A woman revisits the detention center where she and other Muslim/Arab-Americans were interned to retrieve her dead brother’s property in Omar El Akkad’s “Riverbed.” A contemporary bruja carves out a new society with her lover in Mexico, one where brainwashed American soldiers may find respite from the atrocities they’ve committed, in Lizz Huerta’s “The Wall.” A corporation recalls unintentionally racist robots, used primarily to care for the elderly, after a hate crime in Charles Yu’s funny “Good News Bad News.” Racist police dragons acquire a taste for spicy Southern cooking in the incomparable N. K. Jemisin’s “Give Me Cornbread, or Give Me Death.”
And these are the hopeful stories.
A People’s Future of the United States, edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams, compiles speculative, near-future fiction from a host of contemporary American writers. And while the authors’ visions for the future vary, they largely align in that anything bad now—racism, homophobia, climate change, misogyny, American decline and corporatization—will only worsen in the future. Some of these stories contain resistance, people outwitting evil or finding a way to survive and even thrive within oppression, but even those stories feel like cold comfort, “We regret to inform you, the future is going to be even worse. Have a popsicle.”
Of course, this dire view of our collective future matches a trend in American speculative fiction generally but particularly in the last 30 years or so. Books such as Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents, (Canadian) Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake, or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road felt like the work of prophets calling in the wilderness, ringing a bell warning us, “Mend you ways! Time remains to stop this story from becoming reality!” But these stories seem to have had the opposite effect, instead feeding a fatalism in the American psyche that transcends partisanship, fostering a belief in our own powerlessness. Popsicles for everyone!
I have been as guilty as anyone of gobbling up this perspective. But now I face a quandary. I’ll be teaching a handful of these stories from A People’s Future to first year college students. These students self-identify as caring about environmental and justice issues. They are opting in to a pre-college experience to talk to each other about stories on these topics. And my heart resists serving them the same meal of darkness, horror, and despair.
It’s not that I want to fill them up with cotton candy visions of an implausibly rosy future either. But I don’t want to perpetuate the stifling of their imaginations, the starving of their ability to imagine a different, better way of organizing ourselves, of caring for each other and our planetary home. So I’m planning to make this conversation meta for them, pairing the short stories with essays that articulate the interconnections between forms of injustice and destruction and push back against doomsday narratives. As much as I love dystopias, it feels urgent to put our imaginative powers to other uses, to support Generation-Z, who will be facing the worst ravages of preceding generations’ bad decisions, in creating a different set of recipes.
Wheelhouse = Speculative fiction and Magical Realism, bonus points if by a woman or Person of Color.