A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers

Edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams

One World, Random House.  New York | 2019

Reviewed by Jan Alexander

Diverse American Nightmares

Victor LaValle

Victor LaValle, the multiple award-winning author of eight speculative novels, most recently The Changeling, often combines monsters and sorcerers with other horrors brought on by politics and technology. In his introduction to A People’s Future of the United States, though, he tells a tale that requires nothing magical, just a real-life terror that has visited many Americans; being stuck in a car with members of your own family and realizing that alien pods from Fox News have taken over their brains.

These days LaValle and a number of prominent writers, many of whom appear in this collection, have brought multiculturalism to the horror genre (along with a lot of literary genre-bending), and it turns out that even the right-wing, alien pod experience isn’t limited to white liberals

LaValle has a mother from Uganda and a white father from Syracuse, New York. They met in New York City in the late sixties and were married just about long enough to have him. Then, in 1995, LaValle had occasion to visit his mostly-absent-from-his-life father, who had moved back to Syracuse, remarried, and had another son, Paul, who was then 15.

LaValle’s stepmother was from the Philippines. The day he arrived in Syracuse, LaValle sat helpless as his father and his half-Filipino half-brother listened with rapturous ears to Rush Limbaugh spouting anti-immigrant and virulently xenophobic rhetoric on the car radio. LaValle worried about Paul growing up accepted by neither the white people whose views he espoused nor those who looked more like him; “a man without a clan” in America, thanks to the falsehoods with which he’d grown.

“What if it turns out all of us New York Times-reading progressives are living in a matrix that’s feeding us falsehoods?” an East Coast elite friend of mine pondered recently, in the midst of the kind of conversation that keeps all of us coastal progressives sustained through most of our waking hours. I thought of that question when I got to the part of LaValle’s introduction in which he does a bit of self- flagellating over his own false belief—before he saw the light on election night 2016—that the U.S. wasn’t a sexist place.

This is all by way of saying that A People’s Future of the United States is a book that shows us what horror looks like through the lens of a wide swathe of Americans. The stories are a crossbreed of literary fiction with science fiction and fantasy, but LaValle says that besides his familial encounter, the main inspiration for asking this diverse pool of to contemplate a personal vision of where American might be headed was Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

That book presents a wholly factual view of where the country has been from the perspective of women, people of color, the working poor, immigrants, and others whom mainstream history tends to consider irrelevant to the big picture.

A People’s Future tells 25 horror stories of a mostly dystopic future, envisioning the most horrendous outcome imaginable if you’re an immigrant, a person of color, LGBTQ, or in some cases just worried about how environmental degradation will destroy life as we know it or how technology will program our brains and our humanity. But you wouldn’t want to be part of the “mainstream” in these worlds either, however mainstream plays out.

LaValle writes that this is a book he wishes he could have given to his brother Paul that day, to help him believe that his bi-cultural life mattered.  That’s an optimistic view of the power of stories, but indeed, stories may be all we have to make one faction of a divided nation empathize with another.

Storytelling becomes the only possible chance of salvation in the very first tale, “The Bookstore at the End of America” by Charlie Jane Anders. A woman named Molly owns a sprawling bookstore on a hill right at the frontier where a California of the future meets the border of what America—no longer the United States of America—has become.

The bookstore has two sides and two identities. Those who enter from California find books of literature and poetry, women’s studies and queer studies, and classics going back to Virginia Woolf and Zora Neale Hurston. On the opposing side are books on religion, conservative history, self-reliance, romance novels, and macho writers like Faulkner and Hemingway “not to mention Ayn Rand.

People do buy actual books in this future world, because even though electronic books are available, “they might be plagued with crowdsourced editing, user-targeted content, and sometimes just plain garbage.”

Anders can be sportingly tongue-in-cheek describing the tattooed, technology-obsessed California customers who often identify as “they” versus church-going ladies from the America side; sometimes a stereotype is a window into a character’s soul. Molly’s aim is not so much bilateral diplomacy as just to keep everyone reading—but when a border clash breaks out, the bookstore becomes a fortress in which enemies huddle side by side, and the only mediation tool just happens to be a book club discussion.

Books are also the main event in “Read After Burning” by Maria Dhavana Headley, but in this story all books and all knowledge are contraband. It began, Headley writes, with a kind of apocalypse that involved “men hunched in their hideys pushing buttons, curfewing the country…. getting more and more angry and more and more panicked, until everyone who wasn’t like them got declared illegal.”

Every apocalyptic vision in this collection springs from something familiar. “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right” by Sam J. Miller plunges headlong into tech surveillance, exploitation at the hands of the gig economy, and queer politics. The narrator is a gay man working with straight man he desires. In fact, they sleep together in their truck when they’re on the road, because they install “phone cloners” on street corners throughout New York state for a privatized police force that pays them as contract labor and doesn’t want any unnecessary hotel expenses.

But what’s most crucial to the story is the secret resistance movement and its dozens of day-to-day rebellions. The characters are, as the narrator describes it, “planting the seeds of our own oppression, helplessly helping our enemies observe and entrap us, but spreading other seeds as well.”

More Orwellian in its view of gay oppression is “The Synapse Will Free Us from Ourselves” by Violet Allen. The story is set in a high-tech rehab center of sorts, a place where people with the job title of Adjustment Engineer are ostensibly assigned to deprogram gay subjects. The narrator, Daniel, is hard at work on a man named Dante, showing him romantic old movies to get him to fall in love with a woman wearing “very sexual high heels,” though he’s actually performing the high-tech brainwashing through a hologram of Dante.

“This is a good job. I am doing good work. I am a good person,” Daniel repeats so often we know he must be programmed too. As it turns out, this is advanced technology perpetuating a giant step backward in the human psyche.

The most painfully hilarious stories are Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Sun in Exile,” about government-mandated denial of a heat wave so hot “the air rippled like music…. Even the moon raised silver cancers on your bare back,” and “By His Bootstraps” by Ashok K. Banker. The latter is about a certain president who eats McDonald’s burgers and drinks Diet Coke, which seem like code words for “bad guy” these days.

The president has launched a classified project that’s supposed to combine a breakthrough in quantum time travel with a new development in genetic restoration. He expects the project to make everyone in America white “again”—but it turns out that the formula resets everyone’s genetic lineage back to their original code. Right before his eyes, the president’s secret service agents change into “a Havasupai in leggings, a loose long-sleeved shirt, and sandals made of yucca fiber,” and “a Karankawa Indian of non-binary gender.”

Portraits of past presidents now depict tribal chiefs. It’s one of the few stories in which present-day fears trans mutate into a beautiful, harmonious world. Even guns have been outlawed.

Empathy is everywhere in this luminous collection, though as with all such stories it’s hard to imagine there will be readers among the U.S. residents who, if they were to venture into Charlie Jane Anders’ bookstore at all, would stay on the American side. It seems a given that the ideological civil war taking place under our noses today will have long-term repercussions.

We might survive the outcome; in another story included here, Omar El Akkad’s “Riverbed,” a traumatized immigrant offers a rather spot-on description of the U.S. as adept at “surviving its endless self-inflicted wounds.”  On the other hand, there are stories here warning us that those wounds could take the form of a planet on fire, a plague, or an end to human reproduction.   Read these fantasy tales for a totally terrifying reality check.

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