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Future imperfect – ‘A People’s Future of the United States’

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From its very beginnings, speculative fiction has been used to comment on the world in which we live. Sometimes, it’s a lens that allows closer examination and subsequent extrapolation; other times, it’s a mirror that forces us to look at a potentially unsettling reflection. The very best often does both.

The new collection “A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers” (One World, $17) – edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams – offers numerous examples of just how good that very best can be. They are stories that look forward from our current fractured place and project just how our societal journey might progress if we remain on certain paths. There are bleak prophecies and optimistic hopes, tragedies and triumphs – all of them springing from similar starting points.

These tales come to us from the speculative fiction elite, phenomenal talents gifted with both big ideas and stellar storytelling chops. Seriously – look at this list:

Violet Allen; Charlie Jane Anders; Lesley Nneka Arimah; Ashok K. Banker; Tobias S. Buckell; Tananarive Due; Omar El Akkad; Jamie Ford; Maria Dahvana Headley; Hugh Howey; Lizz Huerta; Justina Ireland; N. K. Jemisin; Alice Sola Kim; Seanan McGuire; Sam J. Miller; Daniel José Older; Malka Older; Gabby Rivera; A. Merc Rustad; Kai Cheng Thom; Catherynne M. Valente; Daniel H. Wilson; G. Willow Wilson; and Charles Yu.

This is as wide-ranging a group as you could hope to put together, diverse in gender and race and sexuality and just about every other way in which a group can be diverse. One thing they all have in common, however, is that they are all excellent writers. There might be some names that are more familiar than others, some with more critical acclaim or higher sales, but every single one of them is a top-notch fictioneer.

It’s rare for any collection, let alone one of this size, to be completely devoid of duds; most of these sorts of assemblages have at least a couple of pieces that don’t quite measure up. However, that does not seem to be the case here – editors LaValle and Adams clearly knew both precisely what they wanted and how to convey that precision to the authors with whom they were working. The end result is a rock-solid collection whose quality never wavers – every story is a standalone reward.

Now, that doesn’t mean there won’t be favorites. Here are a few of mine; your mileage may vary.

Maria Dahvana Headley’s “Read After Burning” is a cool, weird riff on the importance of the written word and to what lengths we might go to preserve it in a world where it was verboten. “No Algorithms in the World” by Hugh Howey is an interesting look at how even positive changes might be viewed by those who struggle with any change at all. “Our Aim is Not to Die” by A. Merc Rustad imagines a world where the neuroatypical live in fear of being “reformatted.” A rebellion against government-controlled dragons is fought through the power of soul food in N.K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death.” And Omar El Akkad’s “Riverbed” is a haunting tale of what happens when times of displacement and prejudice fade into the past; it might be the best of the bunch.

Also worth noting: the stories that begin and end the book.

We open with “The Bookstore at the End of America” from Charlie Jane Anders. It’s a shattered-society future tale, one in which California has separated from the rest of the country. The titular bookstore rests between the two, with separate entrances for each. It’s a sharp-eyed look at the slippery slope of othering and an exploration of how alike we really are. It sets the tone nicely.

Alice Sola Kim’s “Now Wait For This Week” closes the collection. What starts off as a pretty standard trapped-in-a-time-loop story – cue the inevitable “Groundhog Day” comparisons – turns into an in-depth deconstruction of female friendship and the cultural realities that surround it. It is conceptually and structurally interesting and makes a fine closing note to this symphony.

But in all of these stories, the biggest struggles faced by our society – issues of race and economic class and sexuality – are presented front and center. Sometimes angrily, sometimes satirically, sometimes downright cheekily, but always sincerely and with careful thought.

The truth is that every single one of the 25 tales put forth in “A People’s Future of the United States” deserves your attention. It’s a different kind of American Dreaming being done here. This kind of provocative and passionate writing illustrates just how valuable and powerful speculative fiction can be; these stories help show who we are by looking toward who we might become.

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