Dystopian And The Apocalypse: What's The Difference?

I should confess, before starting this post, that I am absolutely guilty of using the term ‘dystopian’ to describe something that is not really a dystopian, because it’s easier to both type and say than post-apocalyptic. (And easier to spell, too. For me.) That said, while these two terms sometimes coincide, they don’t always. An apocalypse doesn’t necessarily make for a dystopian society. And a dystopian society can occur without an apocalypse.

What makes something a dystopian? Well, it’s kind of like a utopia gone wrong. Where the world is trying so hard to be perfect, that it ends up with some serious scars (think too much plastic surgery gone way wrong). Usually, the government, or some sort of governing body, plays a huge role in this—regulating or modifying behaviors, enforcing strict laws, etc. Apocalypses can be good catalysts for these kinds of societies, because obviously it’s a whole hell of a lot easier to create a society like this if there aren’t so many people. But apocalypse or not, you’re going to see some attempts to control and perfect.

And what makes something post-apocalyptic? An apocalypse, pretty much. Maybe it’s five hundred years into the future, and the world is well rebuilt. Maybe the apocalypse just happened, and the world is in ruins and everyone is running around crazily doing whatever they can to survive. Maybe wild viruses are turning everyone into zombies or have killed off 90% of the population. It’s pretty broad. And even if the society that comes up after an apocalypse is dirty, troubled, and violent, that doesn’t necessarily make it a dystopian.

These terms sometimes have that same confusion factor (for me, at least) as urban fantasy vs. paranormal romance. So much potential for overlap, but really, they are their own unique snowflakes. And to finish up, some wondrous examples of each.

Dystopian:
THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins*
FEED by M. T. Anderson
THE GIVER by Lois Lowry
CANDOR by Pam Bachorz
NINETEEN EIGHTY-FOUR by George Orwell

Apocalyptic or Post-Apocalyptic:
THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH by Carrie Ryan
SHADE’S CHILDREN by Garth Nix**
LIFE AS WE KNEW IT by Susan Beth Pfeffer
HOW I LIVE NOW by Meg Rosoff
THE ROAD by Cormac McCarthy

*A good example of a dystopian society born of an apocalypse. 
**Wait, what? You haven’t read this book? Get on it ASAP because it’s one of the best books ever. Also I would argue that this one has a dystopian society within the larger post-apocalyptic world. You’ll have to read it to understand what I mean. So…why aren’t you reading it yet?




41 comments:

  1. AWESOME post! I'm linking this for sure!

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  2. Oh this post is so very shiny. Very, very shiny indeed.

    There can definitely be overlap between the two genres (I had been working on a wip that was in a gray area) but I get the feeling that a lot of people are jumping onto the dystopian band wagon without having read or watched much of it.

    I'd definitely add Stephen King's The Stand to the list of post-apocalyptic books. It was one of the first post-apocalyptic books I read.

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  3. All I can say is Thank You!

    This has confused me for so long. I know, I'm ashamed to admit it.

    Maybe its because I can't spell either one without spell check help? LOL

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  4. I love LIFE AS WE KNEW IT! Such a great idea! I'm teaching it next year together with the science department, which should be interesting!

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  5. Great post. It makes perfect sense if you think about it, but apparently I hadn't been thinking and just used the terms willy nilly.

    And, yes, I just said willy nilly.

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  6. Great breakdown! I tend to use these terms interchangeably even though I write both and should know better. I'm glad you included Shade's Children in the list - such an awesome book!

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  7. Great post! Though I have to throw out the argument that THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH is both post-apocalyptic and dystopic. The Sisterhood has tried hard to make life "perfect" in the village (kinda hard, considering the Unconsecrated surrounding them but still...), using religion and strict governmental regulation to control their society.

    Introduced my students to dystopias this year and they ate 'em up! Yahoo for dysfunctional societies!

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  8. Oh, great post. I had a weird idea that though I had a definition of dystopian vs. post-apocalyptic in my head, the publishing world pretty much just goes with "dystopian" (although maybe I'm not entirely wrong). Good to know you're fighting for the home team. Of definitions.

    And I would agree with Mary Brebner that IN THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH also has a series dystopian aspect with the Sisterhood.

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  9. That you so much for this article! I have a novel set in the future, and I think I've been using dystopian and post-apocalyptic interchangeably to describe it. Not! Now I know the difference. Thank you so much for spelling it out so clearly!

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  10. This was a great post! I like that you even threw in examples. Thanks!

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  11. This is so helpful--thank you! I'm putting SHADE'S CHILDREN on my TBR list right now :)

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  12. I am currently writing a dystopian novel. Check, I have classified it correctly. I am making a list of dystopian/apocalyptic books to read and you just gave me a few more to add to my already growing list. THanks.

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  13. Great post! This has been on my mind for awhile-- how "crappy world" does not necessarily equal "dystopian," and whatnot. Plus, now I have books to put on my to-read list.

