A People’s Future of the United States, the speculative anthology edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams, is an ambitious book. Arriving at a moment when the arc of history is being emphatically and deliberately bent away from justice, a moment when the future of everything, the United States included, feels uncertain, the collection dares to offer twenty-five imaginative answers to the question: What comes next?
The futures brought to life in these stories are diverse, often dark, and always fraught. The perspectives are diverse, too. Here, we offer a peek at a few that caught our editors’ imaginations.
Gemma Webster: Fiddling While Seattle Burns & Taming Dragons
One thing that I like in particular about this collection is how different the stories are from each other. There are many near-future dystopias, and while their themes of evil and injustice may overlap, the manifestations are vastly different. A striking instance is the juxtaposition of G. Willow Wilson’s “ROME” with N. K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death.”
“ROME” is the quieter of the two stories, playing on the notion of Nero fiddling while Rome burned. Seattle is on fire but the Building English Proficiency students have to take their midterm. When their minder flees in the face of the encroaching blaze, the stalwart students stick to their seats:
The setup is The Breakfast Club with a multicultural (and more interesting) cast, plus the world is on fire. Everyone has their reason for being there. Rahma has scholarship money riding on this, Luis seems to be in a similar situation to Rahma, and Fletcher (the protagonist) deals with dyslexia—and this might just be his last chance to see Rahma, on whom he has a secret crush. The exception is chain-smoking Claire; we never find out why she’s there. All the students accept the flaming world (even if they lament it or worry), to the point that they’re able to mostly ignore their collective danger as they pursue their more individual concerns. By the time the danger becomes too serious to ignore, it’s too late to escape.
This story is small in scope but it uses its grounded literary style to full effect to make that burning world real and universal. That G. Willow Wilson writes Ms. Marvel for Marvel Comics and can turn around and write in this literary style shows how versatile and talented she is.
Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” is a dystopia that takes human-caused climate change to another level. Truly the opposite of “ROME,” this story is epic and fantastic. Inspired by the biblical plagues, the government (“the Towers”) has released inept but consequential biological weapons in an effort to control the people. The latest plague was supposed to be frogs, but the genetic mutations went awry yielded something very close to dragons:
The Sapphires are an elite team of black women soldiers. They are intelligent and strong and they have all the answers. They are hero heroes. They outsmart and outmaneuver the Towers with each new attack. This story is so fun to read. It is like a movie montage but fuller and more satisfying. It moves through time so fast that we see a deep, lasting (and probably future altering) friendship develop between the dragon and the leader of the Sapphires:
This story is a ride, and it’s short, but there is enough packed into this world that it could be a full-length movie. That Jemisin is a master of her craft is clear. She brings such joy to the page that even dystopia is fun.
I just love the way these two stories play off each other. They couldn’t be more different in tone and style, and yet here they sit, side by side. The power of reading a collection like this is seeing what completely different worlds are summoned by different storytellers—let’s call it the power of seeing the world through different perspectives. It’s a lesson we should all take to whatever tables of power we are invited to and demand that more voices be heard.
C.S. Peterson: Time Loops and Anosognosia
In a time loop story, the protagonist becomes trapped in a loop of repeating time, where only they are aware of the repetition. It’s a familiar trope in speculative fiction, and it seems to be everywhere at the moment, thanks in no small part to Russian Doll and The Good Place on Netflix. Russian Doll, in particular, does a great job of explaining the conceit, likening the protagonist to a video game player stuck in a particularly difficult level of a game they cannot defeat. It is a Gordian Knot that cannot be worked, a karmic hell. As time loop protagonists endlessly repeat the same moments in time, they have ample opportunity to experiment with ethics, and to ponder the morality of immortality. Eventually, they begin to question if it is even possible for individuals to be reliable narrators of our own experience. (More often than not, the answer is no.) Usually in this trope, the protagonist needs to overcome some part of their ego and connect with others in relationship, develop compassion, deepen their understanding of love. That’s what breaks the loop: love.
