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.
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?