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Brave New Worlds
edited by John Joseph Adams
Night Shade Books, 481 pages

Brave New Worlds
John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is the editor of such anthologies as Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse (Night Shade Books, January 2008), Seeds of Change (Prime Books, Summer 2008), and The Living Dead (Night Shade Books, Fall 2008). He was also the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and is now the editor of Lightspeed and Fantasy Magazine. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from The University of Central Florida in December 2000. He currently lives in New Jersey.

John Joseph Adams Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Living Dead 2
SF Site Review: The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
SF Site Review: Federations
SF Site Review: Wastelands
SF Site Review: Wastelands

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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Dystopias have almost as long a history as their twin, the utopia. But it was the 20th century when dystopias really came into their own, in novels such as Zamyatin's We, Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984 and Karp's One. Indeed it is possible to view the 20th century as the dystopian century, not just because of the prevalence of dystopias as a literary form but also because of the political horrors that provided so much inspiration. That said, it becomes hard to see how John Joseph Adams's anthology "collecting all the best, classic works of dystopian short fiction" can find nothing earlier than 1948. Even more astounding is the fact that 18 of the 33 stories were first published within the last ten years. One is from 2010 and three more from 2009, not a lot of time in which to acquire classic status. And indeed few, if any, of the contemporary stories have a resonance that comes anywhere close to the older works. And if I have problems with Adams's notion of "classic," I find myself equally uncomfortable with his idea of what constitutes a dystopia, and perhaps more fundamentally with his organizing principle.

Let us take the latter first. There is nothing overt in the structure of the book. He starts with the oldest story here, "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson, but then follows that with one of the more recent ones, "Red Card" by S.L. Gilbow, so there is no chronological structure involved. Nor does he divide what is really a very long book into sections, so he doesn't draw attention to any organizing principle here. But as you read the Gilbow you realize that, structurally and thematically, it is a direct lift from the Jackson that immediately precedes it. Around the middle of the book, we encounter so many consecutive stories in which the dystopian theme concerns our right to conceive or raise children that I, for one, began to suspect some sort of monomania, as if Adams could envisage no utopian/dystopian structure that isn't about parenting. Then as the collection starts to run down towards its end another cluster of stories focus on the beginnings of revolt against the dystopian regime. There are other clusters within the book, so that it often feels not so much as if we are reading one big themed anthology so much as a whole series of mini-themed anthologies all jammed together.

It's not as if Adams actually does anything with these clusters, pointing out the continuities and discontinuities, establishing any sort of dialogue between the ideas. Rather, it feels as if he just decided that, since they were doing the same thing, he'd group them together. Which does no favours to any of the works featured. Putting the Gilbow (a US gun-lobby wet dream in which people can acquire the right to shoot and kill anyone, no questions asked) immediately after the Jackson (a far more subtle and ultimately nastier take on the malevolence of chance), only serves to highlight how much Gilbow has taken from Jackson, and how feeble his effort is in comparison. While I certainly grew tired of the number of stories insisting that the worst thing that could possibly happen would be any interference with my right to have children. I wouldn't mind so much if the arguments were more varied or nuanced, but we get the same message in story after story. As a result, no one of these stories has any significant impact, because any such impact is dissipated by the weight of what is going on around them.

Kurt Vonnegut's "Harrison Bergeron," one of the genuine classics included here, presents a world in which everyone is brought down to the level of the lowest common denominator. Clever people have their thought processes interrupted, athletic people carry weights, stylish people are obliged to wear mismatching outfits. Any sort of prowess must go unseen for the good of the majority. And that, sadly, feels like an analogy for the whole collection: the challenge and originality of the few gets lost amid the mediocre mass exploring the same theme or using the same devices.

That said, there are some stand-out stories. Some of them come across so powerfully because no-one else is doing anything similar. Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" stands head and shoulders above everything else here, because it is unique, nothing else attempts that particular distanced perspective, tone of voice, or forensic approach. Harlan Ellison's '"Repent, Harlequin!" Said the Ticktockman' is the only story here that presents its dystopia through the medium of humour, which gives it a freshness that is particularly welcome half way through these exercises in miserablism.

