Welcome back to A Political History of the Future, our series about how science fiction constructs its social, political, and economic futures. Our latest (and confusingly titled) entry looks at a recent anthology of stories that try to imagine the future of the US, and at the role that short fiction plays in allowing SF to construct such experiments.
Short fiction has always held a special importance for the science fiction genre. From the vibrant magazine scene of the 30s, 40s, and 50s, to boundary-pushing anthologies like the Dangerous Visions series in the 60s and 70s, short fiction has often been where the genre defined itself. It’s also a great laboratory for new ideas about the world. The shorter length allows authors to build a world whose sole purpose is to test out a single worldbuilding concept, or work through a thought experiment. From “The Cold Equations” to “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” to “Story of Your Life”, science fiction in the short length can offer a swift sharp shock to the system, a means of overturning our way of looking at the world, and a shorthand with which to express how our view of it has changed.
Which is why short fiction feels like the perfect arena in which to explore the political and social issues of the moment. That’s something I had in the back of my mind when I conducted my traditional trawl through last year’s short fiction in preparation for nominating for this year’s Hugo awards. I was looking for stories about automation, climate change, inequality, rising fascism, the myriad misuses of social media, the breakdown of democracy and the need to find new ways to govern. Stories about where we are right now and where we might be headed.
I did find some stories like this. In particular, LGM readers might do well to look out for the short fiction of Margaret Killjoy. Her paired novellas from Tor, The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion (2017) and The Barrow Will Send What It May (2018) follow a group of itinerant anarchists who hunt demons and, along the way, debate how a civil society can exist without the coercion of policing, and while respecting individual freedom and caring for the public good. (You might also enjoy her story “The Fortunate Death of Jonathan Sandelson” from Strange Horizons, about a white hat hacker who ends up embroiled in a murder-by-drone.)
Another name you might want to look out for is Kelly Robson. Her 2018 novella, Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, stars an aging environmental remediator slowly coming to the realization that her life’s work has come to nothing, because the economic institutions of her era don’t see enough of a percentage in repairing the planet. Her relationship with her young assistant, whose generation feels a profound sense of betrayal at having their own future mortgaged so that earlier generations can live comfortably, rings a lot of familiar bells while also revolving around time travel and project management.
But for the most part, I was disappointed in my quest. It was particularly striking how few of the stories I read addressed climate change, a topic that you’d expect science fiction authors, of all people, to be preoccupied with (one exception that is definitely worth reading is Octavia Cade’s “We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice” in Strange Horizons). I read a lot of great stories this winter, but going back and forth between them and the ever-growing derangement on the news, I increasingly felt the need for fiction that used the tools of science fiction to address the immediate concerns of the present.
It seems that I was not the only one to feel this need. The themed anthology has been a staple of the SF short fiction scene for nearly as long as it has existed, with topics that range from the silly (Jews Versus Zombies, ed. Lavie Tidhar, 2015) to the profound. It was only to be expected that our current political and cultural catastrophe would result in a few such projects. Wired magazine, for example, commissioned several authors in 2018 for a project on the future of work. And earlier this year, The Verge launched Better Worlds, in which some of the hottest names in the field try to imagine hopeful futures. A People’s Future of the United States is one such project, in which experienced anthology editor John Joseph Adams teams up with author Victor LaValle to commission writers to imagine the future of America.
LaValle has written genre-tinged literary fiction (Big Machine, 2009), Lovecraft pastiche (The Ballad of Black Tom, 2016), urban fantasy (The Changeling, 2017), and a comics run that retells Frankenstein as the tale of a black mother who resurrects her son after he’s shot by the police (DESTROYER, 2018). In his introduction to A People’s Future (excerpted in The Paris Review) he writes about his feeling that America is being poisoned by the stories it tells itself about itself, and of the need for different kinds of stories if it’s to imagine and bring forth a different kind of future. As its title suggests, LaValle offers up A People’s Future as an homage to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (1980 and subsequent editions), which was itself an attempt to change the American narrative. LaValle and Adams have assembled a roster of some the hottest names in genre, people like N.K. Jemisin and Charlie Jane Anders whose writing has always been strongly political and inflected by the issues of the day, and charged them with imagining America’s future along lines that acknowledge its current problems.
Unsurprisingly, the different authors who appear in A People’s Future take different approaches to their assignment. A few of the stories take a somewhat allegorical approach to the anthology’s project. Jemisin, for example, imagines a future in which the poor and disenfranchised are policed by dragons, whom they eventually win over to their side by feeding them soul food. Catherynne Valente’s “The Sun in Exile”, meanwhile, in which an autocratic ruler whose country is experiencing record high temperatures avoids dealing with the problem by decreeing that the country is actually undergoing an ice age, can be read as a parable of the Trumpian mindset and where indulging it might eventually lead. (In general, the orange one is absent from the stories in the anthology, with the notable exception of Ashok K. Banker’s “By His Bootstraps”, in which he appears only to be written out of history by a time traveling form of gene therapy that rewrites the nation’s past to bring it to a more diverse, egalitarian present.)
Several of the stories imagine a post-apocalyptic future, and often one in which the only chance of survival—against both the elements and the warlord regimes that crop up after the government’s collapse—lies in the magical. In Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Read After Burning”, a troupe of librarians tattoo all the endangered books of the world on their skin, and turn into golems who protect the living after their death. And in Lizz Huerta’s “The Wall”, refugees from American dictatorship survive by relying on Mexican brujas, who have preserved their powers through the generations for just such a day.
