What is Post Apocalyptic and Dystopic Literature? (And Who Cares?)



I asked Magnolia today what my blog post should be about. She instantly asked about why there’s so much interest in dystopic, post apocalyptic literature nowadays. It’s an interesting question, and although I’m not a master of all things literature, I’ll try to tackle the thought process behind it.

Yes, the post apocalyptic CAN incorporate zombies or other fantasy elements. I read a book called Idlewild a while back, where something hit the planet and a bunch of people died, but also, a bunch of people mutated into super humans. It was interesting, but not altogether impressive. Furthermore, the post apocalyptic CAN encompass dystopic societies, either the last surviving remnant of an altogether desecrated world, or savage peoples running an unbalanced town, but not always. They are usually viewed as separate sub-genres, but can easily overlap.

We can’t forget the recent influx of Dystopic movies and TV series, as well. Movies like the Hunger Games series and Divergent, and I assume the other movies where the kids are fluctuating from sparkly vampires and before that, clever young wizards.

I’ll disassemble the idea behind the dystopic AND post apocalyptic literature ahead.

Dystopic Literature

1) Real World Influences

First off, the word dystopic is so new my spellcheck doesn’t compute. Which is funny, because it’s been around for a long time. A dystopia is supposed to mean, literally, the opposite of a “utopia,” as coined by Sir Thomas More in the 1400’s to mean “No Place.” It has been perverted (or evolved) to mean “ideal place,” or “place of perfect balance where everyone is happy.” Either way you cut it, a dystopia isn’t an opposite to utopia in the fact that usually there is a balance involved, but few (or none) exist in the center of extremes. Few people are happy in dystopias, even those on top. It is a flawed system where people exist, but only barely, and the sociopolitical climate is so tense it screams.

For example: extremely rich people living across the street from extremely poor people, where the poor depend on the rich for employment and guidance, and the rich depend on the poor to keep the food coming to their tables, their grass to be tended, their diamonds to be mined, or whatever. The moment a poor person walks across the street to break the delicate facade the rich enjoy, the balance is broken and the dystopia is revealed.

A dystopia usually highlights the great evil of man’s basic interests–subjugating others, greed, sloth, gluttony, so on–while it also highlights the great lengths a person can go to fix the broken society/self/culture/whatever.

Our current, American climate is very dedicated to violent polarizations, where if you’re Pro-Life, you’re a tree-hugging liberal and if you’re Pro-Choice, you’re a selfish shotgun-toting conservative. If you believe in Obama you’re apparently an independent, now, because he’s… whatever.

I believe this is why the dystopic novel (and to expand, dystopic movie) is so pertinent nowadays: the great despicable nature of man is being witnessed by everyone in this country. No matter how you look at it, conservative or liberal, money-hungry greed is removing the middle-area balance and creating violent extremes between factions (left vs right wing, poor vs rich, gun control vs gun leniency, and on, and on), all the while media is no longer reporting on the news, but creating it, fabricating it, and being paid to focus on whatever fear-inducing area they can. Misinformation is rife. Everyone fights to get a buck, to scare people into watching, etc. Sociopaths are respected as corporate-forward synergistic (and THAT word is recognized by my spellcheck) go-getters who have never touched what they manage, and for some whacked-out reason, Big Business tries to automate the human factor. Let’s not even start on the Affordable Care Act.

It isn’t working. A lot of Americans see America as a, you guessed it, dystopia. We’re trained to live in fear of each other, of the government, and of the Unknown Evils in this world who want to take our babies. We’re at war with Eurasia. We’ve always been at war with Eurasia. Turkey is our friend. Double plus good.

It has a ring of truth to it. Even though America isn’t a true dystopia–not yet–we feel it is. So likewise novels with that theme really resonates with the average person.

The more technology is out there, watching everything, the more we see, the less we feel comfortable with our lives. It is a natural progression of human society. We’re too connected. We aren’t connected enough. Some among us think others are sheep to be led to Facebook, while others feel an iPad is just exactly what we need beside our TVs and Smartphones and Computers. We’re numbers, and we shouldn’t be, and dystopic literature can open our eyes.

