Fixing the future: Laurie Penny tackles life extension in her recent novella

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We enter Everything Belongs to the Future, Laurie Penny’s new science-fiction novella (published in October), by way of a letter from prison. From the first page, then, Penny’s book may put us in mind of other reports from confinement such as Oscar Wilde’s, or Antonio Gramsci’s, or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s, and those writers’ concerns with how we treat the thing we love, what we rebel against, what we believe in—with trust, and justice, and a form of faith—will prove to be Penny’s concerns as well. This particular letter speaks in a woman’s voice, though we don’t know that at first—this one, like the others that punctuate the book, is unsigned, and we only gradually suspect which of the story’s characters is writing—and it speaks retrospectively, hinting darkly at “the awful, terrible thing we did” and other past events. Within the chronology of the story, then, this is a letter from the future, prompting the question of what came before, and the book itself also speaks from a point in time ahead of us; that letter is dated December 5, 2098.

Time, the first letter declares, is “a weapon wielded by the rich, who have excess of it, against the rest, who must trade every breath of it against the promise of another day’s food and shelter.” This isn’t a matter of better food and health care for the wealthy; it’s the consequence of life-extension technology, sketched in this letter and filled in as the story progresses, whereby those of means or special merit can obtain extra years—a century or more. (Readers who are reminded of a 2011 Justin Timberlake movie will soon drop the comparison.) “The fix,” as it’s called, is a simple blue pill, apparently diamond-shaped (an ironic echo of Viagra), designed to be taken daily. It’s been on the market for many years, and though Daisy Craver, one of the scientists who developed it, once wondered aloud, in a speech, about the long-term wisdom of limiting its availability, the fix, now in a second-generation form, is still under patent and still expensive. As a result, time has become the basis for a genuinely new form of inequality. It’s not only the well-off who benefit from the fix; from scientists to artists, those judged to be socially useful by TeamThreeHundred, the British corporation that makes and controls the drug, also receive it, through a system of grants.

Penny’s narrow focus in this book tells us almost nothing about British society as a whole, but in the area around Oxford, where the pioneering work on the fix was done, a small group of young people has decided to respond. If they ever considered protest, we learn nothing of it. At this point late in the century, they may never have heard of the Occupy movement, and in any case they’ve recognized—as did Micah White, one of its originators—that traditional protest tends to hit a wall; one of them remarks offhandedly, “The world doesn’t change when a bunch of people march from A to B.” Nor are they plotting revolution. This book offers almost none of the cinematically conceived, action-adventure thrills served up by dystopian fiction where young people manage to save the city, the country, or the world from their wicked and corrupt elders: fiction that can sometimes be understood politically, as the Hunger Game novels can, but that often serves either as invigorating escapism or as compensation for its readers’ sense of powerlessness and lack of purpose. Pop entertainments of that kind, however well dramatized, may be appealing mainly because, as a review of the first Hunger Games film put it, “it makes teens feel both victimized and important.” That’s not the aim here.

Penny’s group is taking the middle way between mere protest and large-scale revolt—local action. The book’s back cover describes the quartet that comprises the core of the group—Nina, Alex, Margo, and Fidget—as “scruffy anarchists,” but the latter term is inexact. We don’t learn their political ideals, if they have any, nor do we ever see much of the larger political situation. We do learn, as the story progresses, that state and corporate interests are frighteningly aligned, the two hands of one body. TeamThreeHundred has planted an undercover agent in the group; an Islamic scientist with whom Daisy had developed the fix was deemed a security risk after he quoted verses from the Koran in a few memos (“It was a bad time for that,” the narration dryly reports) and was denied a life-extension grant; police powers are applied, in a brutal raid, when the group’s activities threaten the corporation’s patent rights. Granted, this is not unlike today, and the tale can be read as a metaphor for the present, but it carries more weight if you take it literally—if nothing changes now, the future will look like the present. In any case, where the group is concerned, all we know is how they live and how they operate: as a collective, working without a leader, sharing a decrepit old mold-infested house in the Oxfordshire town of Cowley. The narration gives us a thumbnail description of them when Alex shares a cigarette with Daisy:

“Smoking was an affectation shared almost exclusively by fixers and dirt-poor anti-gerontocracy activists with nihilist leanings. Fixers and wannabe fixers because it didn’t hurt them and was therefore a way of showing off. Nihilists because fuck it, weren’t they all going to die young anyway?”

