Jul 18, 2011

On Writing: Is It Really a Dystopia?

Are you writing/reading a dystopian novel? Are you unsure whether it’s really a dystopian and not a post-apocalypse novel? I find that a lot of people are confused when it comes to the difference between dystopian and post-apocalypse. Sometimes I’ll even read a book (such as the Forest of Hands and Teeth) and be told that it’s a dystopian novel when it’s clearly a post-apocalypse. SO how do you tell the difference?

Let’s start by looking at what each one is:

A dystopia is the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian. Dystopian societies feature different kinds of repressive social control systems, various forms of active and passive coercion. Ideas and works about dystopian societies often explore the concept of humans abusing technology and humans individually and collectively coping, or not being able to properly cope with technology that has progressed far more rapidly than humanity's spiritual evolution.

Post-apocalyptic fiction is set in a world or civilization after such a disaster. The time frame may be immediately after the catastrophe, focusing on the travails or psychology of survivors, or considerably later, often including the theme that the existence of pre-catastrophe civilization has been forgotten (or mythologized). Post-apocalyptic stories often take place in an agrarian, non-technological future world, or a world where only scattered elements of technology remain. There is a considerable degree of blurring between this form of science fiction and that which deals with dystopias.
But see, here’s where things get tricky: yes, it’s possible for it to be both dystopian and post-apocalyptic at the same time. Take The Hunger Games for instance, it’s set in a future apocalyptic world and yet it has enough dystopian qualities for it to be considered part dystopian.

Use this flow-chart made by Erin Bowman to see if what you’re reading/writing is really a dystopian or a post-apocalypse. (Click to see larger)

Is it Dystopia? A flowchart for de-coding the genre by Erin Bowman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at www.embowman.com. Feel free to share it for non-commercial uses.


  1. Oh great post! I think the Uglies series by Scott Westerfeild could almost be both. Or it probably is. I mean the world go through this horrible disaster and then they have this system of suppressing ideas and free thinking.

  2. Very cool chart :) I think it's important to know exactly what dystopia is, since so many YA writers are cranking out self-proclaimed dystopian novels or books that only have a fraction of what dystopia really is. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but dystopian literature is slowly becoming a generic YA genre.

  3. I don't really read or write these genres, but it's good to know the difference. Actually there's a book coming out soon that I want to read and I thought it was dystopian but now I think it's post-apocalyptic. Thanks for clarifying.

  4. Thanks for writing this post. Distinguishing can be confusing. I wrote a blog post on this early on, but I wish I had had this post to reference :)


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