In 1980 historian, playwright, and author Howard Zinn produced his landmark “A People’s History of the United States”, the purpose of his book to make known the little-expressed exploitation of America’s majority by the shadowy elite. It received critical analysis and many writers pointed out its shortcomings. Regardless, nearly four decades years later, Zinn’s work continues to be present and well-stocked in bookstores across America.
Something about Zinn’s work has resonated throughout the years, though popularity itself isn’t proof it’s benefited the world in any meaningful way. Indeed, the primary accomplishment of his book seems to be inspiring new generations of writers, academics, and social activists to adopt its message of hopelessness and despair, propagating itself like a virus keen on attacking its host while offering little of reciprocal value in the process. Perhaps some would call this beneficial, a real accomplishment within a repressive system. Distinguishing gobbledygook from quality can be a tricky task.
Today, we have booming technological advances, meticulous science confirming the state of our planet, and the idea of colonizing Mars actually taken seriously. In other words, our imaginations have been free to run wild with the limitlessness of what we believe we can achieve. When ideas are spreading, it means people are talking. Filtering good ideas from the bad is critical, and taking a bad idea seriously can lead to psychological illnesses such as anxiety, depression, fear, greed, and hate. None of these is helpful when it comes to actually solving those issues at the root of the very fear that begat them.
Victor Lavalle and John Joseph Adams’ A People’s Future of the United States is an anthology inspired by Howard Zinn’s work, a collection that includes 25 speculative short stories from mostly minority writers that include black, Asian, gay, female, transgender, identify as non-binary, Native Indian, Hispanic, straight and even white. It’s quite a melting pot of backgrounds and cultures, each seemingly chosen to bring their own perspective on how to best navigate the different challenges in our current cultural climate. It sounds like a great idea, at least in theory.
Unfortunately, these good intentions culminate in little more than a collection of complaints told through one depressing story after another, all offering bleak suggestions about what the future world will look like. If you’re stubborn enough to reach the end, you might be left feeling as if the world is nothing but a racist, evil, greedy, and unloving place. Or maybe you’ll just feel pity for the people writing these stories. Neither is beneficial, and as a culture we can easily do without literature like this.
The major problem with this anthology is there are few solutions offered in comparison to the problems being expounded upon. Many of the stories address the political tension prevalent in America today, especially the division between ideologies of the left and right. In reality, most of us have read similar musings – sometimes daily – on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, often with more care and sincerity than many of the more dire scenarios presented here.
Lizz Huerta’s “The Wall” is a dystopian future where America’s military has turned on their citizens after a drug released into the water supply essentially turned them into robotic killing machines. A prominently Mexican and Matriarchal culture has taken over since the devastation and a healer is summoned to help a woman soldier find her soul again. Huerta’s story accepts that our political situation is only going to get worse, and that people are going to die. In her vision there’s no hope, no solution to current events, rather a vision of the horror that awaits us. This is one of the few stories that I liked, but there’s no conclusion, simply ending with the healer watching the woman soldier in her cell.
This is how most of the other stories play out, some better than others. This is the entire book. None address our current times and imply that things can get better, offering only doom and gloom for those who may already believe we’re doomed to failure. A book filled with only the hopeless visions of a dystopian future can be dangerous, especially when it helps plant the idea of hopelessness and endless misery in the minds of its readers. Where Lavelle and his many contributors fail is to address these circumstances with any counterbalancing optimism. They’ve failed to seek out any good that can come from America’s position in politics and culture today.
None attempt to understand how such a unique country could possibly be a force for good right now, especially for the very people being cast as helpless victims. They simply denigrate the so-called elite, a group that reads like a checklist of of leftist enemies: whites, Republicans, or anyone who happens to take pride in their inherent freedoms without even the shred of self-awareness, often without even attempting to imagine any possibility of harmony.
A People’s Future of the United States does nothing to address how the miserable future it suggests can be avoided, offering a gobbledygook message that shouldn’t be taken seriously. Spreading such negativity reinforces the perspective of a dismal future in the minds of readers, which often saps any inspiration, hope, and planning of the good that’s possible from the struggles we face politically and culturally. Like much of the world, the United States isn’t without problems, but attempts to address them via literature a writer must offer some solution to what they’re presenting. Otherwise, they’re simply transferring their own misery onto their readers, and, that’s exactly what this book does. It’s only contribution is its ability to put the reader in a bad state of mind.