Brave New Worlds
Brave New Worlds is an anthology of around 30 dystopian stories most written in the past decade, though, to be honest, my favorites were quite a bit older than that. This kind of book is a bit like sampling an appetizer platter; usually you find at least one thing you’d have more of. In this case, for me, it was Harlan Ellison, who’s been on my radar for quite a while and whose “Repent, Harlequin” said the TickTock man was one of the best stories – about the merciless rule to Time itself, about a world driven by extreme scheduling. It’s really the little, everyday things that end up being the most frightful.
While I really liked it overall, my biggest issue with the book was the fact that it seems to be grouped by themes – most obviously in the first half – and you end up reading several back to back variations on overpopulation, procreation control, sexual regulation or Big Brother – and it can get surprisingly mundane for speculative fiction.
For example, if we talk sexual freedom, I’d go with Geoff Ryman’s O, Happy Day, where the focus point is violence and its presumed source – heterosexual men. Thus, they must be eradicated, leading to a sort of holocaust where the only ones kept alive are the gays (and even them, only to bury the corpses). And, while we’re on this point, Neil Gaiman’s entry is a little comic strip – also with homosexuality at its core. He imagines a world without it as a response to some law passed in 1988 in UK and it was quite a disappointment for me – too obvious and clichéd.
Of those dealing with overpopulation my favorite was definitely JG Ballard’s Billenium. His premise reminded me instantly of two things: the living arrangements in Soviet Russia and the Hong Kong cages; while the throng of people slowly moving, blocking intersections for days, unable to choose their destination is claustrophobia at its finest. Dystopia can be quite real sometimes. Overpopulation, of course, opens up the issue of controlled reproduction and Paolo Balcigalupi’s Pop Squad brings a world where you can live forever, but at a price: you can never have kids. Those who have them anyway are criminals and the only punishment is death – for the children, not the parents – which is what our remorse-ridden hero does. And that’s the best part about the story, not the suspended New York and the tropical jungle growing underneath, but the itch of guilt, slowly tormenting the enforcer who begins to feel compassion and empathy for his victims, though not enough, not to the point where he would become a “criminal” himself.
I don’t really want to go into detail with every story; I’ll just add a couple more favorites: Joseph Paul Haines’s Ten with a flag & Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report (both dealing with the circular complications of knowing and influencing the future); Alex Irvine’s Peter Skilling (almost a farce – where a man is brought back to life after 100 years only to be killed again in the same day for failing to comply with the new order); Ray Bradbury’s The Pedestrian (echoing the beginning of Fahrenheit 415); Robert Silverberg’s Caught in the organ draft (more of a meditation on how the old prey on the young than anything else) and Vylar Kaftan’s choose your own Civilization.
As to what I didn’t like…well, there was one story I didn’t finish because the style simply didn’t appeal to me (Jeremiah Tolbert’s Arties aren’t stupid) and I wasn’t exactly crazy about Caitlín Kiernan’s The Pearl Diver, Sarah Langan’s Independence Day and James Morrow’s Auspicious Eggs.