Apocalypse, Musings

The Fate of Dystopian & Post-Apocalyptic Fiction

I love dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories. Sure, they might be based on pretty awful events (nuclear war, absolute dictatorships, inhuman scientific advancements, etc.) played out to an extreme, but for me, that’s where the interest lies. We’re 99.999% sure we’ll never have to try to survive a zombie apocalypse, so it’s fascinating as hell to watch other humans try.

Dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction is a kind of nihilist, negative escapism in which the reader gets to imagine how the world works at its worst.

But where do these genres stand when the external world starts to look more dystopian and post-apocalyptic than the stories themselves?

This question has been whirring around in my head since early March, when COVID-19 hit my country. Schools shut down. People lost their jobs. Isolation became the new “normal.” The internet (which we already relied on heavily) became many people’s source of income, socialization, and entertainment–their world.

I love reading dystopian and post-apocalyptic stories. I don’t love living in them. None of us do. So it’s not a huge leap to imagine that we’d turn away from these genres.

However, I firmly believe that a real-life apocalypse, a real-life dystopia, will have no negative effect on the need readers have for this literature. If anything, their need will become greater.

Here’s why.

1. Catharsis

Trying to survive day to day, to find work, to stretch a dollar, homeschool, or cook with the five-odd ingredients left in the pantry… We don’t have time to truly process the collective trauma we’re experiencing. But the themes of loss that show up over and over in dystopia and post-apocalyptica allow us to access our grief, and give us space to process our own emotions.

2. Hope

I’d argue that, despite the dark clothes these stories wear, that they’re actually some of the most hopeful stories in genre fiction. The entire premise of them is that there IS life after apocalypse, and that life CAN flourish in a world where everything seems wrong. In the worst circumstances imaginable, characters fight to survive, to protect those they love, and they succeed. Modern society ends–but human life goes on. As we contemplate the apparent fragility of the lifestyles and structures we took for granted and mourn an old way of living, these stories can give us hope for a future.

3. History

As a writer of post-apocalyptic fiction, I admit, I might be a little biased. But I’m not making this up. History’s got my back. The world that lived through the real-life apocalypse and dystopia of World War II wrote about it and read about it. In fact, we’re still writing and reading about it, and that time period makes up a massive portion of the historical fiction genre.

4. Meaning-making

Writing and reading–creating and participating in art–are attempts at understanding the human experience. So now, as we attempt to understand this new apocalyptic, dystopian reality, these genres are going to be more crucial than ever.

If you aren’t ready for them in this exact moment, that’s fine. They and their creators will be there, waiting, when you are.

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