[GUEST REVIEW] Jason Sanford on ‘Brave New Worlds’ Edited by John Joseph Adams

[SF Signal welcomes the return of guest reviewer Jason Sanford!]

REVIEW SUMMARY: One of the best reprint anthologies of recent years, which does a marvelous job of bringing short dystopian fiction to the attention of the public.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: This anthology collects classic dystopian stories from authors such as Shirley Jackson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison along with newer stories from Tobias S. Buckell, Carrie Vaughn, Paolo Bacigalupi, Jeremiah Tolbert and many more.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Adams has selected a strong lineup for this anthology, mixing classic stories with newer tales. This anthology is destined to be read for many years to come.

CONS: The overall introduction to this subject should have been more in-depth, but the anthology makes up for this with insightful introductions to the individual stories.

BOTTOM LINE: If you like dystopian stories, this anthology is a must have.


Here’s my utopian dream: a world where every story ever published is readily available.

Here’s my dystopian nightmare: a world where every story ever published is readily available.

As I write this, the world teeters on the cusp of this combination dream and nightmare. Thanks to e-publishing and e-readers and online repositories like Google Books, we’ll soon have easy access to every story from the entire history of humanity. But which stories will you read? Scientific studies have shown that people often fall into paralysis when presented with too many choices. While having endless choices sounds good in theory, in practice humans like things simple. Give us a handful of quality items to choose from and we’re not only happier, we tend to actively embrace our choices. Hence the dual utopian-dystopian edge of accessing every story ever published.

So in the years to come, how will we find the great stories? How will we not waste our time with stories which deserve being out of print? In such a brave new world, how ironic that the key to finding great stories will likely remain what it has for the last century—first find a great editor to lead you.

One of the biggest stars of today’s anthology market is John Joseph Adams, who has edited bestselling anthologies such as Wastelands, The Living Dead, By Blood We Live, and Federations. Adams divides his time between original and reprint anthologies, with his newest collection, Brave New Worlds: Dystopian Stories, falling into the latter.

As Adams explains in the introduction to this excellent collection, when someone mentions dystopian fiction, the stories that immediately pop to mind are novels. Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451—these the crown jewels of dystopian fiction. Because of this focus on novel-length dystopian fiction, it’s easy to overlook the genre’s short story gems, in part because there has never been an anthology collecting the classics of short dystopian fiction. With Brave New Worlds, Adams set about to rectify this situation. And he did so by creating one of the best reprint anthologies of recent years.

Part of the reason this anthology is so successful is that dystopian fiction is hot right now, thanks to doomsday-lite events such as the near-collapse of our financial system and our lingering recession. With people worried about the state of our world, it’s the perfect time to exposure new readers to what happens when society goes really off the rails.

My only complaint with this anthology is I wish Adams’ overall introduction had been more in-depth. However, he and Wendy N. Wagner make up for this with excellent introductions to each individual story. These intros set the stage for both new readers and readers who are already familiar with particular stories.

For example, the anthology opens with “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson, which is not only one of the most famous dystopian stories of all time but a classic of 20th century literature. Every school kid in the U.S. has had this story shoved before them, me included. But Adams’ introduction revealed how the story fits not only within dystopian fiction but within the larger literature of that time exploring the diminishing role of rural life in the United States. This had never occurred to me and gave me a totally new reading of a story I thought I knew everything about.

Following “The Lottery” is a small-town story published almost 50 years later, “Red Card” by S. L. Gilbow. Where the lottery in Jackson’s story reveals the nastiness lurking beneath the pleasantness of small town America, Gilbow presents a different kind of lottery, where the winner is allowed—and expected—to kill someone. It doesn’t matter the reason, if this person ticks you off they can be shot with no consequences. Just as “The Lottery” showed what lurks beneath small town America, “Red Card” shows how our culture and society inhibit the animal sides which lurk in all of us.

Some of the stories in this anthology are extremely disturbing. As a father, the world of “Pop Squad” by Paolo Bacigalupi, where kids are illegal and removed from sight as if garbage, is one of the most heart-wrenching dystopian stories I’ve ever read. On the other side of the equation, the classic “Harrison Bergeron” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. takes a darkly satirical look at a world where everyone is forced to be equal. While both stories present the same outcome for going against society—death—their approach to these dystopian visions could not be more different.

I also love how Adams collects so many recently published stories which, while not yet classics of the genre, read as if they are. For example, the disturbing “Arties Aren’t Stupid” by Jeremiah Tolbert, where artists actually suffer for their art, is unbelievably powerful. Another newish story which begs for the reader’s attention is Adam-Troy Castro’s “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs,” about a world where people are given many days of happiness in exchange for one nightmare of a day.

And this mixing of new stories with old classics is the true strength of Brave New Worlds. By placing the classic stories we’ve all read alongside new and unfamiliar dystopian tales, Adams makes readers examine both the classics and the new stories from a different angle. I’ve couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read Philip K. Dick’s “The Minority Report,” Harlan Ellison ‘s “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman,” or Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” but rereading these stories in the context of this anthology was an eye-opening experience.

Adams has done a masterful job of bringing to life dystopian short fiction and placing all of these stories within the larger dystopian tradition. And that is the strength of a good editor, who knows how to expose readers to the “new” even with stories they’ve read many times.

As we race toward our electronic storied future, I believe the need for great editors will only increase. Not only because editors draw our limited time and attention to the stories which are worth reading, but because they help us see familiar stories in new ways. And with Brave New Worlds, this is exactly what John Joseph Adams does.

3 thoughts on “[GUEST REVIEW] Jason Sanford on ‘Brave New Worlds’ Edited by John Joseph Adams”

  1. Thanks, Jason.

    I had wondered if the anthology had any previously published fiction, or was solely new stuff.  Two of my favorite stories are in it, which tilts me toward buying it. With theme anthologies, context and history are often important.

  2. It’s a strong anthology, and reading your review brings up more issues to ponder about the collection.  I agree that there are a lot of good stories here, and that Mr. Adams’ introduction was a bit slight. The history and reception of dystopian literature is quite deep and variegated, and I think this collection has a lot of questions lurking between its stories.

    I used this collection for a column not to long ago.

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