It’s difficult to overstate how much I loved Laurie Penny’s Unspeakable Things. You should read it, full stop. So when I heard she had a novella coming out, of course I pre-ordered it right away. Whereas some science fiction speaks so optimistically to the potential for technological innovations to make our world better, Everything Belongs to the Future falls decidedly on the opposite side of that scale. The dystopian world that Penny imagines here is chilling because it feels all too realistic. Worse still, I’m not sure I disagree with her protagonists’ methods of challenging it.
One thing that Unspeakable Things does well is ground feminist thought in systemic, rather than personal, critiques. That is to say, individual people might commit sexist or misogynistic acts, but we have to view those actions as part of a larger system (the patriarchy). Penny is very good at describing how the systemic nature of discrimination is harmful to people of all genders. When viewed in this way, it becomes more evident why feminism cannot be about “women hating men” or somehow overthrowing them and usurping their power—because in the system we have today, even men don’t necessarily have as much power (they just have privilege that allows them to remain blind to this fact). Feminism and the fight for equity, liberation, and justice can benefit men as well as women, because it’s about replacing a broken system, not championing one gender over another.
Penny explores this idea further in Everything Belongs to the Future. I like how there are no explicit villains in this piece. One of the antagonists, Alex, is a POV character who clearly feels that his actions are justified, that he is acting in his (and even Nina’s) best interests. The character arguably closest to being a villain, Parker, Penny portrays more like just any other cog in the machine of the company. We don’t get as much access to his head, so it’s hard to tell if he has bought into the company line as much as he seems to have done. Nevertheless, even Parker is simply another representative of the system of oppression. It’s this system, the gerontocratic version of patriarchy, that is the real villain of the piece. Penny invites us to have empathy even for the antagonists and to understand that the work of changing society is difficult and often lateral rather than direct.
Penny draws heavily on Foucault as she explores the ramifications of an age-extending pill—literal biopower, if you will—on our society. I’m not sure if Foucault ever commented on the role of biopower as exercised by a corporation rather than nation-state (but I’m sure his successors have since articulated such theories). Penny imagines a future that is, unfortunately, all too possible: one wherein corporations have more power thanks to their personhood, patents, and other legal devices that individuals cannot afford to wield.
The setting is full of interesting ideas. In particular, Penny observes that all the people whose lives have been extended suddenly have to deal with the consequences of global warming that they were previously happy to heap onto their descendants’ shoulders. This is science fiction at its best: a technological innovation just beyond our reach, with its consequences considered carefully as the author uses it to reflect the issues that haunt our contemporary culture. In this case, the age-extending pill just makes explicit what people who experience poverty already know: rich people can afford more time. They can afford medical treatments to extend their lives or treat debilitating illness; they don’t have to worry about working as much to make ends meet. Poverty is a kind of double tax, on one’s wallet and one’s time. And Penny is spot on when she postulates that if such an innovation were to hit the markets, it wouldn’t be the poor who benefit from it.
This is not a comfortable book to read. This is not a book where our band of plucky underdogs heroically take on the big bad corporation and win (or even lose gloriously).
There are not really heroes in this book. There are just people who do bad things and believe their actions justified. Penny minces no words, acknowledging that our protagonists are unabashed terrorists. One of my favourite passages comes from a fictitious piece quoted within the story:
If one puts aside for a second the question of strict political morality with the understanding that it is dangerous to do so for more than a second one soon realizes that the Time Bomb is as much a paradigm shift in human violence as the machine gun, the tank or the atom bomb. Few lives are lost in its detonation, except at the center of the blast zone; strictly speaking, no injuries are caused. It is a weapon at once entirely humane and utterly monstrous.
Do you remember that awful Justin Timberlake movie In Time, where one’s time left to live has become a quantifiable commodity to be bought and sold? The trajectory of this novella’s plot reminds me of that movie, if that movie had not been quite so hokey. In both stories, time becomes a weapon, and characters fight over who can give it or take it away.
The comparison to—and contrast with—the atomic bomb is apt. The atomic bomb rightly freaked out everyone at the time, because it was just so destructive. Since then, though, we’ve designed plenty of equally destructive weapons—or, arguably, weapons that are even more destructive on an absolute scale, simply because we use them infinitely more often than nukes. Remotely-operated drones are freaky and deadly, but we don’t see as many people campaigning against drone strikes—partly because, since they don’t put soldiers on our side in as much danger, they seem like a safer, more “humane” way to wage war.
So, returning to the biopower theme, we have this idea that the next weapons breakthrough will revolve around “humane” weapons. This is a common motif in dystopias, where the forces of social coercion are usually insidious because they are not necessarily forceful. In Everything Belongs to the Future, if you play your cards right, you get extra years on your life. If you don’t cooperate, then you will remain a mere mortal and expire, while those you snubbed will get on with their plots without you.
But I can’t stop thinking about how the Time Bomb is so terrible and yet our protagonists use it anyway and Penny acknowledges it’s a bad thing. I’m reminded of the Season 5 finale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and what Giles does because he knows that Buffy can’t do it: “She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.” Moments like this are a challenge to the reader, because you have to stop and ask yourself if you would make the same choices. Would you do it? If I were in Nina’s position, would I use such a terrible device? I don’t know the answer, of course—I don’t think it’s possible to know, really, not having experienced the same intense nadir of hopelessness that Nina and her crew have. But it bears thinking about, because even if we don’t have age-extension and Time Bombs in our current society, we are all complicit in a system of aggression—some of it micro-, far too much of it macro—and we have to ask ourselves how best we can change this system.
It’s so easy to dress up for the part of revolutionary, to call for revolution. It is harder to actually become a revolutionary and live with yourself if you start one.
And that ending! That ending is brutal. I can’t say I’m sorry to see it turn out that way. I don’t think it’s a particularly undeserved ending, if you know what I mean—but it’s not the way you want your stories to end. It’s an uncomfortable ending for an uncomfortable book. I like that this is a novella, and while it certainly could have been a novel, I disagree with people who are saying it should have been. The story might be novella-length, but the time that would have been taken reading a novel-length version still gets used up just thinking about what’s already here. I’m actually really grateful Penny hasn’t dropped a novel on us yet, because I’m not sure my brain could handle that much.
So don’t let the size fool you here: Everything Belongs to the Future is intensely thought-provoking. It touches on matters of gender and class and sexuality. It challenges us to think about the relationship between resistance and terrorism, between corporations and consent and rape culture. These are all pressing topics in this day and age, and through the lens of the future, Penny brings clarity to the conversations we should be having in the present.