What Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic Books Say About Us

For years, I’ve been wondering why dystopian and post-apocalyptic books are so popular, especially with teens. Personally, I love reading these books. I also enjoy writing them. Now, I’m generally a very optimistic person who believes we can create a good future. So what is it about corpse-ridden zombie-sucking industrial wastelands that appeals so much to readers and writers?10174795

Here are just a few of the recent books I’m talking about:

The Hunger Games Series (obviously)

Ship Breaker, by Paolo Baggicslouldsliy (actually, his name is Bacigalupi, but I struggle with dyslexia)

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld (and Pretties, and Specials — awesome series, taking place with the remains of our civilization in the background)

Wool (I’m reading this one right now, actually)

Glow (a thrilling book by my good friend, Amy Kathleen Ryan, about people leaving a dying earth)

Feed, by M.T. Anderson (one of my all-time favorite books — not such much post-apocalyptic as the whimpering way the world ends)

The Road (not exactly young adult, but still..)7095831

Rot and Ruin (great zombie book)

Armageddon Children (proving that giant centipedes are very creepy)

Shades Children (by Garth Nix, who told me that if he could be Garth, I could be Todd. BTW, this is the most page-turniest book I’ve ever read).

And so on… (Unwind, Divergent, Matched, Maze Runner, The Stand, World War Z, The Postman, etc…). I’m sure there are several others I’m forgetting, but these are just some of the ones I’ve read in the past couple of years. (And don’t even get me started on the movies, like the Terminator series, or Blade Runner, Mad MaxThe Matrix…).

It’s not just freaks like me who love a good post-apocalyptic romp, either. When I talk with teens, I often ask them what books they’ve read recently that I should check out. About half the time the book they recommend is dystopian or set in a post-apocalyptic world.169756

Now, people often talk about fantasy books as being an escape. But why would people want to escape into zombie infested ghost-world hell holes? What is it about these books that appeals to us (especially teens)?

Here’s my theory: Post-apocalyptic books offer us an escape from denial.

Let me explain. Often, books (and movies) become popular when they respond to a deep-seated social need or anxiety. I think this is especially true of fantasy and sci-fi books which act as the dreams of our collective unconscious. And right now, we know on some deeply unconscious (or maybe even conscious) level that we’re screwing things up. We know that all our pollution and over-consumption is driving the planet to ruin. We might not accept the science of climate change, but we can’t ignore all the droughts, floods, super storms, forest fires, heat waves and other signs of a world spinning out of balance. Nor can we ignore the many signs of social inequality leading to civil unrest.15549

I think teens are particularly aware of this, perhaps because they’re not so invested in the status quo. Or perhaps because this is the world they’re inheriting, and they’re pissed that we’re trashing it. So there’s a thread of anxiety running through our culture. But here’s the tricky thing: on the surface things are pretty good right now. Many of us are living in a golden age. The amount of wealth and luxury people have, when compared to other times in human history, is staggering.

So there’s this very perplexing dissonance: on the surface, things are good, but deep down, we know there are problems. And all this dissonance is uncomfortable. It feels contradictory, so it sends us into denial. Either we deny that things are good, or we deny that there are underlying problems with our society and the contradiction goes away.

Trouble is, denial takes a lot of energy. It’s exhausting. You have to keep pushing away the facts and ignoring your experiences. Take children of alcoholics, for instance. When you grow up in an alcoholic family, everyone knows there’s a problem, but everyone also knows that you can’t talk about it (because nothing sets the alcholic off or upsets the peace more than mentioning the problem). So children in alcoholic families learn at a young age to pretend that there isn’t a problem and act like everything is fine. And the easiest way to do this is to deny your own experiences and emotions.24770

But, as many children of alcoholics know, this takes a toll. And inevitably, no matter how hard everyone tries not to rock the boat, crap is going to hit the fan (sorry for the mixed metaphor there — picture a ceiling fan on a boat). That’s what happens with alcoholics. Things spin out of control, and when they do, even though it’s bad, it can also be a relief. Because when the crap flies, at least the problem is out there. It’s obvious. And you can finally face it and deal with it.

I don’t think we’re often aware of how much energy denial takes. Or how much stress and anxiety it creates to ignore underlying problems (because we’re so afraid that they’ll rise to the surface). So it’s a relief to escape from all that societal denial in fiction. Dystopian and post-apocalyptic books offer us a vision of the world gone wrong (sometimes in a hyperbolic way) so that the problems that must not be mentioned in our real lives can finally be confronted.

In some ways this is similar to the Greek notion of catharsis, but it’s not quite the same thing. Where catharsis offers an audience a way to release emotion (and blow off some steam), dystopian and post-apocalyptic books offer us a way to escape the constant cultural need to deny the underlying problems of our society. (Quick aside — I’ve been learning to speak out on some of these big issues that are easier to deny, and it’s been a hugely rewarding experience. Check it out, if you want to book me for a free, and optimistic, climate talk).47626

Granted, a post-apocalyptic world makes for some great fiction, since there are plenty of ways to amp up the conflict and put pressure on characters. But this alone doesn’t explain why post-apocalyptic and dystopian settings are so appealing, especially for teen audiences. One thing teens are great at, though, is detecting bullshit. As any teacher will tell you, most teens have an uncanny ability to sense when someone is being insincere (or phony, or fake, or a poseur…). Likewise, I believe teens can sense when our society is being insincere. Post-apocalyptic and dystopian books are a way of calling us out on this.

Or maybe not. I’d love to hear other people’s thoughts on this. If you enjoy post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, why? What is it about them that makes them appealing to you?



  1. Quick addition: Just found this Harvard course on Post-apocalyptic books and movies: http://www.extension.harvard.edu/hub/blog/extension-blog/after-end-look-post-apocalyptic-books-films

    Also, I think something else the genre offers is hope, because many of these books (though not all), show how we can face our worst fears and survive. However, what I’m intending to focus on in this post is why, in a genre that’s often considered “escapist fiction,” people might find post-apocalyptic settings appealing.

    • Hi Todd,
      unfortunately the link to this course doesn’t work anymore. Could you maybe repost it or send me an email? This would be so great because I’m writing my bachelor thesis about the metaphorical and allegorical matter of YA movies and every good source would be absolutely helpful.

      Thank you so much!



      • Hi Max,
        Thanks for your interest in the post. The Harvard course must not be offered currently, and I don’t have other info for it. I wish you the best on your thesis. It sounds great.

        Be well,


  2. I think you are onto something Todd! I started noticing the apocalyptic craze back when the millennium turned, and it’s been going strong ever since. The whole Y2K anxiety revealed how insecure people feel about the stability of our civilization. Because our computers were confused about the calendar date, people were buying guns, beans, rice, and bottled water for an apocalypse that never happened. On a deep level, I think we all know that we can’t go on like this. We need to evolve. Perhaps the books you’ve mentioned are helping to bring us out of our denial so that we can begin to confront these frightening issues head on.

  3. Well said, Amy. Check out the video on the Harvard course. She also talks about how these books have a moral purpose in getting us to evolve.

  4. Laura Resau says

    That makes a lot of sense, Todd. Well-said. My favorite dystopian books (most of which you mentioned) are insightful critiques of where we are now, as a society, and where we’re headed. I love high-quality books that intelligently explore this (in addition to offering an exciting, suspenseful survival story). I think that books like FEED should be read alongside of books like 1984 and Brave New World in schools.

  5. Eric Easley says

    I think there is quite a lot to your theory, Todd. Plato’s Republic–the whole theory of governing that he sets forth–is based upon the question, “what is justice?” where justice is a virtue of the well-governed soul. In essence, the whole theory is about how to have your own soul well-governed, but the argument uses the metaphor of the state to establish what virtue and what virtuous governance is. So, for Plato anyway, utopia is about facing our deficiencies and bettering ourselves (which also results in the perfect state). Most distopian novels seem to be a response to this idea. Essentially, the more perfect our state is in theory, the less perfect it is for individuals on a deeper level. It’s a strange criticism of Plato, but a prevalent one, to say that the perfect state is imperfect for the individual, since the basis of Plato’s state is the individual. But, distopian ideas allow us to expose a deep character defect in us–the more perfect we are collectively, the less perfect we are as individuals. In other words, we appear to give up personal individual freedoms and autonomy for social harmony, and distopian novels will not settle for that. At least, I have yet to read or see one that does not champion personal individual freedom. The really strange thing, to me, is that Plato’s foundation is a matured personal freedom–one which recognizes what it must lose for social harmony and realizes it is actually more free due to the sacrifice (i.e. that we give up some freedom for the benefits of a social contract). For me, distopian novels bring the first steps of this path to light, allowing us a glimpse at what must be, in order for us to live well together.

    • Awesome, Eric. This is why there need to be philosophers. Thank you for this detailed and insightful analysis. I think you’re absolutely right in noting that most dystopian novels pit the freedom of the individual against a so-called utopian society. However, most post-apocolyptic novels these days focus on the imperfections of society, or a past society. I think books like FEED represent a shift away from earlier dystopian books like Brave New World in that the focus is more on broad social ills than the action of an individual. So in fiction, at least, where forty or fifty years ago there was an obsessive focus on the individual escaping an oppressive society, not there seems to be more of a focus on society being inescapable, and the individual being culpable. A longer discussion for sure…

      • Eric Easley says

        I think I missed some of your focus on zombies in my original reply, but want to say, after your reply, that I think I agree with you again. Your point is why I regard Romero’s original “Dawn of the Dead” as the best zombie movie ever made. For a good 40 minutes or so, we watch as survivors in the mall revert to a kind of zombie-consumer like state of denial about the world that surrounds them (outside the mall). I also think the “Walking Dead” does a great job of highlighting your point, in that the survivors must band together despite the reality that when all the cards are down the person across from them may not be a very good person, or may justify a critically different set of ethics.

  6. Yes, the current zombie craze really intrigues me. Although it started a few decades ago, with the “Dawn of the Dead” –why is it so popular now? What does this say about our current cultural needs and anxieties? I agree that zombies often seem a hyperbolic representation of mindless consumerism (after all, all they do is stumble about and consume things, and turn others into consumers). But added to this is that deep social distrust and fear of others that you mention. Perhaps it’s the fear that we’re turning each other into zombies, and that the internet is eating our brains. Happy munching!

  7. I think that it may be a relief for us teens to see what our lives could be and then work to apply it in our day to day lives. We take our amenities for granted, and this makes them seem much more worthwhile. It is the same concept that if you look somewhere dark for a while, the light seems all the brighter.

  8. I am a 56 year old and I love these books and am hoping to get my almost 13-year-old son into them. His Dad is an Army Major, mom a housewife with a few online ventures and a history in banking customer service. Liam has a great spirit and is a facts-keeper/statistician. I am hoping that by reading some of these books he will gain a good understanding of survival methods in the future I fear is coming. I learned to cook on a wood stove, carried wood and coal for a wood heater and fireplace, filled oil lamps with kerosene for light and chopped wood when older. We grew our own vegetables and picked greens from the meadows and yard sometimes for a side dish or sometimes a meal. I know all these things by having lived them, but my grandchildren do not know these things. I have bought many field guides that will help them along, but the post-apocalypse books will offer scenarios of what may happen and what actions to take or not take.

  9. GSchultz says

    Is it possible that in our post-Christian society, people don’t know what to do with death anymore? With no neat story there, perhaps zombies are one way we are fumbling around trying to figure out what to make of that eventuality.

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