2) The Joy of Suffering

It also makes for a good story.

So. I’m going to use Harry Potter as an example of this, because most people reading this will have read (or heard of) this boy wonder sometime in their lives by now. Harry gets the short end of the stick from his abusive step-family, mean jerk sociopaths at school, and has to overcome adversity because of his hinderance. His seemingly stunted childhood (which I never saw an effect from) garners Observational support because, shucks, he’s such a good boy. Why is he so mistreated? He starts below par. He has more of a hardship to overcome than, say, Hermione who has one muggle parent or Ron who perpetually lives in the shadows of his other siblings, even his younger sister. Sarcasm, folks.

Imagine this character, on the other hand, Harry Potter, living in the squalor of others where the only reason they exist is to mine coal for the rich sods running the place over in Quadrant One. He’s abused, treated like an animal, and never given a chance to hope. The stakes are set much lower. The suffering, worse. He’s had no formal education, can’t read or write, knows nothing of history, is addicted to the flickering TV screen, and lives in constant fear of Those Guys they always talk about. This is where, among the broken bodies of thousands, true humanity is given a chance to rise up. And this story isn’t about Harry Potter anymore. It’s about the coal miners in Quadrant Fifteen. It’s about systematic abuse.

It’s about, well, a good story. It’s very, very tempting for new writers to fall into this world. Why? Because the characters can write themselves. You need a limited cast, limited, polarized government, you can heap on the abuse and not feel like it’s unnatural to do so, and your hero may grow strong breathing in the coal dust in those dank, nitre-filled mines. Heck, the hero might have a family heirloom that keeps him strong. Because family is important. Furthermore, it’s an equalizer. He has a support group. He has friends who feel the same way. This kind of slavery knows no skin color, no gender, and some people prefer this over what we have now.

Extreme suffering CAN make a beautiful hero. it can ALSO make a beautiful monster. Peter Watts wrote Starfish, which takes place in a dystopic future America so overrun with technology it’s nearly a battlefield of automation. The series of four books follows a brilliant, unstable antagonist as she goes across the states spreading a plague as a way to cleanse the world. She fights the system. One could argue her revenge is warranted.

Antagonists in dystopias could be protagonists anywhere else. It is the one against the many. It is the rebel breaking the rules that have always been there. A dystopia allows an evil person to do great things against a greater evil. It also allows a good person to be broken by a greater good, which are important themes in anyone’s life. It is a social arena.

Post Apocalyptic Literature

1) Clean Slate

Post apocalyptic literature is a sub-genre of Science Fiction, and encompasses the survivors of anything that destroys society, how roles are shifted, how governments reform, etc. It is literally, life after the end of the (civilized) world.

We are survivors of World War II. Everyone is. The whole world over. Furthermore, we’re survivors of the Cold War. The fear of global nuclear war existed for over twenty years. People have had time to think about what would happen if a global plague broke out, or we all detonated our nukes, or whatnot. We’ve been writing about this for a while. And now that the nukes are buried like hatchets between the two countries, that fear stretches to other areas.

Interestingly enough, one of the first post apocalyptic novels ever penned was written by Mary Shelley, of Frankenstein fame, in 1826. She wrote The Last Man, which follows the survivors of a global plague, down to the last man.

“What Ifs” abound about. Theoretically, any number of things could wipe us out. Asteroid, pandemic plague, global terrorism, water shortages, over-population, an electro-magnetic pules from the sun wiping out our electronics (I’m literally reciting all the reasons to watch Doomsday Preppers on Netflix, by the way). We’ve spent a LOT of time thinking about this stuff, preparing for this stuff, planning for zombie infestation, aliens, etc.

Loved this show. Even before the meme.

Loved this show. Even before the meme.