In the classic time loop movie Groundhog Day, everything in the world, physical and temporal, revolves around the self-absorbed Bill Murray character until he develops compassion and learns to love unconditionally. Every other character in the story, including his love interest, is there solely to help him on his path to redemption. It is like every other hero’s journey, where mentors abound solely for the protagonist’s enlightenment: the wise old homeless black man; the magical Indian; the supremely competent woman who is waiting for the Chosen One to appear so she can be his second, yet when he does, he’s a diamond in the rough, and her life’s mission is to show him the way.
Not so in A People’s Future of the United States. In two brilliant stories, “The Synapse Will Free Us from Ourselves” and “Now Wait for This Week,” authors Violet Allen and Alice Sola Kim flip the time loop trope on its head. In both stories the protagonist lives through the time loop in support of an off-stage, centered, culturally dominant character. The protagonists are caught in the loop of a lie they believe to be truth. The sensation of bending one’s understanding of reality to a narrative told by another who lives outside of your experience is unbalancing. It literally de-centers these characters within themselves. They exhaust themselves trying to conform their experience to a reality that does not exist. You may say 2 + 2 = 4, but how can you be sure when every day someone tells you 2 + 2 =5?
In each story, cognitive dissonance is strained to the breaking point. Evidence from sense and reason, blocked by the conscious mind, surface in the subconscious, leading to a realization. In the end, reality shifts and the veil is torn away, creating a new narrative.
In “The Synapse Will Free Us from Ourselves,” Allen imagines a new form of high-tech conversion therapy to “cure” homosexual people. The characters are trapped in layers of a virtual reality where they torture avatars of their true selves in an effort to make them conform to heteronormative values of romance and desire. The grandmotherly figure of Dr. Murphy has the feel of a digitized AI invoking Anna Freud (Freud’s daughter, who wrote in 1951 that “the attainment of full object-love of the opposite sex is a requirement for cure of homosexuality,” this, despite her devotion to her life-partner, Dorothy Burlingham, a woman).
In “Now Wait for This Week,” Kim gives the narrative voice the role of the Koryphaios, the leader of the Greek chorus. Bonnie, character caught in the time loop, is a mostly off-stage character, while our protagonist-narrator is not aware of the loop. The loop begins on Bonnie’s birthday. Her friends, gathered for drinks, wait for her. In true chorus fashion they keep a running commentary on Bonnie, her proclivities, failings, and virtues. In the first loop, Bonnie is tired of her friends’ stories of being sexually harassed by predatory men. It never happened to Bonnie, well protected by her wealth and privilege. She rolls her eyes.
This time loop story resonates. Half a dozen years ago, at a local trivia night with a group of first-year teachers, I was appalled to learn that they had no idea who Gloria Steinem was. A younger friend chuckled when I mentioned that I thought the struggle for gender equality was far from over. Watching Dr. Blasey testify at the Kavanaugh hearing, I felt like I was in some weird loop of time, where yesterday it was Anita Hill taking absurd questions from a panel of old white men. It feels endless.
In Kim’s story, Bonnie is the only one experiencing the time loop. She begins full of hubris, the overarching pride that is the downfall of characters in every Greek tragedy. She even blinds herself at one point, an Oedipus on her way to redemption. (Is anyone else old enough to remember that amazing, redemptive production of Oedipus at Colonus on Broadway at the height of the AIDS crisis, where Oedipus was played by the Five Blind Boys from Alabama, where the whole audience left the theater, bodies shaking, holding onto their friends who were still alive, weeping onto each other’s necks?)
Trapped in her time loop, Bonnie embodies a mental illness called anosognosia, a condition whose main symptom is “a lack of insight.” People suffering anosognosia don’t recognize the fact of their illness, and so refuse to take their medicine, or seek therapy. The same lack of insight characterizes the predatory men who have wronged so many of Bonnie’s friends, including the narrator. As she repeats her loop over and over, Bonnie finally learns to see beyond her sheltered perspective, to recognize that her own lack of insight and lack of compassion perpetuate a culture that normalizes misogyny and sexual assault.
Eventually, at her own apotheosis, Bonnie does what great saviors actually do: she goes away. She does not abandon her friends, but rather leaves them full of love and affirmation. Full enough of their valid, lived experiences that they themselves gain new powers to face their tormentors: men of privilege who are suffering from a lack of insight into their own destructive predatory behaviors.