Post-apocalyptic refers to a work of fiction that deals with a global disaster so profound there are few survivors. It may include a period of time leading up to the disaster, or it can take place years afterwards, but mostly it’s about the immediate after-effects of a disaster–war, environmental disaster, plague. The disaster can have a fantastical element, like zombies or vampires, or a sci-fi one, like an alien invasion.
Dystopian usually takes place far into the future. It may be post-apocalyptic or not. Society has in some way changed profoundly, most noticeably the system of government.
There is some disagreement over the definition of dystopian. Some believe it should only be defined as societies where people believe they are living in an ideal society, when in truth it has some oppressive or horrific element to it.
I think it’s O.K. to expand the meaning to societies where citizens know darn well they are oppressed. 1984 is a famous example, as is The Hunger Games series.
I love post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, but there are some things that run through even the best examples that annoy me:
1. The world collapses too easily. Having lived through several hurricanes, and of course seeing what happened with Hurricane Sandy and other disasters like Katrina, earthquakes, volcano eruptions, etc., something strikes me each time: we are a resilient species. It is remarkable how human beings bounce back after a profound disaster. They rebuild, they renew, they find a way to get back to some semblance of normality.
It’s true that a wide-spread disaster could conceivably bring down a system of government, but it’s not easy, and it’s unlikely to happen quickly. Rome fell, sure–but it was in decline for centuries before it happened. The Black Plague claimed one third of the population of Europe and threatened the feudal system, but the population eventually came back, and real changes to the feudal system took centuries.
The point is, it’s not believable if everything collapses within weeks or months or even years. Some semblance of society would probably remain. If it doesn’t, there had better be a really good reason why.
2. What the heck happened to religion? This has nothing to do with my personal religious beliefs. This has to do with a major component of society that is glaringly absent in many of these stories. This is more the case with dystopians, but it can be true of post-apocalyptic stories, too. There’s no religion. Of any kind, never mind what exists now.
Considering how it survived in countries with Communist regimes that banned religion, how during the Inquisition non-Christians still found a way to practice their religions, how many centuries the major religions have survived–it’s just not believable. Beliefs will endure, no matter what.
There may be new religions, I can buy that. But all of it, disappearing off the face of the earth? That does not ring true to me.
3. Complete isolation of the new societies from the rest of the world. It drives me nuts when there is no mention of what’s happening in the rest of the world. It’s hard to believe that all kinds of communications could disappear that quickly or that completely. Someone would know how to operate a ham radio, at least. Or get in a boat, or fly a plane and go to another country.
I get that the isolation often ramps up the terror and suspense of the story, but it makes the characters seem somewhat stupid and incompetent.
4. Characters you know darn well couldn’t survive the new circumstances. Humans are resilient, true, but not everyone has the capacity to adapt, especially in an extreme circumstance. There are times when reading a PA or dystopian story when I wonder how certain characters haven’t been eaten by the zombies or captured by the government because they are such easy pickings.
5. Oppressive systems or circumstances that no one even thinks of rebelling against. I run into lots of dystopians like this, where there are things happening that are obviously unjust, and yet everyone accepts them as normal.
Let’s go back to Rome for a moment. Gladiator fighting and throwing victims to the lions were accepted forms of entertainment. But there were people who were against those things, too.
No matter how many people are FOR something, there are always going to be people against it, too. It really bugs me when that is missing from a story.