Entertaining and thought-provoking, this novella left me wanting more. (Sooooo much more!)
(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for rape.)
“All I wanted was to make something small and bright and good, something that lasted a little while, a little while longer than I did. All I wanted was to push back against the darkness just a little bit. To live in the cracks in capitalism with the people I care about, just for a little while. But it turns out I can’t even have that. And now I just want to burn shit down.”
It’s the turn of the century – the 21st, to be exact – and humanity has finally discovered the fountain of youth. It comes in the form of a little blue pill that will cost you $200 a pop on the black market; a little less, if you’re one of the lucky few who has insurance. Most don’t, as this “weaponization of time” has only exacerbated class inequality.
Only the wealthiest citizens can afford life-extension drugs; regular folks deemed “important to society” – scientists, artists, musicians, the occasional writer – may receive a sponsorship to continue their work, but ultimately they live and age and die at the whim of those more powerful than they. Show a modicum of concern for the working class, and you just might find your sponsorship revoked.
Alex, Nina, Margo, Fidget, and Jasper are a group of artist/activists living in a dilapidated, mouse- and mold-infested flat in the underside of Oxford city. They work day jobs where they can find them, but their real passion is playing at Robin Hood. A few times a week, they load up their food truck with cheese sammies or mystery stews made of reclaimed food, and distribute free meals to Oxford’s neediest citizens. At the bottom of each foodstuff is a happy meal surprise: a little blue pill, most likely stolen. One per person, no second helpings.
The group’s machinations are kicked up about twenty notches when they meet Professor Daisy Craver (d.o.b. April 14, 2003), a 95-year-old woman in a 14-year-old girl’s body. She was one of the pioneers of the fix; now she wants to be its downfall. Or rather, its equalizer.
Complicating matters is Alex’s duplicity: for the past three years, he’s been working for Daisy’s employer, TeamThreeHundred, as a snitch: infiltrating the group and reporting back on their activities.
(Given that he’s sleeping with Nina, this raises some pretty thorny ethical questions, as explored in “AFTER SARKEESIAN: A RADICAL FEMINIST CLOUDCAST.” Penny based this particular plot point on contemporary reports of undercover officers in the UK “deliberately engineer[ing] relationships with activists to facilitate their work.”: “Interviews with the agents spin these stories as tragic doomed romances. The women involved describe the experiences as a violation. We believe them.”)
So I’m really enjoying Tor’s new series of novellas; it gives me a chance to read more authors and explore more fictional worlds than I could otherwise, thanks to the shorter format. As with Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, Everything Belongs to the Future expertly walks the tightrope that is the novella. Penny introduces a world that is rich and complex and vividly imagined, giving us a plot that’s fully fleshed out and resolved satisfactorily, all in just 112 pages. And she leaves us wanting more. (So, so much more!) This is an idea that could easily support a full-length novel – or a whole series of them – and yet still makes it work in a fraction of space.
The characters are all wonderfully developed, from Nina and Daisy to Margo and Fidget. I especially loved the introduction of Milo; he could easily carry a spin-off novella on his own (someone make this happen please?). Penny tackles a wealth of issues: class, race, religion, the meritocracy, sexuality, representation, gender identity, activism, gender, rape, consent, climate change, biodiversity, science and ethics. Everything Belongs to the Future exhibits greater diversity than the entire oeuvres of some authors, and is all the better – more real, engaging, and compassionate – for it.
To summarize, I cannot recommend Everything Belongs to the Future highly enough. The only real downside is that it makes me super-depressed that Penny hasn’t written more fiction, on account of she’s so damn good at it. Le sigh.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Yes! 100 years in the future, the “fountain of youth” in the form of a little blue pill has exacerbated class disparity. At $200 a pop, only the richest can afford “the fix”; those who are not well-off but deemed “important” to society – scientists, artists, etc. – may have their life-extension drugs sponsored by individuals or corporations. Poverty, disease, hunger, and substandard housing/homelessness runs rampant as longer lives allow the wealthy to further consolidate their wealth and power.
Alex, who was hired to infiltrate a group of artists/activists, suffers from anxiety and panic attacks. His wife Helen asked for a divorce shortly after he began his undercover work three years ago. After the split, he developed a sexual relationship with one of the activists, Nina; after she learns the truth about Alex, she characterizes this as rape.
Aside from Alex, the group of political activists consists of four other people: Nina, Margo, Jasper, and Fidget. Nina Hasan is a small, delicate woman with brown skin. Fidget is “a small, dark young trans man with neat cornrows and clothes that fit like they’d been tailored.” He later recruits a student to help them release the Time Bomb: Milo, a trans man like himself whose parents cut off his life-extension drugs until he’d start wearing dresses and going by “Melanie” again. Fidget and Milo are dating. Alex, Jasper, and Margo are all white; Jasper wears dreadlocks, which he’s forced to shave off for one of their missions.
Margo dies after ingesting the Time Bomb, which makes her age “eighty years in two minutes.”
Nina was standing next to Daisy when she activated the Time Bomb; while it sent Daisy into middle age (thanks to all the counteracting drugs in her system), Nina became an elderly woman. Only Alex’s hands were exposed; by story’s end, he has “the hands of a ninety-eight-year-old—twisted arthritic stumps, aching constantly.”
Daisy only speaks of dating men, but one scene in particular would suggest that she’s attracted to Nina. (“Daisy could have done with a cold shower herself at that precise moment.”) She once had an affair with her colleague Saladin, a brown-skinned Muslim man, who lost his job – and his life-extension package – on account of his “extremist” beliefs (i.e., everyone ought to have access to the fix). While Daisy continues to walk around in the body of a 14-year-old (at least until the Time Bomb), Saladin died at the age of 57 of pancreatic cancer.
Animal-friendly elements: n/a