By Mark L. Blackman: On the evening of Tuesday, February 6, at its venue, the Brooklyn Commons Café in less-than-paradisiacal though not-quite dystopian Brooklyn, the New York Review of Science Fiction Reading Series hosted a cavalcade of readings spotlighting the new anthology Welcome to Dystopia. The event, guest-curated by the volume’s editor, Gordon Van Gelder, featured readings by Richard Bowes, Jennifer Marie Brissett, Deji Bryce Olukotun, Leo Vladimirsky and Paul Witcover.
Dystopianly, the evening did not begin as usual, with Series Producer and Executive Curator Jim Freund welcoming the crowd. He, along with House Manager Barbara Krasnoff, we were told, was out with the flu. (Feel better.) Terence Taylor, the Series’ Tech Director filled in for Freund, and Amy Goldschlager (a former Curator) ran the gate. After giving thanks where due, he announced upcoming readings:
- March 6: Alisa Kwitney and Nicholas Kaufmann
- April 3: Chris Claremont and Chandler Klang Smith
- Mayday 1 (tent.): In Memory of Ama Paterson, with Pan Morigan, Andrea Hairston and
Sheree Renée Thomas
- June 5 (tent.): A Tribute to Thomas M. Disch, with Guest Curator: Henry Wessels
Gordon Van Gelder is currently the publisher of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and was for 17 years also its editor, for which he was honored twice each with the World Fantasy Award and the Hugo Award. The evening was nostalgic for him as he founded the NYRSF Readings some 27-28 years ago. “It’s strange to realize how long ago that was,” he said, recalling its first readings at the Dixon Place performance space. (I remember them well; afterward, we’d often wander back to Gordon’s place.)
On Inauguration Day last year, he continued, he was talking to a writer who said that she was afraid to write dystopian sf, “afraid that a politician would run with it.” Others clearly had a different response to the new abnormal. If such term is applicable, we seem to be in a Golden Age of dystopian arts. In the wake of the 2016 Election, George Orwell’s 1984 shot onto bestseller lists and a stage version of the novel played on Broadway. “1984 is not supposed to be a how-to book,” it was sighed, but reaction, repression, racism and doublethink – or, put more impartially, chaos and uncertainty – are in bloom, as is “The Resistance” to it. (At the Brooklyn Book Festival last fall, I noted to a staffer of The Nation that Trump had spurred much artistic, literary and political creativity. He agreed, but added that it was “not a good trade-off”.) Already too late to be a cautionary work (“if this goes on”), Welcome to Dystopia is intensely, aggressively timely, and fiercely political. (Another Van Gelder-edited anthology, Welcome to the Greenhouse, tales about climate change, similarly draws from the zeitgeist.)
The first reader of the evening was Leo Vladimirsky, who recently finished his first novel, The Horrorists. He works in advertising and his experience was evident in his story, “We All Have Hearts of Gold®.” The “currency” in advertising, he explained, is the creative brief, and his story’s format follows its three stages, the e-mail to the team, the assignment and the final tv script. Set immediately after the 2021 Inauguration, the agency – which has lost staff as immigrants were sent home and its European offices were closed, though new ones opened in Russia and West Virginia – is hired by the Republican Security Service to help recruit for its team of Gold Shirts. Wearing gold polo shirts emblazoned with “MAGA” and silhouettes of Donald J. Trump, they maintained (says the creative brief) “order and safety” during the 2020 Election and prevented “voter fraud.” In the recruitment commercial, they burst into classrooms, health clinics, “perverts’” toilet stalls and even the Supreme Court, hauling off so-called offenders. (The allusion to Hitler’s Black Shirts isn’t exactly subtle.)
Next up was Deji Bryce Olukotun, the author of the novels Nigerians in Space and its sequel After the Flare, which was nominated for the 2018 Philip K. Dick Award. (His online address, returnofthedeji.com, amusingly reminds that his name is an anagram of “Jedi.”) His story, “The Levelers,” from which he read, draws on his growing up in a small town in the New Jersey wetlands, which faced land development. The titular Levelers (not to be confused with the ultra-egalitarian antiroyalist group during the English Civil War) are developers who employ genetics, demographics and finally drones to target and burn out houses in order to steal land. Sam, a transgender, is tapping maple trees for sap when her family farm is targeted.
