Tomorrow’s Possible History Unfolds in A People’s Future of the United States

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

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.”

A People’s Future of the United States is available now.

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This Week’s New Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books: Fox Tales, Sinister Doubles, and Mind-Altered Ex-Criminals

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

Rewrite: Loops in the Timescape, by Gregory Benford
Nearly 40 years after the publication of his Nebula Award-winning time travel novel Timescape, veteran author Gregory Benford (who is also a winner of two Hugo Awards and a John W. Campbell Award, and is also a professor of physics and a noted academic) has penned a new book in the spirit of that landmark temporal adventure. In 2002, a history professor named Charlie is dealing with mid-life despair when he’s involved in a terrible car accident. He wakes up in 1968, in his own 16-year old body, and discovers he has somehow traveled back in time and been given the chance to do everything over again. Charlie does what anyone would—he uses what he knows about future history to game the system, and becomes a huge success in the world of motion pictures. When he dies again, he finds himself back in 1968—and realizes he’s not the only “reincarnate” living on a loop and able to change history. Charlie realizes his purpose isn’t to perfect his own life, but to alter the history of 1968 in a very specific way—and someone he knows is working against him to make sure he doesn’t succeed. A tense game of temporal chess breaks out as Charlie seeks to fulfill his ultimate destiny.

The Subjugate, by Amanda Bridgeman
Bridgeman made a splash in her native Australia with the Aurealis Award-nominated Aurora space opera series, and caught the eye of Angry Robot Books, which is releasing her newest novel worldwide. With a premise that mixes procedural tropes with plausible near-future tech, The Subjugate certainly seems poised to introduce a host of new readers to the prolific author. A series of brutal murders bring a pair of troubled detectives to a community dominated by The Children of Christ and served by Subjugates—violent criminals who have had their minds “edited” to transform them into calm, peaceful servants. The detectives’ own dark pasts travels with them into the tight-knit religious community, where they discover no shortage of repressed violence and potential motives for the killings in a town populated by supposedly reformed violent criminals.

Someone Like Me, by M.R. Carey
Mike “M.R.” Carey, comic book writer extraordinaire (X-Men and The Fantastic Four) and, under a pseudonym, the author of the smash hit The Girl with All the Gifts, delivers a twisty story that straddles the line between SFF and thriller. Liz Kendall is a divorced mother of two who knows she has a mysterious dark side—one so forceful, it’s almost a separate identity, ruthless and violent. One evening she is attacked by her ex-husband, and that other intelligence takes over her body and fights him off, allowing her to escape. Another woman, Fern Watts, has been on serious medication her whole life to combat hallucinations—and even so, she’s accompanied everywhere by her friend Jinx, an imaginary fox. One day Fern, goes to her psychiatrist’s office and encounters Liz—and is pretty certain Liz is her.

A Black Fox Running, by Brian Carter
This evocative fantasy novel, originally published in the UK in 1981 and out of print for years, is a story of animals caught up in the eternal conflict between man and nature that should sit proudly beside Watership Down. In the English countryside in 1946, Wulfgar is a fox, the leader of a pack long-hunted by a determined Trapper named Scoble and his murderous hunting dog, known as The Lurcher. The story is straightforward on the surface, following the trials and travails of Wulfgar and his pack as they attempt to survive a brutal winter and outwit those hunting them, made richly resonant—almost mythical—in the telling, with multiple chapters from the almost alien points-of-view of diffrent animals. A lost classic worth rediscovering.

An Agent of Utopia, by Andy Duncan
Andy Duncan is a writer’s SFF writer—his short fiction has earned him a Nebula Award, the Theodore Sturgeon Award, and three World Fantasy Awards and won him endless praise from genre giants like Gardner Dozois, Nancy Kress, Michael Swanwick, and Jonathan Strahan. Now, Small Beer press has assembled his most noteworthy stories—along with two new tales—into a wildly varied and consistently brilliant collection drawing from tall tales and legends of old, and featuring a Utopian assassin, an aging UFO contactee, a haunted Mohawk steelworker, a yam-eating zombie, Harry Houdini, Thomas Moore, and more.

Breach, by W.L. Goodwater
Stories mixing magic into the politics of the Cold War era have become something of a rend as of late, and W.L. Goodwater’s debut is a worthy addition to the subgenre. Karen O’Neil is a scientist and a magician who, despite a prejudice against the supernatural, eagerly volunteers when the State Department seeks her help investigating a breach in the Berlin Wall, which, in this alternate reality, is an arcane barrier that not a city but the entire world. As Karen hunts down the truth behind the wall’s construction and attempts to uncover its true purpose, she faces a wealth of opposition, both from run of the mill political maneuvering and spies, saboteurs, and maybe even magic itself working against her from the shadows.

