Today is the last day of Dystopian February, so I must post my review! I had thought to re-read a classic, but in the end I chose an anthology, and have already discussed a few of its stories in my latest SF Signal column. The book I selected was John Joseph Adams’ Brave New Worlds, a large, somewhat imposing anthology of dystopian tales that draws deep from the well of 20th-century short fiction. The book is full of excellent stories, old and new, and while seem only slightly inspired by the dystopian spirit, the collection demonstrates the breadth of approaches that are informed by it.
The anthology opens with an introduction by the editor, who frames the collected tales as not just about politics: “the best dystopias speak to the deeper meanings of what it is to be one small part of a teeming civilization. . . and of what it is to be human.” While I prefer a more politically-conscious and engaged idea of dystopia, this collection does exhibit a range of insights into the human response to the social effects of dysfunctional or oppressive systems.
Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” enhances this idea as the lead story. As Lenore pointed out in her review of the story, its power lies in the combination of normalcy and acquiescence that infuses the writing itself. We get none of the common dystopic tropes: there is not alienated member rebelling against the society, the power dynamics are buried under layers of banality and any sense of politics is kept far in the background. What we do get is a chilling tale with a fatalistic sense of closure and an implied lesson on accepting evil as an everyday need.
The stories that follow tend to be less subtle, although the themes of assimilation via obedience to oppression, and of embracing violence as a norm, appears in a number of ways. S. L. Gilbow’s “The Red Card” normalizes vengeance as an act that government and society can control. Geoff Ryman’s wrenching “O Happy Day” humanizes the effects of a genocidal revolution on those who are a part of the system and those who are its victims, and demonstrates that the line between those distinctions is artificial. Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “The Pearl Diver” demonstrates the trauma that complete surveillance can have on a person’s psyche, a violence that tears at the mind and spirit directly.
It is edifying to compare these stories to some of the more classic tales, such as Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” (which is one of my favorite stories). The power of dystopian ideas to shape style comes out strongly throughout the anthology. Sometimes that power directly fuels the progress of the story, as in Paolo Bacigalupi’s harrowingly disjunctive “Pop Squad” with its direct utopian/dystopian contrast and the brutal effects of that contrast’s dissonance on the central character. Sometimes it sends the story a bit off-track, which I found in Cory Doctorow’s “The Things that Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away.” Despite a fantastic title, that story was not as affecting as many of the others, clever in some of its ideas but with neither the shock nor the empathy that engaged me in most of the collection. The stories that I found most compelling were not just built on interesting ideas, but got the characters to inhabit them.
In most of the stories presented, this is what makes them effective: there are profound disconnects in the world the characters dwell in, and significant consequences that saturate their thoughts and actions. A few stories fell short of fulfilling that goal, while others found innovative ways to attain it; this was especially true in Carrie Vaughn’s story “Amaryllis,” which feels unlike any dystopian story I have read, and imparts its tale with a shrewd, quotidian style that surprises you in the end. The strength of this collection is that, despite an initial sensation of similarity, the stories are not just examples of dystopian literature, but active employers of that spirit to tell us many different things about what makes us human.