Beware the other foot: A review of A People’s Future of the United States

Between reading books that I need to review, I read short story collections. I don’t review those collections because inevitably in any short story collection (even a collection of stories by the same author), there will be stories of wildly different quality, and analysing and rating each story individually would be impractically long winded.

Recently, I picked up the collection “A People’s Future of the United States”. I was interested to see what (given the current turbulent times), science fiction authors would make of the future of my wife’s homeland. Also, given said turbulent times, I suspected the answers would be pretty grim, particularly because (as stated in the book’s introduction), the collection specifically existed to explore the experiences of racial, sexual and gender minorities, and one reason I read is to have experiences different from my own).

This prediction of doom proved true, of the 25 stories in the collection the vast majority were extremely dystopic in tone, with governmental invasions of privacy and threats to libertarian principles which ranged from relegalising black slavery, to banning birth control, to privatising so much that the Cherokee formed their own nation state. There were also walls, fences and boundaries galore.

Like any collection of course, there were some stories which were better than others. Favourites for me included The Bookstore at the End of America, by Charlie Jane Anders, The Synapse Will Free Us from Ourselves, by Violet Allen, Riverbed, by Omar El Akkad, Good News Bad News, by Charles Yu, and The Sun in Exile, by Catherynne M. Valente.

There were inevitably some stories which simply did not resonate with me, one thing struck me about many other stories in the collection however, and that was their almost universal sense of angry condemnation of those outside certain demographics.

Those stories dealing with themes of race quite freely speak of “the white supremacists,” as a singular homogeneous group, whilst those dealing with sexuality are equally free with their one size damns all label of “the straight majority”, indeed one story even directly contrasts “narrow, conservative heterosexual experience”, with “the magic of queer love.” Many stories indeed are not so much stories at all, as diatribes extolling the experience of a given group contrasted against some singular majority; with occasional trappings of dystopia for some added punch.

With gender the situation is even worse, since those stories dealing expressly with female oppression are full of unexamined statements about the pure evil of men, indeed the collection’s final story, Now Wait for This Week, by Alice Sola Kim, an otherwise fascinating take on a repeating time loop, premise is not so much an exploration of female experience, as a long winded rape accusation against all men everywhere, peppered with enough references to real world examples of unpleasant men to support its induction.

This is not even the most extreme example in the book. That belongs to one by Gabby Rivera, a story where a virus (apparently activated by greed), has killed all the straight white people in the entire world.

I would have said that many of the stories in the collection are guilty of caricaturing straight white men, accept that it struck me how few actual straight white men appear in many of them, mostly they are simply some unspecific “they”, be that the government, the moral order, or, in N. K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death” (an otherwise wonderfully surreal vision of a black resistance taming genetically engineered dragons with spicy food), “the towers”.

Given the many positive reviews I’ve seen of this collection online, it is fairly obvious that these viewpoints have resonated with a lot of people. Indeed, getting occasional first hand reports from my lady’s best friends in the States, and how one finds her husband occasionally followed by the police just because of his skin colour, and the other had to travel a very long distance to be able to marry her wife, things over there seem pretty crazy, and so people’s anger is quite understandable.

However, if (as unfortunately many of these stories were), fiction becomes nothing but a recitation of anger, not only do we lose touch with the story, but almost fall into the trap of perpetuating the very same forms of stereotypical beliefs which caused minority oppression in the first place. After all, it is a simple category mistake to assume that just because the particular arseholes in power are white, supposedly Christian men, all white Christian men are arseholes who wield power, indeed a predilection to put the most arsy of arseholes in charge seems a pretty universal characteristic of humans.

This is not of course to say that atrocities have not happened or should not be explored in fiction, however there is a good reason why Margaret Atwood included several good men in the Handmaid’s Tale, as well as showed how the handmaid’s themselves were trained and controlled by the sadistic aunties, and why Octavia Butler included several decent white characters in her apocalyptically destructive novel Parable of the Sower.

Another serious related problem is the question of what constitutes belonging to a minority, and what to the majority. I am blind, not wealthy, Caucasian, English, a tenor, straight, five foot ten, male, dark haired, and a survivor of sustained violent sexual abuse by women.

These are all facts about me that I did not choose and cannot change. They all (particularly the first and the last), have profound effects on the way I live my life, (rather more so than my biological gender or skin colour). However, to be told that some facts about me automatically make me a worse kind of human being, or still worse, that some facts about me mean that I am guilty of crimes against others that I have not committed is almost the classical notion of prejudice.

Indeed, I was highly amused that in this collection of “minorities,” though we see a deaf person and an autistic person, the only blind person we see is exiled from her otherwise equalitarian city and mostly used to make a theoretical point about how differences are skin deep. Not that I would want stories about a virus that kills off all the evil sighted people, or a long discourse about the sexual crimes of women, since I am well aware that sighted people, women and pretty much everyone else are all human, and just as capable of being as good, bad or ugly as I am. However, if a story is intent on making me explore another person’s experience (as indeed every story does), perhaps how that other person or the group to which they belong has endured prejudice, abuse or mistreatment at the hands of others, it is going to decrease, rather than increase my sympathy for that person, if the story engages in the same sort of prejudice against me as a reader.

Of course, certain people will automatically discount any criticism of a minority’s viewpoint on the basis that it comes from some shadowy “they” (not unlike that depicted in several stories), a mysterious group of homophobic, misogynist white supremacists.

While such people are undoubtedly out there, the fact that only one review I found of this book at the time of writing, one line out of the 35 customer reviews on Amazon, which spoke of the “liberal pablum”, probably suggests that alternative viewpoints in fiction will be more, rather than less likely to find a sympathetic audience, provided authors do not alienate readers outside of a given minority, since after all, the world would be much nicer if we could all just understand, and get on with each other.

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