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.

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