Zombie nation: Our enduring fascination with a world full of death and destruction

A new season of shows on Radio 4 is inspired by dark tales of future dystopias. Meanwhile, zombies are marauding in the multiplexes, says Natalie Haynes.

When the end of days finally comes, what form will it take? A meteor spinning towards the Earth? Nuclear annihilation? Zombie apocalypse? And what if it turns out not to be the end at all, but the beginning of a new, different world order?

These are questions that have plagued and inspired authors and screenwriters for decades. Now Radio 4 and its sister station, 4 Extra, have given up running from the ravening hordes and declared a Dangerous Visions season: focusing on dystopias in some of their many guises.

When he coined the word "dystopia" in 1868 (he offered cacotopia, too, but it didn't catch on), John Stuart Mill probably didn't realise the gift he was giving to generations of sci-fi fans. Dystopias are the dark futures we can't resist, and they evolve to match our contemporary fears and obsessions.

Dystopias have always offered an opportunity to write about totalitarian governments, from Brave New World and 1984 right the way through to V for Vendetta and Judge Dredd. But the post-apocalyptic dystopias which peppered pop culture throughout the Cold War have largely been replaced. I remember being terrified by Robert O'Brien's Z For Zachariah when I was a child. It tells the story of Ann, a 16-year-old girl who has survived the nuclear disaster which has destroyed almost everyone else.

But as the threat of nuclear annihilation faded, so did the dystopian visions it inspired. Now, when we think of a post-nuclear dystopia, it's more likely to be a dirty bomb going off in the middle of a capital city – and the travails of those who survive and try to carve out a new life – than mushroom clouds and mass extinction.

It's surely this fascination with survival in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds that has prompted the renaissance of the undead dystopia. The zombie apocalypse won't lie down and die, certainly not if it can mumble something about brains and stagger down the street behind you. This year has already seen a zombie love story (Warm Bodies), a zombie family drama (In the Flesh) and it's about to see a zombie survival guide (World War Z).

The popular obsession with zombies surely stems from the way they represent so much that seems to have gone wrong in modern society, as all good dystopias do. Zombies are the ultimate failed consumer: always hungry, never satisfied. That's why they're so often found in shopping malls. And – worse – they spread their contagion to the innocent. One bite and you too could be nothing more than a shambling id.

Zombies have been so successful at representing our fears for the future that writers are trying to find new ways of creating them. Adrian Barnes (whose quasi-zombie novel, Nod, was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award this year), tapped into another widespread contemporary fear: that no one is getting enough sleep. In his dystopia, all but a few people lose the ability to sleep. What starts as one bad night soon becomes a waking nightmare, as irritability turns to madness and desperation. The sleepless soon become as predatory and aggressive as any zombie.

At the same time, fans are waiting for MaddAdam, the final part of Margaret Atwood's dystopian trilogy which began with Oryx and Crake, to be published in August. In 1985, Atwood created one of most enduring dystopian texts with The Handmaid's Tale. Other reproductive dystopias followed (almost always written by women), from PD James's The Children of Men to Jane Rogers' award-winning The Testament of Jessie Lamb, which will feature as a five-part serialisation in the BBC dystopia season.

Jessie Lamb lives in a terrifying future, where women have been infected with an airborne contaminant which causes maternal death syndrome. Never has the idea that getting pregnant can ruin your life been given such impetus. As more and more women need fertility treatment in the real world, Rogers caught the perfect moment for her story. Crucially, she realised it wasn't a giant leap, from a few women facing a personal fertility crisis to all women facing a global one.

It's the opposite problem that faces the ever-imperilled Robert Langdon in Dan Brown's Inferno. There, projected over-population and resource- sapping destruction is the future that some are trying to avoid (I won't spoil the end, in case you have your eye on it for a holiday read). Over-population and over-consumption don't cause all environmental dystopias, though. In JG Ballard's The Drowned World (which will also appear in the Radio 4 season) it's solar flares which have caused the atmosphere to go crazy and the world to become watery.

Perhaps the oddest thing about dystopic fiction is how enduringly popular it is in all of its forms. Why are so many of us drawn to the idea of a damaged world, especially when it's so often worse than the one we inhabit? Perhaps Ballard understood that lure better than most: his heroes tend to relish the more solitary existence which dystopias often provide. They're more than willing to exchange creature comforts for peace and quiet.

It's a rare vision of the future which makes it look like a genuinely preferable place to live than the present. Fiction tends to romanticise the past, whether it's a modern creation like Downton Abbey or a period adaptation such as Great Expectations. Even if poverty and disease stalk the land, our heroes have close family and good friends to rely upon. But in the future, that's usually changed for the worse. A futuristic hero has to rely on himself and no one else. Just ask Blade Runner's Rick Deckard.

In other words, dystopias let us position ourselves at a point on a path of infinite decline, from wholesome past to terrifying future. While we strive to conquer disease and our environment, we unleash a whole new set of problems. Can anyone be happy in such a future? Well, according to Wall-E (easily the sweetest dystopian film ever made), the answer is yes. So long as we take responsibility for ourselves, and watch Hello, Dolly! every now and then, we'll be fine.

Dangerous Visions runs on Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra until 23 June