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  14. I'm loving this post.

    And no! I haven't read the Garth Nix one. Never even heard of it... I'll be checking it out :)

    I love a good dystopian and post-apocalyptic. Great list. And, yeah, dystopian is much more efficient and cuter word to use :)

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  15. I was not aware the two were similar. I thought Mel Gibson or Sylvester Stalonne fell under Apocalypse, along with biblical events and men living in an altered realm that included dinosaurs fell under Dystopain.

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  16. Excellent distinguistation. (Yes, that's a word.) I think of most dystopian novels as being born from an apocalypse, and it's years afterward. And post-apocalyptic as being closer or at the time of the apocalypse. And holy $&%*#, that word is hard to pronounce AND spell.

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  17. I just bought LIFE AS WE KNEW IT last week and can't wait to read it.

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  18. I can't believe I forgot to suggest The Stand. Good thing Kath has my back. Also The Handmaid's Tale-- dystopian without an apocalypse.

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  19. I think I love this post, but I'm too busy pumping my fist and yelling "DIE HARD!!!" at that picture...

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  20. Oh yeah-- she took our advice, Michelle! Blow shit up!

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  21. Cool post! But coming from the adult SF side of things, I can assure you that no one in the speculative fiction community is all that careful between the differences between the two. I'e proofread a number of reviews that conflate them.

    Whether or not both of these genres belong in speculative fiction at all is a much more heated debate.

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  22. Please ignore the fact that no proofreading skills whatsoever are evident in my comment!!

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  23. Great list!

    Soon you can add Delirium by Lauren Oliver. That books was made of awesome. :)

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  24. Kate: I almost suggested Handmaid's Tale but I didn't want to be accused of corrupting youth with Atwood or my Canadian agenda :p

    - Kath (who can't sign in without signing out of something else)

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  25. This is such a cool post :) I really did get the two mixed up at some point and now when I talk about The Road and Hunger Games I'll know which one to label dystopian! Thanks for the clarification.

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  26. It's always so confusing to me! But this post really helps. I do the same thing--call everything dystopian. I may have to label mine post-apoc now.

    <33

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  27. Totally HAVE read SHADE'S CHILDREN. And yes, it is awesome.

    :)

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  28. Nice helpful post to clear it up. I get them mixed up too.

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  29. Thanks for the clarifications. I've often wondered what the deal was with dystopian. Now I know.

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  30. ahhh dystopians! favorite word our teachers used when talking about the hunger games book. another really good book with a dystopian society (and, ironically, lots of facial surgery) the uglies/pretties series by scott westerfeld!

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  31. where did my comment go??
    I'm confused.
    maybe it was apocalypsized.

    love the post, kaits!!

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  32. My 2nd WIP is definitely distopian and post-apocolyptic. There isn't much focus on the apocolypse though, since it happened a while before the novel starts.

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  33. I just want to clarify: there is no such thing as "a dystopian." Dystopian is the adjective that is used to describe a dystopia. "Dystopians" is not a word. And a dystopia isn't kind of like a utopia gone wrong... that's EXACTLY what it is. A dystopia results from the attempt to create a utopia that inevitably fails.

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  34. Great definition & clarification! To me, dystopian societies feel more alarming - maybe because they don't require a big far-off apocalypse, just a slight... slipping... in the framework of the world. Sweet post, Kaitlin :)

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  35. I gotta wonder about the definition of post-apocalypse though. Doesn't the term itself lend to the idea that everything just went to shit and the world is trying to rebound? 500 years later, after everything has been reworked and put back together, does not give that connotation. That is, the apocalypse in question has to still be having some major impact or else it's irrelevant.

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  36. SHADE'S CHILDREN is one of my FAV books ever!!!! Read it in HS, and can't wait for the inevitable big-screen adaptation. Unless someone beats me to it, I'll write the script myself!

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  38. I like this post and think it's a great idea to clarify! I've used them both interchangeably as well!

    I would argue that the Forest of Hands and Teeth could be considered Dystopian though. Because the Sister tried so hard to make a perfect society out of the world that was left them. They were like a government that was trying to control the people left and make a sort of Utopia which went terribly wrong. Just a thought :)

    Have you read Inside Out by Maria Snyder?

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  39. Those who mentioned Forest of Hands and Teeth as a potential dystopian: totally fair. I should have maybe mentioned something about that aspect. I still think the story is meant to be post-apoc, but you are all completely right that it has some dystopian aspects.

    Thanks, everyone, for the lovely comments! :)

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  40. Here are a few other good Dystopian novels to read:
    http://www.goodreads.com/list/show/17200.Best_YA_Dystopian_Utopian_Apocalyptic_Post_Apocalyptic

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  41. Great article - it's really helpful because I feel like i mis-label these books all the time. Thanks! :D

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