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SYFY WIRE Interviews

Space the Nation: 'Good fiction is empathy propaganda'

By Ana Marie Cox
John Joseph Adams and Victor LaValle

It is not difficult to catch onto the conceit — and the purpose — of the new anthology, A People’s Future of the United States: It contains twenty-five self-conscious riffs on Howard Zinn’s revolutionary subversion of American myths, A People’s History of the United States. Instead of looking at the past through the perspective of marginalized communities, the authors take the ominous current political climate and imagine what will happen to these communities and — even more importantly — how these communities will respond.

The narrow focus on the ramifications of the present doesn’t hem in the contributors’ voices or styles. There are surreal, quiet fables and a “found document” pastiche, stories that dwell on how an uprising might occur and stories that spin out its aftermath. The variety isn’t surprising given the range of talents involved — a who’s who of award-winners and genre giants, including Charlie Jane Anders, Hugh Howey, N. K. Jemisin, Malka Older and Sam J. Miller.

Given the general sense of dread that many feel about the Trump Era, you’d be forgiven for thinking the book is a litany of dystopias. And, to be fair, there are quite a few. What’s revelatory about the collection is how much hope it contains, and how vividly it illustrates how — as co-editor Victor LaValle put it in this interview — “One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.”

This interview with LaValle and his co-editor, John Joseph Adams, was conducted via email and was edited for length.

What scenarios or bits of today’s dystopia are you surprised didn’t turn up as fodder for stories in the book? Personally, I was surprised that no one took on mass shootings.

Adams: Two things I’m surprised didn’t come up are campaign finance malfeasance or hostile foreign powers interfering with elections (and the possibility of the president being compromised by said foreign powers), since those two things were basically the first two big issues to really come up as major concerns. Cat Valente’s story “The Sun in Exile” is about treason, though, so I suppose it’s at least in the ballpark.

I’m a bit surprised too that mass shootings didn’t feature in any of these particular stories, but I suspect the reason for that might be because the book was born largely out of a “Resist Trump” type of mindset, and while gun violence in America is absolutely something our government should have long ago addressed and remains something absolutely vital to address, it’s kind of hard to lay that at Trump’s door specifically.

LaValle: The terrifying thing about our current day is that there are more emergencies to deal with than there are stories in this anthology. That said, I wonder if some things require a little more time for writers to digest and contemplate before they can turn it into fiction. Mass shootings certainly aren’t a brand new phenomenon, but they’ve been coming fast and furious in the last couple of years, so quick that it may be tough to figure out how to tackle them. Maybe volume two of our anthology will have more. God knows it’s not like we’ll have any sensible gun control before then.

As a straight, white, cis, able-bodied person, I was somewhat surprised by how often white people — even (ha) well-meaning white people! — just... didn’t exist in the stories, at least as articulated characters. And I realize that my response could be the point of the book.

Adams: As someone who is also a straight, white, cis, able-bodied person, I feel like I should probably let my co-editor take this one, though [your observation] kind of took me back a second — I hadn’t even noticed.

LaValle: I would say your experience was a small sampling of how I feel when I watch most television, read many popular books, or go to the movies. Being treated as invisible is awful. And confusing. Having popular culture treat you that way since childhood helps strengthen your constitution for it. But for many white folks of a certain “centered” existence, it can be disorienting. But if you’re willing, you can learn to do what so many of us on the margins have been forced to do: find yourself in depictions of people who don’t obviously look like you. I promise you’re in there.

And in five hundred years there will be an anthology that re-centers the minority white perspective! (Maybe a thousand.)

Do you think you got more dystopias than utopias, the reverse, or about the same?

Adams: I feel like we ended up with more dystopian stories, and I’m not really sure any of them are actually purely utopias, though some certainly have a generally positive and/or a more uplifting outlook.

But given that this book was brewed in a boiling cauldron of rage and terror, that wasn’t really surprising to me. All along the book had been intended to show us the future through the eyes of those whose lives have been threatened throughout American history — people of color, women, immigrants, persecuted religious groups, disabled people, queer and trans people. As that discussion ensued, we ended up driving the book in a direction that included more hope in it, which in the end made it a much stronger work.

LaValle: One person’s utopia is another’s dystopia. Even Thomas More’s Utopia had slaves. So there are a lot of these stories that would be more positive if they’d been told from the perspective of the people putting their foot to someone’s throat. Thankfully, that’s not the kind of book John invited me to co-edit.

What were your favorite positive visions of the future from the book? Personally, I was taken with Ashok K. Banker’s “By His Bootstraps,” about the surprising ramifications of a “genetic time bomb.”

Adams: I loved “Harmony” by Seanan McGuire. When she was pitching the story prior to writing it, she gave us a little summary of the plot that ended with “And then everything is gay forever!” — and I feel like the story really pulled off that “good vibes” feeling really successfully.

LaValle: Not everyone will agree with me, but I view “positive” as simply meaning that people are still around to keep fighting for their place in the future. (And enjoying themselves when they get there.) So I tended to read a number of these stories as hopeful, if not simply positive. Gabby Rivera’s “O.1,” Justina Ireland’s “Calendar Girls,” and “By His Bootstraps” all do a job of suggesting there's room for family, freedom, and genetic time bombs in our future.

