Dystopian versus Post-Apocalyptic

I know this topic has been discussed on other blogs previously, but I think it bears repeating: dystopian =/= post-apocalyptic. Let me say that again, clearly, for good measure. dystopian does not equal post-apocalyptic.

There are places where the line between the two can be blurred, but for the most part, the definitions are fairly clear-cut, holding the two of them apart. But time and again I see people mix the two of them up, classing post-apocalyptic books as dystopian when they are anything but.

Dystopia: the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian.

Post-apocalyptic: set in a world or civilization after a disaster such as nuclear warfare, pandemic, impact event, etc.

To oversimplify things a bit, one of them is chaos, and the other is chaos pretending to be order.

It bothers me to see these two terms get conflated and tossed about as though they mean the same thing. Yes, there is room for cross-over, since it’s not at all difficult to see how dystopias can arise in a post-apocalyptic time. But they aren’t always interchangable. For example, I’ve seen numerous people describe Mike Mullin’s Ashfall as dystopian. It couldn’t be further from dystopian. There is nothing in thisn book that even remotely resembles a repressive society advertising itself as perfect. There’s a whole lot of people trying valiantly to survive after an epic natural disaster. That’s post-apocalytic fiction right there, not dystopian.

I suspect that part of the problem lies in the current burst of popularity that dystopian fiction is going through. People hear the word, and so want t start using it themselves, and when they see a situation that sort of has some similar elements to what they’ve been told is dystopian, they assume that it too must be the same. They’ll throw the word about without learning what it actually means.

I believe Inigo Montoya had something poignant to say about that.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

One comment on “Dystopian versus Post-Apocalyptic

  1. First of all, I want to say that overall, I completely agree with you – the constant misuse of the phrase “dystopian” instead of post-apocalyptic (or other subgenres) has me climbing walls in anger. But I'm going to disagree with you/ponder aloud on two counts:

    1. I think that dystopian by definition needs to think it's utopian. That's what I was taught in school, anyways, when reading The Giver. It seems to me that a truly totalitarian government that is openly so would just be… totalitarian. Not quite as appealing a marketing word as dystopian, I agree, but I was always certain that dystopian was strictly “perceived utopian”.

    2. I don't think the problem lies with the burst in popularity of dystopian literature, per se, but rather the rekindling of the lighter end of sci-fi, which has always included the post-apocalyptic/dystopian genres. Instead of labeling it sci-fi (which can spark fairly negative reactions in many readers), publishers have opted to use a slick, attractive word – dystopian – even when the context is entirely inaccurate.

    Oh, and excellent use of the picture. Wonderful quote, wonderfully apt!

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