These dirt-poor activists had begun as a loose assemblage of dirt-poor aspiring artists, had begun to squabble, and had found unity when they turned to a vaguely conceived form of political action—first flyering, then street theater and protests. That’s when they were joined by a spy. It’s unclear why the corporation would plant an agent among them before they’ve done anything to threaten it. One is left to suppose that TeamThreeHundred has so much money and so much suspicion that it watches anyone who opposes the status quo. At some point after that, the group had hit on the idea of giving away sandwiches spiked with stolen doses of the fix, and we first meet them on one of their missions to liberate it. One night at Magdalen College, Oxford, a party is being sponsored by the corporation, where bowls of blue pills are on offer, free to be taken by “brainless, braying rich kids and their parents,” many of whom are, the narration implies, already buying the product. To those who have much, more will be given. It’s one of many small echoes of the present: Big Pharma doesn’t do it yet, but drink brands and others have for some time been sponsoring influencers who spread the word, and the product, at parties and elsewhere.

The Robin Hood theme is sounded a few pages in, as our quartet climbs a wall near Magdalen, before we have any idea what exactly they’re doing: “It was four of them, Nina and Alex, Margo and Fidget, and they were off to rob the rich and feed the poor.” But their aim begins to change after they meet Daisy, who is trotted out, against her will, at affairs like this as the corporation’s prized researcher. She doesn’t like parties, she has reasons for resenting her employers (which are fleshed out only gradually), and once she noses out our band of activists—before she sees them, she senses them, a bit improbably perhaps, as “somebody else [who] didn’t belong”—she offers them a new direction. They won’t have to steal the fix anymore if she can develop a rough form of it anew, from scratch. One can find readers, on Twitter and elsewhere, who wonder why she does this, but her motives can be teased out. Apart from her resentment, Daisy simply has nothing to do, “hadn’t done any real work in years”; at heart she’s the sort of scientist who tries to make things simply to see if she can do it—and she will later make something horrific for that very reason.

Daisy’s new scheme requires something a bit gruesome, grave robbing, which links it with Victor Frankenstein’s project and slightly ironizes it. If Daisy resembles Victor in needing a certain kind of dead body in order to proceed (the fix is based on a fungus), and if those who use the fix acquire a certain monstrous look—they always have “an uncanny smoothness to the skin, a ghastly glisten that [makes] them doll-like”—Daisy is also, as Mary Shelley’s subtitle labels Victor, a new Prometheus, one who at first kept the vital flame burning only for the few but who aims now to give it to everyone. Similarly, as the novella’s plot and themes are in part borrowed from the past, so is its world littered with pastness. Here and there, we glimpse things that have changed. California has become “the Free State of California.” Climate change has led to sea-level rise. The spy passes one report to his contact via a tiny chip that can be hidden under a fingernail. But much remains the same. Some people still smoke, play Halo (Fidget is in the middle of version 17), and drive internal-combustion vehicles (what the crew uses as a food truck is an old diesel). Daisy, doing her work in a shed outside the group house, uses a 60-year-old PC. A message is passed on a folded-up slip of paper; Nina’s letters, too, are written on paper. That what we see of this future world can’t escape its own past is nowhere better embodied than in those who run it, the gerontocracy.

One can’t help siding with the activists who believe extended life should be offered to all, yet the fix didn’t create the gerontocracy (it’s already in place in our world—the two leading contenders for the U.S. presidency were 69 and 70 years old), and one doubts that giving away the fix would end it or improve the material circumstances of anyone else. The appeal of the fix is simple: as the narration puts it, “Everyone Alex had ever known had died too young, although he struggled to think of anyone of whom you could definitely, absolutely say ‘That was old enough.’ All death was untimely.”

In this respect, the novella is neutral on life-extension technology, but in another respect it’s critical, if not overtly opposed. Not only do we see those Frankensteinian hints; we also read, stretched across many of Nina’s letters, a parable about the Devil and a bridge, which tells us that when the Devil offers you something, it’s going to look tempting, and it’s bound to burn you. That she thinks so isn’t surprising: she ended up in prison after a desperate action, involving a new technology, that the group undertakes when it turns out they can’t do what they originally intended. But her view isn’t necessarily the book’s view; Penny’s novella is, I think, ambivalent. No one in our world debates whether present-day medical technology should exist; we mainly ask how it should be distributed. Similarly, though the book implies that the fix came to be simply because someone believed they could make it, with little thought for the consequences, and though the book briefly questions the impact of life extension on artists and others, the existence of the fix is mostly taken for granted, and the question is who shall receive it. Yet we’re also given another view, Nina’s view, that life extension may be the Devil’s work, and with that the book achieves a kind of dual vision.

