Its tilt towards recent works--that move forward from the smartphones, hookups, medications, and media feeds which enslave and seduce us--serves as an entertaining but chilling warning of where our world appears to be headed.
Two-thirds of these cautionary tales have been published the past decade; all of them regarded as classic stories by leading writers. Perhaps the impact of 9/11, the Internet and smartphones, and especially the Patriot Act have seared into recent contributors’ imaginations dangers that creep up on these inhabitants of worlds gone wrong. Many stories extrapolate from where we are now. They hint at rather than highlight coming danger.
John Joseph Adams, a prolific anthologist of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, introduces his 33 entries from 32 visionaries. He defines dystopia from the Greek for "bad + place". He reminds us that, unlike post-apocalyptic stories (another anthology of his), society plays the antagonist, not the protagonist. Future systems may be totalitarian or authoritarian, but in many newer contributions, surveillance creeps in via the personal device that may be our iPad or BlackBerry or laptop, a few generations later but with far more efficient apps. Those controlling networks in many stories gradually elaborate upon what we already encounter under the increasing overlap of state with corporation, boss with politician, judge with supervisor.
Most societies do not start out, Adams notes, intending to rule as dystopias. Well-meaning bureaucrats or enforcers may want to control breeding, enhance productivity, boost happiness, sustain moral allegiance or social order, combat crime, or save the planet. Liberties erode softly, as laws sharpen and penalties increase. This evolution, as many stories sketch, occurs subtly, not suddenly. Adams considers how dystopians agree to "give up A in exchange for B, but the benefit of it"– fewer babies, religious conformity, sexual liberation, Second Amendment rights, job security, guaranteed food or housing, say– "blinds the society to the loss of A." This loss often does not register with citizens until it is too late. Not all of the protagonists, without spoiling any endings, find cheerful conclusions to their struggles against watchful systems so embedded within daily life.
The arrangement arcs well. The stories begin centered on families and parents and children. After Shirley Jackson’s "The Lottery", S.B. Gilbow’s "Red Card" and Joseph Paul Haines’ "Ten With a Flag" raise similar scenarios based on sudden death or an advanced gamble on social security as a citizen’s right. Ursula Le Guin’s acclaimed parable "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" shows one child’s plight as the bargain made for a society’s hedonism and happiness. M. Rickert’s "Love in the Case of Abandonment" conflates an anti-abortion regime with public spectacle that updates a version of Jackson’s lottery. Kate Wilhelm’s gothic matriarchy in "The Funeral" conjures up a sinister manse more Hawthorne than Edward Gorey, one full of shadows and suggestions of social regression, common to those dystopias here that revived the Religious Right, after a massive disaster, as a triumphant force in America.
Certainly "O Happy Day!" by Geoff Ryman upends this: what if gays and women won? Testosterone levels alter the violent and aggressive males in society; heterosexual males turn into scapegoats. "Pervert" by Charles Coleman Finley envisions where "homosexual and hydrosexual" prove the only acceptable options for a humanity again segregated by sex outside of their mandated opportunity to procreate, if not in the traditional manner. Neil Gaiman and Bryan Talbot give a brief graphic-art version of our if culture erased of any contributions of gays: "From Homogenous to Honey".
The next section shifts into the world of heterosexual reproduction, stymied, controlled, or demanded. J. G. Ballard’s "Billennium" crams all of humanity into high rises with diminishing personal space, as all the world outside the cities is given over to feeding a voracious populace. Vaughn’s "Amaryllis" responds with an ecologically responsible method: people are rewarded in a world decimated by environmental damage with the chance to bear a child only after proving their communal worth.
Paolo Bacigalupi, in a standout story, "Pop Squad", incorporates the tone of a cop-thriller into his situation where bearing babies is a capital crime: for the infants. James Morrow’s "Auspicious Eggs" may take too broad a tragicomic approach with a non-credible Catholic Church in post-global warming Boston, but he’s a gifted satirist. "The Church of the Immediate Conception" (obsessed with the "Doctrine of Affirmative Fertility", the "Sacrament of Extramarital Intercourse", and the fearsome if logical "Sacrament of Terminal Baptism") applies a reductio ad absurdum Catholic moral theology to the most audacious tale included here.
Next, life not terminated but extended makes Alex Irvine’s "Peter Skilling" a compact reminder of how the current "war on terror" could rationally expand into an American nation scientifically advanced while, a century from now, even more manically determined to control individual actions and crush civil liberties. Robots and cameras ensure law and order: all is recorded.
Vigilant machines patrol some of the strongest stories in this collection. I found Ray Bradbury’s "The Pedestrian" too pedestrian compared to Cory Doctorow’s impressively structured "The Things That Make Me Weak and Strange Get Engineered Away" and the suggestive, but enigmatic "The Pearl Diver" by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Both end with haunting moments experienced by protagonists trying to make a living in offices that appear familiar, those you and I may sit in, in front of keyboards and screens, but a few decades hence, environments not easily escaped even when one goes home. Portable and ubiquitous, networks never get turned off.
