I’ve probably said this before, but one of my greatest discoveries upon starting this blog was the wonders of short story compilations. This one immediately caught my eye with its obvious homage to Howard Zinn’s famed historical text, A People’s History of the United States, and I was excited that the introduction mentioned that some of Zinn’s central ideas regarding power, representation, and inclusion were used as writing prompts for the 25 authors contributing to this compilation.
It pains me to say it, but taken as a whole I found this collection to be a bit uneven and occasionally unsatisfying. I wanted to love it through and through, especially since I fully believe in and support both the ideals that inspired it and the voices of the authors presented, but several of the stories I just couldn’t connect with. Some I didn’t find interesting, a couple had a writing style I couldn’t stand, and some were perhaps too thematically similar to the stories preceding them. Again, I absolutely believe that stories like these that examine issues of racial, sexual, and gender equality, civil rights, and the role of government are important, even essential, topics to cover, I was just not sold on how some of them were told.
That’s not to say I had a bad time with this read, though. There were some real gems in here and upon looking back these far outshine the works I found less interesting. To focus on the positive, my favorites (in the order presented) were:
Our Aim is Not to Die, by A. Merc Rustad: In an authoritarian future where conformity to a straight, white, conservative worldview is monitored through mandatory social media updates, a group of non-binary friends are forced to put their lives in the hands of an illusive AI promising to protect their secret. I liked how this story provided both a glimpse of a social media-driven dystopia as well as a reminder that good actors can also leverage technology to the benefit of society.
The Wall, by Lizz Huerta: Secure in their position behind a border wall, a group of Mexican scientists work to re-humanize the drugged American soldiers used to instigate a brutal military coup in the former United States. One of a few stories that depicts Mexico as the ultimate beneficiary of a border wall that shields it from the chaos of a failed US, this one just like it had the most complete vision of these stories.
Riverbed, Omer El Akkad: A Muslim diplomat from Canada returns to her childhood hometown in the Midwestern United States to collect the belongings of her brother. Killed after escaping an internment camps several years prior, his remains are part of a controversial period of history that has left people on both sides of the camps alienated. A thought provoking look at the limits of protest and the lengths to which rank and file individuals will go to justify and rationalize their role in abuse. It also touches upon the human tendency to shy away from that which discomforts us by delivering on of my favorite quotes of the compilation:
“You know what this country is? She said. “This country is a man trying to describe a burning building without using the word fire.”
No Algorithms in the World, by Hugh Howley: Story of a son bringing some life changing news to his near-future Archie Bunker dad. A fun little slice of life story, it was also notable for being the only story in which the future more or less turns out alright. It also shone an entertaining, yet no less accurate, light on the hypocrisy behind some strongly held conservative beliefs and the extent to which Google guides us all.
Give Me Cornbread or Give Me Death, N.K. Jemisin: This story of a black female militia fighting genetically engineered dragons set loose on their community by an oppressive government was probably my favorite in the collection. Using the power of love and food (most notably collard greens), they find creative ways to turn the tools of the oppressors against their creators. Like so many of the other Jemisim works I’ve read this year, this not only made me think but made me really hungry as well!
A History of Barbed Wire, Daniel H. Wilson: A dead body found in the haven that is Cherokee Nation raises some profound security questions and reveals the lengths desperate people will go to in order to protect their family. I apparently really enjoy a good detective story, and this one certainly fit the bill!