Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic

A question that came up elsewhere:

Why do folks love to read books about post-apocalypses and dystopias?

Dystopias?  I haven't a fargin' clue.  Like a variety of similar dark diversions, I can only guess it's because the real world looks so much better when they surface from the book?  It feels so good when I stop hitting myself with a hammer?

Post-apocalyptic (as in the photo above), has been a popular sub-genre for decades, since the beginning of the Cold War.  I think it's because everyone has experienced a visceral scream of a moment where we wish all the clods, chuckleheads, line-cutters, bullies, mindless celebrities and politicians would just go away.  LEAVE ME ALONE!

When you're a kid, especially, the idea of demanding teachers, authoritarian parents, halfwit classmates, and all the pressures of a young life disappearing in a nuclear fire ball is a deeply satisfying image.

The curious aspect is that very few, if any, authors concoct stories where everyone vanishing is a good thing in any way.  I surmise the raw emotional fantasy is satisfied within a few pages of learning how the stinky old world ended.  That out of our system, we then settle in with a more mature attitude of seeing what happens next.

The "Robinson Crusoe" problem-solving aspect has great appeal as well.  To have any successful post-apocalyptic story, the author has to supply the survivor-hero with many moments of ingenuity in their new life.

But, as we read a post-apocalyptic story, I think half our brain is ignoring the hero altogether.  We're absorbing the setting the author provides and charting our own strategies.  The hero manages to get a truck started.  Nay, nay we say.  Stick with bikes for the maneuverability....  A post-apocalyptic novel is almost a rule-less, informal "Pick Your Own Adventure" book.  "What would I do next?"

Where is the line between "dystopian" and "post-apocalyptic"?  Many (not all by any means) dystopian cultures are born of an apocalypse.  Are they not then one and the same?

I'm thinking the difference comes down to population.  Post-apocalyptic is one survivor up to, well that's hard to say.  Essentially few enough people where we can know them all.  Where they all interact with each other on a daily basis to exist.  When the group gets large enough that we can't follow what everyone does, nor can the main hero, that's now a society.  And trying to cobble new rules and laws for a large group means we've crossed to "dystopian".  (Well, maybe their new society is better than ours, making it a utopian novel.)

As a kid (and maybe not so young for it to be an excuse), I remember many a post-apocalyptic novel that lost me when "the elections started".  How are we divvying up the scavenge?  Who's going to farm and how do we punish those who aren't pulling their weight?  That stuff could be fascinating, depending the skill of the author, but I began to read with a more academic interest than real excitement.

Back to the business of the day, because this world still exists!

No comments: