With the world in the grip of Covid-19, life is looking like something out of a novel from the apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction genres. This is not particularly surprising considering that reality informs fiction and fiction reflects reality.
The first time I felt I were living in an apocalyptic fiction novel was when out of control bushfires threatened my property in January of this year, but the threat receded and left me and my property unharmed. And even during the event, the world and the rest of Australia continued as normal, so – even though it felt like it to those who lived through it – the fires weren’t truly an apocalyptic event. The Australian fires were catastrophic, but they were restricted to one area of the world, whereas a truly apocalyptic event effects the whole world or large portions of it.
The word apocalypse, according to the Oxford Dictionary refers to ‘the complete final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation, or an event involving destruction or damage on a catastrophic scale.’ It’s the scale of a disaster that makes it apocalyptic.
Covid-19 had already started infecting people in China in December 2019, and the fires were still very much a worry when I first heard about the new corona virus in January. By the middle of March, the fires were out, but covid-19 was taking hold. Europe was the new centre of the pandemic and Australia got its stay-at-home orders. We’d come out of the fires and into a global pandemic that disrupted people’s lives all across the globe.
Once again, I felt as if I were living in an apocalyptic fiction novel.
Apocalyptic fiction and Covid-19
In fiction, an apocalyptic event is something disastrous enough that it changes the world as we know it. Apocalyptic fiction themes include environmental catastrophes (such as an exploding super volcano and the results of unmitigated climate change), alien invasion, solar flares frying all our electronics, a meteor or comet strike, AI’s taking over the world, nuclear war, and, of course, pandemics.
Covid-19 is not the end of the world, but it has changed the world—all of it. No country has been exempt. And though I’m reserving judgement on whether or not the Covid-19 pandemic is what I would call an apocalyptic event, I don’t doubt that its apocalyptic for those on the front line in the hospitals, particularly in Italy, Spain and New York. And for those dealing with the bodies. Those who have lost their jobs, their businesses, their loved ones, their homes, and/or their health are feeling the brunt of the pandemic, as are those who are stuck in a house they share with an abusive spouse or parent, or whose mental health is fragile and made worse by their circumstances. These kinds of experiences are the stuff of apocalyptic fiction.
We are all facing the pandemic, but we’re not all facing the same circumstances. Australia is relatively untouched compared to the USA because our government acted in time. There’s a big difference in risk between geographical areas and a big difference in how people experience the economic effects of the pandemic. Some of us are untouched other than what we see on the news or read in our newspapers, while others have lost everything. Apocalyptic fiction usually follows several characters to show the differing experiences and reactions to circumstances. We could all be one character in an apocalyptic fiction novel.
Apocalyptic fiction is fiction written about an apocalyptic event, not after it. It portraits the event, its immediate effects on the characters, and how they react to it. This, to some extent, is our present reality. A story set after the apocalyptic event, however, is called post-apocalyptic fiction.
When the first wave of infection is over, we’ll be left facing a new normal in which precautions to minimise the spread of infectious diseases will likely remain part of our life. At that point, we move into the realm of post-apocalyptic fiction.
Post-apocalyptic fiction deals with how people face the challenges of a changed world. The event that caused the changes is over, or over enough that people are trying to find their way in a changed but more stable world. They face the prospect of creating a new normal in a world where old rules don’t apply, where human behaviour must change in light of the apocalyptic event. Such books look into political, social and behavioural changes that could be expected in a changed world. The question such novels answer is, how will the characters adapt.
How will we adapt? The post-apocalyptic story of Covid-19 is not yet written.
Dystopian fiction and conspiracy theories
I sometimes wonder if those who subscribe to conspiracy theories read a bit too much dystopian fiction. Certainly the fanciful stories some come up with are the stuff of fiction. They play on people’s fears and provide scapegoats for people’s anger and fear. Having someone or something to blame for their misfortune gives people a bit of a sense of control over their lives when a traumatic event has thrown their lives into uncertainty.
They [conspiracy theories] are tools for imposing structure on an unpredictable and unforgiving world, thereby relieving stress and reducing anxiety. The less people feel in control of their world, however meek or grand, the more likely they are to seek out some method of restoring control — to fight their sense of powerlessness. The covid-19 pandemic is the ultimate power grab: No one knows when the threat will subside, what the economic impact will be or when a vaccine will be available. When events are, in actuality, out of our control, the psychological burden can be alleviated by turning to alternative explanations for events.Washington Post Corona virus conspiracy theories
If you look at the common conspiracy theories around Covid-19 (don’t get sucked in though!) you’ll see how some relate to fears that we may be heading towards a dystopian society.
