I get disgruntled when people use the terms dystopian fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction as if they were interchangeable. Really disgruntled. Because what is the fucking point of giving something a label—something that can be boxy and limiting—if we don’t use it to its purpose: to make communication easier and more useful?
If I tell you I love post-apocalyptic books, and then you recommend a dystopia? Annoyed. If a back-cover book blurb says post-apocalyptic, and the contents turn out to be less than? Irritated. I have given up on Goodreads lists of post-apocalyptic books because they have led me to dystopias too many times. I use the category post-apocalyptic as a metal detector, a tool meant to lead me to things I want to find. When a genre definition is blurry, it stops being useful; throw the fucking thing out.
I am obsessed with post-apocalyptic fiction. I enjoy dystopias. Because I spend a lot of time talking about both, we’d better get on the same page about the terms right now, before anybody gets confused or unleashes any more of my fury.
The line between a dystopian novel and a post-apocalyptic novel may be a hard one to pin down because many books use elements of both. But if you get out your magnifying glasses, you will find that the focus of each is noticeably different.
Dystopian fiction focuses on a society in some way different than ours, in some way horrible. The classic definition is “an imagined place or state in which everything is unpleasant or bad, typically a totalitarian or environmentally degraded one.” It can be literally translated to “not-good place.” (Thanks wikipedia.) These are the books about corrupt or controlling governments (Brave New World, The Hunger Games, ) and technology gone wrong and used by totalitarian rulers (Little Brother), about police states and newspeak and propaganda (1984).
Post-apocalyptic fiction focuses on the end of the world as we know it and the resulting consequences. The end of the world, catastrophe, or apocalypse needs to be the novel’s main focus (or one of). As I said in A Chronology of Apocalyptic Literature: “Space/alien apocalypses like Poul Anderson’s After Doomsday and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy also pose a problem. Both stories begin with the destruction of the Earth, but neither are about the destruction of the Earth. Books like Moira Young’s Blood Red Road, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, and Simon Ings’ Headlong have post-apocalyptic settings that are more morsel than feast, an important backdrop, perhaps, but not the meat of the thing.” Books like these make the genre even harder to pin down, but ultimately, I wouldn’t count any of them as post-apocalyptic fiction. Not if we want to use the label to mean something exact, something that would make using it worthwhile.
Thing is, a dystopian society is likely to follow an apocalyptic event. When shit really hits the fan, people are more willing to let their leaders do things that would seem fucked up in other circumstances. When shit really hits the fan, people might be too busy trying to survive to vote (if voting is still an option), might be too desperate for solutions to look too hard at the person offering them in exchange for power. Octavia Butler does a brilliant job illustrating this in the Parables duology. While Parable of the Sower is clearly post-apocalyptic, its sequel Parable of the Talents is clearly dystopian and has clearly been allowed to become so because of the apocalyptic events in Sower. (I can’t recommend these books enough.) Ann Aguirre’s Enclave, which I reviewed this morning, also managed to be both.
Some post-apocalyptic books contain horrible societies and governments gone wrong, and there are cross-over books that can lay claim to both genres. But the difference is always the focus. Post-apocalyptic books are about survival and ruins, about rebuilding and consequences and change. They are books like The Road and The Stand, The Walking Dead, and Y: The Last Man. The Hunger Games may take place after a horrible war that destroyed shit and resulted in a new world order, but because of the story’s focus, it is a dystopia. A dystopia may contain ruins (so many books do), but unless the book is about how those ruins got where they are today, it is not post-apocalyptic.
Just so we have that straight.