Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Elements of Dystopia and Apocalypse

Dystopian and post-apocalyptic YA novels are all the rage right now. Hunger Games may have kickstarted the fascination with these sub-genres, but books like Divergent (with the finale Allegiant coming this October) and The Fifth Wave (released earlier this month) are keeping these sub-genres on the forefront of YA fiction. As readers and writers, we should be aware that the line between dystopia and the apocalypse can be hard to draw (as I discovered after my Rise of Dystopia post last August). These sub-genres are separate entities, no matter if some YA novels have elements of both and no matter how similar they may appear.

Definitions & Descriptions
Dystopian books are often characterized by dehumanization, totalitarian governments or the general cataclysmic decline of society. The elements of dystopia may vary from political to social to environmental, and are commonly undesirable or frightening. Dystopia can come in the form of totalitarianism, political repression, societal collapse, poverty or pollution. It should be noted that a dystopian society is the opposite of a utopian one.

Post-Apocalyptic books are about the end of human civilization as we know it. The apocalypse can come in many forms, including but not limited to: nuclear warfare, pandemic, extraterrestrial attack, impact event, cybernetic revolt, divine judgment, runaway climate change, resource depletion, ecological collapse or any environmental disaster. Usually this event results in the crippling or destruction of the political structure and its ability to aid its citizens.

Classifying the Bestsellers
So how do we classify our favorite science fiction/fantasy/adventure novels into these two sub-genres? They appear similar, at least when it comes to applying their characteristics to books on the shelves. However, there are important differences, usually involving the existence, presence and strength of the government. Whereas dystopian societies are usually orderly (sometimes to the extreme), post-apocalyptic worlds tend to be quite chaotic. Also, in dystopian novels, the political regime is usually overly present, visibly strong and often restrictive of its citizens. But post-apocalyptic novels, the apocalypse usually results the crippling or outright destruction of the government, often leaving citizens to fend for themselves. It should be noted that in some dystopian novels, an apocalypse may have been the catalyst for that political regime to eventually take power and over-reign its citizens. However, the key word here is ‘eventually’ as it can take decades or even centuries for society to rebuild after an apocalypse and transform into a dystopia.

Some examples:
Matched/Crossed/Reached by Ally Condie

Cassia’s world is one of pristine order, where the streets are clean and everything runs like clockwork. The Society even selects her mate for her in the Matching ceremony. When Cassia is matched with her childhood friend Xander, she can’t be happier until another boy’s face flashes where Xander’s should be. Ky is an aberration who has been cast out from Society and when Cassia falls for him, she starts to realize that the Society she lives in may not be as infallible as she thought.
The world Cassia lives in is a DYSTOPIAN one. The government can be described as totalitarian as it controls its citizens extensively and promotes a high level of order. Also, the government labels and outcasts those that are not up to its standards.

Ashfall/Ashen Winter/Sunrise by Mike Mullin
When the Yellowstone super volcano erupts, Alex’s normal high school life in Iowa suddenly becomes one where he is struggling to survive. Looters and cannibals roam free in the land west of the Mississippi River, since the government has abandoned those states due to their inability to the lack of resources and their inability to restore and enforce order.  

The world Alex lives in is a POST-APOCALYPTIC one. The super volcano is the apocalypse as well as the inciting incident to the series. The government was crippled by the volcano, and with the Corn Belt under feet of ash, a main food source for the world is no longer available. The government pulled back from the very area in which Alex lives, leaving him struggling for food, shelter and safety.

Wither/Fever/Sever by Lauren DeStefano
In a futuristic society, a genetic error leaves men with the lifespan of 25 years and women with not living past 20. With geneticists seeking the antidote, the world is close to anarchy and orphans wander the streets while only the rich remain protected from the surrounding chaos. When 16 year old Rhine is kidnapped and sold as a bride to a wealthy doctor for his son, her world does not extend past the doctor’s mansion and his desperate, maniacal attempt to find the antidote.

The world Rhine lives in has elements of both DYSTOPIAN and POST-APOCALYTIC. It can be argued that the genetic error was the apocalypse that led to the world descending to near chaos. However, I would argue that Rhine’s immediate world, the one inside the doctor’s mansion, is a dystopian one, where he is the totalitarian leader of a society in which even his son has no say. Even though this series has elements of both sub-genres, I would argue that Rhine’s world is a DYSTOPIAN one.   

This was a bit more research papery than my normal posts, but I hope it helped differentiate these YA sub-genres. I know I learned something, and I hope you did too! Have a great Memorial Day weekend!

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