As we discussed last time, dystopias often emerge from the wreckage of human civilization. Some event (apocalyptic or otherwise) triggers the dissolution of society as we know it. In The Hunger Games and The Windup Girl, it’s an environmental disaster. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and P.D. James’s The Children of Men, it’s widespread infertility. The societies that spring up from these armageddons are often built around specific insecurities created by the events. For example, in The Windup Girl, the Environmental Ministry has become one of the most important divisions of government. In The Handmaid’s Tale, an unyielding social system of legal enslavement is built around fertile women.

What about the old school dystopias, you might very well ask? The societies that began as utopias and dissolved into dystopian nightmares. The societies of Fahrenheit 451Brave New WorldAnimal Farm1984, The Giver, and many others. In some ways, I’d argue that these defunct utopias are more frightening — they indicate a level of complicity on the part of your average citizen. What is truly frightening about Fahrenheit 451, for instance, is not, after all, that the government burns books. It’s that nearly everyone in that society is fine with it. Ordinary people report their neighbors for owning books. Our protagonist’s own wife would rather interact with the talking walls than her husband. Likewise, in The Giver, everyone is content enough to live without color, without love.

Here we have (usually totalitarian oligarchic) societies built around a series of ideals. We exchange intellectual curiosity for technological wonders. Absolute safety for personal freedom. Peace for individuality. On the surface, your average person would agree with many of these ideals. Hence the slow backslide from utopia to dystopia. In this case, unlike with the post-apocalyptic dystopia, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the world changed. In many of these novels, there are few people left to remember it any other way. And, after all, how can you miss what you never had in the first place?

Of course, that is where the dissimilarities end. Be it a degenerating utopia or a post-apocalyptic reconstruction, a dystopia is a dystopia.

What’s interesting, however, is where culpability lies. For instance, on a superficial level, we might make the argument that a post-apocalyptic dystopia has a largely external impetus. Although you can track the human behaviors that lead to the cataclysmic events in, for example, a climate change-driven apocalypse, society isn’t destroyed directly by people. (It’s destroyed by tidal waves and hurricanes, etc.) Conversely, if a utopia is built around an idea that many, if not all, people in a given society prescribe to and that utopia then becomes corrupt (as utopias inevitably do), then that dystopia could be seen as being created directly by mankind.

So I’m especially curious about our contemporary fixation on the post-apocalyptic dystopia.  If the world ends and we rebuild an imperfect society, are we less at fault? Or is it that we’ve located our cultural anxieties in more dramatic events, such as catastrophic climate change? Do we fear less what we might do as a society than what will be done to us?

Although, of course, even a post-apocalyptic society is created by people so in the end, we still only have ourselves to blame.

What’s your favorite utopia gone dystopian? What differences/similarities do you notice between post-utopian and post-apocalyptic dystopias? And if you could create a utopian society around any ideal, what would it be?

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Comments
  1. Super interesting, as I just started reading Brave New World last night. So far it’s been explicitly stated that this world has been created as an ideal of progress. I like both types of dystopias, but I think I might prefer the post-utopian kind. It’s hard to generalize, but I’d say that while the post-apocalyptic ones focus on a the faults of a society and then heading in a new direction, the post-utopian ones question what we consider perfect and make us look at the cost of pursuing that perfection.

    • Julia says:

      Nicely said. And I agree. I think for that reason the post-utopian dystopias feel a little meatier, intellectually speaking, and lead us to question more what we value contemporarily. E.g. I think The Giver is infinitely more interesting than The Hunger Games.

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