Applied science fiction theory

Rachel Swirsky's January Fifteenth is an intriguing bit of forecasting

Applied science fiction theory
Image: Andrew Liptak

There's a common refrain amongst science fiction writers, especially when they're writing a story that touches on heavier topics, that they're writing a story first and foremost, and that they hope that above all, their readers will be entertained. That's a valid approach, but it's not the only one. Science fiction as a genre has the toolset to serve as more than just entertainment for a reader, but as a container to play out thought experiments and see what potential pitfalls that might lie ahead.

These stories often fly under the radar of most readers (which isn't a surprise, given that they're aimed at fairly specific audiences), but you can often find places where science fiction pops up in some interesting places, like amongst military professionals, who see science fiction as a way to imagine the future of warfare or in the depths of China's history, where leaders saw the potential of the genre as a teaching tool. There are organizations like the Arizona State University, which partners science fiction writers with scientists and engineers to try and depict some possible futures that might be ahead of us.

Every now and again, there are books that come out in this mode: stories like August Cole and Peter W. Singer's Ghost Fleet and Burn-In, or Eliott Ackerman and Admiral James Stavridis's 2034: A Novel of the Next World War, books that are explicitly written with the purpose of trying to jolt readers into thinking differently about the future. And this year, there's a new one to add to the list: Rachel Swirsky's January Fifteenth.

In this book, Swirsky looks at a concept called Universal Basic Income (UBI), where a government essentially provides its citizens with an annual grant to use as they wish. It's a concept that's been experimented with and utilized in a whole bunch of places around the world: designed as a sort of anti-poverty program. In her author's note at the beginning of the book, Swirsky explained that she was less interested in the nuts and bolts of the policy and how it was rolled out, and that she was interested in a central question: "will it help people?" She also notes that it isn't likely an accurate prediction, because she's imagining a system that has already been rolled out and is effectively running smoothly: every January 15th, US citizens get a payment from the government, and it's that central date that she uses as a way to take a snapshot of four characters, their lives, and how this helps (or doesn't help) them.

The four characters we meet run up and down the economic spectrum: there's Hannah Klopfer, who's dealing with an abusive ex-wife who tends to show up on UBI Day, Janelle Butler, a freelance journalist who's working to fill the demand for content from news aggregators for stories about what people will do with their payments, Olivia Latham, a student from a wealthy family who watches as her classmates take part in "waste day", and Sarah  Mortar, a Mormon woman who's part of a larger family who makes the trek to collect her family's income.  

In a more novelistic sense, these characters might have encountered one another: their individual journeys fating them to cross one another's paths so that they might learn something from the experience. That might have been an interesting story, but Swirsky keeps her focus on a different target: how does this social system look on an ordinary day?

It's an interesting experiment, because it really allows us to look at these characters on their own while they're simultaneously dealing with the same event, something that links them all together despite geography and class. Like all good forecasting, Swirsky takes a cue from the modern day, and simply extrapolates a bit. The rich kids who don't have to scrape by treat the day with excess, while the others scramble for this basic bit of the social safety net that they've come to rely on. People deal with domestic issues, or are trapped in their lives because of their circumstances, and as we rotate through the characters, we get a good reminder that money doesn't solve all of our problems.

In some ways, I think of this book less as something that reveals anything about how a potential UBI program might impact people, and more about how the wealth gap in the world is so extreme. Scroll around instagram and you'll come across rich kids living their lives to excess, while others have to figure out if they pay for food or medicine this month.

At the end of the day, the book's a magnificent bit of science fiction imagination: some extrapolation with plenty of grounding to get a sense of what the future might hold.

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