Broadly speaking, Everything Belongs to the Future is much like what you’d hope for from Laurie Penny, who may be the most vigorous young commentator on social and political issues now working in the English-speaking world. In a recent essay for The Baffler, she begins by declaring, “To imagine the future is a political practice,” and she singles out for praise some newish developments in present-day SF. She points out that “innovative, exciting stories by and about women, queers, and people of color are having a moment in science fiction,” and her novella includes just such a range of characters, along with, in a limited role, that Islamic scientist. Women are at the forefront of the action; many of the men are obstacles. Penny’s essay also remarks that the very best works by women “create drama precisely out of the daily grind of trying to get people to work together when they’re crabby and anxious and difficult.” That, too, is present in her novella, in the house meetings of her leaderless collective, though the drama is pretty low-key. Her Baffler essay lays out a progressive program, though that’s not its sole purpose, and she follows the program here, in the first piece of fiction beyond short-story length that she’s published.

But in offering a dual perspective, Penny’s novella gives us something more than, or different from, the rousing polemic that her nonfiction essays and books often provide. What’s more, in the character of Alex, she flirts, not quite with the Devil himself, but with one of his minions. Alex is one of the story’s two pivots, the other being Daisy; both of them cross boundaries, surprise us sooner or later, and equivocally earn our sympathy. Despite her alliance with the group, we doubt Daisy—though never very much—because she’s inclined to pursue her scientific goals and leave the thinking to others. Alex—who, we learn fairly early, is the spy—is something of her mirror image. He doesn’t kill the thing he loves (to borrow from Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol), but he betrays it; he doesn’t end up in prison—Nina does. Despite this, we may not altogether condemn him. Alex is a bit of a doofus, who likes anyone who likes him; he genuinely contributes to the group (by repairing their old food truck, for instance) at the same time that he’s reporting on it; he’s the tool of a larger system, which he serves almost by accident, and which he continues to trust after it breaks its word with him once. Alex is, if you will, not a compromised good guy—that’s Daisy, to a degree—but a compromised bad guy. One can’t defend him, but one understands him. He’s not redeemed, as he believes he will be, by his puppy-dog-like devotion to Nina, but he does do one right thing.

Perhaps inevitably, Everything Belongs to the Future is less stirring than Penny’s commentary. Though you can find some well-turned phrases, the texture of her text here is often rather plain, as if she’s following the old naturalist plan, which focuses on social and psychological details and downplays imagery, rhetoric, and allusion. Her secondary characters are somewhat vaguely drawn. And you can quibble with a few pieces of the action—in a late scene, for instance, two characters tell each other things they must already know. None of this weakens the overall solidity of the construction.

And, if the book is superficially less stirring, it’s no less thought-provoking. We see a valiant struggle, and we see the reasons for the struggle, but we also detect something larger, broader, harder to pin down, a questioning of one method by which the struggle is advanced, even, in a way, a questioning of the entire political-economic situation in which the struggle takes place. One can come away from this slim novella suspecting that the whole social order is flawed, that neither the new inequality nor the reaction against it—especially that “awful, terrible thing” mentioned in the opening pages, which Nina calls a “time bomb,” the nature of which isn’t revealed until near the end—needs to have happened. What’s the alternative? You won’t find one here or in Penny’s Baffler essay, where she quotes Fredric Jameson’s remark that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, but she at least allows you to suppose that we need one.

Everything Belongs to the Future isn’t a YA tale of plucky youth saving the world, and yet it has something in common with those pumped-up, fantastical fictions. If we gravitate toward visions of dystopia and apocalypse, maybe it’s not because—or not only because—they confirm our suspicion that the world is about to go awry but because they simplify things and depict a realm in which individual human action matters. That’s exactly what Penny is showing us here. When her characters’ main efforts are frustrated, they resort to a desperate act, but a few of them, at the very end, find a way forward; they have made and are going to make a difference. In that respect, Everything Belongs to the Future is not “grim,” to use the word with which she warned potential readers at a recent book-launch event in New York—it’s hopeful.

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