When times are tough, why read speculative fiction about even tougher times? For one, such books can offer a strange sort of comfort: well, things could always be worse. And then there are authors who look adversity in the eye and say, “Well, we can do better.”
Hugo-, Locus-, and Nebula-winner Kim Stanley Robinson has long challenged the bleak perspective on the future that reigns among many of his contemporaries. In the 1990s, his celebrated Mars trilogy approached societal problems with a degree of optimism that was uncharacteristic of genre writers of the time. With The Ministry for the Future (Orbit, Oct.), Robinson once again imagines international solidarity solving the most pressing problems, including climate change and mass extinctions; PW’s starred review called the novel “a sweeping, optimistic portrait of humanity’s ability to cooperate in the face of disaster.”
Tim Holman, senior v-p and publisher at Orbit and Robinson’s editor, says the author “challenges the conventions of dystopian fiction.” After an apocalyptic opening scene involving a hellish heat wave across the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the novel, Holman says, “shows us how things might turn out if we make some good decisions.” Acknowledging the possibility of good decisions in a world otherwise defined by bad decisions is one way that speculative fiction can meet the current moment.
It’s not, however, the only way. Forthcoming books address societal ills through alternative history, classic dystopia, and even, occasionally, with a sense of humor. What they share, regardless of tone or subgenre, is the notion that resistance isn’t futile.
In a mirror, darkly
Dystopic novels take worrisome trends and spin them into nightmare scenarios. “When an author takes an aspect of our current reality, be it a pandemic or a threat to women’s rights, and shows us a haunting vision of the future, they have, in effect, provided a wake-up call,” says Lauren Parsons, commissioning editor at Legend Press. “They ask the questions we’re scared to ask and explore the consequences of our actions.”
Overdrawn by N.J. Crosskey (Legend, Nov.) is one example, taking ageism and ableism to a harrowing extreme: in near-future Great Britain, resources are scarce, and euthanasia is encouraged for the elderly and infirm. Amid the pervasive despair, a man in his 60s whose wife suffers from dementia and a young woman whose brother is on life support form an unlikely bond in an effort to save their loved ones.
Extreme climate change triggers a societal collapse in Alison Stine’s Road Out of Winter (Mira, Sept.), which follows Wil, an Appalachian marijuana farmer who travels to California to find her mother and creates a found family along the way. The postapocalyptic landscape is rife with hazards—think suicide cults and totalitarian communities—but, PW’s review said, “though bleakness abounds, the ending strikes a lovely balance of hope and pathos.”
Debut author Chris Panatier’s The Phlebotomist (Angry Robot, Sept.), which PW’s review called “an unsettling near-future dystopian tale,” tackles surveillance and medical iniquity through its story of a society divided by blood type whose poor sell their blood daily in order to survive. The book’s editor, Gemma Creffield, editorial and publicity coordinator at Angry Robot, says that dystopian fiction written during darker years serves a different purpose than similar books written during relatively good times. “Not that the world has ended now, but it has certainly come to a standstill,” she adds. “So those what-if questions become ‘okay, now what are we going to do about it?’ questions.”
Past performance, future results
Some authors answer the now-what questions through exaggeration or absurdity, pushing back against injustice with humor and satire.
P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout (Tor.com, Oct.) opens with “a gripping and humorous battle,” per PW’s starred review, between three Black women and members of the KKK who are literal demons. Clark refracts a dystopic point in America’s past—the Jim Crow South of a century ago—suffusing it with the supernatural while also commenting on the present: his story, the review continued, “doubles as a meditation on the all-consuming power of hate and violence.” (See “In the Presence of History” for a q&a with Clark.)
The Constant Rabbit (Viking, Oct.), Jasper Fforde’s “tongue-in-cheek political satire of systemic injustice, bureaucratic corruption, and human foibles,” per PW’s starred review, imagines an alternate United Kingdom in which the Spontaneous Anthropomorphizing Event of 1965 resulted in a community of sentient rabbits who’ve become a persecuted class. “Fforde displays his signature quick wit on a furious tour through modern British right-wing politics,” the review said, making for a “playful, biting, and timely” read.
Natalie Zina Walschots, who was included in PW’s fall 2020 “Writers to Watch” feature, displays a similar sense of irreverence in Hench (Morrow, Sept.), which centers on a temp worker doing data entry for supervillains. Caught within the machine of late capitalism and armed only with her data analysis skills, she uncovers evidence that the good guys aren’t necessarily what they seem. PW’s starred review said the author “playfully pokes at both office politics and comic book absurdity while offering gripping action and gut-wrenching body horror.”
In Walschot’s world, the enemy is data mining and the ways in which willing digital sharing can be just as chilling as state surveillance. “Antagonists no longer seem so faceless,” says David Pomerico, editorial director at Morrow sibling imprint Harper Voyager, who acquired and edited Hench. “It’s not some Big Brother type suppressing us, but rather the institutions that we’ve already put into place.”
Walschot’s heroine and those in other new books push back against adversity and injustice, even when the odds seem insurmountable. The editors PW spoke with see even the meager hope of dismantling dystopia, or of having a laugh at its expense, as offering catharsis, and that’s what keeps readers coming back for more. As Pomerico says, “All dystopia is optimistic.”