Lately I have found myself very interested in Dystopian Literature; so much so that it has influenced my next anticipated large project—a novel to be completed before my 30th birthday next summer (It’s how I plan to ring in the new decade in 2014). Thus, as I have been character- and world-building, I have been thinking a lot about the format of dystopian literature and what exactly it means. Dystopia is defined as “a society… characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding,” (http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/dystopia?s=t). From this definition (and other ponderings) I have come to the conclusion that dystopian literature can technically be viewed as a precursor to the post-apocalyptic tale because the definition and nature of dystopia suggests that a society of some kind is still in place. It is certainly not an ideal world. But it is a realm that mirrors our current way of life in some way.
Unlike the dystopian world that has some sort of structure that the reader can relate to, the society of a post-apocalyptic tale has completely deteriorated. The dregs of humanity find themselves in a hole and they must adapt in order to survive or they must find a new solution, a new normal to overcome the obstacles. These stories are typically characterized by a population decimated by disease, zombies, a natural disaster, etc. There is a tendency to express a lot of misery and fear due to loss of control in these stories because the post-apocalyptic story is often concerned with making a change before it is too late and the new normal consumes what remains of humanity.
Not too dissimilar is the misery that is portrayed in a dystopian story. A dystopian tale expresses a fear of the present and the immediate future and of what will happen in the future (i.e the apocalypse) if drastic change is not made. Thus, the dystopian story remains a preliminary step to a post-apocalyptic story because the post-apocalyptic tale is what will happen if the problems in the dystopian story are not addressed properly. What matters and affects which story is portrayed is where the writer chooses to begin telling the tale, where the tale ends and how the tale ends.
In a former post, I did a thorough examination of post-apocalyptic literature in which I concluded that the reason behind the popularity of and fascination with post-apocalyptic tales is a collective fear of the future and a loss of control. Some readers out there disagreed with my interpretation, claiming that the popularity of post-apocalyptic literature was instead due to a fear of the present. And I can definitely see things from their perspective. But I believe that dystopian literature is more about the fear of the present because obviously there is something wrong with the current state of things that initiates this need for change. Take the book Ready Player One by Ernest Cline for example. This book is considered one of the top 10 dystopian stories of all time. In this story, the world has deteriorated to an abysmal state. Humans find solace in the OASIS, an online realm created by an ingenious developer and game designer. The OASIS creator dies without an heir to his fortune and thus he creates a game for people to play. If someone makes it through all of the gates and collects all of the keys, they will inherit his fortune and responsibility for his creation. This story is all about preserving this new “realm” of living for those who have fizzled out on the real world. That, of course, is a whole other discussion itself. But the reader is left with the impression that if the integrity of the OASIS is preserved, that it will somehow make a difference in the real world.
Of course you are not likely to see a dystopian and a post-apocalyptic story rolled together; at least I have not come across one in my readings up to this point. But I think it is possible to see a story that begins as dystopian and moves towards the apocalypse. This would not be difficult to orchestrate and I think it would make a really interesting story arc. If you take the Zombie Apocalypse concept, you can easily create a dystopian world that slides into the apocalypse and then show what and who comes out on the other side. Usually zombie stories are written from a retrospective viewpoint in that the narrator is telling the story about how this problem is overcome or solved but they have one or more moments in which they return and say what happened to lead up to the crumbling of modern society as it was known pre-fall. This story would simply relate the tale of the fall of man or society. The story line would resemble an arc, and depending on how the writer decided to conclude the story, the arc would continue downward or have an uptick when some sort of new normal or positive outcome is established.
This new, continuous thread story arc is intriguing if you are of the opinion that writers utilize their medium to make commentary about the world. I would argue that both dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature have their roots in Gothic literature. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic literature germinate from mutual feelings of fear, and like all sprouts of Gothic literature, they express a fear and a mistrust of those in power. A dystopian story will relate a tale of a failing society and, generally speaking, the fight that the protagonist goes through to rectify the situation. A post-apocalyptic story begins after the complete and utter failure of mankind to preserve and/or regain their former state of living. Life as they know it is nothing like it once was. The post-apocalyptic tale is the last push to regain normalcy and, one could argue, that there is more on the line in such a tale. This is due to the fact that if humanity fails in the post-apocalyptic tale, they face the prospect of imminent extinction.
In the realm of stories, as writers continue to push and look towards the future and utilize genre to express opinions, if you are of the opinion that writers utilize their work to make social commentary, one can see an increasing fear of what is in store for humanity as a whole. And it is through those words that we as readers can see the message of caution before we reach a state from which we cannot return. Not that I believe we’re in for a zombie apocalypse. But they say anything is possible right?