The Difference Between Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic SciFi

My favorite SciFi sub-genre is post-apocalyptic science fiction, with dystopian literature coming in a respectable but distant second.


Because I’m fascinated by the behavior of people when the thin veneer of civilization is stripped away and all hope is lost. What remains is a true glimpse of humanity at its worst and best, and the question “what makes us human” leaps to the forefront.

For the past several years, dystopian literature has been hot, especially with young adults. Many readers remain confused about the subtle difference between dystopian literature and post-apocalyptic literature. Allow me to explain my interpretation of the difference.

A dystopia is a society where societal perfection or societal transcendence is obtained at the expense of something else. That “something else” could be a devalued class of people, the loss of a fundamental freedom, or the surrender of some aspect of human nature. Literary dystopias often arise through a slow process of societal change, or more abruptly as the result of some cataclysm. In either case, the dystopia represents society in a stable state, albeit a state most of us find appalling in some manner.

Post-apocalyptic literature, on the other hand, focuses on the instability during and/or following a cataclysmic event that shatters society both in form and headcount. During the story, whatever society exists is typically small, isolated, and highly threatened. Often there is little or no hope for any meaningful future. Although it is true that post-apocalyptic events can lead to the formation of dystopian societies, it is the immediately endangered nature of the society that interests me as a reader.

For example, consider the blockbuster series The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This is a dystopian story because it describes a stable but imperfect society that has sacrificed morality and most of the population for the comfort of a few. However, as a lover of post-apocalyptic stories, I wanted to know “how.” How did this society emerge? What happened to create such a place? The story offers few clues, other than hints of a horrific war.

I preferred the very poetic Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. The survivors of a zombie-plague apocalypse huddle together in a small community surrounded by a chain-link fence, unaware of other survivors. Pretty hopeless, right? Despite that hopelessness, a small band of teenagers ventures into the unknown with a vague hope that there must be something better “out there.”

So … it may come as no surprise that I wrote a post-apocalyptic series. Write what you like; write what you know – right? The Well series describes an underground society 300 years after a cataclysm, one that believes it is stable but is in fact slowly dying. In each case, as is true with most post-apocalyptic literature, an act of courage is needed to save the world.

The Well (on Amazon)

I’ll leave you with this. The best example, in my opinion, of an utterly hopeless situation where survivors soldier on is the short story “A Pail of Air” by Fritz Leiber. It’s available free on-line by the original publisher, Baen books. If your tastes mirror mine, then do yourself a favor and read it at the link below.

A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber

(Note – there is a short Preface, but the story starts at the line “Pa had sent me out to get an extra pail of air.” Good opening line!)

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