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Dystopian / Post-apocalyptic Genre

One of the amazing things about reading fiction is that it is an exercise in reflection.  Sure, there is the immediate entertainment value, which is and ought to remain the primary reason for writing or reading fiction.  Telling a good story is the first objective of the fiction writer, even if social or moral commentary makes its way through the pages.  But one rewarding aspect of fiction is that both writer and reader can have a discussion of sorts, the writer raising questions that the reader is encouraged to answer.  Both dystopian fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction can be the catalyst for such a discussion.

Dystopian fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction are often grouped together, although they aren’t necessarily in the same story.  A dystopia, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “an imaginary place or condition in which everything is as bad as possible.”  It is the opposite of the “utopia,” or the perfect world made famous by Thomas More’s novel of the same name.  Dystopian novels often take place in an autocratic environment, and many times this world is thought to be perfect as the story begins, due to some cultural, environmental, or political achievement.

The story in a dystopian novel often involves the main characters waking up to the idea that not all is well with the world and then trying to remedy the situation.  One of the most interesting things about dystopian literature is that it can raise questions and spark discussions about morality and political life for the reader, such as:  how can we best create a society?  Is it even possible?  Who should decide how this shall work?  Why them?  It should not be surprising that many dystopian novels appeared in the twentieth century, after America and the world had seen the horrors of the authoritarian state, most dramatically embodied in Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalinist Russia.

Classics of dystopian literature include George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.  More recently, we’ve seen Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series.  However, my personal favorite is Lois Lowry’s The Giver, in which a twelve-year-old boy lives in a “perfect” world, completely devoid of all suffering, as well as all joy.  He alone is given the responsibility of being the keeper of memories, and he begins to struggle with the fact that he alone knows the truth of the world.  The book is excellent, but it was also made into a movie recently starring Jeff Bridges.

Post-apocalyptic fiction, as the name implies, is set after some tragedy or catalyst in which the society falls apart and humanity is left to move forward among the ruins.  This event could be a nuclear war, a mass pandemic, some environmental catastrophe, or the machinations of political figures.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and Stephen King’s The Stand are examples of this genre.  The Hunger Games would also be in this category as well.  In television and film, we have The Book of Eli and The Walking Dead as post-apocalyptic stories.

This genre often asks the reader to contemplate the basic impulses of the human heart.  What would we do (what would I do?) in order to survive?  Do the ends truly justify the means, or do my moral convictions require me to hold my humanity intact, despite severe tribulation?  One of my favorite aspect of storytelling (whether literature, theatre, or film) is that good stories raise questions that philosophy and religion seek to answer.  As Mississippi author Walker Percy pointed out (while he was recovering from tuberculosis), all the modern science in the world, as good as it is, cannot tell me what it means to be a human being living in the world.  Percy turned to literature, philosophy and religion to address this issue; he would go on to write his own post-apocalyptic novel, Love in the Ruins.

So if we’re looking for a good story, our world is full of them.  If we’re interested in having philosophical or political discussions, we have venues for that as well.  But sometimes authors combine their stories and their questions into one experience, showing us the possibilities, the triumphs, and the tragedies of human nature and community life.  The next time you find yourself in the middle of a gripping novel or film, be sure to reflect on the experience:  What questions is this story raising?  What answers, if any, does it provide?

Cody Daniel is the librarian at the Corinth Library.  He can be reached at 662-287-2441 or emailed at