Post-Apocalyptic vs. Post-Societal vs. Dystopian: How To Describe Your Weird Future


Image via flickr by Abode of Chaos

So you’ve written a terrific science fiction story. Congrats! You’re excited to tell your friends. Some of them smile and nod, gently letting you know they’re not really into sci-fi. You keep telling people about your work until finally – success! You find a fan of the genre. Before you can get to the hook of your spiel, they hold up their hands in protest. “I need to know what kind of science fiction it is first. I only read certain types.”

Genres are tricky things. They provide handy shortcuts to make work accessible, but can also put up barriers to entry. Each person has a different opinion of what certain terms means. For some people, it’s not science fiction unless it features hard-bitten admirals flying fleets of spaceships into galaxy-spanning wars. Other people swears up and down that sci-fi is all about special bonds of friendship formed between humans and aliens. Still others care only about future-dwelling desert nomads or highbrow political satire pieces.

Identifying the sub-genres of your work is one way to improve your story’s reception. The goal is to target your work to the exact type of reader most likely to enjoy it. The more detailed you get, the better. I know exactly whether a “neolithic, noir steampunk romance set in a fantastical alternate universe” is right for me; a generic tale of “alternate history,” not so much.

Today, we’ll talk specifically about several related science-fiction sub-genres involving governments, world-changing events, and the future.


Societies around the world have told tales of disaster and rebirth throughout history, often with religious connotations. The term ‘apocalypse’ originally meant ‘to uncover’ or ‘to reveal.’ It indicated a time in the future when ‘good would triumph over evil,’ ending life on earth as we know it – closely tied to the biblical concept of ‘Judgment Day.’ Over time, the term evolved to describe any global disaster (natural or man-made) with the power to permanently alter our world.

The Last Man by Mary Shelley (published in 1826) is believed to be the first example of true post-apocalyptic fiction. In her story, the apocalypse is a plague. Edgar Allan Poe and H.G. Wells also explored the genre, discussing end-of-world scenarios involving comets and alien invasions. The coming of global war in the early 20th century lead to a slew of cautionary post-apocalyptic tales, often focused on the disastrous consequences of terrifying futuristic weaponry (including atomic bombs).

Modern post-apocalyptic fiction takes a variety of forms. The setting may include wastelands resulting from human-caused or natural disasters either hinted at or directly discussed. There are often strong survival themes in which characters struggle in desolate landscapes with little access to necessary resources. Nostalgia usually features at some point within these narratives, with characters expressing curiosity or longing for life in the before-times. However, this is a flexible sub-genre, and many interesting stories arise when writers step away from the usual tropes.

Some stories have post-apocalyptic conclusions or scenes, but that scenery is not their whole focus. For example, Terminator II reveals a future in which the machines have taken control, but most of the action is set in the present day. Similarly, the apocalypse in the Matrix sets the tone of the movie without completely dictating the direction of the story.

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian are often used interchangeably, which can lead to confusion. It’s only really apocalypse fiction if a huge disaster/trauma contributes to your story’s action.


I first heard this term used in a Rock Paper Shotgun article describing The Flame in the Flood. In the game, a central character fights to survive by scavenging food and supplies from abandoned buildings and cars. These scavenging sites are placed at regular intervals along an overflowing river, which the player must navigate.

The creators didn’t want to position their world as the result of some global catastrophe. There’s no great nuclear war or melting ice caps or alien invasion involved. Instead, society as we know it just, for whatever reason, isn’t around anymore.

This sub-genre usually focuses on the struggles of a single person or small band of individuals outside of societal support structures, and shares certain tropes with survivalist fiction (like Hatchet). It’s a great choice if you want to tell a story not fraught with the weight of disaster, and want to focus on how the changes affect characters as opposed to how they affect the world at large.


The word utopia (‘good place’) was coined by Sir Thomas Moore in 1516 in his book of the same name. Dystopia first appeared as the opposite of utopia three centuries later (thankfully beating out the odious “cacotopia,” except in a few select instances).

Interestingly, what we now call dystopian literature arrived before the word itself. Gulliver’s Travels, a satire told through Gulliver’s interactions with fantastical cultures, is believed to be the  first appearance of the sub-genre. Other notable examples include Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ayn Rand’s Anthem, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.

Dystopian literature usually focuses closely on one or more invented cultures possessing qualities that modern, ‘enlightened’ people would find distasteful. Heavy-handed and/or totalitarian governments are a common theme. In Anthem, the Council strives to keep everyone equal by assigning vocations and mates, and punishing citizens for the transgression of ‘preference.’ A Clockwork Orange is set in a society that uses sadistic measures to reform an ultra-violent youth subculture.

Post-apocalyptic and dystopian sub-genres occasionally do go hand in hand (instead of simply being mistaken for one another). For example, David Brin’s The Postman and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas both feature dystopian societies with apocalyptic origins. Often, however, the author doesn’t mention a particular cause of societal collapse, or else states or implies that society simply evolved into this new form – no apocalypse necessary.

The worlds of dystopian fiction can take on many forms. Socialist governments are a popular theme, but feudal systems or Wild West outposts in which the only law is power are just as effective. In fact, it can be difficult not to create a ‘dystopian’ future society in your story, as most people have pretty firm ideas of what makes a ‘good’ society. Whether you categorize your story as dystopian depends largely on the point of view of your characters. If they frequently notice or comment on or rebel against their governments, or if a large part of your action is dedicate towards tension between citizens and the government, the dystopian label is probably a good fit.

Other Science Fiction Sub-Genres

Don’t worry if your story doesn’t fit any of these sub-genres – they’re just a sampling of the delicious options available! And don’t get upset if people disagree with your categorizations. Even within the sub-genres, there are many conflicting opinions.

Do you disagree? Have something to add? Share your thoughts below!

Emma’s dystopian/post-apocalyptic ebook (“strong heroine Kiellen risks slow death for the power of biomechanical flight”) is free November 25 on Amazon. She’ll be raffling five signed paperback copies of the book. Enter the raffle by signing up on the list – no purchase necessary. And she’s going on a book tour! Join her as she shares stories, excerpts, interviews, and more. Click here for a complete list of tour stops.

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