I think I know why there’s a growing interest, and it ties in to the dystopic, but not directly. I believe there is a growing number of people who want to rebel against the seeming connectedness of the world. People want space. People want separation. They want to feel the value of a man as the sum of his parts. They want a reset. Literature set after the end of the world has a breathless mystery to it while encompassing a hard “unknown wilderness” edge. Most writers focus on the event itself, while others focus on its aftermath. You don’t need to explain everything to the reader to make a story like this shine.

One of my favorite post apocalyptic movies is The Road. You don’t know what happens to break down society. You don’t know how shit went south. But you know organized society is gone, and the Observer follows a father and a son as they walk a long, lonely, dangerous road to the ocean. And it’s beautiful in its simplicity.

But back to the why. I love post apocalyptic because it’s so very foreign. It’s allows for the resurgence of Steampunk in a truly gifted way. It creates pockets of survivors reminiscent of a zombie apocalypse. It allows for savagery, abuse, violence, but instead of the society and government creating most of this conflict (as it was in the dystopic), it’s the savage nature of humanity, of the environment, and the despair of the characters trying to survive. The conflict is visceral and violent and untamed.

This form of literature can quite literally be a mirror of ancient times, where the future is once again our distant past, and this is endlessly fascinating.

Take the movie Waterworld, for example. While it was a box office flop of epic proportions, it was also an awesome story. The world’s ice caps melt, immersing all the world in water, and evolution takes a huge forward jump to give Robin Hood gill flaps behind his ears. Sarcasm, I know. It’s the swashbuckling nature of the movie, the environment of exploration and discovery, that make so much of it click for me. The apocalypse isn’t necessarily man-made, but it is very real, and those who survive live on tankers, floating islands of junk and metal, and skate around on single-mast sail boats. Untamed, romanticized fun.

2) Social, and Philosophical, Commentary

The post apocalyptic story is perfect to express philosophical ideals. It’s perfect to create tiny control groups and examine them under a scientific microscope. It allows theories to run rampant. Take control group A, which is run by women: how does the society run? If they have a valued resource, say, a freshwater aquifer, how do they hide it or sell it? How do they keep it safe? What old objects or machines from before the Event still make things work today? Group B, which is a savage nomad group of hunting men, stumble across the woman-run group. How do the women survive? Does the nomadic group pursue domination of the woman-run group simply for the sake of owning the group? Or do they pursue the resource?

The possibilities are endless for social commentary, for putting philosophies to work, for distilling down the great vastness of humanity into pockets, and groups.

As a writer, this sub-genre to science fiction allows me to go into the psychological ramifications of the Event by following survivors, allows me to highlight the value of technology (or the over dependence of it), and mythologize the old societies. The possibilities are endless. It allows pertinent, valuable insight into what’s going on today.

Most books end with the Event. Some begin with it. Whatever the case is, it holds our attention as the 21st Century grows long. Much as we fear life after death, we too fear (and seek hope from) the death of the planet. The more we understand this fragile place, the easier it seems to end our stay upon it. Furthermore, Climate Change and the possibility of nuclear weapons in 3rd World Countries might tip the scales, and we want to know if it’s possible to survive.

It is, of course, in the imaginations of the writers. It gives us hope, and some small relief.

Some dystopic movies and novels worth checking out:

The Hunger Games
Starfish by Peter Watts
Anything by Philip K. Dick
Anything by George Orwell

(movie) Snowpiercer
(movie) Dark City
(movie) BladeRunner
(movie) I, Robot
(movie) Minority Report
(movie) Elysium

Some post apocalyptic movies and novels worth checking out:

World War Z
The Last Man by Mary Shelley
The Giver

(movie) Planet of the Apes series
(movie) 28 Days Later
(movie) Castaway (yes. I said it)
(movie) Waterworld
(movie) The Road
(TV series) The Walking Dead

Any questions? I’d love to hear your input on this subject or any other. Please feel free to email me at heissererwriter[at]gmail[dot]com with ideas or thoughts, or just leave a message on this post–especially if you feel I’ve forgotten, missed, or left out viable information.


