Apocalypse vs. Dystopia: Some Definitions

Cover of "The Children Of Men"

Cover of The Children Of Men

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.

What Would You Do?

Filmmakers sought to implement bleak scenery a...

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In most post-apocalyptic stories, there comes a time when one or more of the characters — usually minor ones — opt to take the “easy way out.” Suicide, in other words. This seems only natural. When faced with an uncertain future filled with terror, hunger and the constant possibility of a violent, painful death, suicide seems like a viable option. Except in the stories, it’s not intended to be one. The characters who opt for suicide are not the ones we’re supposed to identify with.

But I do. When I read The Road, the character I most identified with was the wife, who took a gun and walked off into the woods rather than continue to live in the charred cinder that was once her world. In The Passage, a couple waits until their children are old enough to take care of themselves before opting out of their brutal lives spent worrying about vampire invasions every second. And on the season 1 finale of The Walking Dead television series, the characters are given a choice: quick, painless death by explosion or go back into the zombie-infested wasteland with only the things they are carrying. I know what I’d pick.

But then again, I am not a survivalist. I don’t stock up on toilet paper or spend my weekends practicing my crossbow skills. I freely admit that I enjoy the creature comforts of the 21st century. Who knows what any of us would choose to do when thrust into extreme circumstances like that? We haven’t really had to test our ingrained survival instinct.

Or our sense of hope. For that’s what the characters who choose to go on represent: hope. What was left in Pandora’s box after the ills of the world escape. Hope that there is something better ahead — if not for us, then at least for those who come after us — is what motivates us to keep on struggling even in the most extraordinary situations. Hope is what inspires us that no matter how bad things get, we can find a way. Hope is our humanity.

And hope is the essence of what many of these post-apocalyptic stories we tell ourselves are really all about.

What is the Pre-apocalypse?

You’re probably familiar with the term post-apocalyptic as applied to fiction and movies. Post-apocalyptic stories take place in a world after an apocalyptic event has occurred and civilization has collapsed. But here’s a new one on me: pre-apocalyptic fiction.

The pre-apocalypse would be similar to what I call “last days” stories. By using the term last days, I expect the story to meet two specific conditions: 1) the characters know that the earth is going to end; and 2) there will be no post-apocalypse. Whatever event is going down, no one is going to survive it. I could only think of two examples — the book On the Beach and the movie Last Night — that fulfill both these conditions and qualify as true “last days” stories, but I haven’t done much research yet and could probably dig up more in this sub-genre.

The pre-apocalypse, according to i09, depicts the time leading up to the apocalyptic disaster, but survival may be possible, or the event itself may still be averted. This is where the conflict comes from. The most obvious example of a pre-apocalypse story is the Terminator series, which keeps posing the question of whether the overthrow of humans by sentient machines is inevitable, or whether the actions of the characters who know what the future will be can actually change that future. Along similar lines is the film Twelve Monkeys, in which a time-traveling Bruce Willis is charged with gathering information about the engineered virus that wiped out most of humanity. Once in the past, he tries to prevent the apocalypse from ever occurring but fails — or perhaps his attempts to avert the disaster are necessary for it to actually take place. Again, the question of whether the future is fated is not comfortably resolved.

I haven’t done a lot of delving into this sub-genre yet. Living in uncertain times, as we do, with so many threats facing us, it’s no wonder that apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction has been so popular lately. Probably, the number of pre-apocalyptic stories will also increase along with our sense that the world is rapidly sliding into the void.

On the other hand, there have probably always been people who felt certain they were living in the last days, that the end was drawing nigh and only they were smart enough to see it. I feel like that myself some mornings when I read the news, especially with our leaders trying so hard to ignore climate change and its possible dire consequences. Yet somehow that great disaster never quite arrives. In my own memory, Y2K — which was supposed to bring about the collapse of a civilization overly dependent on computer technology — was a dud, and I don’t think much of anything is likely to happen on December 21, 2012, except it will probably be warmer than the previous year.

Still, it only takes once.

Why the Apocalypse?

The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders ...

The Revelation of St John: 4. The Four Riders of the Apocalypse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Human beings are fascinated by beginnings and endings. Every culture has an origin story to explain how humans came to live on Earth in the first place. And many cultures make apocalyptic predictions about how we’ll go out as a species. In contemporary times, there are enough apocalyptic books and movies to deserve their own genre. Artists and musicians tackle apocalyptic themes as well. Why does the idea of apocalypse — the end of the world as we know it — fascinate us so much?

Rarely do the apocalyptic events in these stories bring about the absolute end, though. Some remnants of humankind usually survive to rebuild. We sometimes forget that we constructed the cultures in which we live, that we made up all the rules that govern our lives. A catastrophic event is an opportunity to wipe the slate clean, to press the restart button. Whoever survives gets the chance to start from zero and rewrite all the rules. And the apocalypse enables us at one fell swoop to solve the massive problems that confront us. Humankind is forced to return to the basics of survival, perhaps making our lives more meaningful — or at least more interesting. It’s an appealing fantasy.

But our fascination with the apocalypse is more than just a fantasy about starting over. I think, at its roots, exploring the possible scenarios for the end of human civilization gives us a way to confront our own mortality. We each face a personal apocalypse. We don’t know when or how it will come, or what — if anything — comes afterward. Just as each of our lives has a beginning and an ending, so it seems that the human race should have one too. Imagining that ending possibly makes it easier to  accept our own endings.

The post-apocalypse fantasy…

Why do we enjoy imagining such a horrific event as the demise of most of humankind? We never seem to tire of books, movies, TV shows and music about the post-apocalypse. While not many of us would like actually experiencing the apocalypse, imagining it is a cathartic fantasy.

Who hasn’t fantasized about starting all over again from a completely clean slate? Walking away from your family, friends and stuff, moving to a new place, perhaps even changing your identity. Just starting from zero. The post-apocalypse is that fantasy writ large. It’s not just you starting over, it’s the whole human race.

Also, the apocalypse provides a neat solution to the overwhelming problems that face us today. Such issues as climate change, overpopulation, scarce resources, poverty, epidemics and never-ending violence are overwhelming to us as individuals, when we feel we can’t do much about these global problems. The apocalypse — usually caused in some way by these problems — is also the universal solution to them. In one fell swoop, the number of people is reduced to a manageable number. No more climate change because no more pollution. And unless they were destroyed in the event, resources become plentiful. Depending on who is killed off, such pervasive problems as violence and even disease might be ended. Humanity gets the chance to start over and not make the same mistakes this time.

Finally, the post-apocalypse is an individual fantasy of the ultimate challenge. What would I do if the world ended and I survived? How would I react? How would I deal with the new problems I would have? Would raising my own food be a better deal than having to go to a soul-sucking job at an office every day? (Perhaps.) It’s the greatest “what if” situation, one we may never get tired of contemplating.

As is the norm, I’m sure that if the apocalypse actually did occur, it would be both nothing like and very similar to what we’ve already imagined it to be.

The Boston Globe also has an article wondering why we are so fascinated with the apocalypse in books and movies. It gives a bit of a retrospective of the apocalypse envisioned in film over the years.