Ever since the likes of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell hit the scene in the 1920s and ’30s, dystopian stories have been hugely popular with readers. And now, almost 100 years later, when our own world feels a little dystopian at times, these stories are more poignant than ever.
While both classic and contemporary dystopian novels get a lot of attention, short stories can often be forgotten. But there’s a huge array of bizarre and unsettling dystopian quick reads to explore, and below, I’ve put together a list of my favorites. Some are classics from the early genre-defining era, while others are written by modern-day authors, but they all force us to stop and think about what our own future might hold outside of the realms of fiction.
At a Glance: Our top picks for Dystopian Short Stories
- The Park: A Dystopian Short Story by A.K. DuBoff
- Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut Jr
- The Veldt by Ray Bradbury
- The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
- ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
- Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn
- The Machine Stops, E.M. Forster
- The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick
1. The Park: A Dystopian Short Story by A.K. DuBoff
Justin, Marcus, and Jane live in a time when political commentary is a thing of the past. No one utters a word outside of the strictly designated Political Parks, and to make matters worse, these once-thriving communities are now dwindling in numbers. Now, the trio of friends is among the very last citizens in society who dare to question the system.
But even within the sanctuary of the Political Park, everything isn’t quite as it seems. The controlling tentacles of the government have snaked their way into their safe zone, and the lines between truth and fiction are becoming even more blurred. Something has to give, and so in a final desperate attempt to make a stand for justice and liberty, Marcus makes a dangerous political statement of his own.
2. Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut Jr
It’s the year 2081, and thanks to a groundbreaking series of amendments to the US Constitution, America can finally declare equality for all citizens. Now everyone is on a level playing field, and the concepts of superiority and inferiority have disappeared. But equality comes at a high price, and the government’s authoritarian grip on its citizens is stronger than ever.
The sinister Handicapper General and his team of agents work hard to ensure that no one is stronger, more intelligent, or more attractive than anyone else. Those who show exceptional mental prowess are forced to endure terrible music to distract them from their thoughts, and anyone deemed too beautiful is issued a mask to cover their face from the eyes of others.
Fourteen-year-old Harrison Bergeron is the latest victim of America’s obsession with equality. Deemed unacceptably athletic, intelligent, and good-looking, he is forcibly removed from his parents, George and Hazel Bergeron, in the name of equality for all.
But his mother and father’s government-imposed handicaps mean they barely even notice, and so Harrison must figure out how to regain his freedom by himself.
3. The Veldt by Ray Bradbury
Peter and Wendy live with their parents in a state-of-the-art smart house, where every room is laced with futuristic technology to make their lives easier. The most impressive technology of all is found inside the children’s futuristic nursery. Here, a virtual reality world is projected onto the walls, straight from their imaginations.
At first, the room displays innocent fairytale images, but soon, the benign scenes are replaced by something much more sinister. When their parents enter the room, they’re no longer in their futuristic home. Instead, they’re standing in the middle of the African veldt, surrounded by danger and the smell of fresh blood in the air.
The parents are desperate to reverse the dark nature of their children’s imagination, and with the help of a psychologist, they decide the technology has to go. But separating them from their precious virtual reality room might not be as easy as they thought.
4. The Lottery by Shirley Jackson
In a small rural American town, the community is gearing up for its annual summer tradition. Every year in late June, residents gather to partake in ‘the lottery’, and the big day has finally arrived.
The village children are excitedly filling their pockets with stones and piling them high in the center of the town square. The adults follow suit, but they move with caution, and their heads hang low with worry. Some of them are pondering just where and how ‘the lottery’ began; nobody really knows, but one thing is for sure; nobody wants to win.
In the same ceremonial way he always does, Mr. Summers presents the tattered black box to the townsfolk. It’s falling apart, and while some have suggested replacing it, no one ever does; after all, tradition is tradition.
Slowly and uncertainly, each family comes up to draw their piece of paper from the box. With stones gripped tightly in their hands, the adults and children wait with bated breath for the winning ticket to be drawn.
5. ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ by Ursula K. Le Guin
In the peaceful kingdom of Omelas, everything exists in perfect harmony. There’s no pain, hunger, or suffering, the air is clear, and people live in a state of guilt-free fulfillment.
But underneath it all lies a terrible secret, only revealed to citizens once they’re old enough to know the truth. Everyone is shocked to learn about the darkness that exists below Omelas’ gleaming veneer, but while some question it, most do their best to ignore it. One thing they all know for sure, though, is that their peaceful kingdom can never survive without it.
Now, there’s a resistance rising. Yet walking away from Omelas takes courage beyond measure, and anyone that dares to is relentlessly hunted down by the Armies of Darkness. But the few that do make it out will find genuine peace on the other side.
6. Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn
Since the colossal environmental collapse of Earth, humanity has had to change the way it exists in unthinkable ways. Now, people live in tightly controlled communities where every day is a struggle to survive.
Human reproduction is strictly policed, and those who dare to remove their birth control devices without authorization face terrible consequences. When Marie was a child, her mother broke these reproductive laws to bring her into the world, but she was found out, and so Marie has never known the woman who risked everything to have her. Because of the circumstances surrounding her birth, the rest of society views her with caution. Her existence is an unacceptable crime, and in a harsh world where freedom is already scarce, Marie’s cards are firmly stacked against her.
7. The Machine Stops, E.M. Forster
The surface of the Earth is no longer a viable home to most human beings. Instead, communities have been forced underground, living in isolation from each other in separate rooms. Contact with the outside world is a thing of the past, and people have their physical and spiritual needs met by the ever-present global Machine.
Communication is only possible by instant messages and video calls, and families use these to connect with each other from opposite sides of the globe. Travel is possible, but it’s risky, frowned upon, and comes with significant consequences. Even so, Kuno has finally convinced his mother, Vashti, to make the long journey to see him.
Like most people, Vashti isn’t capable of original thought, and she was quite content with life in her room. But Kuno is becoming disenchanted with the unnatural and mechanical world he lives in, and he’s ready to wake people up.
8. The Minority Report by Philip K. Dick
In a future America, there is no crime. That’s because Commissioner John Anderton’s groundbreaking Precrime System stops it before it ever happens. Using the unique ability of precogs who can see into the future, the authorities know who will commit the next crime, and the would-be perpetrators are arrested and locked up before the damage is done.
Anderton is a firm believer in his Precrime System and its ability to prevent any kind of harm. But when the precogs point the finger at him, he finds out firsthand that his system isn’t as foolproof as he thought. According to them, he will murder a man he’s never met, but Anderton is certain he’s being stitched up.
In an attempt to uncover the truth, he discovers a “minority report” has been filed, indicating that one of the three precogs’ predictions is at odds with the other two. But now he faces a tough decision. Does the alert the officials to the flaw in his supposedly perfect system and save himself from wrongful conviction? Or does he remain silent and preserve the credibility and integrity of his life’s work?
These dystopian short stories transport us into chilling alternate realities where humankind has lost its way. While some of them seem far-fetched, others draw eerie parallels with our own world and make us question the direction we might be heading in.
What do you think? Are these dystopian stories a prediction of what’s to come, or are they simply the stuff of fiction? Tell us what you think in the comments below.