You probably already realized that dystopias seem to be everywhere these days: on our bookshelves, on our prestige Hulu TV shows, and, of course, in every waking moment of our lives in America today. Reading dystopian stories can be a great way to increase your sense of overwhelming panic over the state of our nation. Or, at very least, dystopian fiction helps us to process terrifying political realities. Here are a few great dystopian short stories that you can read right now, for all those moments when you feel like the world has turned into a science fictional nightmare-scape.
Most dystopias share a few key elements: they're set in the not-so-distant future (or some alternate version of the present). They're set in worlds that seem to be "utopian" in some sense — or worlds that have strict rules in place to make things "better." And they are, almost always, horrifying. The rules that are supposed to keep people safe end up forcing children to fight to the death in a thunder-dome-style competition. What makes life better for some people inevitably makes life worse for the women/robots/clones at the bottom. As The Handmaid's Tale reminds us, after all, "better" never means better for everyone. So here are a few dystopian worlds, from the post-apocalyptic horrors to the satirical faux-utopian comedies:
'How to Get Back to the Forest' by Sofia Samatar
"How to Get Back to the Forest" starts out as a fun summer camp story — until you realize that in this world, children don't come back from summer camp. For some reason, children are separated from their parents, permanently, to be brought up in "fun" "camps," where their lives are controlled by the bugs planted inside them.
'Harrison Bergeron' by Kurt Vonnegut
The funny, disturbing Kurt Vonnegut story "Harrison Bergeron" takes place in the year 2081, in a world where everyone is "equal." Of course, this equality must be strictly enforced: anyone who is too smart, or too strong, or too attractive must be held back... by any means necessary.
'The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas' by Ursula K. Le Guin
"The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" takes us to the peaceful kingdom of Omelas, where everything is lovely and perfect... until the inhabitants begins to understand the hidden cost to their utopia. Ursula K. Le Guin confronts us with a paradise that is built on a single act of cruelty in this classic science fiction story.
'The Perfect Match' by Ken Liu
"The Perfect Match" might sound familiar to anyone who's ever seen a targeted Facebook ad: this is a world where companies monitor people’s preferences, and a voice on their phones lets them know what they do and don't like. But it turns out that (spoiler alert) having your entire life dictated to you by a robot is not such a great plan after all.
'El Cantar of Rising Sun' by Sabrina Vourvoulias
"El Cantar of Rising Sun" might also sound fairly familiar: the short story is set in a crime-ridden city, where the young die frequently from gun violence. If you're less interested in high concept science fictional world building, and more interested in heart-wrenching stories about loss and systemic violence, this one's for you.
'Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience' by Rebecca Roanhorse
In "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience,™" a menu of virtual Experiences are kept on a digital blackboard. The Vision Quest is the most popular by far. But virtual tourism isn't all just innocent fun and games. This might not be a typical dystopia, but Rebecca Roanhorse deftly creates a world that's not so different from our own, where tone deaf tourists like to play at trying on other cultures.
'Waiting on a Bright Moon' by JY Yang
If you're looking for part dystopia, part space opera, part magical romance, then you're looking for "Waiting on a Bright Moon." In this world, magically-gifted women are forced into the role of "ansible," using their music-based abilities to connect the Imperial Authority with its far-flung colonies. But not everyone is so happy with the way the Authority is running things, and one ansible is about to find herself playing an entirely different role.
'Amaryllis' by Carrie Vaughn
Horrifying environmental collapse is an unfortunately common theme among realistic dystopias. "Amaryllis" takes us to a future of tightly controlled populations and over-fished waters, where a small community struggles to survive in a society that harshly punishes reproductive disobedience.
'Left Behind' by Cat Rambo
In "Left Behind," Shi lives in a world where you can look like anyone or anything at all (as long as you can pay for it). Shi's job is (or was) to handle elderly clients who must pilot starships through space. But as her job comes to an end, one of her final clients poses an extra challenge to Shi and her line of work.
'Is This Your Day To Join the Revolution?' by Genevieve Valentine
"Is This Your Day To Join the Revolution?" gently spoofs all of dystopian fiction's most beloved tropes while still delivering a thrilling, funny tale of hyper-controlling government agencies, fake diseases, fake relationships and, of course, underground revolutionaries.
'Escape from Spiderhead' by George Saunders
"Escape from Spiderhead" is about (you guessed it) someone trying to escape from a place called Spiderhead. Specifically, from an experimental, dystopian prison called Spiderhead, brought to hideous life with George Saunders' off-kilter, humorous, horrific writing.