Two or three times a year, I have a post-apocalyptic dream. Not recurring; it’s different every time. Some disaster has occurred on earth. I’m living with my family under a freeway underpass or in a cave. My life as I knew it has been thoroughly altered.
Just by itself, Freud would probably have had a field day with a dream like that, but to add to the weirdness, I really like those dreams. I always wake up with a sense of Wow, that was cool! In the dreams, I have it together, I’m powerful and doing a great job taking care of my family and battling whatever the forces are that created the apocalypse. The dreams give me a sense of well-being. Yes, very peculiar.
I’m guessing that one thing I like about the dreams is the story aspect of them. While I’m in the dream, I’m living that post-apocalyptic life. I’m a part of the landscape, living it first-hand. When I wake, the storyline doesn’t necessarily hold up, but while I’m in it, it’s like experiencing my very own post-apocalyptic movie.
No surprise that I love reading post-apocalyptic and dystopian books. My first YA, Tankborn, is a dystopian novel. Emptied, a work in progress, is post-apocalyptic. They’ve both been a blast to write.
So what’s the difference between post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories? Are they essentially the same thing? Definitely not. An apocalypse is a sudden event. Life goes from complete normalcy to utter chaos within a very short time. An asteroid hits earth and the resultant dust cloud & radiation wipes out millions. A disease escapes from a secret lab and kills three-quarters of the population on the planet.
The story would then proceed from that event, the characters struggling to survive in the midst of disaster. Alliances would be formed, enemies would sprout up to to try to defeat our main characters. By the end, our heroes would have vanquished not only the villains but the desolate landscape itself.
The creation of a dystopia is a much more gradual process. In a dystopian novel, the evolution of the society it portrays is all backstory, and the main story reveals only hints of how that society came to be as events proceed. If the author were to detail the entire history of how the society developed before she got to the action, her readers’ eyes would glaze over and they’d toss aside the book or delete the sample from their Kindle/Nook/iPad.
So we jump right into Hunger Games‘ staging of gladiator-style games in which youths fight to the death without knowing exactly the path society took to get there (although it’s a believable extrapolation). The Adoration of Jenna Fox doesn’t detail the decades of scientific development it took to get from today’s medicine to the mystery of how Jenna came to be. Ditto for the Uglies series, where Scott Westerfeld uses another masterful extrapolation to create an entire society that revolves around beauty and fame, in which becoming beautiful is an everyday rite of passage for teens. But none of these worlds/societies happened overnight or due to any sudden, cataclysmic event.
An apocalypse could lead to a dystopian society, could be the trigger for it. The Forest of Hands and Teeth would qualify, in which a virus of some sort leads to a plague of unconsecrated (i.e., zombies), which then leads to a quasi-religious dystopia. But in Forest, that society took a couple hundred years to develop to the present day depicted in the book.
If there are examples out there that prove me wrong re: the definition of dystopians vs. post-apocalyptics, I’d be interested in hearing about them. I’d also be interested in more dystopians triggered by apocalyptic events. Leave the titles in a comment.