According to a Read Write Think file, a dystopian world is one ‘in which oppressive societal control and the illusion of a perfect society are maintained through corporate, bureaucratic, technological, moral, or totalitarian control.’
The file lists the following characteristics of a Dystopian Society
- Propaganda is used to control the citizens of society.
- Information, independent thought, and freedom are restricted.
- A figurehead or concept is worshipped by the citizens of the society.
- Citizens are perceived to be under constant surveillance.
- Citizens have a fear of the outside world.
- Citizens live in a dehumanized state.
- The natural world is banished and distrusted.
- Citizens conform to uniform expectations. Individuality and dissent are bad.
- The society is an illusion of a perfect utopian world.
How does one get from an apocalyptic event to a dystopian world?
Dystopian fiction is not the same as post-apocalyptic fiction. A post-apocalyptic world is not necessarily a dystopian world. However, in fiction some apocalyptic event is often the inciting incident for the development of a society of greater governmental control and less individual freedom.
The usual progression of events is that of a population agreeing to restrictions on their freedom in order to survive an apocalyptic event, then in the post-apocalyptic phase of the society, the restrictions, rather than being rescinded are retained and tightened.
During the development of the dystopian society, misinformation becomes propaganda and the people’s understanding of what is real, what is actually happening, is distorted by the government to suit their purpose of control. Lies become the currency of power.
Generally, people who are bewildered about what to believe choose the safe route as outlined by their ever-more controlling government. They give up freedoms in the name of safety. Often, at some point, the iron grip of the dystopian government is enforced by police or military.
Misinformation and conspiracy theories are rife in our Covid-19 world making it hard for people who don’t check sources and use their critical thinking faculties to know what is real. Once people give up fact checking and believe whatever sounds reasonable to them regardless of whether or not it is true – as confirmed by verifiable facts/research – they’re on their way to being easily manipulated by propaganda and are already giving up their capacity for independent thought. The crazy thing is that those most into conspiracy theories often think that they are exercising independent thought. Certainly it’s independent from what the government wants us to believe, but is it true? That part isn’t given much thought by conspiracy theory adherents—if it were, they wouldn’t spread so fast and far. When belief becomes more important to people than facts, how we think things are can be vastly different to how they actually are.
For instance, Trump likes to say that the US is ‘doing really well’ in terms of ‘winning the war against Covid-19,’ but a single glance at the death tolls around the world tells a very different picture. Anyone who reads news from reputable sources of journalism knows that the US is doing worse than any other country in terms of the number of deaths and how the government has (mis)managed the public health emergency. But if the government insists on another version of reality and people are willing to go along with it to such an extent that the lies become widely accepted as truth, then the people can be easily manipulated, and their society could be on its way to becoming a dystopian society. The ability of people to find the truth, and recognise it, is vital for democracy.
The challenge of writing apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction
When writing apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction, you can’t just make things up. Yes, you make up the event, but if it’s not based on something that could happen, and if it doesn’t show people acting the kind of way that people actually would act in reality, then the book will have failed. Basing human behaviour in fiction on human behaviour in reality is what makes a story and characters believable. Fiction—even fantasy—is most powerful when it reflects aspects of reality.
The challenge of writing apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction is that every aspect of the disaster and the resultant effects on the society must be thought through, envisaged and incorporated into the story. That’s not easy, but living through Covid-19 will make it easier for any author who wants to include a pandemic in their apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic or dystopian fiction. We don’t have to use our imagination, we just have to watch what’s happening around us now.
The role of imagination in real life caution and solutions
Can we learn anything from fiction?
The Read Write Think file says, ‘Dystopias, through an exaggerated worst-case scenario, make a criticism about a current trend, societal norm, or political system.’
So dystopian novels can be tales of caution on how not to let an apocalypse lead to a dystopian society. They can point, through parallels and analogies, to where the danger signs may be in our own society and direction—for instance a president who lies without censor and whose version of events is believed by a large number of the population.
And post-apocalyptic fiction can provide imaginative ideas for possible solutions to real-life post-apocalyptic challenges. Certainly, such fiction can prepare us for the kinds of things we may face. If we’ve read a book that shows the kind of human behaviour we’re likely to see in a disaster, then if we ever meet with such a disaster, we will know what to expect. Of course, that’s assuming that the author has done their research and has written something based on reality, on how people actually do act in a disaster. Perhaps, inspired by a character in a novel, we’ll step into the role of hero.
How is the pandemic affecting you?
Examples of the apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic and dystopian fiction genres
Click here for examples of dystopian fiction on Amazon, but note that some of what appears in this list may be more post-apocalyptic than dystopian. I enjoyed the Variant saga and you would probably have heard of The Hunger Games and the Divergent series, both good examples of the genre.
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