Wednesday, May 1, 2019

A People's Future of the United States


A People's Future of the United States

There’s some great writing in this SF anthology, covering a range of sub-genres ranging from fantastical allegories to realistic extrapolations from the world of today.

And as the title implies, this anthology is heavy on the politically charged stories. The degree of explicit relevance to today’s politics varies depending on the story, but it’s safe to say none of the authors mean to inspire anyone to run out and work for the reelection of the current President of the United States.

A large proportion depict a United States that has taken a hard turn towards right-wing authoritarianism. I’ll get to those in a moment.

My favorite story in the collection is probably the first one, “The Bookstore at the End of America” by Charlie Jane Anders. This is a tale of a quirky bookstore straddling the border between an independent California and a reactionary United States of America, and its owner Molly, a memorable character doing her best the keep the peace between the two groups of customers. The worldbuilding is not black-and-white (the USA may be Gilead-lite, but some of the glimpses we get of techno-utopian California are highly unnerving in their own way) and the political barbs the bookstore’s customers exchange ring true. As an aside, I really ought to read some of Anders's novel-length output.

Other memorable stories include (among others):

“Chapter 5: Disruption & Continuity [Excerpted]” by Malka Older, an academic account of the societies that replace the disintegrating United States of the 2030s and 2040s, written with subtle but mind-bending temporal quirks.

“By His Bootstraps” by Ashok K. Banker, in which the President of the United States (clearly meant to be the office’s current 2019 inhabitant) watches with incomprehension and dismay as government research into time travel backfires, creating a USA that has retroactively been inclusive and tolerant from the beginning of its history.

“No Algorithms in the World” by Hugh Howey, a portrait of an older conservative man who believes strongly in values of hard work and having to earn one’s living, who cannot cope with the transition to a post-scarcity economy.

“ROME” by G. Willow Wilson, in which high school students take a high-stakes exam that absolutely cannot be rescheduled despite the massive fire ravaging their city and coming awfully close to the exam center.

As mentioned above, there are also many stories set in near-future USAs that have turned towards right-wing authoritarianism. I’m uncomfortably aware that in many of these settings, as a white cis hetero guy, I’d be allowed to live a relatively privileged life, especially if I kept certain opinions to myself.

Of these reactionary futures, I think the one that left the biggest impression on me was A. Merc Rustad’s “Our Aim Is Not to Die”, about Sua, a young, non-gender-binary teenager on the autism spectrum in a future USA where such perceived non-conformity is prohibited. Sua has a state-mandated medical checkup looming in a few days and the inevitable results will cause them to lose everything they have in their modest life. Sua is such an inoffensive character, utterly terrified. The ending gives Sua a reprieve from their fate, and leaves open the possibility that Sua might rise to a traditional notion of heroism -- or might not, and let the heroism to others, and that’s okay too.

These stories about dystopian American futures range from extrapolations based on contemporary politics, to far-out weirdness. “The Referendum” by Lesley Nneka Arimah looks at how a small group of people reacts to the government’s stripping away of rights for African-Americans, presented as a scarily plausible scenario; in “Calendar Girls” by Justina Ireland, a young purveyor of banned birth control products gets sucked into political intrigue surrounding a powerful politician who helped ban them. Meanwhile, in “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” by N. K. Jemisin, oppressed communities turn the tables on their oppressors by taming the dragons that have been bred to intimidate them.

These future authoritarianisms hit me, personally, uncomfortably. Although I am an American citizen, I’ve lived abroad for most of my adult life. For the last 12 years I’ve lived in a country that could (arguably) be called the least authoritarian in Asia.

It’s not perfect. For one thing, the free press -- possibly the freest in Asia -- tends to focus on bloody sensationalism and partisan politics; for another thing, the lax libel laws are often misused by those with money to spare to harass people they don’t like. And that’s not even getting into the scary intersection of local politics and organized crime, or the blatant racism towards certain groups of outsiders (and I don’t mean Westerners). I’m not looking at this country with rose-colored glasses.

But for every problem mentioned above, there are local people working to make it better, and they have the freedom to do so without a tyrannical government harassing them and making their lives miserable.

And yet, it terrifies me that every knowledgeable person agrees that there is a real chance this country’s democracy could collapse within a few years. Not just degrade, but utterly collapse.

I don’t deny that, if that happens, as a non-citizen with a foreign passport I’ll have the opportunity to pick up and leave. And that does give me a degree of privilege. That doesn’t make me any less concerned about the place I have lived with my wife for twelve years, with our neighborhood, our friends, our jobs, our two cats.

And this has forced me to become more politically aware than I might have been otherwise. There is a lot to worry about, in many countries, not least the United States. The stories, characters and ideas in this collection can inspire us to go out there and work to improve things.