A People’s History of the United States, the seminal work by the late Howard Zinn, strove to tell American history not from the perspective of the victors, but from those who experienced it and, in many cases, suffered because of it. In response, Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams set out to compile a collection of speculative fiction to continue those stories, to imagine what the future will be for those history has forgotten. The result, A People’s Future of the United States, ably addresses that prompt. But in the process, it also asks another question, one with as many implications for contemporary life as any: what does hope look like in an increasingly dystopian reality?
The answers are predictably varied, from A. Merc Rustad and N.K. Jemisin’s resistance fighters to Ashok Banker’s accidental utopia, Jamie Ford’s illusory perfection to Seanan McGuire’s small, triumphant realization of harmony. There is a running theme of open conflict and formal division between California and the rest of the United States. Some, like Charles Yu’s “Good News Bad News” and Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Sun in Exile,” revel in comedy so bleak the humour feels spiteful. Others, like Omar El Akkad’s “Riverbed” and Lizz Huerta’s “The Wall,” are weighty and resonant. There are stories of grand causes (Mari Dahvana Headley’s “Read After Burning”) and personal triumphs (G. Willow Wilson’s “ROME”). But they all share three characteristics: the focus on history’s forgotten, omitted or erased multitudes LaValle and Adams envisioned; a willingness to wield the lens of speculative fiction to address the crises of the human condition; and an awareness, conscious or otherwise, of the difficulty in building the future on a rapidly-crumbling foundation.
Three stories in particular are worth detailed discussion: the opener, Charlie Jane Anders’s “The Bookstore at the End of America”; Gabby Rivera’s “O.1”; and Tananarive Due’s “Attachment Disorder.” All three are depictions of imperfect worlds, of places whose denizens must seek their own futures in a world where the very existence of any future at all is, was or soon will be in question.
Anders’s story is almost more about its setting than its story. A bookstore straddling a contested border, serving as the sole link between communities who once interacted freely and now each believe the other is condemned, is a marvellous conceit, and the conceptualization of books in general and fiction in particular as a refuge is among the most compelling narratives in this collection. What really separates “The Bookstore at the End of America” from its peers, however, is its almost startling lack of pretension. There is a massive, literally earth-shattering conflict unfolding around the titular bookstore, and yet Anders avoids it. Instead, she crafts a love letter to the kind of fantasy that appears nowhere else in A People’s Future, the kind that exists in a universe wholly separate from the real world. Its juxtaposition of the persistent joy of acknowledged fiction against the fatalistic horror of a rapidly decaying reality not only sets the tone for the rest of the volume, but also establishes a high benchmark for the quality of the stories to come.
In “O.1,” the end of the world is hardly an apocalypse. Rather, it is an adjustment, a recalibration of sorts. It is, in many ways, the most hopeful story of the collection. Its lack of a true antagonist makes the urgency of Rivera’s conflict an even more impressive demonstration of her considerable skill, and her vision of a world without greed is almost utopian. But more than any other story in A People’s Future, “O.1” highlights the tension inherent in such a project. When the fractures in reality are so clear, any attempt to heal them necessitates a cataclysm, and Rivera’s IMBALANCE is a kind of deus ex bacteria, a benevolent hybrid of Vernor Vinge’s artificial intelligences and N.K Jemisin’s vengeful Stillness. It is a vision of an ideal future, yes, but of one that is imposed, not achieved, and shot through with an acknowledged fragility that lends an undeniably hopeful story an air of melancholy. It relies on the belief that, left to our own devices, we will never truly heal our wounds.
“Attachment Disorder” could be interpreted as the inverse of “O.1.” It depicts a world ravaged by plague, where those with the antibodies at once prized and feared, and where a delicate peace brokered by human powers relies on surveillance and control. Like “O.1,” its fundamental struggle is one of navigating the balance between freedom and safety. But unlike Rivera’s piece, Tananarive Due’s story is not one of beginning anew. Rather, it is one of continuing, of the quiet resistance of going on as before, of not subscribing to a new world order. Rivera’s heroes give birth to a world—Due’s refuse to let one die. And instead of a melancholy utopia, Due has somehow crafted a hopeful dystopia out of resilience, necessity and the basic human instinct to care.
A People’s Future of the United States concludes with Alice Sola Kim’s “Now Wait for This Week,” a stark reimagining of Groundhog Day, told from the perspective of an unwitting repeater. It compellingly depicts the inevitability of repeating a forgotten history and the deep-seated frustration of those who remember. There may be no better way to conclude such a collection of well-crafted, frequently terrifying and sometimes beautiful visions of America’s future.