Even people who don’t usually read science fiction will often be familiar with a few classic titles in the “dystopian SF” sub-genre. After all, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and of course the famous Aldous Huxley novel Brave New World are some of the few SF titles that have entered the mainstream literary canon to such an extent that they’ve become assigned school reading for many students. However, novel-length dystopian SF didn’t stop with those venerable classics, and can even be said to be thriving at the moment. See, for example, the recent success of Paolo Bacigalupi’s debut The Windup Girl — admittedly one of the finest SF novels of the last few years, but undoubtedly even more successful because its vision of an environmentally ruined future taps into many people’s concerns over one of the biggest challenges of our time. In fantasy, there seems to be a similar revival of darker and grittier books that mirrors this renewed popularity of gloomy genre fiction. There are even dystopian YA novels out there.
Less well known but equally deserving of our attention are the many excellent short stories written in the sub-genre. To rectify this situation, we now have Brave New Worlds, a brand new anthology of dystopian SF short stories edited by John Joseph Adams. And, while “definitive” is not a word to be thrown around lightly, in this case it’s more than appropriate: Brave New Worlds is as perfect an anthology as you could hope for, and if there’s ever a college-level class about dystopian SF, this book is almost guaranteed to be assigned reading.
One of the great things about a broad anthology like this one, collecting 33 different stories that still all fall under the umbrella of dystopian SF, is that you get the chance to sample a large variety of styles and approaches. Classics and brand new stories, short vignettes and longer tales, and almost every variety of what could constitute a dystopia: age discrimination — against the old AND the young; sexual discrimination — against women, men, or based on sexual orientation (both hetero- and homosexual); environmentally damaged worlds; societies with too many babies, not enough babies, or even no babies at all; people living too long; people dying too soon. Almost anything that could conceivably go wrong with our world goes wrong in one or more of these stories.
Another result of reading so many different stories that still broadly fall in the same category is that it will inevitably lead you to notice the common threads that run through all of them, e.g. the common story dynamic of conflict between two or more characters is often replaced by the conflict between character and society. More interestingly, John Joseph Adams points out in his introduction to the anthology: “Whether or not a society is perceived as a dystopia is usually determined by one’s point of view; what one person may consider to be a horrible dystopia, another may find completely acceptable or even nigh-utopian”. The inhabitants of these broken, damaged societies have often become used to whatever miserable set of circumstances they are living in. In some cases, they are no longer even aware that things used to be different and have started considering their current lives as acceptable by default. This leads to some stories that generate a sense of discomfort so acute that it borders on the claustrophobic. The strongest stories in this collection verge on horror, although of the psychological or even existential kind rather than blood and gore. There are a few stories in Brave New Worlds that will simply stay with you forever — and whenever literature can do that to you, you know you’ve got a winner in your hands.
Brave New Worlds contains a whopping 33 stories, delivering great value for your money but making it hard to write something meaningful about every single one without ending up with an extremely long review. So instead, here are my personal favorites in the order in which they appear in the anthology:
“The Funeral” by Kate Wilhelm is one of those stories that feels as if you’re seeing a five minute glimpse of a brilliant movie that has an elaborate plot you can only guess at. You know there’s a lot going on, even if you don’t really grasp all of it. It’s also over much too soon.
“O Happy Day!” by Geoff Ryman is another stunning, claustrophobic story that focuses on a very small — and very dark — part of a much larger conflict. (Geoff Ryman actually has two stories in the anthology, which struck me as a great, confident decision on the part of the editor: both stories are excellent, so why choose one over the other?)
“Pop Squad” by Paolo Bacigalupi was (for me at least) the standout story in the author’s brilliant collection Pump Six and Other Stories, so I’m glad to see it included in this anthology. There’s a lot going on here, some of it brutally evident and some of it much more subtle, but as with all of these stories I’d rather let you discover it for yourself than describe it here in too much detail.
While these three stories all get an unqualified five stars from me, Matt Williamson’s “Sacrament” somehow outdid them all with its outrageous juxtaposition of cold-eyed, rational horror and spine-tingling beauty. There are two distinct parts to the story, and the way they combine at the end is so powerful that reading it for the first time was a stunning experience. Not for the first time when finishing a story in Brave New Worlds, I had to close the book and walk away for a second to let it all sink in. According to John Joseph Adams’ typically insightful and thoughtful introduction to the story, Matt Williamson is currently working on his first novel, and I for one am very excited to read it.
And then, towards the end, there’s “Jordan’s Waterhammer” by Joe Mastroiani, another gem with such a chilling and gorgeous conclusion that I still get chills thinking about it. In between these five superb examples of short form SF, you’ll find a collection of excellent stories, including some established classics as well as many great entries by newer authors. Even though everyone will have their favorites and their least favorites, Brave New Worlds doesn’t contain any story that’s less than excellent, which is quite rare for such a large anthology.
If you’re not convinced yet, please check out the anthology’s great companion website, where you’ll find some free sample stories (some also available in audio format) as well as fascinating short interviews with some of the stories’ authors, my favorite being Joe Mastroiani’s because it puts the story’s world in more detail and heightened my appreciation even more.
It doesn’t happen very often that you find an anthology that’s perfectly executed from start to finish, but Brave New Worlds is exactly that. The stories in this collection are science fiction in the truest sense of the word, starting from an often painful sociological premise and extrapolating it to the most private and emotional aspects of our lives. The only reasons I can think of for not liking this book would be if you have an aversion to either dystopian SF or short fiction. If you don’t fall in either of those categories, you simply won’t find a finer anthology than Brave New Worlds.