Ryman returns with "Dead Space for the Unexpected", which embeds a computer planning tool that doubles as an instant performance job review monitor to devastating impact. This story, more than any other, fits what systems now do, ramped up marginally, to edge from corporate efficiency into soulless brutality. The progression appears utterly convincing, and perhaps as inevitable as the newest version of Microsoft Office or an iPhone app, a few years from now.
Why read such stories rather than more escapist, more ameliorative fare? You may be living in a dystopia and not know it; many stories feature a worker’s gradual realization of his or her unhappiness within what always seemed the natural way of making a living, of getting by. This accounts for their allure: we may be, with our own devices, already entering these futures. The morning that I began reading this big book, my city’s internet-cable provider went down on New Year’s Day, so nobody could watch the Rose Parade or the football bowls. I wonder how many Angelenos figured a personal dystopia signaled by no media signal had been beamed into their living rooms, right on time with our new decade?
Direct transmissions to monitor output, behavior, and dreams come next. Harlan Ellison’s "‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman" despite its time-efficiency emphasis, in its Kurt Vonnegut Sixties tone feels dated (Vonnegut’s "Harrison Bergeron" is included), but Ellison’s prediction of how a gadget-laden vocabulary evolves energizes his idea. Genevieve Valentine’s "Is This Your Day to Join the Revolution?" and Sarah Langan’s "Independence Day" feature propaganda fed into citizens. Valentine’s dystopia manufactures pathogens and their antidotes, perhaps, to keep the alert nation in perpetual uncertainty. Pranksters complicate this scenario: are they planted by the Department of Information, or genuine dissidents trying to expose the cover-up? Meanwhile, the Department’s videos assure that "It’s easy to be a good citizen! We need what you know!" For Langan’s characters, the feed is direct: via a port installed in the back of every American’s neck that wires unsettled patients to a confessional robot doctor. More than one story anticipates a combination of data, drugs, and entertainment which will be hooked up to the body and mind by a central network, corporate and political, media and medical.
"Sacrament" combines enormous corporate-logo art forms injected into the atmosphere with torture of those interrogated for terrorism caused by the same material that enabled these installments. Matt Williamson’s originality and intensity remain noteworthy, and a novel expanded from these vibrant elements may allow him the space to stir his paired scenarios into a vibrant depiction. The story for all its range needed a broader canvas for its vision to enlarge.
Philip K. Dick’s "The Minority Report" gained fame from its film adaptation; his story blends pulp fiction within a Cold War ambiance; this paranoia dominates for contemporary authors. "Just Do It" from Heather Lindsley emphasizes a favorite theme of Dick, the consumer state’s inescapable branding and relentless advertising. She applies behavior modification towards a very direct approach of targeting a customer.
Robert Silverberg’s "Caught in the Organ Draft" as with other countercultural-era stories deserves recognition, even if its Vietnam War allusions prove a drag compared to the energy of newer contenders. Orson Scott Card’s "Geriatric Ward" follows neatly, if poignantly, in a future where Premature Aging Phenomenon brings on senility to even the still-youthful. This ends powerfully, a moving example of the humanist message within many of these stories.
"Arties Aren’t Stupid" by Jeremiah Tolbert returns to a stratified world of humans relegated to special tasks, an update on Aldous Huxley’s own "Brave New World." Tolbert, as with Huxley, deftly deploys such slang as a near-future society will develop out of our vernacular. Adam-Troy Castro’s ambitious "Of A Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs" makes sense out of this title as he conjures up a city-state that recalls Le Guin’s Omelas, where nine days of wonder alternate with one day of a living hell, the price paid for admission to earthly paradise.
Two stories take place beneath the surface of societies, within their own dark hells. With "The Lunatics," Kim Stanley Robinson provides an underground lunar work team sentenced to extract the mineral core of a sentient moon; Joe Mastroianni’s "Jordan’s Waterhammer" (separated by a few stories later) examines how a race of quasi-Morlocks might evolve their own secret scripture as a means towards their own salvation and liberation as they struggle towards a dignity from which they have been nearly severed.
"Resistance" from Tobias S. Buckell soars into space, or at least a space station where a community has gradually given up their decision-making powers to Pan, a benevolent dictator who combines the wishes of his constituents to produce a model society. Buckell integrates the social message into an intelligent parable about the costs and benefits of the types of computer-assisted pattern recognition programs designed by futurists today.
"Civilization" by Vylar Kaftan reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s story, "Happy Endings". It shares the mix-and-match elements of what can happen as societies evolve towards war or peace, stagnation or innovation, force or consensus. And, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale appears among recommended reading of dystopian (and a few utopian) fictional works, compiled as an appendix by Ross E. Lockhart.
When some of the weakest stories (if only by comparison) that I found were by masters of science fiction Bradbury, Silverberg, and Ellison, this attests to the strength of the entire anthology. No story fails. Adams’ tight arrangement works. When I first scanned its table of contents, I wondered why so few classic stories had been chosen. But this balance (as I have shown here by mentioning every inclusion) succeeds. Its tilt towards recent works--that move forward from the smartphones, hookups, medications, and media feeds which enslave and seduce us--serves as an entertaining but chilling warning of where our world appears to be headed.