Sunday, February 9, 2014

Futureland: Dystopian vs. Post-Apocalyptic

I love our local bookstore. It's got cushy couches and informed sales staff and is designed to appeal to young adults and is about to open (squee!) a coffee nook. I also like how it's organized: a section for classics, a section for mainstream modern fiction, a tiny mystery section, no thriller section, and lots of speculative fiction. Fantasy is broken down into subcategories: swords-and-elves, urban witches, sparkly vampires, etc. One entire wall is dedicated to our terrible future: it's labeled "Futureland" and contains everything from 1984 to World War Z. 

No dictator, no dystopia
Based on the selections I've poked through on those shelves, let me tell you: the future sucks. It's either a nuclear wasteland, an overpopulated seething hothouse, or a giant prison camp run by a fey-yet-bloodthirsty madman. But it's unlikely to be all of those things at once. Dystopia and post-apocalyptic fiction are too often used interchangeably when they are not the same thing. They are both "futureland," as my bookstore so cleverly recognized, but with different visions of how things might look.

Dystopian fiction is usually about life under a repressive government. A utopia is an ideal society; a dystopia is not merely the opposite, but what happens when a government thinks it's got the answer to a perfect world and can only get there if it controls everyone and everything. Dystopias in real life (like the Soviet Union, like Taliban-controlled areas, like North Korea) are the result of rulers who try to bring utopias into fruition. In fiction, sometimes the higher aims of the repressive government are clear, sometimes it's not spelled out, but there's tyranny and the protagonist is trying to escape it. Dystopia is about social and political structures. The theme is revolution. Current examples: The Hunger Games, Divergent, Matched, On Such a Full Sea. Classic examples: Logan's Run, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Alas Babylon, Brave New World.


Post-apocalyptic fiction is about life after catastrophe. Humanity has been decimated. Nuclear war is a popular antecedent, as is a superflu. Celestial events (moons wandering out of orbit, suns dying) are also useful for the end times. Unlike dystopian fiction, post-apocalyptic novels are typically more individualistic. There aren't many people left, so the survivors are trying to scrabble along through a blasted landscape. The antagonist is usually nature, not a government; when there are bad guys, they are usually feral humans, not dictators. The theme is survival. Current examples: The Road, The Age of Miracles, the Dog Stars, the MaddAddam trilogy, World War Z, The Passage, The 5th Wave, the Wool trilogy. Classic examples: War of the Worlds, The Stand, A Canticle for Liebowitz, I am Legend, and (if we include films) Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and Mad Max.

Dystopian: too much government
Post-apocalyptic: not enough government
There's some overlap. Many dystopian stories arise from the ashes of a catastrophic event: take the Hunger Games, with its vague references to a nuclear disaster. Divergent also seems to be set in a post-disaster world. On the other end, you've got the Wool trilogy, which leans toward post-apocalyptic but has elements of dystopian. The movie Elysium, which I confess I haven't seen yet, seems like it straddles this territory as well. It's not a dichotomy, then: a story can be both. However, most novels/films lean one way or another, and are mislabeled because people just think "crappy future" rather than revolution vs. survival.

I suspect both genres remain popular because they are so unfortunately relevant. As the western US descends into ever-worse drought, with horrific wildfires blasting our landscape every spring and summer, the end times don't seem so far-fetched. Our climate is changing, an apocalypse that seems to creep up on us like a slow deadly tide. And dystopian: as I read Adam Johnson's near-perfect novel The Orphan Master's Son, about life in North Korea, I couldn't help but think that our dystopian novels describe reality for too many people. Read I Am Malala, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Half the Sky, A Long Way Goneand Sold, and you realize that dystopian societies really exist, right now, in this world.

Both story forms serve as a warning. We are showing you these lives, so that you may take another path. Is it a surprise young people, who are tasked with cleaning up all the messes their forebears have created, are so drawn to this bleak futureland?

All those moments will be lost in time ...


  1. Like the idea of the bookstore creating a shelf called "Futureland". That's a good broad title for the variation in genres. And, yep, I've combined both elements of a dystopian society and a war and disease ravaged world into my novels. It's just so much fun. :P

    1. It is weirdly pleasurable to write this kind of story. And to read it! I love survivalist stories, especially. Makes me appreciate having a home, food, and a (relatively) functional government.

  2. I see something very different on the horizon.

    1. Well, I do too, actually. I don't think I could read these genres if I truly thought we were sunk.

  3. Blade Runner and Mad Max -- ah...the good ol' days of early post-apocoliptic life!

    Anyway, I'm trying to figure out what bookstore you frequent. It's a bit strange that there's no thriller section. It sounds wonderfully cozy, though!

    I have a hard time reading or watching much in either of these genres. It's so depressing! Not that I don't like a good depressing story, but most of them are so similar that you've usually figured out the ending long before you've gotten to the last page. I think I might try a couple that you've listed, though. I need a good dystopian/post-apocoliptic novel to darken my mood and reading list. Do you have one with a great surprise ending you could recommend?

    1. It is odd that there are no thrillers; not much commercial-bestseller fiction at all, in fact. It's like the store has been designed for, um, ME. :)

      I'm always a little skeered to recommend books to you or to Suze, you are both more particular than I am and I feel like I don't have a good track record with finding books y'all might like. I can only tell you which ones I really enjoyed: The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller (post-apocalypic; a man and his dog survive a superflu); The Age of Miracles, by Karen Walker Thompson (mid-apocalyptic, about a tween girl experiencing the world's end); the MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood (a mad scientist unleashes an apocalypse in the first book, the second two are the aftermath); and the Wool series by Hugh Howey (really imaginative post apocalypse, though the first book has all the cool world-building). For dystopians, have you read 1984 recently? That is not a predictable book, at least by modern dystopian standards. The Handmaid's Tale (also Margaret Atwood) is also different from YA dystopian fare, which, you're right ... that genre is pretty predictable. In fact, I'd just recommend you skip the YA stuff and go for adult dystopian.

  4. Thanks for clarifying the difference between dystopian and post-apocalyptic. I was one of the people who thought it was the same genre. :)

    From the movies and books you mention, I've only read The Hunger Games ( I found the premise disturbing but got hooked in the story after the games started) and saw I am Legend, The War of the Worlds and Planet of the Apes (like the Heston version better). I guess I like Post Apocalyptic better but neither one is my cup of tea.

    Good post!

  5. Just remembered to tell you that the other day I watched most of The Fifth Element with Bruce Willis (ever seen it?) but I couldn't finish. It was one of the most bizarre/incomprehensible films I've ever seen. It's definitely Futureland but it doesn't seem to be neither dystopian nor post apocalyptic (or is it?) More like end-of-the-world/aliens or something.


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