A People’s Future of the United States, the speculative anthology edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams, is an ambitious book. Arriving at a moment when the arc of history is being emphatically and deliberately bent away from justice, a moment when the future of everything, the United States included, feels uncertain, the collection dares to offer twenty-five imaginative answers to the question: What comes next?
The futures brought to life in these stories are diverse, often dark, and always fraught. The perspectives are diverse, too. Here, we offer a peek at a few that caught our editors’ imaginations.
C.S. Peterson: Time Loops and Anosognosia
In a time loop story, the protagonist becomes trapped in a loop of repeating time, where only they are aware of the repetition. It’s a familiar trope in speculative fiction, and it seems to be everywhere at the moment, thanks in no small part to Russian Doll and The Good Place on Netflix. Russian Doll, in particular, does a great job of explaining the conceit, likening the protagonist to a video game player stuck in a particularly difficult level of a game they cannot defeat. It is a Gordian Knot that cannot be worked, a karmic hell. As time loop protagonists endlessly repeat the same moments in time, they have ample opportunity to experiment with ethics, and to ponder the morality of immortality. Eventually, they begin to question if it is even possible for individuals to be reliable narrators of our own experience. (More often than not, the answer is no.) Usually in this trope, the protagonist needs to overcome some part of their ego and connect with others in relationship, develop compassion, deepen their understanding of love. That’s what breaks the loop: love.
In the classic time loop movie Groundhog Day, everything in the world, physical and temporal, revolves around the self-absorbed Bill Murray character until he develops compassion and learns to love unconditionally. Every other character in the story, including his love interest, is there solely to help him on his path to redemption. It is like every other hero’s journey, where mentors abound solely for the protagonist’s enlightenment: the wise old homeless black man; the magical Indian; the supremely competent woman who is waiting for the Chosen One to appear so she can be his second, yet when he does, he’s a diamond in the rough, and her life’s mission is to show him the way.
Not so in A People’s Future of the United States. In two brilliant stories, “The Synapse Will Free Us from Ourselves” and “Now Wait for This Week,” authors Violet Allen and Alice Sola Kim flip the time loop trope on its head. In both stories the protagonist lives through the time loop in support of an off-stage, centered, culturally dominant character. The protagonists are caught in the loop of a lie they believe to be truth. The sensation of bending one’s understanding of reality to a narrative told by another who lives outside of your experience is unbalancing. It literally de-centers these characters within themselves. They exhaust themselves trying to conform their experience to a reality that does not exist. You may say 2 + 2 = 4, but how can you be sure when every day someone tells you 2 + 2 =5?
In each story, cognitive dissonance is strained to the breaking point. Evidence from sense and reason, blocked by the conscious mind, surface in the subconscious, leading to a realization. In the end, reality shifts and the veil is torn away, creating a new narrative.