In his introduction to Jennifer Marie Brissett, while putting together the anthology, Van Gelder said, he’d wanted different voices, different backgrounds and even different formats. Brissett, a Jamaican-British-American, is the author of Elysium, or The World After. She has been shortlisted for the Locus Award, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award and the storySouth Million Writers Award, and has won the Philip K. Dick Special Citation. Also, as she noted in her biographical sketch, “once in her life, a long time ago and for three-and-a-half years, she owned and operated a Brooklyn indie bookstore called Indigo Café & Books.” In fact, she was there on 9/11, and later witnessed PATRIOT Act-invoked overreaches. Her story “Newsletter” is in the form of a bookstore’s bulletin to the community reporting that the government was monitoring her special orders (she had actually received such a letter) and that they could even retrieve books from people’s homes; targeted books included James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Octavia Butler’s Kindred. (During the Reagan Administration, the Feds attempted to monitor library patrons’ selections. Look, they’re reading books by a Russian, Asimov.)
As her story was short, she also read a scene from Eleusis, her follow-up to Elysium, and like it based on the Demeter-Persephone myth and set in a post-apocalyptic future, so it’s also an sf dystopia, she said. An interspecies spaceport docking station opens and aliens arrive.
During the intermission, a raffle was held for donors (the readings are free, with a suggested donation of $7), the prizes being a British book club edition of Clifford Simak’s City that had been the property of Charles Platt, and a copy of the anthology Welcome to the Greenhouse.
Leading off the second half of the evening, Van Gelder remarked that there were several stories about the proposed Wall (not Pink Floyd’s; China has a Great Wall, so I guess this would be the Hyuge Wall), but that Paul Witcover’s was “probably the most somber.” Witcover has been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Awards, and in their review of his novel Tumbling After, was called by the Washington Post “a gifted, fiercely original writer whose genre-bending fiction deserves the widest possible attention.” In “Walls,” even though born in Ohio and having only been to Mexico once briefly, because others in the family were born in Mexico, the protagonist is deported to a detention camp in sight of the Wall, which is described as resembling stacks of chicken cages. Their forced march out of their Ohio town is cheered by its residents, former neighbors and classmates.
The final reader, Richard Bowes, has written six novels, four story collections, and 80-plus stories, and won two World Fantasy, a Lambda, an IHG and storySouth Million Writers Awards. Van Gelder described his piece as “one of the most New York stories in the book.” Quipped Bowes, “I write about New York because it’s the only thing I know.” (Like many other quintessential New Yorkers, Rick isn’t originally from here. He was raised in Boston, as his accent proclaims, though, in his own words, “has lived in Manhattan for the better part of a century.”) His story is set some 40 years in the future, after a certain dictator has renamed the Avenue of the Americas “the Avenue of American Greatness,” though no one calls it that, any more than they call 6th Avenue the Avenue of the Americas. Throughout, the dictator (who was impeached after California seceded and Illinois joined Canada) is referred to only as “the Monster,” “the Beast,” “His Grand Pestilence,” “the Great Infection” and “the Cancer”; indeed, “his name is the only obscenity not spoken in New York,” and the story’s title is “The Name Unspoken.” Like the first story, it was a welcome bit of levity in an otherwise nightmarish set of visions.
It’s a truism that science fiction isn’t really predictive or about the future, but is about the present. The drawback to books like this is that – with rare exceptions – they’re too anchored to their time. Trump Era sf might, many hope, soon become as outmoded and irrelevant as Cold War sf. (We seem, though, to have come full circle, back to Russian plots.)
Taylor having left (he was getting over the flu), Goldschlager did the “outro.”
Despite Freund’s absence, the traditional Jenna freebie table offered books.
The audience of perhaps 50 included Melissa C. Beckman (the Readings’ photographer), Susan Bratisher, Amy Goldschlager, John Kwok, Lissanne Lake, James Ryan and Terence Taylor. Over the course of the evening, audience members availed themselves of the Café’s food, coffee bar, beer and wine.