The other day I was talking to my significant other about books and genres. We were talking about The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Long Walk by Stephen King
(he’s a big King fan and is always trying to get me to read his work; I, who has been told that I should write more like King, tend to grumble and say he’s not that great, but I suppose I’m only biased) which somehow digressed into a discussion about genre. Specifically, what’s the difference between Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian? My SI was under the impression that these two genres are one in the same.
I’m here to tell you they are not.
I decided I’d go ahead and break it down here, though I’m sure most of you can hazard a guess at the difference. I also decided to lump Apocalyptic in there, too, because it seemed to be the theme for the day.
Starting at the beginning: Apocalyptic genre.
1. the complete final destruction of the world, especially as described in the biblical book of Revelation.
2. an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale.
- “a stock market apocalypse”
*Taken directly from Google
So the apocalypse is more or less the end of the world. Which would suggest that there can be no after the end of the world, right? Since it’s the end and all… Which is why “apocalypse” is more like “the end of life as we know it”. So things get bad, societies crumble, the world goes back to the stone age, and we’re all struggling to survive amidst a complete social collapse of world order.
More or less.
People are still alive, they just don’t live like they used to.
Now, in terms of genre, Apocalypse generally means “the ending of the world”. If someone tells you that they’ve found this really awesome apocalyptic book, they are probably talking about books that are in the midst of a world-ending calamity.
The Stand by Stephen King
Left Behind by Tim LeHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins
Both of these start off where the world is normal. It’s like a contemporary novel in the beginning – but it quickly unravels into the end of the world. The stand, being that it’s friggin’ long, goes farther and ultimately becomes both Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian (to an extent), but it’s more the exception than the rule. A book that focuses on how the end comes about falls into the Apocalypse genre. Anything after is going to fall into one of the other two. (Probably.)
Left Behind is similar, though I believe it’s a series that goes farther than simply the apocalypse.
Both of these have religious undertones, but that isn’t strictly necessary for this genre. The fall of society can be caused by a stock market crash, aliens blowing up the white house, or a revolution. All it needs is the destruction of our society as we know it.
What happens after: Post-Apocalyptic.
Post-Apocalyptic is basically what it sounds like – “post” meaning after and “apocalyptic” meaning the end of the world. So, “after the end of the world.” Simple, right?
This genre focuses on the aftermath of the end. In the Apocalypse genre we endured the alien invasion that destroyed the white house and killed the ruling government. Now we’re left to deal with what happens next. Society is left in shambles and those few survivors are left to try and scrounge through the wreckage to find useful things for this new way of life.
Generally, this is years after the end. Maybe only a few; maybe several hundred. It depends. The main point of this, however, is that society hasn’t managed to rebuild yet. Whether that’s because of war against the aliens that attacked has prevented another society from emerging, or because the survivors are two busy trying to survive to figure out how to band together and rebuild, it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that they haven’t managed it yet.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
World War Z by Max Brooks
Blood Red Road by Moira Young (Might fall into this category, but I haven’t read it so I’m basing this mostly on synopsis)
Mortality by Kellie Sheridan
The Host by Stephenie Meyer
These stories focus on how people survive afterwards. If you notice, there are two zombie books listed here. That’s because zombie novels tend to be post-apocalyptic. Why? Because the end has happened (or is in the midst of happening). People can’t really rebuild thanks to the constant threat of zombies. Instead, they are left to survive in the wreckage of the world that was.
Perfect example of Post-Apocalyptic genre.
A not so perfect whole new world: Dystopian.
Finally, we arrive at the final category in our “it’s the end of the world and we know it” genre list. Dystopian. This is the one that’s thrown around so much, it’s probably what brought you to this post in the first place. It’s the one that everyone’s searching for on Goodreads and Amazon. It’s what authors tried to tap into when it became the Next Big Thing in YA literature.
But what does it mean?
First, you’ve probably noticed that “dystopia” sounds a lot like “utopia”. Coincidence? I think not.
