Two reviews by Matthew Van Dyke and Nick Yu
By Bob Brown
Editor’s Note: This month we’re reviewing Alternative Truths, a speculative fiction anthology inspired by No. 45 and his administration. We thought it would be interesting to do a dual review: one from a reviewer born, raised, and living in the U.S. currently, and one by a reviewer in another part of the world.
We didn’t ask them to take their own nationality or citizenship into account when writing their reviews, but neither did we edit it out when they chose to mention it themselves. And of course, their reviews reflect their personal reactions to the anthology, and are not meant to be representative of anything larger.
Review by Matthew Van Dyke — from inside the U.S.
During a Meet The Press interview in January, looking as if she were melting right in front of the screen, Kellyanne Conway, Counselor to U.S. President Donald Trump, told NBC’s Chuck Todd that then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer had given “alternative facts” when commenting on the size of the crowd at the President’s inauguration.
Immediately, sales of George Orwell’s satirical dystopian novel 1984 skyrocketed, sending the science-fiction classic to the number-one bestseller spot on Amazon—cue Phyllis Irene Radford and Bob Brown’s collective ears perking up. The editors of Alternative Truths made a pact to join “together in that noble tradition of Menken, Twain, and Swift to use our pens to poke the powerful,” gathering stories from science-fiction writers with the theme of Trump’s alternative facts, the perfect alibi for publishing fiction!
This collection hits many vital points on Trump and his administration, but some stories pierce harder and more accurately than others. The weaker stories’ points can be dull and ineffective, and sometimes bent into strange shapes, where you’re not quite sure which end is meant to be held and which is meant to be stuck in the body.
And yet, the most powerful stories cut deep with conflict, past Trump and the low-hanging fruit of incompetence and hair style, to the gooey center-mass of humankind’s new, unfortunate existence.
Sara Codair’s “Melanoma America” and K.G. Anderson’s “Patti 209” are sandwiched in the middle of the book as an emotional meat of sorts, like burning bacon that just can’t take it anymore and crumbles to dust. Both stories cover our potential healthcare future, which resonates acutely with the repeal-and-replace bill currently giving the Senate massive indigestion. They’re both tough to read for the best of reasons, such as their fear-inducing depiction of privatized hospitals (“Melanoma”) or the inevitable failure of senior care (“Patti”). “Melanoma” hits you hard in the wallet, but “Patti 209” will cause you to whisper, “Oh, look…it’s raining,” in the middle of Wendy’s, while you cry your eyes out in front of the family of four in the window booth.
At this point in Alternative Truths, things begin to feel hopeless. But don’t worry, this is where the book begins to fight back. “The Last Ranger” by Blaze Ward takes you on the hunt with the world’s last forest ranger and his apprentice, who wage a two-man war on Trump’s America, toppling mountains on tanks and fools. Things get darker with Ken Staley’s “Raid At 817 Maple Street,” where government agents engage a teenager in a fatal firefight because of a “terrorist” computer game he’s fond of playing. He doesn’t go down easy, but the military state tactics will turn your stomach inside out. Wondra Vanian’s “Walks Home Alone At Night” pushes the envelope with a transgender Muslim woman slaughtering her assailants, tossing a grenade, and burning everything to the ground for good measure.
These are the stories that actually deal damage to our frail perception of safety in society and pull us none-too-gently from our comfort zones. At a certain point, you can take humanity completely out of political critique, and it almost gets to that point.
Those are the highlights, the must-reads. There are gems among the stories not mentioned here, as well, but some get abstract and disjointed with the anthology’s ironclad theme bashing characterization and plot over the head. Others are too short to really say much. That’s not to say these weaker stories aren’t fun to read— many have great imagery or comedic value.
Does Alternative Truths complete its self-stated raison d’être, “a look at the post-election America that is, or will be, or could be”? Yes, it lives up to that completely for me, a liberal non-Trump voter, in a self-affirming and polarizing way. Someone with different political views will already know this book isn’t for them. That’s the honest truth, not an alternative one.
Review by Nick Yu — from outside the U.S.
In a variety of ways, Alternative Truths clearly conveys the anxieties, anger, and uncertainty felt by the authors and which prompted the book—an anthology of speculative fiction that reacts to the Trump Presidency—in the first place. As someone who’s not a United States citizen, I’m definitely not immune to the prevailing radiation of fear and frustration, and reading these stories gave me a new perspective on the ways in which the Trump Presidency is viewed inside the U.S.
