The appeal behind Apocalypse and Dystopia in fiction


Dystopian worlds are braced within a malevolent system, apocalyptic worlds are breaking apart, and post-apocalyptic ones are picking up the pieces. They’re all hell on earth.

And they’re all spectacular.

I hadn’t examined the reasons why I like to read novels set in apocalyptic and/or dystopian environments. It simply occurred to me, while I was impatiently waiting for the next episode of The 100 to air, that it was perhaps odd that I love to put myself into a world that’s falling apart.

What did that say about me? I wondered. Am I a closet sociopath? Seeking some perverse way of feeling better about reality? Or is enjoying such things what happens when boredom and thrill-seeking combine with a reluctance to leave the comfort of the house?

I didn’t think my liking dystopian fiction was necessarily a bad thing, but still, I like to know the whys. So I asked myself.

It took me a while to come up with an answer. I had to first elbow aside my worries about what the partiality said about me. ‘Don’t think about those,’ my internal interviewer said. ‘This isn’t a moral argument. This is just enquiry. Why do you like dystopia?’

‘Because it’s honest,’ I finally replied.

It seemed an odd thing to say, considering dystopia is typically characterised by deception and deviousness; emblems of the undesirable. But after reflection, I still don’t want to revise my answer.

Apocalyptic fiction appeals to me because it strips societies naked of their protocol and propriety, and shows people for what they really are. It shows the dimensions of human nature when its societal protections are gone.

In our reality, we conduct ourselves as we do in deference to certain frameworks. Our justice system. Our economy. Our government. It’s a choreography of status quo, which we don’t step outside of, for fear of the mis-step’s consequence.

But what if the justice system failed? Or if it wasn’t there? What if banks fell, records were erased, and money became meaningless? What if there was no government?

What societal framework would you defer to, then?

I’m not speaking of abstract philosophies, here. Think smaller. Think of a single day. Think of how you might keep your family alive, in an environment with no blessings for the meek. With cultural constructs of protection eradicated, respectable veneers rub off awfully fast, revealing humanity’s base instincts, unfettered by polite conventionalities.

I’m interested to see what people do with that. How far their principles will carry them. Because nothing tests moral codes like a struggle for survival.

When I investigated other people’s reasons for liking this genre triptych, I was surprised to find my own reason wasn’t among them. (I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world with it, but nevertheless, my sample set seemed particularly philanthropic.) More popular rationales included:

  • Teens like it because it speaks to them like they’re adults.
  • Our schadenfreude just likes to watch other people’s misery.
  • It’s a warning of where our society could go if we don’t fix [insert any particular destructive decline here].
  • It’s exciting. (Personally, I don’t think that’s specific enough to justifiably be called a ‘reason’, but it’s one people give.)

Of course, a key element in my own enjoyment of it, is its fictionality. When I close the book, I can still go out and buy lunch with functional money from a functional bank running a functional economy.

Have you ever thought of why it is, exactly, that you enjoy whatever books, movies, or TV shows that you do? Not just why you avoid other ones, but why you particularly like those ones?


(2) Comments

  • Deborah Makarios
    01 Apr 2017

    I like cosy mysteries because they promise that There Will Be Answers. And also fantasy for the glimpses into other, albeit fictional, cultures.
    Maybe it’s down to my upbringing, but seeing society in the raw doesn’t really appeal to me. How people pull together and survive, however, that appeals to the part of me that invariably imagines the worst case scenario for any situation, and then tries to figure out how to fix it. I’m still not much of a one for grim, though. I’ve seen enough grim to be going on with.

    • Eve
      01 Apr 2017

      Ah, yes, the ‘There Will Be Answers’ part is essential. I get wild at the ‘open-ended’ stories, with the author saying it’s open to the reader’s interpretation and imagination…as if they’re doing us some sort to magnanimous favour by not finishing their job. (It’s just as dissatisfying to me when movies do this.) Of course, this doesn’t happen so much in Mystery designations, as uncovering a resolution is the raison d’etre of the thing. Maybe that makes the Mystery genre the dependable elder brother of reckless and volatile ones.

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