Slate fiction project

[I worked with Slate.com to collect and edit a collection of short stories all about what life will be like during the Trump Era, and they will run on the site over the next ten days or so. What follows is my introduction to the project, which you can also read here.]

At some point during the murk of the 2016 presidential campaign, somewhere after the Judge Gonzalo Curiel affair but before the Hunger Games–themed Republican National Convention, I sat down to write an essay about rereading The Plot Against America in the age of Trump.

Alas, a quick Google search told me that the territory had already been covered. I shouldn’t have been surprised. The plot of Plot, in which the fascist sympathizer Charles Lindbergh ascends to the presidency on tailwinds of celebrity and America First populism, speaks with vivid and distressing clarity to the present moment. Philip Roth is not a science-fiction writer, but his novel is part of a long and sturdy tradition within sci-fi: the “alternate history.” Take some crucial moment in history and undo it or do it differently. The South wins; the Allies lose; the Black Death wipes out Europe and European influence. In Nisi Shawl’s sweeping Everfair, the history of the Belgian Congo is rewritten by the early discovery of steam technology; in Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union the Jews are given not Palestine, but a slice of Alaska.

Whatever the particulars, the authors of these novels are interested in what the world would look like—what it would feel like—if X had happened instead of Y.

For many of us, X happened on Nov. 8 of last year. Somehow, while we were refreshing Nate Silver and wondering how Biden was going to do at the State Department, we fell through a trapdoor into an alternate dimension. Some fiction writer, cackling at her keyboard, invented the “Comey Letter” and unwound the real true history of the Clinton administration.

Even as it begins, the Trump presidency feels like an absurd and highly unlikely counterfactual. “Yes, this is really happening, I’m becoming president,” said Alec Baldwin as SNL’s sour-faced POTUS, while a Scottish newspaper listed the upcoming inauguration as the first episode in a reboot of the Twilight Zone. But as long ago as last March, the Boston Globe editorialists offered a mock-up front page from “Trump’s America.” A warning message from a bad future.

Well, the future is here. We are about to find out—we are already finding out—what the world would look and feel like if Donald Trump became the president.

Since the election we’ve all read 100 think pieces about what the next four years might hold, but fiction has a special power to clarify, galvanize, prophesy, and warn. I asked some of my favorite writers to offer visions from the alternate history we are now entering, and over the coming days Slate will publish the resulting pieces: ten short stories, all set at some point during the Trump administration.

The full list of writers is as follows:

Héctor Tobar
Ben Winters
Edan Lepucki
Saladin Ahmed
Lauren Beukes
Jeff VanderMeer
Elizabeth Bear
Nisi Shawl
Kashana Cauley
and J. Robert Lennon

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On empathy

As a white man, and as a white author who has tried to reckon with the history of racism and racist violence in America, I feel moved to share this Jamelle Bouie piece from Slate on the  repeated suggestion that we all need to “empathize” with the white Americans who chose to vote for Donald Trump. Bouie, who in my opinion has been essential reading before and since this catastrophic election, is persuasive.  

With so many Americans deserving of our empathy right now — from the immigrants now fearful of deportation to the Muslims facing a rapid rise in hate crimes to the women whose reproductive rights are soon to be curtailed by Supreme Court appointments — should those who with their votes created those crises be first on the list? 

Here’s Bouie, although I encourage you to read the whole thing:

“Millions of Americans are justifiably afraid of what they’ll face under a Trump administration. If any group demands our support and sympathy, it’s these people, not the Americans who backed Trump and his threat of state-sanctioned violence against Hispanic immigrants and Muslim Americans. All the solicitude, outrage, and moral telepathy being deployed in defense of Trump supporters—who voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes—is perverse, bordering on abhorrent.

I  also strongly recommend this piece by Masha Gessen in the New York Review, “Autocracy: Rules for Survival,” which I think everyone should print out and tape to the fridge, and hope — really hope — that four years from now we laugh at how much we were overreacting.

But today, Stephen Bannon is on his way to the White House, so go ahead and tape Gessen’s article to the fridge.

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