the book). I think my point is that these two genres are so closely tied that it’s inevitable that people are going to get them confused. I’m not even sure it’s worth trying to make a distinction in most cases.

    • the confusion might stem from the fact that many dystopias are born out of apocalypse.
      I agree. In reading any “modern” dystopia, it’s almost inevitable that the dystopian society came about because of some apocalypse or another, whereas in “older” works (Brave New World), society has just progressed a certain way.

      The two genres are so linked now that they are pretty much one; it’s interesting to see how things like this change over time.

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