People have been obsessed with dystopias and dystopian stories since Grecian and Roman times and likely even before that.
Imagining the day the world ends is both cognitively interesting as well as somewhat entertaining, allowing us to imagine how our society could turn against us, political matters turn into war, or how global conflict and climate change could lead to a breakdown in society.
Dystopias are often related to sci-fi, both enjoy the form of a short story.
This form of short story is common in science fiction and further afield as it allows an author to explore lots of ideas in smaller formats, rather than having to create a whole continuous novel around one idea, they can get the literary play they want quickly without having to flesh the idea out too broadly.
In this article, we will cover some of our favorite dystopian short stories that you can get your teeth into and enjoy, without having to take up too much of your own time.
Keep reading to learn more about dystopian fiction in the shorter form.
Dystopian Short Stories
Here are some of the best dystopian short stories out there.
The Machine Stops by E. M. Forster is a dystopian short story that rings eerily true to our current reality, to a degree, but was published all the way back in 1909.
Until around 1965 the short story was considered to be one of the best novellas of all time.
The story centers around two main characters Vashti, and her son Kuno.
They live within the setting of the short story, a version of Earth where humans can no longer exist on its surface, and instead exist underground in isolation.
All spiritual and bodily needs are met by the ‘global Machine’ which many have understood to be an early understanding of the internet.
More so, most communication in this world is done through a version of instant messaging or video conferencing where people share and discuss ideas, the main activity in the world.
The Machine itself is dystopic and acts as the governing entity in this version of Earth.
At one point in the short story ‘Technopoly’ is developed, a religion that worships the Machine as a God.
Those who aren’t part of the religion are considered ‘unmechanical’.
While Vashti is content living the coddled life the Machine offers, Kuno is more of a rebel who wants to fight against the Machine.
When it seems the Machine is breaking down, the two come to some realization about what is valuable in this world they inhabit.
The story is eerie considering that it basically preempts the internet and the life we now live in.
Forster imagines a world where technology is worshiped as a religion, meeting all the basic needs of human life.
Moreover, the isolation these people experience and the reliance they have on the machine for communication is eerily similar to how many will have felt during the recent lockdown.
- Eerie prophecies of what modern life is like
- Interesting depiction of the Internet before it even existed
- It being from 1909 some may struggle with the writing style from this time.
What was made into a film in 2002 was already a pretty compelling short story from famed sci-fi writer Phillip K Dick.
The dystopia here is run by three mutants who can foresee and predict all crimes before they even occur.
They create a division of the police force called ‘pre-crime’ that arrests suspects before they commit a crime.
John Anderton is the head of Precrime, but when he is predicted to have murdered a man he has never met in the coming week.
He is convinced a conspiracy is afoot and Ed Witwer is trying to frame him in order to take his role at the head of precrime.
Like many novels that deal with future events, Dick is questioning the ability of free will in humans, whether we actually have control over our decisions or we are simply walking a path that was pre-made for us.
Yet, the novella is also dealing with Dick’s own personal anxieties, particularly around the cold war.
In a strange way, it can be comparable to our culture right now and shows the type of dystopia that ‘cancel culture’ could lead to, echoing many fears of our modern generation.
- Interesting parallels to modern culture
- Dick writes really well
- Plot gets a bit complicated and Dick could do more with the original idea
This is quite an interesting dystopian short story that is the antecedent of some other stories you might recognize such as The Hunger Games, and most obviously The Purge.
The story originally appeared in The New Yorker and strangely received a lot of bad criticism at the time from its readers for how gloomy the story was, but is considered to be a very complex and well-reviewed piece of literature in more modern circles.
The story is set in small-town America, and the main plot is that within the town each year an annual lottery is announced where a random member of the town is chosen from the lottery to be stoned to death.
The short story goes into much detail about how the lottery operates and its ritual but mainly focuses on the family of Mr. Hutchinson whose house is chosen to take part in the lottery.
The main idea of the lottery is that, like The Purge, having one day of the year where we can purge the bad helps make way for the new.
