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There is a short story I remember reading in High School. If I remember correctly, it was very short (only a couple pages) as I believe we read it during the class period. I believe it was written pre-Internet days as it has snail mail as a major plot point. There weren't any high tech things that I recall.

The story is fairly limited and doesn't give many details about the dystopian society itself, instead leaving that as an exercise for the reader. It tells the story of someone who made their way up the ranks of the dystopia's mass surveillance agency screening mail.

Near the bottom of the ranks they just screen for toxins and poisons but once the mail clears one rung it gets passed up to the next where it is given increased scrutiny (one layer would check for obvious mentions of sedition, next would be screened by people who might have more classified knowledge they could use to discern threats, etc). I believe there may have been seven levels, but that could just be me remembering it.

In the end, the protagonist makes it to the top of the chain of command so they can approve some important piece of mail. I can't recall if it had to do with some sort of rebel group, if it was a personal letter important to them or if the contents were mentioned at all. After they approve it, I believe they are caught and executed.

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    You've provided a lot of details, which is good, but we don't know when you were in High School. What year did you read it, and when do you think it was published? – Edlothiad Nov 19 '17 at 10:39
  • @Edlothiad I was in high school from 2011-2015, I don't remember which year I read it exactly. I think it was probably in the same unit that we read 1984, if that helps. I don't know exactly when it was published, but it didn't really include the Internet or computers, so I assumed it was written before the 1970's. – Rob Rose Nov 19 '17 at 10:44
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Almost a match: "The Censors" by Luisa Valenzuela

I was able to find a full-text for this story here (though I did not check for other translations).

Parts of the story that match provided details

It tells the story of someone who made their way up the ranks of the dystopia's mass surveillance agency screening mail.

That was the plan when Juan, like so many others, applied to be a censor. Not because of conviction like a few others or because he needed work like still others, no. He applied simply in order to try to intercept his own letter, not at all an original idea, but a comforting one.

This also establishes that the protagonist first decides to join the mail-screening organization in order to approve some important piece of mail.

Near the bottom of the ranks they just screen for toxins and poisons but once the mail clears one rung it gets passed up to the next where it is given increased scrutiny

... Section J where they unfold the letters with infinite care to see if they contain poisonous powder ...

... he was assigned to Section K where the envelopes are opened with painstaking care to see if they contain some explosive.

... he rose rapidly until reaching E, where the work became more interesting, for there begins the reading and analysis of the letters. In that Section he could even cherish hopes of coming across his own missive written to Mariana which, judging by the time elapsed, should have reached this level after a very long procession through the other departments.

I interpret the last quote as implying that screening for hazards comes before analysis, but I did not notice a defined ladder of steps in the story.

I believe they are caught and executed.

The story ends with the protagonist's death

And just as naturally he couldn't prevent them from executing him at dawn ...

Parts of the story that do not match provided details

In the end, the protagonist makes it to the top of the chain of command so they can approve some important piece of mail.

The protagonist is never explicitly noted as being at the top of the chain of command, but is simply stated to be the most productive censor in the Censorship Bureau.

His Basket of Condemned Letters soon became the best nourished but also the most subtle in the whole Censorship Bureau.

After they approve it

In the end, the protagonist does not approve his letter.

He was at the point of feeling proud of himself, he was at the point of knowing that he had finally found his true path, when his own letter to Mariana reached his hands. Naturally he condemned it without remorse. And just as naturally he couldn't prevent them from executing him at dawn, one more victim of his devotion to work.

High School 2011-2015

(I am not sure if this section would be better as a comment, feel free to remove it.) My confidence in this match is mostly based on remembering that I read this story in a textbook between 2006 and 2009 (middle school or high school).

  • Holy shit, I'm pretty sure this is it and I just misremembered some of the details. It's possible I might have read this on a test, with some of the parts omitted as I don't remember some of it. How did you find this?! – Rob Rose Jan 20 '18 at 21:10
  • Unfortunately, I found it mostly through luck and lucky assumptions: (1) There are not a lot of dystopian short stories about sorting mail. (2) A lesson planner/textbook writer in the US would probably consider a story of how people are convinced to collaborate with a dystopia to be an important part of a lesson on dystopian fiction. (3) (Probably least likely assumption) Textbook/test/lesson plan writers tend to draw from the same relatively small body of works. Most of finding this was remembering the title "The Censors" and vaguely recalling that it had something to do with Latin America. – user95442 Jan 21 '18 at 1:18
  • Oh I was actually more curious about how you found this question as it had been posted months ago. – Rob Rose Feb 27 '18 at 19:59

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