Writers never get tired of writing about writing, and I never get tired of reading it: Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing (Brain Pickings).
I have noticed that two sub-genres frequently get confused: the dystopian story and the post-apocalyptic story. While these two areas of future storytelling may overlap, they don’t mean the same thing at all. So let’s define some terms, shall we?
We’ll begin with apocalypse. An apocalyptic story is one that depicts the end of modern human civilization as we know it, usually due to some cataclysmic event. A nuclear war, a meteor impacting the Earth, a zombie uprising, a 99 percent fatal epidemic — all of these things can usher in the apocalypse. A post-apocalyptic story concerns itself with what happens after that apocalyptic event, whether immediately following it or far, far in the future.
Often what happens is the rise of new societies. These societies may sometimes be dystopias. A dystopia is the opposite of a utopian society. Utopias are pretty much perfect, providing for the needs of all of their citizens. Dystopias, on the other hand, are usually oppressive, totalitarian and violent.
Utopian and dystopian societies do not have to arise out of an apocalyptic event, however. 1984 and Brave New World are both classics of the dystopian sub-genre that do not depict an apocalypse. Or take, for example, The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which is often mis-classified as post-apocalyptic. In that novel, a fundamentalist Christian group overthrows the current government and establishes a totalitarian society that enslaves women. Although environmental degradation has caused widespread infertility, no true apocalypse takes place. In fact, the primary point of view of the novel is of a future society looking back on this time in history.
Compare that with The Children of Men by P.D. James (or the movie based on it). In that case, although the apocalypse has not yet occurred, it is anticipated, because every person has lost the ability to reproduce and no children have been born in a generation. The novel could even be classified as pre-apocalyptic in that sense. This situation has directly created a dystopian government, which took power to enforce order on the growing chaos and anarchy occurring ahead of the apocalypse. So The Children of Men is an apocalyptic novel, whereas The Handmaid’s Tale is not, even though the subject matter is similar.
Sometimes the dystopian society is the cause of the apocalyptic event. This is the case in Margaret Atwood’s companion novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. The futuristic society she depicts is overwhelmingly consumerist, with a huge gap between rich and poor. One character takes it upon himself to engineer a virus to wipe out humankind and start all over again from scratch.
While I enjoy dystopian novels of all kinds, I am most interested in those dystopias that directly arise from an apocalyptic event. There are numerous examples of these, which may be why the two terms are so often confused. One I recently finished reading was The Gate to Women’s Country by Sheri S. Tepper. After a devastating war, a society of walled cities based on ancient Greece arose. The cities are governed by women, while the men are forced to live outside the city walls as soldiers. Another good example is Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm, where the human survivors rely on cloning to reproduce. The cloned generations gradually change, losing their individuality and other essential human qualities, and oppressing anyone who differs from the norm.
Or if it’s a post-apocalyptic utopia you’re looking for, you might try Always Coming Home by Ursula K. Le Guin. Set in the far future California, it depicts an agrarian, idyllic society. Although they have access to technology — computer networks that survived the pre-apocalyptic civilization record their stories and occasionally provide information — they maintain an pre-Industrial Age way of life. Such an idealized lifestyle certainly seems unattainable without an apocalypse to first wipe the slate clean and allow us to start all over — and do it right this time.
Personally, I think it’s because the “what if” scenario of the apocalypse story is irresistible to many writers.
A commentator at Tor.com believes it’s because writers have been given a special gift, to imagine the end, and it is their duty to warn all of us what may happen via their fiction. At least, he posits that this is why Margaret Atwood has written her apocalyptic novels Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood.
Here’s a quote:
If I’m right, I believe it presents writers with a challenge: if part of who I am is my ability to see the end of the story and to tell that story, am I living up to that precious gift? Am I looking as I ought, as I am capable? Am I telling the stories that matter? Am I living for short-term story—quick success—or the really big win—our survival?
I have read three novels by Margaret Atwood (and I have two more waiting on my ‘to read’ shelf), and I have found her to be a consistently satisfying writer. I wouldn’t say that I loved all of her books, but they have all kept me interested and engaged, which is saying quite a lot. Even more impressive, I think, is that Atwood is considered a mainstream writer, but she gets away with writing fiction that could be called science fiction. And she wins major awards for it! She doesn’t write only science fiction, though, but also tries her hand at other genres, such as historical fiction. Not many writers can be successful at genre-hopping, but more are trying it. Michael Chabon and Kazuo Ishiguro spring to mind.
My favorite book by Atwood has got to be The Handmaid’s Tale. I first read it when I was younger and then reread it fairly recently. This novel is unabashedly science fiction. It is set in a dystopian future, in which the U.S. government has been taken over by Christian fundamentalists and a lot of basic rights have been stripped away. Due to extreme pollution, many people have become infertile. Those women who are fertile are enslaved as Biblical-style handmaids, conceiving and bearing children for wealthy, infertile women.
Despite being science fiction, I think this novel was so successful and has been so widely read because its core message is a frightening warning about how quickly and easily the freedoms we take for granted can be stripped away. What struck me the last time I read it is the method of depriving women of their rights that was used: Their bank accounts were frozen, and electronic access to money was cut off. As we are well on our way to a cashless society, this struck me as an all-too-real danger, one we placidly accept. The feminist themes, presented in a very compelling way, also make the novel more accessible to a wider audience.
I recently finished The Blind Assassin, which won the Booker Prize and which I also enjoyed very much. The genre of this novel is not as straightforward, but it does contain science fiction elements. In fact, its structure is very unusual, in that it is a novel within a novel within a novel. The framing structure is a straightforward historical novel about a wealthy Canadian family’s fall from grace during the Depression and World War II. Within this novel is an intertwined story of two unnamed lovers and their clandestine affair. During their meetings, the lovers — one of whom is a pulp writer — tell each other a bizarre fable that takes place on an alien planet, which underscores their unspoken feelings for each other. The fable, titled The Blind Assassin, is turned into a novel by one of the characters that develops a cult-like following. The intricate structure makes this an engrossing novel, but it is questionable whether it can be called science fiction. Nevertheless, Atwood is definitely experimenting here.
Finally, Alias Grace is the Atwood novel I liked the least, even though I still enjoyed it. It is a historical novel, but also a bit of a psychological suspense thriller. It is set in 19th century Canada and tells the story of Grace Marks, imprisoned for the double murder of her employer and his housekeeper/lover. Grace does not remember the events of the actual murder, and a group of churchgoers, who believe she is innocent, have engaged a psychiatrist to find out what really happened. The real story must be pieced together from newspaper accounts, letters and the points of view of two unreliable narrators: Grace and the psychiatrist, who has become obsessed with her. The reader is never left entirely satisfied as to what actually happened. So again, Atwood is experimenting with structure and story.
Oryx and Crake is the next Atwood novel I plan to read. Again, this is a novel with science fiction elements that cannot be considered strictly science fiction.
I really enjoy it when authors break the artificial boundaries of genre established by publishing companies and bookstores. Traditional science fiction has its own formula, not one that I typically enjoy, except in the hands of a really skilled writer. But the brand of science fiction that Atwood writes — or perhaps I should call it speculative fiction – resonates much more strongly with me.