Terminus, by Tristan Palmgren 
Tristan Palmgren wowed us earlier this year with his debut novel, Quietus, which told the story of a transdimensional anthropologist sent to our Earth’s middle ages to observe the Black Death, who meddled with the true course of history by saving a doomed man. The sequel finds that traveler’s transdimensional empire in collapse, with the planarship Ways and Means hiding in the middle ages after ending the plague and various agents of the old order scattered across our world like fallen embers, each pursuing their own agenda. As Ways and Means and its agent Osia continue to meddle in the past, the ripples of changed history become more and more prominent, and an Italian soldier named Fiametta raises an army in revolt against the powers that be that threatens to change everything.

Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, by Michael Marshall Smith
This odd, lyrical all-ages fantasy story centers on a young girl named Hannah, sent to live with her grandfather in the hopes of saving her from the stress of  her parents’ divorce. But life with grandad turns out to be anything but peaceful, and the man happens to be in cahoots with the devil, and he’s constantly dragging her off on adventures into the countryside, where there are talking mushrooms and the devil might not actually be the bad guy you’d imagine. Like the best fairy tales, it is on one level a grand adventure—told through Hannah’s young, innocent point of view—and on another, a deeply resonant story of human frailties and finding redemption.

The Arrival of Missives, by Aliya Whiteley
Whiteley, twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize, is best known for her short fiction, including the two novellas published in the single volume The Beauty in early 2018. The Arrival of Missives (originally released in England in 2016) is her third novel, and its arrival in the States only serves to prove the British writer is just as skilled working in a longer form. In a future England recovering from a horrific world war, Shirley Fearn is a girl on the verge of adulthood. Educated far beyond the norm for women in her village, she is all scorn and pride, and completely unaware of how trapped she is by the sexism and traditions she scoffs at. When a handsome new teacher, injured and broken in the war, catches her eye, she indulges in romantic fantasies until the true nature of his injury—and what’s keeping him alive—is fully revealed.

They Promised Me The Gun Wasn’t Loaded, by James Alan Gardner (November 6, Tor Books—Paperback)
Hugo and Nebula nominee James Alan Gardner delivers a terrific sequel to last year’s hilarious superhero romp All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault. The story is set just days after four college kids led by a woman named Jools gained extra-normal abilities in a world where Darklings—basically, monsters—have suddenly appeared. Jools and her friends are still arguing over what their superhero group’s name should be when they’re tasked with tracking down a doomsday weapon developed by a insane genius—despite the fact that no one’s quite sure what the weapon does. When she meets a group of super-powered Robin Hoods, Joola joins in with the merriment, but soon finds herself questioning the morality of supers in a mundane world.

The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun, by J.R.R. Tolkien
The fictional universe of The Lord of the Rings got a little bit larger this year, a lasting testament to the power and influence of Tolkien’s epic. But even longtime fans may not be aware of Tolkien’s other works of fiction, many of which eventually folded into aspects of Middle-earth history and mythology—especially because some of it has been out of print for decades. Originally written in 1930 and published in 1945, The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun is inspired by the Celtic myths and legends Tolkien was working on in his early career. This edition, edited by the author’s son Christopher, includes additional poems and supporting reference material that seeks to place it into context in the elder Tolkien’s career. Now available in paperback, this volume offers a glimpse into the real-world inspirations that Tolkien synthesized into the most famous epic fantasy of all time—the story of a childless lord who makes a tragic deal with a witch in order to secure an heir, and is then forced to make a terrible choice.

Mass Effect Andromeda: Annihilation, by Catherynne M. Valente
Award-winning author Catherynne M. Valente has already wowed us this year with a Space Opera; and now she’s back with another sci-fi adventure, this one a tie-in set in the universe of the Mass Effect video games. The ark ship Keelah Si’yah is headed for the distant Andromeda galaxy with 20,000 colonists onboard, drawn from many worlds and species. Three decades from their destination, a ship’s scan reveals that some of the hibernating passengers have been killed by a pathogen that is loose on the ship—and mutating, putting other species at risk as well. All signs point to an intentional attack, which means whoever is responsible is somewhere onboard. As cincumstances worsen and panic sets in—not all of it triggered by the hallucinogenic efffects of the illness—the crew must race to find the culprit—and a cure—of their colonization mission will be over before it begins.

Static Ruin, by Corey J. White
In the final volume of Corey J. White’s dark space opera novella trilogy, renegade voidwitch Mars Xi decides that the only way to stop them from chasing you is to go back to the beginning. Having killed her former trainer, devastating a space fleet chasing her, and destroying the planet where she was imprisoned, Xi and her few remaining allies—a mutant cat and a boy whose mind is an uncontrollable weapon—must hunt down her “father,” who engineered her to be a killer. The journey will take them to the edge of the universe, and there’s no telling if they’ll make it—or if there’s a chance of return. This is space opera with a wickedly sharp edge.

What are you reading this week?

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