Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Difference, and Why It Matters

Um…I’m not sure why it’s fallen to me to point this out, but with all the discussion of YA dystopia that’s been going around, I figure somebody should. So here it goes. Guys?

There is a difference between dystopian fiction and apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic fiction. They can totally overlap and often do, especially in YA fiction where the dystopia often comes to power as the result of some great war or natural disaster, but they are not the same thing.

Let’s break both terms down – dystopian comes from dystopia, which is made of the Greek “dys” meaning bad or ill, and “topia” meaning place or landscape. This is why the concept is also sometimes referred to as a cacotopia or anti-utopia. It is, according to Wikipedia, the “idea of a society in a repressive or controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian, ie, a society possessing a perfect socio-politico-legal system.”

Hence, dystopian fiction hinges on the establishment of society being a malevolent force.

On the other hand, apocalyptic fiction is drawn from the popular meaning of the word “apocalypse,” which is, of course, referring to the end of the world. Apocalyptic fiction deals with end of civilization due to some catastrophe, whereas post-apocalyptic is set in a world or civilization after such a disaster.

This is where people get confused, I think. See, it’s quite a common formula, especially in YA fiction, for a dystopian regime to rise to power in the wake of an apocalyptic disaster, making the story both post-apocalyptic and dystopian.

Case in point: The Hunger Games and the Uglies trilogy, the two series possibly responsible for the prominence of YA dystopian as a subgenre, are both dystopian and post-apocalyptic. As a backstory of both, a natural or unnatural disaster wipes out all human civilization and a new, oppressive society rises in its place.

But this does not mean that all post-apocalyptic fiction is dystopian, nor that all dystopian fiction has to be post-apocalyptic.

Take KoushonTakami’s Battle Royale, a 1999 Japanese novel that had teenagers forced to kill each other to a man in a government-sponsored TV program almost a decade before Hunger Games hit the shelves. There’s no doubt that the Japan of that novel is a military dystopia, but it didn’t arise after the collapse of civilization – it’s meant to be an alternate timeline where Japan fell under a military dictatorship after World War II.

Thus, Battle Royale is a dystopian alternate history, not a dystopian post-apocalypse.

On the other hand, another pair of Scott Westerfeld’s novels – Peeps and The Last Days – are apocalyptic fiction involving the end of civilization as we know it, but have no dystopian elements whatsoever. Likewise, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is post-apocalyptic, but not dystopian by virtue of having no malicious establishment.

So please keep this in mind, my fellow book reviewers, writers, and all those who write commentary for fiction trends, especially those in YA: “dystopian” has a real meaning, and that meaning is not “dark and crappy future” or “the end of the world.”

And every time you call a post-apocalyptic a dystopian because that’s the name that’s being thrown around right now, it makes it a little harder for those of us who care about the difference to trust what you’re talking about.