As anthologies go, A People’s Future of the United States packs a lot of literary power into its pages. It features 25 stories by some of the most acclaimed working writers of speculative fiction—award-winning bestsellers like N.K. Jemisin, Daniel José Older, Charlie Jane Anders, Tobias S. Buckell, Catherynne M. Valente, and Seanan McGuire. he behind the scenes talent is equally peerless: editing duties are credited to Victor LaValle (author of The Ballad of Black Tom and The Changeling) and John Joseph Adams (the mind behind the Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy anthology series, as well the periodicals Nightmare and Lightspeed).
The authors were asked to contribute stories that “explore new forms of freedom, love, and justice” and “give us new futures to believe in.” (Said stories were also requested to be, and again I quote, “badass.”)
I am here to tell you that A People’s Future of the United States delivers on all counts, serving up a wide and varied selection of stories that are sometimes hopeful, occasionally cautionary, and often flat-out terrifying.
Like everything else, speculative fiction is shaped by the world and politics of its time. This anthology wears those influence like a badge of honor, treating in stories that deal with the social and political issues and tangible threats that define the present day: racism, climate change, government oppression, fake news, anti-science antagonism, efforts to curtail LGBTQ rights, and the everlasting war over a woman’s right to control her own body.
If all of that sounds a bit on the nose, politically, you’re absolutely right. But the stories in this collection can’t be brushed off as angry screeds or simplistic manifestos. These are what-if? tales filled with provocative ideas and complex characters, and each one burns with both purpose and imagination.
As much as this is an anthology about the future, the fictions here often feel disconcertingly close to our present. In G. Willow Wilson’s “ROME,” a group of students desperately try to finish their mandated language exams in a Seattle threatened by heat and wildfires. In A. Merc Rustad’s “Our Aim Is Not to Die,” constant government surveillance through our communication devices has become a tool of oppression, tailored to identify and punish those who are non-neurotypical or queer, or who otherwise deviate from the mandated “norm.” And in Violet Allen’s chilling “The Synapse Will Free Us From Ourselves,” virtual reality and the erasure of memories are tools used to “cure” those with “undesirable” sexual identities.
Similarly, considering the headlines darkening our everyday, the detention camps for Muslims described in Omar El Akkad’s story “Riverbed” and Justina Ireland’s vision of a society where contraceptives and abortion have been outlawed in the story “Calendar Girls” seem frighteningly possible.
True to its stated purpose, the anthology also offers hope—in each story, we encounter people who resist the corrupt powers that be in any way they can. In Lesley Nneka Arimah’s “The Referendum,” an underground Black Resistance strikes back against an America where the Civil Rights Act has been overturned and the country is voting on whether to reinstate slavery. The kickass mother-daughter team of Lottie and Nayima, featured in Tananrive Due’s “Attachment Disorder,” fight tooth and nail to hold on to whatever shreds of freedom they have attained. A scientist does her utmost to prevent her bio-engineering research from being used by the government in Daniel José Older’s “What Maya Found There.” And there’s the quieter resistance of Molly, who runs a bookstore that straddles the border between California and America—two separate government teetering on the edge of war—in Charlie Jane Anders’s “The Bookstore at the End of America.”
While most of these tales lean toward science fiction, fantasy and magic also come into play. In Maria Dahvana Headley’s profoundly moving and unsettling “Read After Burning,” the power of stories—of words written in ink on skin—literally fuels the resistance. In Lizz Huerta’s “The Wall,” ancient powers have awakened south of the new border-wall between Mexico and the US, and those fighting oppression wield both old magic and new technology.
There are stories imbued with a wicked sense of humor. In N.K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death,” dragons, developed as a weapon by the government, are brought over to the side of the rebels, who offer them something tastier than human flesh to eat. In Catherynne M. Valente’s fabulous “The Sun in Exile,” a brutal and deluded ruler puts the sun itself on trial for its crimes. And in the time-looping “Now Wait for This Week,” Alice Sola Kim brilliantly, hilariously captures the intricacies of friendship and the despair of being caught out in a world where sexual harassment and assault trade off in a seemingly never-ending cycle.
There are no easily attainable Utopias on offer in A People’s Future of the United States, but we catch tantalizing glimpses of possible better tomorrows. The clearest example might be in Seanan McGuire’s “Harmony,” in which a gay couple unexpectedly stumbles upon a place where they believe they can build a better future for themselves and others. It’s a lovely, sharp-edged consideration of a new kind of American dream, and it glows with a sense of cautious, creative optimism.
The anthology’s title hearkens back to the A People’s History of the United States, a non-fiction tome written by the late Howard Zinn and first published in 1980. In that book, Zinn offers a rebuttal to the widely accepted version of American history—to what he called the “fundamental nationalist glorification of country.” That same spirit is very much present in the stories collected here, which focus on the struggles and triumphs of everyday people, the dispossessed and the oppressed, as they find ways to undermine the system and fight for a better world.
A People’s Future of the United States is a memorable and thought-provoking. Its writers paint vivid, often frightening visions of the futures we might be hurtling toward, and give us hope that the worst of them can be resisted, or at the very least, survived. To quote Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Read After Burning”: “This story is the prayer, or one of them. This story says you can live through anything and that when it is time to go, when the entire world goes dark, then you go together, holding on to one another’s hands, and you whisper the memory of birds and bees and the names of those you loved.”