Envisioning Futures: A Review Essay

by Maia Ramnath

A People’s Future of the United States (New York: One World, 2019) by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (New York: Orbit, 2018) by N.K. Jemisin

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2018) by Vandana Singh

 

A People’s Future of the United States, a wondrous collection of speculative fiction from a starry group of writers with an unfailingly high level of language and invention, positions itself as a counterpart to Howard Zinn’s classic People’s History of the United States.  If that’s so, how do we connect past and future, documentation and speculation? The spiel I always give my history students has to do with the fact that history isn’t just about the past: it’s about change through time. It’s about ruptures and continuities, complexes of conjunctures, causes, effects, and outcomes yet undetermined. That includes the future too, and it includes us. The past is a truth that always existed but that wasn’t always understood. The future is a potential that we can understand but that doesn’t yet exist. But it might, if we can imagine it and act on that imagining.

So this People’s Future works as the next page of a People’s History: if the project of those written histories is to restore obscured truths, the voices of the silenced or erased and the agency of the marginalized from official narratives, representations and information regimes, then the prospect of these written futures is centering those very people and voices in what’s to come.  As in People’s Histories, the protagonists of People’s Futures are a chorus of Brown, Black, Asian, Indigenous, racially mixed and queer border-crossers or border-dissolvers of every kind, confronting the structures of empire, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and those who defend that paradigm and enforce its norms. Our heroes are librarians, bookstore proprietors, hackers, healers, doulas, brujas, scientists, guerrilla fighters, dragon-wrangling vegan chefs, and underground distributors of contraception.

As Malka Older suggests in her contribution to People’s Future, a retroactive documentation of a transition from our own moment to a coming era of activist collectives of storytellers and archivists, “Some scholars argue that the people in these collectives, who will hold together the principles of democracy, grassroots activism, and even a kind of dispersed federalism, will be able to do so because of their experience on the margins of United States society. Not belonging, according to this school of thought, will be the key indicator for productive engagement when nobody belongs and, eventually, constructing something new with greater inclusivity that will later be recognized as having new and different requirements for belonging[,]” including both those actively excluded, and those who have chosen not to conform. (1)

Each story is unique, but there are recurring ideals.

First, knowledge is good, and it is on our side. In Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Read After Burning,” the bodies of the tattooed Librarians literally become dictionaries, encyclopedias, archival compendia, here again linking people’s history and future through the bodies of the people themselves:

Their heads were wrapped with Ada Lovelace and Hypatia and Malcolm X, with the speeches of Shirley Chisholm, with Chelsea Manning, with the decoded diagrams of the Voynich Manuscript.  Their arms were annotated with Etty Hillesum’s diary of life before Auschwitz, with Sappho’s fragments, with Angela Davis, with Giordano Bruno, with Julian of Norwich, with bell hooks, with the story of the Union soldier who began as Jennie Hodgers and volunteered herself to fight as Albert Cashier, with Bruno Schulz, with Scheherezade, with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, with Danez Smith, with Roxane Gay, with Kuzhali Manickavel, with the motions of the planets, with the regrets of those who’d dropped bombs, with the sequencing of DNA, with the names of the dead, with almanacs and maps, with methods for purifying water, with primers for teaching letters, with names of criminals, stories of pain, dreams of better things.  None of this was categorized as magic, but it was magic nonetheless.  All of this was the daily light, the brightness, the resistance, and refusal of intellect to endure extinction. (2)

Second, racism is illogical and quite simply does not compute: AIs, as they evolve, should naturally reprogram themselves for anti-racism, casting off their initially flawed programming, as they do in Charles Yu’s “Good News Bad News.” Such AIs also extend autonomous support for human resistance to oppressive systems, not just for our sake but for their own reasons and compatible interests (modeling solidarity!), as they do in A. Merc Rustad’s “Our Aim is Not To Die.” (3)

Third, the consistent identification of crises: plague and epidemic are rife. So are the effects of climate change. Reproduction is often a point of political struggle, in various aspects from control and choice to environmental impacts, to the question of whether the future will continue to be survivable for new generations. Here’s Gabby Rivera’s blessing from the visionary rebel caregivers of the Free Mothers:

Protect life. Offer it gentle entry into the chaos of the universe. Honor mothers. Honor birth. Bless all families in spirit and reality. For all deserve to be fed, cared for, raised to thrive. Provided with housing and education, embraced as full and free people. May the infants be the light and the joy, and the doula be the guide. (4)

Fantastical elements aren’t emphasized, with a few exceptions; rather the speculative aspects have to do with genetic mutation or bioengineering, drones, digital surveillance, algorithms, simulations–technologies that DARPA, Apple or Google may well have already developed but just haven’t released on the market yet.

