Wednesday, June 28, 2017


As I write and think about the alternative futures of Dystopia and Apocalypse, it occurs to me that the picture isn't complete. It occurs to me also that I may have misinterpreted the meaning of Apocalypse. I'll go at this by first writing about Utopia and Dystopia.

Utopia came first, before Dystopia. The first Utopia to bear that name was in Sir Thomas More's work of 1516. Stories of Utopia have been a mainstay of literature since then. It was only in the nineteenth century--a century of utopian theorizing and attempts at utopian living--that Utopia met its opposite, the anti-utopia or Dystopia, which describes a perfectly awful society. In the twentieth century, stories of Dystopia overshadowed those of Utopia. That is to be expected, as people who had encountered utopian/totalitarian regimes woke up to the reality that Utopia is an impossibility and that every attempt at establishing Utopia on Earth ends in disaster.

So the dream is of Utopia and the reality is of Dystopia. Again, I don't think that any serious writer of the last fifty to one hundred years is or was foolish or na├»ve enough to have attempted a utopian story. (Stories of Lost Worlds may be the closest thing to it, but they are within the less serious pulp genres of science fiction, fantasy, etc.) Many, though, have written dystopian stories. Those stories have often succeeded as utopian stories once did, that is, as satires. Others have come as critiques, warnings, descriptions, or predictions. The point is that, given the fallen nature of humanity, Dystopia is a possibility, while Utopia will forever remain a pipe dream.

I wrote recently that Utopia and Apocalypse may well be impossible without the Christian notion of progress. Apocalypse, after all, is a book of the Bible and a synonym for revelation. We think of Apocalypse as a negative--a world-ending disaster. But that's our convention. In its original meaning, Apocalypse is positive, a revelation about the end of our current world and the ushering in of something better. In that sense, the word and idea of Apocalypse is more nearly analogous to Utopia than it is to Dystopia. What's missing is the Anti-Apocalypse, a thing for which there isn't any word as far as I know. Put another way, Utopia and Apocalypse are positive fantasies, while Dystopia and Anti-Apocalypse (i.e., a world-ending disaster) are closer to what could really happen on Earth, should events go a certain way. But to switch the meaning of the word apocalypse to its opposite would be confusing to say the least, and probably needless, too.

So should we then make a distinction between Apocalypse of the Christian variety, or at least as a positive story of end times (in which good finally triumphs over evil), and Anti-Apocalypse, which is what we now call Apocalypse? And if so, should we have a word for it? One of the reasons I ask is that we could make of all this a nice symmetry: Utopia and Apocalypse as positive, progressive genres (progressive in the sense that earthly progress is a possibility, at least in literature), and Dystopia and Anti-Apocalypse as negative, more nearly conservative genres (conservative in that they recognize man's fallen nature). In the positive genres, what is good in humanity would be put on display. In the negative genres, the opposite would be the case. One point to consider here is that the positive Apocalypse would be an explicitly Christian genre; the other three genres would not necessarily be so. (The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood is an example--actually a critique--of a Christian Dystopia. It suffers from the same problem utopian/dystopian literature does in general, i.e., a lack of plausibility.) Another question: Has there been any positive apocalyptic literature? I guess the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins might qualify, but I have never read any of these books. From what I know, a lot of really terrible things happen in them, but all in fulfillment of the prophecy of end times.

Anyway, I'll say it again, to make a distinction between the positive (Christian) Apocalypse and the negative (more nearly secular) Anti-Apocalypse is probably unnecessary. It would only confuse things. We're already having enough trouble trying to differentiate between Apocalypse (a world of extreme chaos) and Dystopia (a world of extreme order). I'm not sure why the distinction is so hard to understand, but people keep making the mistake. Let's keep reminding them of the difference.

Copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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