One of the hottest genres in YA these days is “dystopian.” But despite the way this term is thrown around in publisher’s marketplace announcements, it’s not always used correctly. In fact, many novels labeled “dystopian” actually belong to a separate subgenre of sci-fi—some are, in fact, post-apocalyptic novels. Though they might have what you’d call “dystopian” elements, thematically they’re something entirely different.
Last year at YA Highway, Kaitlin Ward gave a basic run-down of the differences between dystopian and apocalyptic novels, but it’s such a huge source of confusion that I thought it might be useful to open up the discussion again. This is the first in our series on “Defining Genre,” which will provide the basics on the dozens of subgenres within sci-fi. We want our readers to look like pros, to be able to tell their steam from their cyber, and to keep their apocalypses straight!
Dystopian Sci-fi – What is it?
In Ancient Greek, “dystopia” means literally “bad place.” In fact, a dystopia is considered an anti-utopia, and is usually presented as a perfect society by at least a few of the characters (often villains). Usually the societal goal was, at one point or another, to create a perfect society, but a fatal flaw in that society was overlooked, leading to an oppressive state where individuality, self-expression, and civil liberties have been squashed.
You might encounter dystopian novels in school; some classics of the genre are 1984, where a fascist government micromanages every aspect of daily life, including freedom of thought; Brave New World, where humanity is united peacefully via stringent reproductive control and widespread hallucinogen use; The Giver, where emotions are suppressed in favor of social “harmony,” and the short story “Harrison Bergeron”, where gifted individuals are physically and intellectually shackled for the sake of universal equality.
Veronica Roth’s Divergent is a great example of modern YA dystopian sci-fi. In her story, individuals are sorted into factions based on fundamental character traits in the hope that this stratification will impede future wars. Lauren Oliver’s Delirium is another straightforward dystopian example; in her society, mankind has been cured by the “disease” of love in the belief that this will stop citizens from experiencing any sort of mental illness or pain.
Though it’s commonly hailed as the impetus for the current wave of dystopian sci-fi for teens, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is a bit of an edge case. While Panem is definitely a “bad place,” and features the same type of oppressive, stringent government often found in dystopian-SF, it lacks the “counter-utopic” elements of many of the aforementioned classics. It’s not presented like an ideal world, and Panem’s society wasn’t founded out of some misguided attempt to create one. In fact, it’s clear that everyone but the very small ruling class finds life in Panem pretty danged horrible.
The Apocalypse – the End of Life as We Know It
What The Hunger Games is, without a doubt, is a post-apocalyptic novel. It takes place long after the destruction of the modern United States, in a nation that “rose from the ashes” of a global war. The new society that we encounter in the books directly hinges on the destruction of our own, the hall-mark of post-apocalyptic literature.
The Hunger Games follows a long tradition of post-apocalyptic sci-fi. For example, A Canticle for Liebowitz shows us several generations of monks in a monastery who protect written literature after the destruction of the United States by nuclear war; Riddley Walker is a novel in vernacular also set in a post-nuclear setting where man has reverted to Iron-Age levels of technology. In YA, the Hunger Games was preceded several years earlier by The City of Ember, set in a society nestled underground following the destruction of the world above.
Post-apocalyptic stories differ in how long they’re set after the end of our world. Some, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road cover the direct aftermath of societal break-down. Others, like Life as We Knew It even feature the disaster itself; in many ways, Susan Beth Pfeffer’s books are science fiction survival tales as much as they are post-apocalyptic works. What all of these novels share, though, is a cataclysmic event—either within the narrative or buried deeply in the world’s history—and an exploration of what comes after.
Of course, many dystopian sci-fi novels are also post-apocalyptic ones. For instance, Brave New World, The Giver, and Divergent all use the end of our contemporary society to wipe the slate clean and make room for a dystopian world. But, as I hope I’ve explained here, despite their shared traits–futuristic settings with often-grim outlooks on humanity–these terms are far from interchangeable.