Book Review: A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers edited by Victor LaValle & John Joseph Adams (2019)

Tuesday, February 5th, 2019

Filled with peoples, worlds, futures, and acts of rebellion that you won’t soon forget.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for violence against a variety of marginalized groups.)

You are the amen of my family, and I am the in the beginning of yours. 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. When it is not time to go, though, this story says you rise.

– “Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Wall to keep the empire safe: strrrrrong empire, empire with mightiest military in the world, empire made of blood and theft, human and land. Before the wall was even finished the empire began to strip rights, silence certain people, keep others sparking in their skins of distrust. But most of the inhabitants paid attention to other things, shiny things, scandals. It would pass, hadn’t it always? White folks had short memories.

– “The Wall” by Lizz Huerta

Y’all, the first baby born to the Federation of Free Peoples was gonna be one incredible brown-ass baby.

– “O.1” by Gabby Rivera

— 4.5 stars —

Seanan McGuire is an insta-read for me – but, even without her name attached to this project, A People’s Future of the United States is still a book I would have pounced on. With its riff on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, plethora of diverse contributors, and focus on futures that might be – at a time when the present is so damn depressing – there’s no way I could pass it up. And, rather than offer an escape from the now, the stories here challenge the reader to follow this thread to its possible conclusions; to imagine what this world could become, for better or worse; and to rise up, resist, and perhaps steer it to a better, more humane place.

My main issue with anthologies is that they tend to be uneven – but A People’s History of the United States is as close to uniformly awesome as you can get without being pure perfection. There are a few stories that I just found okay, and one that I skipped altogether. But most of the rest? Took my breath away.

For whatever reason (the first bit of the synopsis maybe?), I came to the table expecting visions of future utopias: suggestions for how we can fix this broken planet we call home. And while there are a few budding socialist Edens to be found here – Hugh Howey’s “No Algorithms in the World” springs to mind – most are of the dystopian variety. And that’s both okay and, let’s be honest, totally realistic. The good thing is that, within every story lurks a glimmer of hope. Sometimes it’s tenuous and fragile, but it’s there, waiting to be nurtured into fruition. My heart, you guys? Swelled so much that it felt fit to burst clear out of my chest. Some of these yarns are that darn shiny.

There are way too many to discuss them all, but here goes.

“Read After Burning” by Maria Dahvana Headley is as strange as it is lovely. Half the time I was not entirely sure what I was reading, but I was sure I wanted more. In this far-off future dystopia, words are power (though “Knowledge [isn’t] enough.”), a power that’s been chained by the powers that be. Paper is outlawed, so Librarians like the Needle tattoo the stories of the world on their very skin: “manuscripts from authors like Octavia the Empress and Ursula Major.” (Tell me you didn’t feel those chills.) In the end – or the beginning, rather – these stories become a superpower of sorts, smoke let loose on the battleground. The first of many revolutions.

Sam J. Miller explores “the place of sex in a broader strategy of political resistance” in “It Was Saturday Night, I Guess That Makes It All Right.” Forced to seek anonymous, illicit sex in back alleys and swampy underpasses (Homosexuality? Illegal. Along with a laundry list of other identities and interests.), Caul finds himself in a parallel world at the moment of orgasm: “A place where what we do matters.” And so this tool of the state – he who installs phone cloners up and down the streets of NY, to help the government better surveil its residents – comes to realize that he can be used to dismantle it. (And tell me your heart didn’t sink down into the depths of your belly the day that Prince became contraband.)

In “Riverbed,” Omar El Akkad revisits the site of a mass human rights abuse on its fiftieth anniversary. After a group of suicide bombers attacked a US sporting event with massive casualties, Khadija Singh’s family was rounded up and taken to a detention center, ‘for their own protection.’ (Never mind that they are Sikh, and not Muslim. In her father’s words, Americans are “brittle with privilege.”) It was only after he escaped that her brother was murdered. On the eve of the unveiling of a gaudy new museum to ‘commemorate’ the tragedy, Dr. Singh returns to the property to retrieve her brother’s meager belongings, so that no part of him might remain in the place of his captivity.

