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Post-Apocalyptic vs. Dystopian

There is nothing like a bit of Apocalyptic / Post-Apocalyptic fiction to get the motor going. Two seconds after reading you'll be out there planting a vegetable garden, stock-piling canned goods and reinforcing your house with plywood. Well, at least if the book was good.

The thing about Post-Apocalyptic fic is that it is sometimes misconstrued for dystopian. Call me a purist, but to me there is a huge difference between dystopian fic and PA fic. Well not that huge, but I think it might all be a matter of perspective.

Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic cover man's struggle to battle Earth shattering events, their quest for survival and they usually remember life before the event. Whereas, Dystopian fiction covers man's struggle against an oppressor, whether it is a governing body or enslavement.

A lot of Dystopian novels can be classified as Post-Apocalyptic or vice versa because a lot of writers use an Apocalyptic  event to transition into a Dystopian society. Novels like 1984 and Uglies linked ecological disasters to the societies gaining control. Others link war, alien invasion, global warming as the start to the worlds downward spiral. But, in a Dystopian an Apocalypse does not necessarily have to happen. It is just usually the just case, based on the fundamental principal that a scared society will relinquish control for safety. Which brings us to the basis of my argument. A Dystopian can be a Post-Apocalyptic novel, but just because a book is Post-Apocalyptic does not mean it is a Dystopian.

Dystopian is a societal state. It is the opposite of Utopian. It is a degraded society that devolved into a repressive and controlled state, usually under the label "For The Good of the People." There is usually a dictator or "all ruling" body in charge of Dystopian societies that restricts individual freedoms. Dystopians usually cover one hero or heroine and their struggle against that oppressive society. The books normally make a political statement and are used as warnings, "Look what can happen if we don't pay attention."

Struggles for survival after an Apocalyptic event are not considered Dystopian. These are survival stories. They do not make political statements. This is why I think a few books labeled dystopian shouldn't be in these lists and discovered this when I was putting together my dystopian list. Let me know what you think.

My List of the Best Post-Apocalyptic Novels

Life As We Knew ItThe Stand: Expanded Edition: For the First Time Complete and Uncut (Signet)
Sunstorm (A Time Odyssey)
The War of the Worlds
I Am Legend
The Host: A Novel
  1. Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (Survivors Series)
    This survivor series covers an Apocalyptic event where an asteroid hits the moon and disrupts the Earth's environment. The three books of this series covers what it takes to survive in a world without sunlight, food and freezing temperatures. There is hardly any government to repress the people - but I'm sure fifty years in the future there could be. This is a very straight forward Post-Apocalyptic Series.
  2. The Stand by Stephen King
    This one is a lot of times labeled dystopian. I might have even labeled it as dystopian at some point. But, on further thought, I would label this a Post-Apocalyptic Novel. THE STAND covers events occuring on Earth after a SuperFlu wipes out most of the population. Most of the novel is the traveling of the survivors as they make their way to Boulder and the last Free City. Where the confusion comes in is that there is another city forming. Las Vegas is a den of evil, a supernatural force is in charge and he doesn't have good intentions. The survivors have to battle this evil. Good vs. Evil, survivors, but I wouldn't say an oppressive society.
  3. Sun Storm (series) by  Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen Baxter
    This is a good series that I read a few months before I started this blog. I've always been a fan of ACC and even though Baxter probably did most of the writing on this one (ACC died in 2008), I gave them a shot. The novels cover the Apocalyptic event of Sun Storms/Spots. The Earth has fair warning so the novel is Pre-Apocalyptic and narrates the time during the event. Fun, futuristic and otherwordly things are discovered during the novels time-arc, so it is not always about the Apocalyptic event, but I would strongly classify this as a sci-fi apocalypse book.
  4. The War of the Worlds by HG Wells
    Aliens come to Earth to destroy. Apocalypse in the making.
  5. I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (much different from movie)
    Often confused with dystopian, but there is no society in these books. There is one man and a crap load of vampires and he has to do everything he can to survive.
  6. The Host by Stephanie Meyer
    This one rides the lines and I'm a bit torn. On one hand you have an Apocalypse - alien invasion. You have the band of survivors, resisting the alien invasion and trying to survive. But then, if you put the aliens as the oppressive society and Wanderer as the rebel you could necessarily have a Dystopian. I think if this book develops into a series, which rumors are saying it might, then it would most likely be a Dsytopian. But, taken as it is right now, I'm leaning for PA.
  7. Gone (Gone, #1) by Michael Grant
    Another up for debate. The reason I'm leaning towards Post-Apocalyptic on this one is because there really is no oppressive society. It is a bunch of children fighting to survive. Now, granted deeper into the series it could progress into a dystopian if the children are being "held" by something (similar to The Maze Runner plot-arc) but right now it is a good vs. evil, survival story.


Jules (The Great, The Good and The Bad) said...

Interesting post.

I am reading The forest of hands and teeth and I was just thinking about what to classify it the other day as I was writing the review. It has elements of both.


Katie said...

Very nice! Thanks for clarifying!

Bibliotropic said...

I think that post-apocalyptic fiction could very quickly become dystopian, if done right, but it could be very difficult. Dystopias are the utopias that are, the often tightly-controlled societies that seem perfect in theory but are crumbling from within if you scratch the surface. PA fiction is chaotic as people try to get their lives back in order after a major disaster. If an organization stepped in at such a time and said, "Okay, here are the new rules, stick with me and everything will be fine," but they created a sort of mini-dystopia amid a post-apocalyptic landscape, that could be really interesting to read. I know I'd buy that novel!