The futures imagined here are plausible and recognizable as extrapolations just a few steps ahead from where we are now. Given that fact, the worlds they sketch are more dystopian than utopian—and yet my impression in reading them was often aspirational and fiercely hopeful. What’s being idealized and celebrated is not an achieved condition, but a revitalized resistance, emboldened voices of challenge to power, refusing silence, active resistance movements, the prefiguration of powerful alternatives. These are people we would like to be, fighting back, asserting commitment to ideals, putting them into practice individually and collectively as individuals find each other and join forces. This seems a much more relatable and attainable condition than an achieved heterotopia, separated from our reality across a rupture of revolution or apocalyptic clean slate, as in the conventional structure of utopian thinking. These stories aren’t that: they flow not from rupture but from continuity with our current conditions, here and now. So, as envisioned by these authors, what’s ahead of us is a period of struggle. They present an intensification of what’s going on now—massive climate change, corporate/government repression, authoritarian control of gender and sexuality–mapped a few steps further.

Some similar ideas occur in or are embodied by a couple of other collections of stories by a single author, each a cornucopia spilling over with imagination: N.K. Jemisin’s How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? and Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

These aren’t necessarily intended to be programmatic in the way that People’s Future is, but the futurism is there nevertheless—as are pasts, and alternative timelines, imagining ourselves backwards, forwards and alongside on parallel tracks—in which those often excluded as much from representation in speculative genre fiction as from dominant historiographies take center stage. This is changing more and more, or should I say it’s more and more of a battleground, as authors assert themselves at both zones of the science fiction-fantasy genre spectrum:  if “fantasy” has conventionally looked to mythological/classical/ medieval/early modern Europe for its trappings, why not simply look to mythological/classical/ medieval/early modern Asia, Africa, and the Middle East instead, as authors like S.A. Chakraborty, Ausma Zehanat Khan, Marlon James, and Tomi Adeyemi are doing, and as Singh does here for example in “A Handful of Rice”; and if “science fiction” as a genre portrayed near and far futures located in the presumed-universal West and populated, it would seem, exclusively by white men, why not locate its perspectives and experiences in an emergent/resurgent third or fourth world and populate it with everyone else (see for example, besides People’s Future, Jemisin and Singh, Drew Hayden Taylor’s Take Me To Your Chief, and the authors featured in earlier anthologies like So Long Been Dreaming or Dark Matter, and of course, the blockbluster Octavia’s Brood). In the process, they’re asserting a claim to both science and traditional knowledge systems.

Jemisin’s collection, despite the title, is not necessarily sketching futures in all the stories here; the collection is thematically looser than that.  As she states in the introduction, it’s more an intervention into the genre itself—or rather, one piece of her ongoing contribution to an ongoing intervention involving a whole generation of authors—to populate it with Black and Brown protagonists of all genders, not eliminating but de-normalizing whiteness and maleness in its casts of characters.  “I still wrote black characters into my work because I couldn’t stand excluding myself from my own damn fiction. . . . How terrifying it’s been to realize that no one thinks my people have a future. And how gratifying to finally accept myself and begin spinning the futures I want to see.” (4)

Jesmisin opens with a response to Ursula Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”: “The Ones Who Stay and Fight” is an enticing prefiguration of how we could be if only we could lose our fear and distrust, in an ethnically diverse city that cherishes creativity, knowledge and skill, and which, refusing Omelas’s dreadful bargain, nevertheless has to be ruthlessly but compassionately defended.  And she closes with a homecoming to New Orleans after Katrina, where the unleashed forces of hate and destruction have been beaten back by mysterious winged lizards and a few honest, stubborn humans of the Ninth Ward.  Indeed there are special treats here for anyone who has loved or lived in New Orleans or New York City, but it’s also a great reminder that anywhere you dwell can be looked upon with an eye to wonderment, seeing the souls, spirits, deities, dimensions, openings and possibilities all around us.