The anthology splits roughly into three categories: stories that speculate on the Presidency being not all it seems, stories that deal with the effects and ramifications of promised conservative policies, and stories that arise from the shift in political activism ignited by the 2016 election.
The alternate realities batch offers surrealistic takes on the hundreds of conspiracy theories flooding the headlines here in the timeline we all have to live in. “It’s All Your Fault” by Daniel M. Kimmel offers a humorous theory of the motivated trolls distracting Americans from real news with the ubiquitous pedantic, inflammatory internet comment slapfights: they’re aliens, of course (the extraterrestrial kind). One of the standouts in dark humor, Bruno Lombardi ‘s “Rage Against the Donald” presents the Trump Presidency as a top subject of time-traveller intervention and gives us (spoiler) Kellyanne Conway as the beleaguered time cop who’s working to stop Trump, if the guys from the year 2260 who believe they’re reviving the Greek gods will get out of her way.
It seems ironic, especially months after the election, to be casting Republicans as the true face of the resistance, but Lombardi isn’t the only author to use this trope. In Marleen S. Burr’s “Duck, Donald: a Trump Exorcism,” Ben Carson removes the devil—who, it turns out, is the one really making all those awful, asinine decisions—from inside the Commander-in-Chief, and the rest of Trump’s term is mildly unpleasant but uneventful. Courtesy of a haunted portrait, Trump ends up possessed by the spirit of Richard Nixon in Bobby Lee Featherston’s “The Frame,” and yet even that most notorious of crooked politicians would be better than the one in the White House now.
These are fantasy stories in the truest sense of the word: positing the alternate reality where this isn’t really happening, because it can’t really be happening to them.
But it is happening, to everyone. In this way, the saddest, most chilling stories deal with the perceived effects and ramifications of the right-wing ideological rise: the deftly terrifying dystopian future in which the Left Coast has seceded, separating a loving Midwest mother and her liberal daughter (Janka Hobb’s epistolary “Letters from the Heartland”); a scenario where healthcare is subject to every manipulative price-gouging con in the book (Sara Codair’s “Melanoma Americana”); the vast income inequality and lack of quality of life that results from building The Wall (Louise Marley’s “Relics: A Fable”).
These stories are peppered with details that are living reality for people both in and outside the United States. Substandard and even life-threatening medical care is often the only option for those who can’t afford to pay big, life-changing money. Racially motivated attacks on Muslims and minorities have risen sharply. The horrific futures in these pages resonate strongly with a painful, and painfully real, present.
The third category of stories aroused the most complicated set of feelings in me, because all the uprisings, efforts, and activism fails. It’s funny and in many ways inspiring that Park Rangers fight the resistance in “The Last Ranger (ANPS-1, CE 2053)” by Blaze Ward—but in the grim dystopian wreckage, children still make war. Everyone comes to accept the new normal in Joel Ewy’s “about_the_change.wav,” until they can’t even remember that there was any other way, that they were ever different themselves. History and reality ripple in to fill the gap between what was and what is in a way that unsettles a conservative Trump voter faced with the shell of his liberal significant other, her personality and beliefs wiped away into his.
Liam Hogan’s “Frozen” imagines a future so partisan that Republican and Democrat voters are cryogenically put away for the election spans that their party loses. They don’t have to live through the policies they’ll abhor or live with anyone who disagrees with them. In Hogan’s story, this actually manages to solve many of the budgetary problems facing any administration, but the citizenry will never be together—to learn, Hogan implies, to change and to grow. “Frozen” contains the most uplifting piece of fantastic optimism in this book: the assertion that cryogenic freezing will also make the voters thin and let them live forever, an absurdly, quintessentially American detail.
Beyond the three categories I’ve outlined, an especial shout-out has to go to the Gettysburg Address as uttered by President Trump in Jim Wright’s “President Trump, Gettysburg, November 19, 1863.” As a satire contrasting the great orators and leaders America has had versus the speaking style and ability of its current president, Wright’s story is depressingly funny. As a piece of spoken word poetry, I suspect it will be sublime.
While I can’t say I enjoyed the collection as a whole, I have to admit it was effective: the stories in it made me afraid, sad, angry, and determined—all things the Trump presidency has evidentially made their authors. With that darn Kellyanne Conway Time Cop intent on only naturally orchestrating the downfall of Trump, it looks like the rest is up to you guys.