What are the most interesting throughlines/similarities in the stories? Are there some visions/versions of the future that seem to have a consensus?

Adams: The main thing that jumps out at me —and I feel in my bones is almost certainly going to be the case — is that it’s going to get even worse before it gets better.

LaValle: Many of the stories were about the dilemmas faced by one particular group, or another, but in almost every case the feeling of being embattled, under attack felt central. And yet, in almost every case, the people in power were not all that important. There aren’t Big Bads, like some Sauron-type villain, but many different kinds of systems that attack and destroy. I loved that these stories moved away from the idea that defeating one bad person would be the end of the hard times. It’s like imagining that impeaching Trump would fix America. It won’t. America needs a complete overhaul. I’d still like to see Trump impeached, though.

But these stories are about such a specific moment. How durable are they; will they still be relevant if/when Trump is no longer president?

Adams: Unfortunately, I fear they’ll be extremely durable. They’d still be relevant even if Trump were impeached, because he’s been president for 25 months and has had a legion of enablers the whole time that have allowed him to run roughshod over our laws and our norms, and even if he’s removed from office, all those enablers are still going to be in Congress. And even if they don’t have Trump to rally behind, I can’t imagine the disappearance of Dear Leader will make them suddenly turn reasonable and open to compromise. But honestly, even if things do magically turn around, it’s good to have reminders of how things could have turned out had we continued down certain paths.

LaValle: Even the presidents I might consider the “good ones” did all types of dystopian shit. Bill Clinton’s “welfare reform” hit America’s poorest like a bomb, and Barack Obama killed plenty of Arab civilians with actual bombs. Both groups could write some dystopian stories about life under men like them. Which is all to say, again, no one man is the source of our problems. Only one of these stories even focuses on Trump in any discernible way. These stories are about the United States not about the president.

Which dystopian vision scared you the most?

Adams: I feel like “The Synapse Will Free Us from Ourselves” jumped out at me as particularly grim since it’s literally about the attempt to reprogram who you are, and I’ve always thought of “loss of self” as one of the scariest concepts in fiction. Though honestly, I’ve been watching so much news the last 27 months that I feel like I’m so inured to dystopian concepts that my mental hide is pretty thick at this point, so it’s hard to think about the stories in terms of them scaring me per se. (I do still find dystopian visions interesting, of course!)

LaValle: This will sound strange but I found Omar El Akkad’s story, “Riverbed,” the most frightening because — of all these stories — it struck me as the most realist in one painful way: the abuses of the past will, mostly, just be buried. Those who were abused will be mourned by no one but their families. That’s the future for the people in Omar’s story, but that’s the American past, and the American present. Chilling.

There are a few more positive visions in the book that could be seen as dystopias for straight/white/cis people — in other words, they are utopias that aren’t built for people like me. Would you like to see more of visions like that propagated in the culture? Or, er, could that scare people too much?

Adams: We can’t be afraid to shake up the status quo in our fiction, because if we are, how will we ever have the courage to do it in reality? So if one of these utopian visions scares some s/w/c person, then so be it — and if so, I say good: maybe it’ll serve as a wake-up call. Several years prior to this anthology, in my magazine, Lightspeed, we invited people from marginalized groups to “destroy” science fiction in a series of special issues that were entirely written and edited by women, queer people, and people of color. So HELL YES I’d like to see more of those kinds of stories in the culture. Good fiction is empathy propaganda — if I can convince you to read about and empathize with this fictional person that’s quite different than you, maybe that’ll transfer over into real life when you encounter a real person who’s quite different than you. And I feel like science fiction and fantasy is in the best position to implement that kind of empathy propaganda, because if you can empathize with an alien being from an alien world (or a fantasy being from a fantasy world), then surely empathizing with someone from a different country or who has a different skin color or who speaks a different language or who has a different sexual preference or who has a different gender identity than you should all be pretty easy.

LaValle: My experience with straight/white/cis people is that scaring them isn’t very difficult. I’ve come to think that sense of constant anxiety is part of the essence of such lives. And yet, no group of people in the history of the planet has ever been better protected, or safer. I don’t think more stories will do anything to relieve or increase that soul-deep fear. Maybe group therapy? In the meantime, I would certainly enjoy more stories like the ones we published here.

What’s the most dystopian thing happening right now? And the most utopian?

Adams: Most dystopian: Our president just declared a national emergency, yet our real national emergency is our president... and there’s literally a federal investigation into the current President of the United States regarding the possibility that he’s an asset of a hostile foreign power.

Most Utopian: The first thing that came to mind is our congressional lord and savior Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But more broadly, the large group of inspirational and super-smart progressives who are leading the charge against Trump, many of whom are running for president in 2020, including Kamala Harris and Cory Booker.

LaValle: Most dystopian: 60 million or so Americans generally support Donald Trump. They don’t do so despite who he is, but because of who he is. There is no point in trying to talk with them about how or why they’re mistaken in their support. They aren’t mistaken. They mean it, just as much as he does.

Most Utopian: There are 65 million or so Americans who voted against Donald Trump. And many millions more who might in 2020. You know, presuming the rampant vote rigging of the GOP doesn’t disenfranchise them all. (Sorry, that got a little dystopian again at the end.)

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