With the abundance (dare I say over-abundance) of futuristic YA novels on the market there's been a lot of discussion about the definition of a dystopia, which is how many of these novels are being classified. Basically, dystopia has become the term for any futuristic, post-apocalyptic setting. My problem with this is that dystopia is really a much more specific term.
A dystopia is a society that masquerades as a utopia (a perfect society) while really things are not as awesome as they appear. A dystopia is dysfunctional utopia.
Even wikipedia agrees with me on this folks. And we all know how error-proof wikipedia is.
I think the confusion comes in because many post-apocalyptic novels are also dystopias. In these instances, the world has experienced some horrible cataclysmic event and in rebuilding the world a dystopia arises. However, it doesn't always work the other way around. Just because you are reading something that's post-apocalyptic doesn't mean that it's a dystopia.
Let's look at a few examples.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932)
1984 by George Orwell (1949)
The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)
In all three of these examples, those in charge strive to give the impression that their people live in an ideal world, but it's really not so great whether because of strict class-structure and indoctrination, Big Brother and lack of individual freedom, or violent subterranean creatures who make the idyllic life of the surface-dwellers possible.
The Giver by Lois Lowry (1993)
One of the classics of children's literature, in The Giver Jonas lives in a seemingly perfect society, no pain, no fear, no choices. Obviously giving up those things is not so awesome.
Matched by Ally Condie (2010)
Another world where the keepers of society are in complete control. The book begins with Cassia receiving her Match--her future husband, chosen, of course by The Society.
Uglies by Scott Westerfeld (2005)
Again, a shiny, shiny, seemingly perfect world where life is fun and everyone is equally beautiful but ... also equally complacent.
YA post-apocalyptic novels that are not dystopias
The Forest of Hands and Feet by Carrie Ryan (2009)
Sure the Sisterhood is a controlling government/ religion but nobody in this book thinks they live in an ideal world. As a result of the zombie apocalypse humans must live in cages to keep out the zombie hordes.
The Maze Runner by James Dashner (2009)
A bunch of boys are dumped into a ever-changing maze with deadly machine creatures. What sounds ideal about that?
Wither by Lauren DeStafano (2011)
In this novel the children and children's children of the one and only disease-free generation die at 20 or 25. Obviously the world does not seem like an ideal place.
Novels that are tricky to classify
Who wants everything to fit neatly into a little box anyway?
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2009)
If Katniss lived in the Capitol and slowly came to realize that she'd been indoctrinated into thinking the Districts were inferior then The Hunger Games would be a dystopia. However, Katniss lives in District 12 and has no such illusion. She knows her world is a pretty crummy place to be. Thus, I'm not comfortable calling this series dystopian. Better just stick with post-apocalyptic.
Incarceron by Catherine Fisher (2007)
The characters who live outside of Incarceron in The Realm live in a seemingly ideal world. Those who live inside Incarceron, on the other hand, have a harrowing existence. Because we follow characters from both sides of the border, this novel has dystopian elements as well as non-dystopian elements.
There are, of course, apocalyptic novels as well--novels that deal not with the aftermath of the cataclysmic event but with the actual event itself.
How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff (2004)
Daisy's idyllic life in the English countryside come to an abrupt halt when the country is invaded.
Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer (2007)
Miranda lives in a world just like ours until a meteor knocks the moon closer to the earth causing all kinds of devastation.
Author Erin Bowman made a flow chart (that I can mostly get behind) to help determine whether or not the novel you are reading is, in fact, a dystopia.