Utopia is a perfect society – and it doesn’t exist. It’s more of a philosophical concept of “what if”. What if there was no more war? Bam, utopia. What if all countries got along? Utopia. What if there was no crime, no rape, no stealing or cheating or any of those other awful things that plague our otherwise decent human societies? Utopia.
If we could fix all of the problems in our world, we would be left with a society that had no issues. A thing in which everyone was happy and no one died for reasons beyond natural old age.
If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is. A utopia is impossible to actually achieve. There are any number of arguments as to why, but my favorite is this:
We are human. We must eternally strive for goodness. For freedom. For peace. For equality. But we are incapable of ever truly attaining these things. Because we, unlike animals, unlike machines, are individuals. We think independently. We disagree on everything from favorite colors to what equality truly means. The only way to truly achieve utopia would be to have every human on earth be exactly the same.
Sort of a terrible concept, but there’s hope lingering in it. It’s in the striving towards being better that humanity really shines through. It’s the only thing out there that makes us truly awesome, so never stop trying to be better.
Ahem, off of my soapbox now.
Now, just because we can’t achieve utopia, doesn’t mean we don’t try, right? And in the trying, we end up with works of fiction that are “dystopias”.
A dystopian society is a society that seems like utopia. On the surface, it seems perfect. Usually, this perfection manifests in one area specifically. “Everyone is equal.” That sounds great! Except the only way to make people equal is to take away their free will. Not so great. And that’s the point of a dystopia. It’s important that the society looks perfect on the outside, but from the inside we see that everything is really, really wrong.
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Anthem by Ayn Rand
Uglies by Scott Westerfield
1984 by George Orwell
And a whole slew of others. These novels showcase a society that has tried to make itself – and often deems it to be – perfect. But as readers, we sense that society to be oppressive. The characters within it have given up something precious in order to function within this society – and often rebel against it in order to tear down said society and restart.
Note that all of these, more or less, have focused on something important – in Divergent, each faction focuses on values and in committing to just one, they ensure peace; in Anthem, no one is allowed to invent or discover for fear that we will become better than one another, the focus being equality – that has become so warped it no longer creates the good society everyone was trying for.
Ultimately, Dystopian novels are about seemingly perfect, but really warped societies that are oppressive. Another important point is that they are set in the future. They have already gone through the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic stages to arrive at this rebuilt, dysfunctional society. Maybe we only get little pieces of this history, but it’s there, lurking in the background.
What about the Hunger Games?
For those of you who don’t know, I’m a HUGE Hunger Games fan. (I even have a mockingjay tattoo.) But you might have noticed that I didn’t include it in any of the lists above. I have Divergent, but no HG. What gives?
Well, in short, I’m not quite sure it fits.
If you ask anyone who’s read the series, they’ll probably tell you it’s a dystopian novel. Me included. That being said, I’m not really convinced that it is.
If you noticed my definition, you’ll see that an important part of dystopia is that the society seems perfect. And for anyone who’s read the Hunger Games, you know that it is *not* perfect. Nor does it seem anywhere close to perfect.
If anything, we know right off the bat that this society is awful. Destructive. Unequally balanced in power and wealth. We know this because Katniss comes from the poorest of the poor. She’s disillusioned to the point where there is no question about the awfulness of this world. So if we know this from the get-go, can we really call this a dystopia?
We might, if we were in Effie’s head. Or even Cinna’s, maybe. We might if we were from District 13 where the rules are suffocating, yet in place for a very valid reason, and is the other side of the Capitol coin. These perspectives would show us a world that on the surface looks like it really could be the perfect society. Effie’s life revolves around fashion and wealth. From her perspective, everyone is happy, healthy, and indulgent. To her, rebellion – initially, at least – would be one of the worst things. But as we get farther into how the society works, we’d see how terrible it really is.
But from the perspective of District 12, there is no questioning what a terrible world we live in. So I’m inclined to say that you *can* call this a dystopia for brevity’s sake – because can you imagine having this conversation with a die hard fan? – but it’s not really.
(You could probably make a similar argument for 1984, I’ll admit, so that one maybe it’s a great example of dystopia either.)
So what do you guys think? Are you sold on my distinction? Do you agree with my examples? Do you have some of your own? Share them below!