But usually you're right; the two things are seperate and don't often get enough distinction from people. Good post!

Juju at Tales of said...

Great blurb on The Host. I adore the Host.

Annette said...

If you haven't read it, you should try Lucifer's Hammer, by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. It's a good one too.

Celine said...

I never really understood the difference between Apocalyptic and Dystopian. I do now though.

Thank you for making us smarter!

Deea said...

Great post! I've been wondering about what Dystopian really is and the differences between dystopian novels and PA novels. Thanks for the enlightenment!:D

Mary said...

Timely post--for me, anyway. I was just pulling together a list of novels for my classes' next unit and realized that I have a combination of dystopian books (like DELIRIUM by Lauren Oliver and MATCHED by Ally Conde) and post-apocalyptic books (like ENCLAVE by Ann Aguire and EPITAPH ROAD by David Patenaude). I'll still offer them up as potential books for them to read but when talking about this genre, make the distinction between them. And I'll probably use your post!


Sally Sapphire said...

Great post - I'm adding Susan Beth Pfeffer to my TBR pile.

If you haven't read them, I would definitely recommend Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon, The White Plague by Frank Herbert, Dies the Fire by S.M. Stirling.

ParaJunkee said...

@Jules - TFOHAT is usually classified as dystopian, but I can see where it would more fit with Post-Apocalyptic. There is no society that the main character rebels at because the whole world is still in disarray.

@Katie - Your welcome

@Bibliotropic - That does sound like interesting. You have your PAs with the fall, and you have your Dystopian, after the fall --- but you never have your transition novels. I think it might be very political though.

Thank you.

@Juju - I’m a fan also.

@Annette - I’ve heard tons about Lucifer’s Hammer, I also, from doing this post picked up a few others, like On the Beach by Nevil Shute, A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank. All are supposed to be epic.

@Celine - Glad to be of service. LOL

@Deea - Same questions were going through my head, so that is why I wrote this. Thanks guys!

Najela said...

Haha, I was just thinking about this for my current work in progress. I think mine's just borders on nonsensical. XD

Great post, I love the books you chose. Are you going to do one for dystopia too?

gabrielreads said...

Great post. I love all three types of novels, although I think I prefer dystopian.

After I read The Year of the Flood, I became momentarily tempted to start growing my own garden...just in case. :)

Also, I really loved Life As We Knew It. I came across it a couple years ago and was shocked at how good it was. I'm not usually a big fan of YA fiction, but this book really stuck with me. I've been thinking of tracking down a copy of the sequel too, I just haven't gotten around to it yet.


Great clarification of the two.


Bonnie said...

Excellent post - thanks for the clarification. I have to admit that I often don't make enough of a distinction between the two genres. I also have to say that I loved The Stand. I think it might be the only King book that I have ever read (other than his "On Writing") so I don't have much to compare to, but I really loved that book.

nymfaux said...

I was just thinking about this, too--I guess because it seems to be so popular right now--This is a really good clarification!

about The Forests of Hands and Teeth, it's definitely PA, but I would also call it dystopian, I saw the Sisters as the "order for good" that Mary was rebelling against

JillyB07 said...

I love the host. It was so much better than the twilight series. I am so excited that its going to be a series

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the distinction. Now I can safely say that I don't like Dystopian but I like post apocalyptic. You've reminded me that I was going to read Life as we Knew it.

I agree with Jill too.

Maria Zannini said...

I like your definitions for each. I really don't like political statements no matter what the guise. Unless it's a very skilled author, it has a tendency to come off as preachy--at least to me.

I get too much politics in my life now. ;-)

ParaJunkee said...

@Sally – Thanks I'll keep those in mind.

@Najela – I did a top picks for dystopian last week.

@gabrielreads – After going through what I've read I seem to like Dystopian also.
I really really liked Life As We Knew It also. I was pretty shocked myself about how good it was. Not my usual fare. I had to read the whole series through and through, GET IT – Alex Morales the hero from book two was great. It becomes a little religious, but it made sense.

@Buried – Welcome!

@Bonnie – The Stand was on my top Five books in the world for a VERY long time. I haven't reread it in awhile, I might have to do that. I read it for the first time in 6th grade and it is fun rereading it through the eyes of an adult over and over again. You might want to try IT, those are my two tops with King.

@nymfaux – yeah, I see what you mean about the Sisters, I guess they weren't as malivolent as some of the usual Dystopian society overlords.

@Jilly – It showed that SM could do other things. I'm looking forward to other projects, but she has so much money she probably doesn't have to write another book for the rest of her life. – Read it. It's good.

Cialina at said...

Wow, fantastic post. I learned something today!

Anonymous said...

Great post and you're absolutely right. I keep using the two terms interchangeably but I know I shouldn't. I just like to say I love dystopia rather than "dystopia and post-apocalyptic, oh and apocalyptic too". Such a mouthful!

MamaKitty said...

I'm just now getting into the PA/dystopian books and while I didn't think I'd be that into them, I really am. There's just something about the end of the world and people overcoming the odds and continuing to live their lives.

I listened to The Host on audiobook, and while it was good, I kind of don't want it to be a series. I felt that the story was sufficiently wrapped up and anything further would just be trying to capitalize on its popularity. But that's just my opinion.

Mandee said...

I love your explanation. I've been thinking abou the two genres a lot lately. I'm linking to it on my site
YAY You!

PeaceLove&Pat said...

yes! Life As We Knew it is no. 1 for me also.

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