Tuesday 23 April 2019

A People's Future Without Labour

Forty years ago, Boston University history professor Howard Zinn refused to cross a picket line, in a
Howard Zinn speaking to one
of his colleagues during the 1979
Boston University staff strike.
(Image via HowardZinn.org)
show of solidarity with striking clerical workers at his institution. Speaking with the workers on the picket line motivated him to help raise the level of labour history awareness in his country.

He came to believe that the inclusion of labour narratives in popular history books could help. The resulting work, A People’s History Of The United States, has become an influential and controversial classic that examines previously untold stories of workers and marginalized peoples. 

Any author or editor attempting to claim the mantle of Zinn’s work has an unenviable task ahead of them. But when SF luminaries John Joseph Adams and Victor LaValle — both of whom have produced top-quality works — announced a short story collection whose title is an homage to Zinn, we were very excited. 

Given the provocative and timely premise of A People’s Future Of The United States, we approached the collection of stories with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, the collection as a whole failed to live up to the grand ideas described by the editors.

The book’s introduction is one of the strongest parts of the collection. Over the course of eight pages, Adams sets out the premise of the work, and alludes to the fact that many of the same omissions in mainstream historical narratives are reflected in how we imagine possible futures. Like all good
Even the cover of A People's
includes the shadow
of the word "History."
(Image via Goodreads) 
introductions, it encourages the reader to keep reading. 

By definition, collections provide access to a variety of works and it’s rare, perhaps even impossible, to expect that all readers will universally enjoy every contribution. Our book club enjoyed Sam J. Miller’s excellent parable about surveillance, privacy and the policing of heteronormative behaviours. Omar L. Akkad’s harrowing story about internment camps will stay with readers. G. Willow Wilson’s takedown of the privatization agenda is exactly the sort of work we had hoped to read when we picked up this volume. Seanan McGuire’s story includes a ray of hope and helps enrich the anthology.

Questions of race, class and gender are important to explore and have all-too-often been ignored in science fiction. 

We would argue that because science fiction is an inherently political genre, it is of paramount importance to create inclusive futures we can believe in. Some of the stories in this volume do indeed ably tackle topics of race, class and gender. But the topic of labour is almost entirely neglected. 

It is disappointing that an anthology that so explicitly aims to address cultural blindspots has reproduced one itself. 

In comparison, the index to Zinn’s classic history book includes a full page of references to organized labour movements. At a rough estimate, 30 per cent of the book deals with the struggles of traditional union movement organizing, and workers rights are integral to much of the rest of the text. 

Zinn examines at length the general strikes of 1934, 1936, 1938. He tackles women’s roles in the
Howard Zinn's book talks about Joe Hill
and the Industrial Workers Of The World.
(Image via Wikipedia)
labour movement, both prior to the Wagner Act, and afterwards. He talks about how women used the union movement to affect change long before there was an organized feminist movement. He chronicles organized labour’s transition from being mostly indifferent (or antagonistic) to race relations to becoming allies of the civil rights movement. He tackles the philosophical questions that drove a wedge between the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the American Federation of Labour (AFL) in the 1930s. 

It is, in our minds, staggering to think that a book positioned as the spiritual heir to A People’s History Of The United States could completely ignore the role of labour in class and other struggles. It’s not as if issues related to workers’ rights in the United States have been solved. 

Relatedly, some of the stories didn’t seem to exist in a “People’s Future” at all, but rather in a fantastical alternate universe that has little connection to the political environment framing this collection. Celestial beings with snakes growing from their heads and dragons are fun to read about but we found it hard to make a connection to a future United States in at least a few of the stories in this collection. Even when we liked the stories individually, the fantastical elements put them at odds with the idea of a real-world “Future Of The United States.” 

In standard texts about history, labour had been ignored; it didn't fit in with military or great man history. Zinn changed the focus and brought labour to the centre. This collection failed to do that for science fiction.

There are significant current labour struggles that are going to define whatever future people in the United States will share: the fight against precarious employment, the tensions inherent within two-tiered union contracts, evolving questions around scope-of-work issues to name a few. This is an area that is rife with dramatic science fictional potential, but is being neglected in the genre. 

With slightly different editorial choices, A People’s Future Of The United States could have been an essential text for progressive science fiction fans. As it is, we have a short story collection with good stories in it, but which is less than the sum of its parts.

Sunday 14 April 2019

Recommended "Light" Reading

If Starship Troopers had been written by the love child of Kurt Vonnegut and Philip K. Dick, the
Kameron Hurley's latest
novel is one of her best.
(Image via Simon&Schuster)
result might be something like The Light Brigade.

It may seem grandiose to compare Kameron Hurley to three legends of the field, but her latest novel — her seventh so far — might just be worthy. The Light Brigade solidifies her emergence as one of the most important voices in recent science fiction.

Set against the backdrop of a corporatist dystopia that has completely abandoned any pursuit of the public good, The Light Brigade begins in a manner that is fairly typical of military science fiction. Humanity is attacked without provocation, and an idealistic youth joins the army to become a hero.

This time the prospective hero is a young woman named Dietz, whose family was killed when the city of Sao Paulo was destroyed. However, Hurley slowly turns the standard military science fiction paradigm on its head, peeling away the layers as Dietz discovers truths about the nature of the conflict, about the corporation she’s fighting for (Tene-Silvia), about Earth’s economic reality, and about her own temporal misplacements.

In this war, the six major corporations of the Earth are at war with the free peoples of Mars, who have developed a distinct culture, given their long-term estrangement from the rest of humanity. Hurley uses this setting to explore the dehumanization of adversaries via political rhetoric. For example, Earth leaders describe “Martians” as something other, something lesser, than people.

We are reluctant to reveal too much about the Martians, and about the politics underlying the conflict, because the main character’s shifting understanding is one of the great joys of the book.

Hurley does not shy away from the dark and intertwining complexities of political power, but explores this human condition in a way that will speak to a wide range of readers. Her ability to put forward political arguments without being didactic reminded us of Heinlein at his best.

Over the course of the book, Dietz becomes unstuck in time, leaping to different points in the war like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five. In the hands of a less-skilled novelist, this nonlinear narration could have been aggravatingly confusing. But the clarity of Hurley’s prose, and the way her protagonist slowly begins to understand what’s going on is entertaining and engaging.

Using temporal dislocation as a metaphor for the alienation many soldiers experience when returning
Hurley at Worldcon 2017.
(Photo by Henry Söderlund,
who is an excellent photog.)
home from war has been a recurring theme in military science fiction, notably in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Dietz struggles with relationships, is constantly trying to figure out who knows what about her, and unsure of her role within her organization at any given moment.

This narrative was put together so thoughtfully — it made me want to go back and see how the story might unfold when pieced together in chronological order, rather than in the order experienced by Dietz. Reading the narrative as a straight chronology reveals both attention to detail and internal consistency.

Two years ago, this blog highly recommended Hurley’s previous novel The Stars Are Legion despite occasionally finding the narrative bewildering due to the protagonist’s amnesia. Happily, The Light Brigade includes the strengths of that previous work and exhibits few of its flaws.

While The Light Brigade does invite comparisons to several classic military science fiction novels, it is a wholly original work that pushes the boundaries of the subgenre. It is a page turner that feels fresh and modern, while being knowledgeable in conversation with decades of the genre’s legacy.

In 20 years, when people talk about the classics of military science fiction, we are willing to bet that the conversation will start with Starship Troopers, The Forever War, Old Man’s War, and The Light Brigade. Yes, it is that good.