An anthology of dystopian YA short stories with a focus on diversity, ie, most of the protagonists are not white.

As a whole, this anthology is not much like most current YA dystopian novels, which are generally about naïve privileged white girls slowly coming to realize that their “the government controls everything” society actually sucks, while navigating a love triangle. The characters in this anthology are often aware from the get-go that everything sucks, and the central problem is generally not an over-controlling government, but a devastated environment, poverty, and the haves grinding the have-nots beneath their feet.

The result is more realistic and less paper-thin, but also quite depressing. Few of these teenagers are trying to save their world, but only to scratch out a few more days for themselves and their loved ones in a world which is clearly already doomed. With two possible exceptions, no one makes any difference at all to anyone beyond themselves or a handful of people in their immediate surroundings. (I say “possible” because there are two stories in which characters make an effort, but the story ends before we learn whether or not they succeed in terms of the larger picture.)

Sure, it wouldn’t be realistic for teenagers to save the world singlehandedly… but I don’t read science fiction for realism. Also, in real life people do make large changes collectively. A few more stories in which the protagonist is part of a larger effort to save or even improve the world would have been nice. (There is one story in which that's the case, Tempest Bradford's.)

I did really like some of the stories. But I would recommend reading a story or two here and there, as you feel like it. If you read the entire anthology from start to finish, the grimdark is overwhelming.

“The Last Day” by Ellen Oh. An alternate history of WWII set in Japan comes out… extremely similar to real history, so far as the main characters are concerned. Maybe the point was that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Otherwise, it’s a straightforward “war is bad and children suffer horribly” story, all the way down to its awesomely depressing conclusion. If you’re disturbed by graphic atom bomb scenes (I am) this might be one to skip. I would not have selected this as the story to open the anthology – it’s the darkest in the whole batch, and that's saying a lot.

“Freshee’s Frogurt” by Daniel H. Wilson. Oral history of robots run amuck, much along the lines of World War Z. A robot attacks two employees in a frozen yogurt shop, and there’s a bloody battle. That’s it. This was an excerpt from the novel Robopocalypse, which may explain how slight and unfinished it felt, but on the other hand it didn’t leave me wanting more. On the positive side, it’s only depressing in the sense that its space could have been given to a better story. In fact, it’s probably supposed to be funny in a hipster-ironic mode. (I did not find it funny.)

“Uncertainty Principle” by K. Tempest Bradford. A young girl notices reality shifting around her, but nobody else does. Over the years, the President changes, wars break out and are erased from time, and her best friend vanishes as if she had never existed. This extremely intense and existentially horrifying set-up turns into a more standard action-based science fiction story about halfway through. The whole thing is well-written but I liked the first half much more. It probably needed to be longer to give the second half the same emotional weight as the first. This one is more bittersweet than depressing.

“Pattern Recognition” by Ken Liu. Kids in an orphanage are told that they’ve been rescued from a hellish world outside, and are made to play video games all day. Very good prose; plausible but predictable story. There’s a really jarring, confusing transition right before the climax, possibly exacerbated by the poor formatting of the version I read (an e-book via Netgalley.) Moderately depressing.

“Gods of Dimming Light” by Greg van Eekhout. Alone among the stories, this is fantasy, not science fiction, and so reads more oddly than it probably would have in a more fantasy-geared anthology. In a doomed and dying world, a boy of Indonesian descent finds a connection to the other side of his heritage – his descent from Odin! The ancient Norse theme of the brave fight against inevitable doom meshes powerfully with the modern apocalyptic setting.

This was one of my favorites, mostly because of the ending. Read more... ) I didn't find this one depressing, but that was purely because the tone was heroic/tragic. Everyone's still doomed.

“Next Door” by Rahul Kanakia. The haves have gotten so plugged in to VR that they barely notice squatters living in their houses. A boy and his boyfriend search for a squat that isn’t bedbug-infested, and tangle with a family of haves that aren’t as out of touch as most. This story made me itch. Literally. It’s a black comedy and quite clever. And yes. Everyone is probably doomed. Including, quite possibly, Read more... )

“Good Girl” by Malinda Lo. Alone in the collection, this was an X has been banned and the government controls X story. (Interracial procreation is banned and the government controls marriage.) Ironically, it was my favorite of the original stories in the collection – sexy, well-written, well-paced, believable, and even with a somewhat hopeful ending. A biracial girl who can pass meets another biracial girl who’s living underground – literally and metaphorically. Lo is fantastic at depicting sexual attraction in a hot but non-cheesy way. The characterization is good, too. Great last line. I would read a whole book of this.

“A Pocket Full of Dharma” by Paolo Bacigalupi. A scarred, disabled, half-starved plague survivor leaves his village to become a beggar in a future Chinese city in the hope that things will be better there. Spoiler: they aren’t. Lots of colorful details of the setting, but I have a low gross-out threshold for descriptions of bodily fluids, and I ended up unable to finish this one.

“Blue Skies” by Cindy Pon. A have-not boy kidnaps a have girl in an environmentally devastated future Taiwan, in the hope of getting her wealthy family to pay a ransom. Very well-observed details, and a poignant relationship given just enough room to breathe. In another world, those two might have been lovers or friends… but this is not that world. The tone is more wistful than depressing, but the world as a whole is probably doomed.

“What Arms to Hold” by Rajan Khanna. Indian children are slave labor in a mine… and the details are even more grim than one would expect from that thumbnail description. Well-written and with a surprisingly hopeful ending, but most of the story is excruciatingly depressing. Appropriately so, given the subject matter. But still.

“Solitude” by Ursula K. Le Guin. A reprint from The Birthday of the World. A fantastic, non-grim story – there’s even some funny lines – about a future anthropologist who goes to a planet with her two young children to study the ways of a culture that seems to have no community. The mother and older son learn a lot about the culture; the young daughter becomes part of it. Can a culture really be based on solitude? A fascinating, moving, beautifully written, well-characterized work of anthropological science fiction.

I was puzzled at first as to why it was in this collection, as I would have never thought of that culture as a dystopia. Then I realized that while the daughter sees it as her home, and sees all the positive aspects (as well as the negative ones – she’s only naïve when she’s very young), the mother sees it as a dystopia. The idea that the same place can be utopia for one person and a dystopia for another is unique to this story, in this collection: it’s the only one set in a world that isn’t objectively, unequivocally horrible. No wonder it’s the only story that, while it has some sad and dark moments, isn’t depressing at all. No one is doomed! It was such a relief!

There are some excellent stories in the anthology, and not every single one is depressing. But the cumulative effect is awfully grim. This is purely my personal preference, and I do realize that dystopian sf is not a cheery genre, but I would love to see a diversity-focused YA anthology that’s a bit more fun.

Diverse Energies

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