Other stories stand out simply because they are written with a passion or with a humanity (the two tend to go together) that simply commands our attention. "The Funeral" by Kate Wilhelm leaves huge amounts unexplained, but we remain completely engaged with the fate of the school girl throughout. "O Happy Day!" by Geoff Ryman, in contrast, explains almost too much, but the transposition of Nazi concentration camps to the sex wars remains so potent an image that we are unable to look away however much we may wish to. It is, by the way, an indication of the poverty of this volume's organizing principle that this moving story is immediately followed by one whose crude title, "Pervert" by Charles Coleman Finlay, matches the crudity of its set-up and the simplicity of its revelations, so that the subtlety of Ryman's emotional play is undermined by the juxtaposition.

Ryman is alone in having two stories in the collection, though the second, "Dead Space for the Unexpected," is so routine a variation on the corporate life as dystopia that you wonder why this was picked since it is placed immediately after a rather better variation on the same theme, "The Pearl Diver" by Caitlin R. Kiernan, and while far more potent variations on the theme (such as, for instance, "Forlesen" by Gene Wolfe) are missing.

While we're on this point, it is worth noting that each story is preceded by a fairly long introduction, although these all take exactly the same form. There is a biographical introduction to the author (and it seems like editorial laziness that the biographical introduction to the two Ryman stories is exactly the same, it would have been preferable, if anything, to drop this part from the second story), followed by a handful of paragraphs that try to tell us how to read the story and how it resonates with some issue (or pop culture reference) of today. Several of these seem to stretch relevance beyond breaking point, and practically all of them seem to be oblivious to the fact that dystopias are frequently written as satires, and so some attempt to explain contemporary context would be far more valuable than declaring that they are still relevant today. Practically the only story for which Adams makes a nod towards context is Robert Silverberg's "Caught in the Organ Draft," which is such a specific satire on the Vietnam War draft that it would be almost impossible to avoid the point. Other than that, though, you might be excused for missing the satirical impetus behind many of these stories.

Ever since Emile Zola wrote Germinal, mines have been a convenient image for brutal and unremitting labour, so it is hardly surprising that they crop up as settings here, in both "The Lunatics" by Kim Stanley Robinson and "Jordan's Waterhammer" by Joe Mastroianni, though there is so little difference in what the two do with this setting that it is easy to confuse them with one another. But this brings me to my other central problem with this collection. If a utopia can be considered to entail the invention of a social structure designed to bring about the happiness and well-being of all its inhabitants, then a dystopia should be its opposite. That doesn't mean that everyone in this world should be unhappy or badly off, Le Guin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" clearly demonstrates that the suffering of one is enough to bring about the moral impoverishment of the whole. Nor does it mean that any story in which everyone is unhappy or badly off is necessarily a dystopia. What we are looking for is something structural, something in the way humanity organizes its own affairs, that tends to work to the detriment of the individual. In "The Pedestrian" by Ray Bradbury, for instance, so much of what feeds society is now funneled directly into the home that anyone who goes out for the simple pleasure of a walk finds themselves trapped in a Kafkaesque web of suspicion.

What I find in stories like Robinson's "The Lunatics" or Mastroianni's "Jordan's Waterhammer" is men caught in harsh and unpleasant situations, but I am not convinced that they are necessarily dystopias. Come to that, I'm not totally convinced that "The Lottery" is a dystopia. Orson Scott Card's "Geriatric Ward," in which people suddenly find their lifespan radically shortened, is certainly not a dystopia, because social organization has nothing to do with the situation or the story. "Sacrament," by Matt Williamson, is about torture presented almost as an art form. The political situation that allows this (and it is clearly meant as a satire on President Bush's anti-terror policies) is potentially dystopian, but that is not what the story is about; what we actually get is a catalogue of ways of inflicting pain, told with a rather distasteful relish, that manages to avoid making any dystopian point. In other words, rather too often throughout this collection we find horror or hardship being considered enough to make the story count as dystopian, and I am not altogether sure that they do.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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