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The Differences (and Similarities) Between Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

From The Hunger Games™ to The Walking Dead®, dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories have become massively popular—and their popularity shows no signs of slowing down. In many cases, the line between the two genres is decidedly blurred. However, each has unique characteristics that separate it from the other. Most noticeably, while dystopian fiction often explores social or political struggle, society is still operating and has not yet collapsed (although it might be on the brink). Meanwhile, in apocalyptic fiction, the focus is less on society and more about the characters or a man vs. nature conflict.

Let's look at each of these genres in more detail.

What is dystopian fiction

Generally, dystopias use contemporary society as a basis for their imagined dystopias, lending an element of social warning in the texts. In this way, authors can use facets of modern society to imagine what a futuristic one might look like—and in a dystopia, that future is most often very dark and troubling.

The Netflix original dystopian series Black Mirror™ is a great example of how this is done, as it shows how things like social media and overuse of technology might be contributing to a dystopian future for humanity. The series, as well as many other dystopian works, shows how technology might soon prove to be more harmful than good (for us as a species, and for civilization in general), and how it could indeed be making us less human—and less humane.

Netflix's Black Mirror is a great example of modern dystopian storytelling
Netflix's Black Mirror is a great example of modern dystopian storytelling

Dystopian literature and works

The rise in dystopian literature follows the rise in technological innovation. In many ways, it can be seen as a response to (and fear of) the innovation we depend on in our day-to-day lives. It asks questions like: Where will all this lead us? And will social order survive?

As a direct and contrasting response to utopian literature, dystopian fiction is most often seen as a genre that began with E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops," a short story published in 1909 in The Oxford and Cambridge Review. It was later republished in Forster's The Eternal Moment and Other Stories in 1928. In the story, humanity is forced to live underground and must rely on a large machine to provide for it. In Yevgeny Zamyatin's We, the future is one that is governed entirely by logic and reasoning, with characters named D-503 and O-90. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, shows a society at constant war and controlling its people through propaganda, censorship, and an oppressive police state.

Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, written in 1931, is the story of a world in which citizens are drugged, genetically modified and placed into castes based on their intelligence. Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, published in 1962, shows a future, dystopian England that is plagued by youth violence. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale is a dystopian tale in which the future United States is a totalitarian theocracy and women have no rights.

Dystopian fiction has also become extremely popular among Young Adult (YA) readers, with titles like The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer, Divergent and Insurgent by Veronica Roth, The Maze Runner by James Dashner, and Delirium by Lauren Oliver.

Some of the common themes and situations seen in dystopian fiction are:

  • Mass poverty
  • A police state or abuse of power by government
  • Technology gone wrong
  • Loss of individualism
  • Ineffective or oppressive social institutions
  • Overuse of technology or citizens harmed/controlled by it

Post-apocalyptic fiction

Known as apocalyptic fiction or post-apocalyptic fiction, the genre involves an event in which civilization or society has collapsed—whether from natural or man-made circumstances, alien invasion, zombie infections, nuclear war, etc. Therefore, one of its qualities that differs from dystopian fiction is that in the latter, there is still a society or social order (although it might be unbearable for those caught within it).

Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash
Photo by Scott Rodgerson on Unsplash

Since apocalyptic fiction involves characters attempting to survive, it is often more focused on characters and their interaction with others. Themes such as sharing limited resources, trusting strangers, and surviving together are the focus. In this way, apocalyptic fiction allows authors to introduce the depths of their characters' most basic fears and needs—and ultimately, determine what it means to be human in the first place.

Other common themes and situations seen in apocalyptic fiction are:

  • Depletion of resources
  • Dangerous weather patterns and/or exposure to the elements
  • Radiation after a nuclear war
  • Pandemic sickness (causing extreme loss of life)
  • Loss of technology
  • Nomadic living
  • Group dynamics in survival situations

Apocalyptic literature and works

Mary Shelley's The Last Man, which was published in 1826, is considered to be the first work of apocalyptic fiction. In it, she describes a plague that kills off most of the world's population as a group moves through Europe to attempt to escape it. Stephen King's The Stand, published in 1978, follows a small group of survivors as they attempt to survive a man-made superflu.

The Walking Dead is a post-apocalyptic comic-book series written by Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore, and Charlie Adlard, about a group of survivors attempting to escape zombies that have become infected with a deadly (and reanimating virus). Richard Matheson's 1954 novel I Am Legend, which was later adapted for film, likewise describes a global pandemic that has turned the world's population into zombie-like creatures.

Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, published in 2014, focuses on a nomadic group of actors and musicians known as the Travelling Symphony and shows a world in which a global pandemic has killed off much of the world's population. James Dashner's The Maze Runner trilogy, published between 2009 and 2011, shows a world in which sun flares have scorched the planet, forcing the world's governments to kill off most of the population to save resources. Most recently, All Systems Down by Sam Boush is an American novel describing a cyber war that brings down Western infrastructure, causing society to collapse in its wake.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road is perhaps one of the best written post-apocalyptic novels to date. Published in 2006, it has since been awarded the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. It was also adapted to a film, which was released in 2009 and directed by John Hillcoat.

The following quote is one of the reasons McCarthy's tale is so poignant:

He walked out in the gray light and stood and he saw for a brief moment the absolute truth of the world. The cold relentless circling of the intestate earth. Darkness implacable. The blind dogs of the sun in their running. The crushing black vacuum of the universe. And somewhere two hunted animals trembling like ground-foxes in their cover. Borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it.

Cormac McCarthy's The Road
Movie still from The Road
We don't even know the main character's name, but Cormac McCarthy created a masterpiece of post-apocalyptic fiction with The Road

It is this kind of live-in-the-moment simplicity—without smartphones or television distracting us—that attracts modern audiences to apocalyptic fiction and is perhaps one of its greatest themes.

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