7 thoughts on “What is Post Apocalyptic and Dystopic Literature? (And Who Cares?)

  1. Hi Chris
    I think your article is interesting and well-written but I don’t feel I have time to read all of it. Constructively-speaking, I wonder if you could submit scholarly pieces like this to relevant journals? For blog purposes – given people’s short attention spans and dearth of time – I wonder if it might help the reader if the posts were less than 1000 words long?

    • Hey Evangeline!
      You make a really good point. I spent a little over an hour writing this piece and realized halfway through it was basically two articles.
      But even when it’s on one topic, I tend to write long. I don’t know how to write short stories, and I’m pretty bad with short blog posts, too. I’ll have to look in on finding material that requires less explanation.
      Also, I WISH I could submit stuff like this to journals. I’d have to do a whole lot more work on it, though. Unfortunately. Maybe someday I’ll compile it in a book. Thanks for stopping by! I love the feedback.



    Quick note: one good book to add to the post apocalyptic list is A Canticle For Leibowitz. It’s a little dated now, but one of its salient charms to me is the beauty in the buildup–from Dark Agesesque post-nuclear America back into another starfaring age–from one bomb to another Cyclical, I suppose, is the word for it. There’s also the novel The Road, which is the movie but even better (though, sadly, without Viggo Mortensen.) Or, y’know, did you like Anathem? That book almost counts.

    A lot of the dystopian stuff out there now, I hate to say it, is mostly pretty set dressing for sensationalist teenybopper bullcrap: and what a sensational set-dressing it is. It might as well be Bulwer-Lytton. “It was a dark and stormy night under the protective dome.”

    Hunger Games, though. That was a good book: which, I hate to sound like a snot, but honestly surprised me. Twilight murdered me in some ways for YA fiction.

    It’s funny you wrote about this. I was just talking about the popularity of dystopian literature in today’s reading world with my mom, and the level of hell it suggests we’re currently in. By God, our consumerist bubble has been popped. Where do we go now?

    Funnily enough, we were also talking about vampire fiction and its popularity in America around the Big Oopsie Economic Shitstorm of 2007-8. Twilight came out not too long after that, and all its requisite vampiric satellites. I found it interesting that there was a lot of vampire and magician stuff around that time–the movies The Illusionist and The Prestige came out around then too, I think–and found it equally interesting that these subjects, which reflect the falsity and danger inherent in glitter and glam, should’ve come out so strongly during economic downturn.

    Enjoy that runon sentence thar, pardner. Sorry for the disjointed post, I’m running down a little early tonight.

    • Fudgenuggets! I meant Snow Crash, not Anathem. Also, you forgot the Best Dystopian Movie Ever: Demolition Man. I can think of no scarier world than one where every restaurant is Taco Bell, and bowel movements require the Three Seashells. Actually, I had three symbolic seashells in my bathroom for a long time, mostly so I could jokingly tell people to use the three seashells when I ran out of toilet paper. One night someone was drunk enough for that to TOTALLY backfire.

      I mean, insert non-scatalogical comment here.

    • Anathem counts as post apocalyptic, because it’s after a supposed “great event” where most of civilization died and the survivors must live at a reduced rate. Hugely appropriate. Snow Crash I’ve never read, so I don’t know about that one.

      I actually had a talk with a literary friend of mine about the amount of mainstream dystopian literature out there. He said the market is currently inundated, and the novel people should be trying to write is utopian literature. I never thought about it that way, but it seemed like an interesting perspective.

      I’m not sure if the correlation of vampy/glitter/fake came from the downturn of the economy, but it certainly might have some origins there. I’d love to research major literary trends to see if real world signifiers (like the Cold War brought about mainstream horror and the space race brought about, obviously, mainstream hard scifi). Hmm. HMM!

  3. Pingback: Secondary Characters: More Than Just a Pretty Face | J. C. Conway

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