Brave New Worlds, an anthology of dystopian short fiction edited by John Joseph Adams, came my way via Netgalley. I knew I wanted to review this collection when I saw the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin, Paolo Bacigalupi, Cory Doctorow, and Kim Stanley Robinson, just to name a few, in the book’s table of contents. When the review copy landed in my inbox, it proved to be something unexpected. Rather than a complete anthology, Netgalley sent me the additions included in the book’s second edition: three new short stories and a few essays.
Ah well, better than nothing.
Even on their own, these three stories work quite well as explorations of dystopian themes. As ambassadors for the larger anthology, the works of Robert Reed, Jennifer Pelland, and Ken Liu demonstrate a sound understanding of what the sub-genre owes to past writers while simultaneously examining the innocuous but potentially dystopian elements of our own contemporary world.
For want of a full anthology to review, I thought it would be fun to drill down on the stories at my disposal.
The Cull by Robert Reed
Reed approaches the dystopia through the lens of a small colony of humans who have survived the collapse of civilization. While there is still some life left on the Earth, it endures in a handful of self-contained enclaves. Thought control and social engineering contribute to most of the story’s dystopian themes. The central conflict itself speaks to the more specific issue of managing exceptional people in a controlled environment.
Orlando, one of the story’s two central characters, is equal parts bully and genius. He believes himself to be special while living within a community which necessitates an enforced egalitarianism as a means of survival. As readers we’re left to wonder if genius is capable of elevating a small community, or if such natural talent is inherently destructive for its tendency to raise the individual above society?
Personal Jesus by Jennifer Pelland
Personal Jesus is an exposition on American theocracy. Set in the near-future, the story reads as an informational brochure for new arrivals into the Ecumenical States of America. Within this devoutly protestant nation, citizens are expected to wear a “personal Jesus,” which monitors their actions for any indications of sin. The device and the state it represents are couched within the language of loving correction, but ultimately they create a national panopticon, complete with all the Orwellian trappings of anonymous informers, thought control, and forfeiture of self to a greater power.
The story evokes memories of Robert Heinlein’s If This Goes On, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and even some elements of Frank Miller’s “Martha Washington” series of graphic novels. Fascinating as the story is from a thematic point of view, Personal Jesus leaves any immediate plot or conflict as a purely sub-textual element. I would be quite surprised to find out this piece isn’t a Rosetta Stone to a larger work.
The Perfect Match by Ken Liu
Liu plays the allegory very close to the surface in his tale of technological ubiquity. In fact, I was quite leery of this story when protagonist Sai talks to an AI named “Tilly”, who acts as a combination of personal assistant and life coach, and subsequently chides his neighbour for the technophobia she directs against search engine turned tech giant Centillion. Yet the narrative, through a few twists and turns, proves wholly satisfying. Equally interesting is the The Perfect Match’s discussion on the digital age turning humans into Cyborgs, after the fashion of Donna Haraway.
The most compelling question is found when Centillion’s CEO asks Sai what he expects to find in an off-the-grid world where privacy is “protected.” Amid real world discussions on Facebook and Google mining personal information, it seems apropos for Liu to examine the endgame from both perspectives. How do we reconcile a desire, perhaps even a need, to be connected with privacy as an abstract concept? The Perfect Match does not attempt to answer these questions outright. Instead it positions itself as a think piece, challenging readers to consider technological integration, and its market impact, as an imperfect solution for an imperfect species. Is a Google crafted infosphere not a better thing than some Hobbesian state of nature? Is the self-same data aggregator a gilded cage, or a study in practical post-industrial efficiency?
With only these stories as a sample of the entire anthology, I’m quite confident Brave New Worlds would appeal to readers with even a passing interest in exploring dystopian themes.
Brave New Words
Edited by: John Joseph Adams
Published by: Night Shade Books