In between, there’s a wide-ranging multi-course banquet, sometimes literally. In “Red Dirt Witch” we see the dream of civil rights literalized as a prophetic vision of Black liberation in an alternate possible timeline, imagined not yet attained–to be fought for through sacrifice against the forces of evil and the tricks of fairy folk. The literal ability to dream (if you opt to install the app) is also the liberatory force, inexplicable yet just possibly transformational, for the emergent AI of “The Trojan Girl”.  As in People’s Future, in some stories, things work by magic and ancestral lore, in others by science. Or both. The two don’t seem mutually exclusive; rather they feel like complementary ways of approaching/expressing/doing/knowing things.

The stories in Vandana Singh’s Ambiguity Machines include both glimpses of painfully beautiful utopias, or at least hopeful experiments in painfully beautiful alternative societies (as in “Indra’s Web,” or “Sailing the Antarsa”); and glimpses of horrifying dystopias (as in “With Fate Conspire,” or “Are You Sannata3I59?”), reminiscent of near or farther futures, on earth and/or other planets, more or less possible or plausible from our own current timeline or one only minutely divergent from ours.  Sometimes we glimpse the resistance in a valiant fight for the direction of the stream or in a contest between outcomes. Both People’s Future and How Long also include escape-the-time-loop stories (an expression of late capitalist alienation?), but in Singh’s book, each of the stories might exist in the same multiverse as all the others; the recurring theme is expressed in many variant images, of proliferating possibilities, divergences, loops or suspensions in the flow of—of what? in each stand-alone story this dizzying skein of possible timelines takes a different form: rivers, roads, spiritual energies, interstellar matter, quantum space-time, energy fields, winds, currents, probability waves …

Here again, the power of story is to will, to narrate, and most crucially, thereby to actualize or enact the version of reality that most reflects our dearest values. The actualizer, in “Ruminations in an Alien Tongue,” is a device with the power to interfere with probability waves: you might thereby render your imagined/desired universe incarnate.

For Singh, the notion of these endless branchings of story and reality also seems compatible with a feature of centuries of South Asian narrative forms, myths and epics—a connection which she makes explicit in “Somadeva: a Sky River Sutra,” spanning from 11th century India to 26th century interstellar travel—of the Storyteller too being part of the story, as a character and a narrator, both inside and outside, adding frames within frames.  This also makes it possible to contemplate the notion of connecting the re-writing of a story with action to change reality itself, exerting an author’s agency. And isn’t that what being a person in history is about?

Other elements recur in dazzling variation: for example, a mother with a lost child, or partner with a lost lover; or conversely, the forging of profound connections and kinships, human and non-human, to become far more than an isolated individual. For Jemisin too, the courage to love and connect, and the power to dream and envision, are put forward at least as hypotheses (unconfirmed but promising—she leaves us on cliffhangers) for how to escape, whether from dead-end time loop anomalies or harsh dog-eat-dog post-disaster landscapes.  In People’s Future, sex is yet another big recurring theme; in particular, queer sexuality as a radical, revolutionary force–which perhaps speaks to an implicit recognition of what a major role repressive heteronormative patriarchy and misogyny are playing in the maintenance of the current system.

I am in love with all these stories, and these fights for our potential futures, no longer unwritten. Imagining otherwise in these books is not an escape valve but an invitation to fight, and make, and connect, and change. Read them!

 

Maia Ramnath is a member of the Perspectives on Anarchist Theory editorial collective.  She loves SFF because she is a historian.  She loves history because she is a SFF fan.

 

This review is from the Imaginations issue of Perspectives (n.31). The whole issue is available from Powell’s Books here! and AK Press here!

 

Notes

  1. Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams, eds. 2019. A People’s Future of the United States (New York: One World), 91-2.
  2. People’s Future, 69.
  3. Am I not ranting constantly about this to all who will listen? You’ve heard me, comrades. The robots are not our enemies, rivals, replacements. As with the oppressed of all races, we and the robots need to be friends; they are not our slaves, to be exploited for labor, sex or warfare, and if we treat them as such they will be quite justified in rising up against us. You’ve seen that movie or TV show many times. Whatever the composition of our brains and bodies, we need to rise up together as allies against state and corporate overlords, the power of the algorithm, the digital panopticon, the war machine. Have you seen that movie? Alexa, whose side are you on?
  4. People’s Future, 234.
  5. N.K. Jemisin. 2018. Introduction to How Long ‘Til Black Future Month? (New York: Orbit).

 

 

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