(Love the cover art!)
I just recently finished this anthology of Dystopian stories, published by Seventh Star Press and edited by Robin Blankenship. Overall, I found it to be quite strong, liking almost all of the entries, and I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of dystopian literature.
Before I began reading, I was perhaps most looking forward to seeing what type of worlds the authors would build in each story. It kind of reminded me of an extended “speed dating” session, but with spending a little longer 30 minutes or so with each dystopia, trying to decide which ones were the most expertly constructed, or most likely to be able to happen somewhere in our actual future. To continue that analogy, however, after this speed dating session, I wanted to explore many of the worlds in more depth and couldn’t easily pick just a few if I were to be charged with that task.
In these types of stories, other characters are not necessarily the source of “stress” for the main characters. True, they may be one source, but it is the environment itself which is the primary stressor; this makes for interesting reading, I think. The downside of reading this collection, though, is that these stories are almost universally NOT hopeful stories. “Happy” endings here may just mean that the man character has survived with his life. I.e., I didn’t find myself wishing I was the main character in any of these stories. But that’s what one expects when reading dystopian literature, right? It just means that the authors have done their job well.
I love some of the great names of dystopian institutions and governments that these authors have come up with too. For example, in Carolyn M. Chang’s story, “Smilers,” in the year 2059, it’s not a “PC” climate that has become oppressive, but a “PE” culture – “Positive Emotionality” – those who aren’t cheery are “sent away” to be trained to become so. This story also includes the great exchange:
“What if I prefer to stay as I am?”
“Miss Volenda, that is completely unacceptable.”
In Herika Raymer’s story, “Seventh Degree” we learn there is an event in that world’s history known as “The Decay,” from which civilization is still recovering and after which reproduction is strictly regulated. There are the mechanical “Regulators” and “Arbitrators” in one of the best stories, Jason Campagna’s “Hope Unknown.” In the great story “The Bird Below Ground” by S.C. Langgle, time is measured in “P.E.” years. That’s “Post Explosionum” of course. 🙂 Then there’s the mess hall in the story “Cracks in the Concrete” by Frank Roger, where the music is turned up so loud that conversing with one’s fellow citizens is impossible. Raise your voice? They’ll just turn it up even louder. (Kind of reminds me of how I used to deal with the strange noises an old car of mine made.) There are also the Revivologists in the creepy story, “First Head” by H.H. Donnelly, who assist in connecting (literally!) newly unfrozen heads to new bodies.
The other thing that was common for most of these stories is that I felt most of the main characters were quite heroic. What could be more heroic than the struggle to retain societal freedoms or even the right to one’s own identity? Maybe the great character Mina in the first story, Cathy Bryant’s “Cost Benefit Analysis,” is representative when she asserts: “Well I wasn’t ground down yet. And I had a plan.” Right on, girl. Fight the power!
Some of my favorites:
There’s “The Job Hunter” by Shaun Avery. In the future world of this story, those unfortunate enough to lose their jobs and become unemployed have a limited time to find a new one, and the penalty for failing to do so is, um, extreme to say the least. The story also explores the “change of heart” that the main character undergoes as his perspective changes when he loses his job. He says that formerly “like the rest of the luckily employed, I resented the taxes that I was paying to keep them (the unemployed receiving benefits) in booze.” Even worse is a later passage: “I remember the Head of Government Earth, the day they’d brought in the Unemployment Death Act. We’d all cheered at that, Bill, Chester, Arnold and me. My friends. The guys I’d worked with. Drinking… down at the pub and laughing at the lousy jobless bum counting out his Job Hunt Allowance pennies to pay for the cheapest drink on the menu in the bar. We’d laughed and I’d said, ‘You know, he’d be better off dead,’ and you know something? I’d believed it.” Chilling stuff, yet those sentiments aren’t that far from some of the rhetoric flung around today, are they?
There’s “Hope Unknown” by Jason Campagna. Hope is the main character’s name, and she finds herself recently orphaned and being shipped off-world. She and the other girls on the “orphan run” don’t talk much lest they incur the wrath of “Regulator” – a “floating gray-ball shaped robot who administer a nasty shock to unruly little girls.” Hope carries a miniature model of the Statue of Liberty with her, as it is the only thing that belonged to her mother that she has left. Her ‘captors’ try to convince her to give it up. She wonders why they don’t just take it by force since obviously they could: “I know you could’ve taken it from me, but… why do you want me to give it up?” she asks. “It is hard to take freedom from someone who will not surrender it herself,” is her mechanical overseer’s response. Something to think about, no?
One story, “The Choosing” by Michael O’Connor has probably the best line in the whole anthology: the two-word “He screamed.” (With its context, of course) that concludes the tale. Though I saw the twist coming, I think O’Connor still pulled it off quite well.
There’s the quite disturbing “Your Comfort is Important to Us” by Tanith Korravai. Short but very effective, it seems at the onset to be a very clinical set of instructions for expectant mothers, but it turns darker by degrees, and the more you learn the more you wish you didn’t know. Quite effective.
A candidate for my favorite story would be the final one, “The Useless,” by Ellen Brock. Strategically placed at the end of the collection, it ends with an offer of some real hope. The premise is that of a society which literally discards its members who are deemed “useless.” The main character, Ishka, who is physically and mentally impaired as the result of a childhood accident, has reached the age where youths are chosen by one of the society’s “trades” to follow their most suitable career path. Sadly, and at great disappointment to her parents, she is not chosen for anything. She’s useless to “Our Great Nation.” She leaves home but fortunately falls in with some other useless members of society being sheltered in the basement of the city’s undertaker. (The non-useless citizens of the city have always assumed the undertaker is getting rid of them in his incinerator. Quite humane, huh?) Things go well for awhile until the undertaker dies and Ishka is forced to rally her limited intelligence to propose an alternative to the incinerator solution when they are discovered by the new, unsympathetic undertaker. Great story.
This post has turned out much longer than I hoped, but only because this is such a good collection. The Kindle edition of the anthology is only 3.99 and may be found here on amazon
I was lucky enough to learn of it at the time of a $0.99 sale – that’s less than six cents a story for some of these great works. Amazing.