Jackson uses many allusions to agriculture and the seasons to scaffold this point.
The story hints at the human capacity for good and evil, that nearly everyone has some evil within them that should be ritually purged in this way.
It also looks at this scapegoating mentality and how it can potentially have positive repercussions but also shows the side of the victim, how they must bear the weight of everyone else’s capacity for evil.
It also shows how actual reason and logic can be abandoned when caught up in this mob mentality, while also hinting at how we follow blind tradition with a similar abandonment of reason – both being features of a dystopian society.
- While simple, Jackson writes with a noticeable complexity to her messages and images
- Preempts many modern understandings of the scapegoat
- The plot is somewhat predictable and the complexity is often found in the writing rather than the story itself.
This is a quite short novella from Kurt Vonnegut that is very interesting and compelling considering how short it is.
While the society Vonnegut depicts is certainly dystopian, it shows how a dystopia is even possible when the society itself is perfect.
The title, ‘2BR02B’ is a reference to the Shakespeare line ‘To be, or not to be’, but is also the phone number for government-assisted suicide in this story.
The novella ultimately questions perfection, and at what costs we would want to achieve this.
The society within which the scene Vonnegut depicts occurs is a perfect society.
Aging has been cured, there is no war, and most humans have an indefinite lifespan with most deaths only occurring as a result of an accident.
The US limits its population to around 40 million a number that has been maintained for a long time.
Effectively, in order for a baby to be born someone, in turn, must die, usually through volunteering.
The scene of the novella depicts Edward Wehling reeling from the announcement that his wife is about to give birth to triplets and unless he can find three people to volunteer to die, there is little he can do to save his unborn children.
Dr. Hitz, the lead obstetrician of the hospital, questions Wehling’s belief in their society and tries to make him feel better that his children will ‘live on a happy, roomy, clean, rich planet’.
The rest of the scene depicts how Wehling deals with this particular situation and news.
The novella is particularly poignant and shows at what cost perfection may come.
In classic Vonnegut style, he shows how the perfection humans seek is not really attainable and the fact that good and bad exist is a sort of balancing act we must navigate, rather than searching for perfection.
- Interesting moral conundrums presented
- Very compelling and poignant for its short length
- Not much character or plot development as a result of its length.
Ray Bradbury is a known dystopian author who wrote Fahrenheit 451, and this story is similarly dystopic but much shorter, while also pointing to the power of art and information and how it interacts with it.
The story is set in an unnamed area but in the year 2053 and, in this dystopia, it seems all humans spend their time watching TV although it isn’t accurately explained by Bradbury.
Leonard Mead seems the exception to this television world and walks the now disheveled streets at night.
He never sees anyone on the walks, as everyone else is inside watching TV.
In this world where people are watching TV all the time the need for permanent law enforcement is reduced, with only one police unit in a city of three million.
The police car that interacts with MEad is seemingly robotic with no real person inside.
The robot questions Mead on his profession and asks him why he is walking around.
Without any actual reason from Mead, nor any understanding of why he might be walking, the robot police car detains Mead and the rest of the story pans out.
The novel addresses how art and information can dominate our lives, in a similar way to Fahrenheit 451 does.
He’s also thinking about how the modern world is adapting to things like TVs, and more so now with our phones, but he’s ultimately expressing the value of being outside and experiencing the world, just because.
Apparently, the events occurred similarly in his own life. On the 60th anniversary of Fahrenheit 451 Eller, one of Bradbury’s close friends wrote how this scene had happened to them both when walking down Wilshire Boulevard in LA.
When a police officer asked what Bradbury was doing he answered ‘Well, we’re putting one foot in front of the other.’
- While short it doesn’t feel like too much is missing
- A simple plot that works well
- Some will not enjoy the open ending
There are many dystopian short stories out there, a form of the novel often enjoyed by sci-fi writers, many of which dip into the dystopian genre often.
The stories often explore a small idea and present epithets within which we can compare our own views on society, our reality, and how we imagine a perfect or non-perfect society may actually look and operate.
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