An even more common theme is a post-collapse America seen from the outside. In both “The Wall” and Daniel H. Wilson’s “A History of Barbed Wire”, barriers established to keep undesirables out of America, such as the Mexican border wall, are now used to keep Americans in. Wilson sets his story in what was once a Native American reservation and is now an island of prosperity, into which white Americans try to sneak by undergoing dangerous gene therapy to fake Native ancestry. In “Riverbed”, Omar El Akkad similarly imagines a US that has collapsed economically and culturally, and which is observed by a former victim of its xenophobia. The protagonist, a woman who was once interned in a Muslim “protection camp”, returns to America only long enough to fetch her deceased brother’s belongings, and refuses to offer the absolution that her hosts, who have turned the camp into a historical site, clearly take as their due.
Many of the stories assume a slide back towards social conservatism, and a curtailment of the hard-won rights of marginalized groups. “Calendar Girls” by Justina Ireland stars a corner girl who sells not drugs but condoms and birth control pills, and who connects pregnant women with an underground network that helps them procure abortions. Several pieces—”Our Aim is Not to Die” by A. Merc Rustad, “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes it Alright” by Sam J. Miller, “The Synapse Will Free Us From Ourselves” by Violet Allen—imagine a world in which queer, gender-nonconforming, and neuroatypical people are criminalized and subjected to invasive “corrective” procedures. And in one of the strongest stories in the collection, Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “The Referendum”, the titular plebiscite asks citizens whether the 13th amendment should be repealed and slavery made legal again. In a clever touch, Arimah makes it clear that the proposal is unlikely to pass, but the very fact that the question has been raised is worrying enough to the narrator and her sister-in-law—whose frosty relationship gives the story its shape and a sharp sense of humor—that they are forced to rely on one another despite their personal issues.
Some of the best stories in the collection focus on young people regarding their now-ruined nation and considering their options within it. In Miller’s “Saturday Night”, the gay protagonist, who works as an installer for phone cloners that enable a nonstop surveillance state (which, among other things, allows the government to monitor his sexual encounters), discovers a form of sexually-transmitted rebellion, passing it to his partners, instilling in them the desire and will to make things better. G. Willow Wilson’s “ROME” describes a group of teenagers taking a college entrance exam as wildfires rage through the city, eventually realizing that the firebreak nearest to them has failed and that help isn’t coming. The protagonist’s friend complains that her parents voted to dismantle government services, including the fire department, because they didn’t want to pay taxes. The teens’ abandonment in the path of the flames is an obvious but nevertheless powerful metaphor for the way that the current generation is dismantling their children’s inheritance for a few bucks.
In one of the most interesting stories in the collection, Hugh Howey’s “No Algorithms in the World”, the world is actually doing pretty well. Universal basic income has been adopted, and automated kiosks provide citizens with food, clothing, and other necessities. The perspective from which we see this bounty, however, is that of the protagonist’s father, the sort of person who probably would have voted for Trump in 2016. He is incensed at a world in which people no longer need to work in order to have a comfortable life (though he’s happy to cash his own checks, of course). Our journey with him is a trip into a poisonous mindset that can’t enjoy its own life’s pleasure without knowing that someone, somewhere, is doing without. It’s an important reminder that making a better world doesn’t necessarily guarantee that better people will live in it.
It is, in fact, interesting to observe the few stories in A People’s Future that might be described as optimistic, because to a one they take care to stress that human nature can’t be fixed with prosperity and freedom. Gabby Rivera’s “O.1” describes a perfect post-racial, post-gender, post-scarcity utopia, but focuses on a couple who try to escape it because they feel smothered by their fellow citizens’ love when they conceive the first baby in more than a decade. Anders’s “The Bookstore at the End of America” starts from a premise often depicted as dystopian—a United States split into separate countries along cultural lines, in this case California and America—and tells a hopeful story about a bookstore that straddles both countries, where citizens can bond over their love of books even as their countries rattle their sabres at each other. In one of the story’s most interesting touches, the bookstore’s owner lives in America, and is something of a squishy centrist, which makes her less than entirely sympathetic (she tolerates, with some concern, her daughter’s growing closeness with another girl, but doesn’t judge too harshly the penalties that her society imposes on gay people) but also the only person able to create an island of peace between the two nations.
While few stories in the anthology offer concrete solutions to the problems plaguing America, several of them assume that these solutions, when they come, will be technological. In Rustad’s “Our Aim is Not to Die”, an AI designed to surveil people decides instead to protect them. Malka Older’s “Chapter 5: Disruption and Continuity [excerpted]” is a metafictional tale about a world in which solutions for seemingly intractable problems are discovered by allowing people to imagine possible futures in the virtual world. And Charles Yu’s “Good News Bad News” starts out from a dispiriting premise—the robotic helpers of elderly white Americans learn their owners’ prejudices, and begin abusing people of color—but ends with the suggestion of hope, as the robots, unlike their masters, are able to comprehend the wrongness of their behavior and seek to correct it. (As the story’s title suggests, however, this is not a purely hopeful ending. Yu delivers his tale through news headlines, and many of them reveal that the future he’s writing about is deeply, irrevocably damaged.)
In the end, though, it’s notable that the best story in the collection isn’t about the future at all. Alice Sola Kim’s “Now Wait for This Week” is a time loop story—so really it’s about the total absence of a future—in which a rich woman finds herself repeating the same week over and over, told from the uncomprehending point of view of her friends, who don’t really like her that much. And it’s a #MeToo story, about a world where Dangerous Men Lists exist but don’t seem to do any good, where exposing predators doesn’t keep them from popping back in your life, and where women keep repeating the same cycle of complaint, minimization, and normalization. This wasn’t what I was looking for when I said that I wanted short science fiction to address the issues of the moment, but I’m very glad I found it.
Next time on APHotF: I’m looking forward to Tim Maughan’s Infinite Detail, and I may also write about Tade Thompson’s The Rosewater Conspiracy, though that might happen later in the year, after the third volume in the trilogy is published.