Justina Ireland’s “Calendar Girls” is a biting look at a world in which contraception, made illegal (while boner pills thrive!), is dealt on street corners like cocaine or heroin. After being orphaned by a forced pregnancy that killed her mom, Alyssa goes to work for the Matriarchs, selling condoms to young women and her local patrolman (already father of nine) alike. There’s an arrest, and a shakedown involving a hypocritical Senator (founder of the Abstinence League!) who wants an abortion for his pregnant, unwed teen daughter (See: ‘The only moral abortion is my abortion.’), and a double-cross to save the day.

Also nestled under the “utopia” umbrella is “O.1” by Gabby Rivera, in which a plague called IMBALANCE (“a sentient bacterium that preyed on white-supremacist greed”) killed the 1% and left most of the rest of the population sterile. That is, until a couple named Mala and Orion Lafayette-Santana manage to conceive Baby 0.1 – and the personal quickly becomes the object of public consumption as the the Federation of Free Peoples rallies around this new life. When Mala, Orion, and their birth worker Deviana Ortiz go missing from their home in North Philly, panic – and a massive manhunt – ensues. Told from their alternating perspectives, “O.1” is a story of hope and resilience. This might be the only time I’ve wished for biological warfare, okay. Team Imbalance all the way.

N. K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” is simply brilliant: I mean, drug-sniffing, made-that-way racist dragons, sated with collard greens and hot sauce, domesticated with love and affection, and then turned against their (common) oppressors? What’s not to love about that?

Ditto: the aforementioned “No Algorithms in the World,” in which Hugh Howey imagines what society with a guaranteed basic income might look like, from both sides of the generational divide.

In “The Referendum,” Lesley Nneka Arimah reminds us why we should always listen to black women.

And Tananarive Due’s “Attachment Disorder” is an epic tale distilled into short story form that will leave you wanting more.

I’m certain I’m overlooking a few favorites, but this is a pretty good start. If you like smart speculative fiction, told by a diverse group of voices, with a strong foundation in the here and now, A People’s Future of the United States is a slam dunk.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (2018)

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

This is the CONFEDERATE we need and deserve.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racism and misogyny, including sexual violence.)

The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me. I guess it should have been obvious to everyone right then that I wasn’t going to have a normal life.

It was the midwife that tried to do me in. Truth be told, it wasn’t really her fault. What else is a good Christian woman going to do when a Negro comes flying out from between the legs of the richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky?

An Attendant’s job is simple: keep her charge from being killed by the dead, and her virtue from being compromised by potential suitors. It is a task easier said than done.

Every time I sit down and attempt to write this review, three things jump to mind. (Reviewing books I so thoroughly enjoyed? HARD. I never feel like I can do the writing justice.)

1. This is the Civil War-era alternate history series HBO should be throwing money at, mkay. BY THE BOATLOADS.

2. This tweet by the author, posted as I was elbow-deep in her Confederate zombie viscera.

3. THAT COVER.

Okay, now on to the review!

Jane McKeene was born on a plantation just a few days before the end of the Civil War. Only, in this timeline, the war didn’t end in a victory for either side. Rather, the North and South were forced to band together to fight a new threat – the zombies that started rising from the ruins of their battlefields.

While slavery as it was is no longer technically permissible, African-American and Native American children are conscripted to fight the dead. Middle schoolers are sent to boarding schools, where they receive training in weaponry, fighting techniques, and – in the more hoity toity institutions – proper manners and grooming. After graduation, they’re free to seek employment guarding upper-crust white folks, though they’re treated like servants, at best.

At least, this is the case up North: Jane is in training at the elite Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. The zombies that wander the desolate and mostly-abandoned landscape between settlements make communication difficult, and there’s no guessing what conditions are like for Attendants down south or out west. But when Jane and a friend stumble into a conspiracy involving the Mayor, the staff of Miss Preston’s, and Baltimore’s richest citizens, they’re kidnapped and sent to a small, dusty new outpost in Missouri, where time seems to have slipped (or been forced) backwards and Attendants are seen as disposable objects at best.

(More below the fold…)