The other day I read an article about the upcoming Ender’s Game movie that called its hypothetical future a dystopia. I immediately thought, “Well, that’s not right,” before stepping back and considering. Why don’t I consider it a dystopia? How exactly do I define that word? And then there’s post-apocalyptic, another word frequently bandied about in reference to dark future worlds, sometimes even used as a synonym for dystopian. These sort of sub-genre terms tend to shift and morph in meaning, but here’s how I define them (and for me, they are most definitely not synonyms.)
Dystopias are, first of all, implicit references to Thomas More’s Utopia, a book that presented an idealized civilization with what he considered a perfect government and society. So of course he called it Utopia, literally meaning “no-place.” Such a world does not, and perhaps could never exist with imperfect humans. But we don’t tend to be all that interested in hypothetical perfect worlds nowadays. We lean toward apparently perfect worlds that conceal secret horrors. These stories became so popular we found a new term for them. Going on the fact that the connotation of Utopia (never mind its literal meaning) is “good or perfect place,” we changed the beginning to “dys.” Bad place.
I guess a future with a military-obssessed, controlling government like the one in Ender’s Game could be considered a pretty bad place. I just think that’s too simplified a meaning compared to the nuanced notion of “apparently perfect, but actually horrifying.” It carries with it an idea that the general population has been duped, brainwashed, or compelled to believe in the perfection of a controlling, oppressive government. Or perhaps society has become passive and apathetic. Usually the protagonist’s journey involves their realization that their world is screwed-up, and most of the time a rebellion or escape is the result. Classic examples include 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. It’s become an incredibly popular sub-genre for YA novels, because it matches so well with the common coming-of-age feelings that adults do not, in fact, know everything, and they might even be all wrong. The Hunger Games series, I would say, is dystopian. Even though the main character doesn’t really have any delusions about the perfect nature of the government, the Capitol is actively involved in squashing the notion of sedition, and has convinced at least most of the Capitol residents that this scenario is the best possible solution. I don’t think Ender’s Game has quite the same flavor of government disillusion. It’s more about the cost of winning wars and creating ruthless soldiers out of young children.
So what about a post-apocalyptic novel? Apocalypse is another word with a curious etymology. It’s Greek, and it means “revelation” or “uncovering.” How did such a mild-mannered word come to be associated with gigantic calamity and world-ending? It’s all indirectly thanks to John, whose Book of Revelation in the Bible was filled with intense imagery associated with the second coming of Jesus. We’ve taken the term, stretched and bent and generalized it, and taken it to mean any great big world-shaking mess. After the apocalypse, we assume, the world would be pretty broken. And what a great place to set a dark future, right? The thing is, post-apocalyptic doesn’t just mean the world is a mess. Sometimes messes happen gradually, bit by bit, over a long period of time. An apocalypse, in contrast, is immediate, quick and devastating (at least in our pop culture definition of one). A common disaster in post-apocalyptic stories nowadays is an atomic holocaust, but sometimes it’s a natural disaster, or a series of horrifying destructive events. Which makes The Hunger Games post-apocalyptic as well. Ender’s Game? Maybe, if you count the initial war with the aliens, but on the other hand, the Earth isn’t totally devastated. I don’t think it counts as a full-scale apocalypse.
I may be quibbling here, but I think making these clear distinctions is helpful. Dystopias have a certain flavor of paranoia, disillusionment or warning about where future trends can lead. My own Vitro/Vivo is a double-dystopia, with two parallel societies who believe they’ve achieved utopia. The respective protagonists realize that is absolutely untrue. It’s not post-apocalyptic, though. There wasn’t any single calamity, a “Great Burning” as my siblings and I used to say in a mock-portentous voice. Post-apocalyptic worlds have a desperation and a despair that lends their inhabitants a grim hardness. A story can be both, or one or neither. They’re all interesting sub-genres. Let’s just get the terms straight, for the sake of nit-picky semantics nerds. 🙂