Apr 13 2011 10:00am

Apocalypse Now—and Forever: The Allure of Dystopian Romance

“Stronger than a mushroom cloud” image

Publishing has given rise to a new sub-genre of romance: The dystopian romance. Love in the time of the apocalypse. For those of you wondering (for what it is worth, I had to look this up the first time I heard the term), the official definition of dystopia is:

a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding. OR: an imaginary place where everything is as bad as it can be [C19 (coined by John Stuart Mill ): from dys- + Utopia ]

Myself, I think of dystopia as the opposite of utopia. Which is why I kind of love the idea of combining dystopia and romance. Total devastation. New relationship. At first glance, it’s a complete mismatch. Romance is theoretically flowers and candy and sunshine and happiness, not the annihilation of the Earth, the complete breakdown of society, and the creation of zombie creatures.

Aftertime by Sophie LittlefieldBut when you delve deeper, combining the two concepts makes a wicked sense. To come out on top of both the struggle to survive and the struggle to love, you need trust and hope. The idea that love and romance triumph, even out of tragedy, is heady.

I’ve read several dystopian series lately, but I’m going to focus on two specific series which treat the apocalypse and the resultant fallout very differently, but no less dramatically.

In Aftertime by Sophie Littlefield (Luna Books, February 2011), Cass Dollar, the heroine, is a recovering addict whose main goal in life is to regain custody of her daughter.

Even after the complete dissolution of the world’s infrastructure and the death of a huge percentage of the population, one thing keeps her going—the love she has for her daughter. Along the way, she hooks up with Smoke, a shadowy figure who seems to be helping her out of kindness. But undercurrents, primarily Cass’s inability to love herself and the secrets Smoke is keeping, swirl between the two of them. Littlefield’s apocalypse is more a blend of horror and romance, revealing the darker side of human nature. But even with the dark elements, an uplifting sense of hope prevails at the end of the book. There are two more books coming in this series and I can’t wait to see what happens with Cass next.

Beyond the Night by Joss WareThe Envy Chronicles series by Joss Ware treats the apocalypse differently. Without spoilers, the world suffers a massive earthquake, all technology is lost, and Las Vegas (N.V., hence Envy) is now the West Coast of the U.S. In Beyond the Night (Avon, January 2010), Elliott and his friends are in a cave when the earthquake hits and they awaken 50 years later (each with a new paranormal power) to find the world a vastly different place.

This sets up an interesting dichotomy because the majority of the citizens don’t know what the world was like before The Change. But Elliott and his friends mourn the loss of life as they knew it, which helps the reader make the transition to the new world as well. When Elliott meets Jade, a woman born after the Change who's emotionally scarred by her time as a slave, the two have to work together to mount a resistance against the Strangers. Through his love for Jade, Elliott finds a haven in the new world.

With each successive book in the series (Embrace the Night Eternal, Abandon the Night, and Night Betrayed), Ware reveals more about the evil plot by The Strangers who created this new reality and about how people survived right after the cataclysmic event that changed the world. Each book features a different hero/heroine pair with different internal conflicts to overcome but ultimately love prevails.

I love thinking about will happens if the worst occurs. How will we survive? Eat? Communicate? Govern? Post-apocalyptic books explore humanity’s survival against impossible odds. Which just about sums up falling in love with all its risks and rewards.

The parallels between the apocalypse and falling in love, our transition from old comforting world to new crazy world, are eerily similar. To put the two together makes perfect sense.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out's Dystopia Week, going on now.


“Stronger than a mushroom cloud” sunset image courtesy of fantasyfan via Flickr


Lisa Hughey is an avid romance reader and an aspiring author. She has several projects under submission with publishers and spends her time on the web at and on Twitter @lisahughey

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Bella Street
1. bellastreet
Great article! I think romance is best when it springs from the worst circumstances.

I'm working on a series that reflects that.
Donna Cummings
2. Donna Cummings
I wish I could feel the love for dystopia, but it's not something that appeals to me. I have no doubt the stories are well-written and entertaining, and I'm glad they are available for the audience that enjoys them, but it's a world that's too bleak for me. :)
Lisa Hughey
3. LisaHughey
@bellastreet Yes! Apocalypse/post-apocalypse is a a great frame for romance :)

@Donna As a reader I enjoy reading them. As a writer, I've attempted them and can't quite get to the dark place :)
4. CindyS
I have to get those Joss Ware books pronto - I judged those books by their covers and for some reason thought they were contemporary romance.

I can't say I've read a lot of dystopia fiction but when it comes to movies and TV shows I can't not watch them. So I definitely need to try some of these stories and see what works for me.

5. Stephen Graff
I like the bleakness of dystopian fiction. It was my favorite kind of fiction to read when I was in high school. But the best of the genre has elements of hope woven into the storylines, and combining this bleak aesthetic with romance can make for a great read.
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