Looking to the Future with Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams

February 15, 2019

A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers. Edited by Victor LaValle and John Joseph Adams

As spoiler free as possible A People’s Future is a literary crystal ball. Like the best Sci-fi, this is a well-crafted collection that expertly highlights multiple points of view, orientations, and backgrounds, and does it with powerful and engaging stories that will make the reader think about their relationship with this country.

I was able to get my hands on an advance copy of this book at New York Comic Con 2018, shout out to the guy from Random House who got me to buy something else from their table in order to get it. And it was worth it, at the time all I saw was LaValle’s name on the book and was ecstatic to get that last copy, and yes, I’m sure there were more copies under the table. At that moment I had my magic beans and you couldn’t tell me a damn thing. Flash forward to finishing it around Election Day, me tweeting a picture of the book with my I Voted sticker and thinking more people need to know about this book.

Having interviewed Victor LaValle before about his comic Destroyer, now a finalist for the Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics, I reached out asking to talk with him and co-editor John Joseph Adams about this of theirs and they were gracious enough to give me the rundown on A People’s Future.

Black Sci-Fi: Where did the idea for the title come from? Why a play on the Howard Zinn book? As far as your partnership, who called who?

John Joseph Adams: Actually I had been the one that originally reached out to One World, the publisher, with the project and then recruited Victor to co-edit after that. I’d actually proposed it with a different title and Victory Matsui at One World who acquired the book for them actually suggest that title and then we sort of ran with it because we thought it was great.

BSF: John why did you pick Victor to help you with this?

Adams: I wanted to partner with somebody, as a straight white man, I felt like it wasn’t really my place to lead a book like this on my own. I wanted to reach out to somebody like Victor, who is from a more marginalized community, in this case, he’s African-American. We thought it was important to have that balance to the editorial side so that it’s not just me a straight white guy calling all the shots and everything since the whole focus of the book was on these underrepresented voices both in terms of the characters and the authors. And Victor is just great, I was a fan of his for a long time, I felt like The Ballad of Black Tom was super amazing and he was already part of the One World family, Chris (Jackson) was already his editor, he was part of the larger Random House family.

Victor LaValle: Yes, Chris Jackson is my editor at Spiegel & Grau and then he started One World and it was easy and John had already sold the book to One World and I was happily part of the family there so just made it easier to bring us together.

BSF: So less paperwork.

Adams: Yes! I didn’t really know Victor at all before we approached him about this, I was just a fan from afar. I can’t even think that we’d even interacted on Twitter or anything prior to that, so we were kind of diving in head first. Once we’d come up with the idea, we had a nice phone call, Victor it seemed like we were right on the same page from the start and we worked really great all long.

Editor Victor LaValle. Photo Credit Teddy Wolff.

LaValle:And on the other end of things, I knew John from being an editor and from his work the Best of the Year Science Fiction and online with his magazine, so I knew his reputation very well. I knew a lot of the work he did, and for me it was easy, frankly the book was sold so it was like something was already moving forward, and two he was like serious business on the editing end, making me feel like I was partnering up with somebody who could really make a project like this work and that was certainly a relief to me because as far as being an editor of an anthology this is my first time doing that.

BSF: You guys picked a murderous row of writers, How were the authors selected?

Adams: We came up with different list that we both wanted to invite people from, I threw out a bunch of names, Victor threw out a bunch of names, we collated our list, went over our lists together, decided who were our top targets, that sort of thing. Then we had some debate, said okay we think this person, this person, whatever, and of course as invitation start going out you start adjusting based on what people are saying. Sometimes people just say no, in this case, I don’t think we had anybody who was just not interested, sometimes you do an anthology with a theme and people are like it’s not my bag, but for everybody we asked, it would have been bizarre if they’d said I’m not interested in that. We know writers, if they’re politically active or politically aware or not, obviously I couldn’t really think of anybody who we were going to ask that was like “Nah I’m good, I’m totally cool with how things are going and I really don’t have anything to say about it,” so that part wasn’t a problem, people are busy and some people that we did ask said yes but didn’t have time to deliver and that’s just how anthology go.

LaValle: At least for me, we came up with our wish list and really got everybody, everybody who came in was on our wish list, it was just wild to see, even though as John said there were some people who said yes and couldn’t commit the time or said no because they couldn’t commit the time, but to come up with a wish-list like the one that is our table of contents and actually have them do it is kind of stunning, because you make a gamble like that when you reach out to people this good, there’s always a chance that all of them just sort of say I’m busy because they’re good. And lots of people would like to work with me. I’m not sure how much people were juggling here and there, but so many of them found a way to give us something, it was just so good. I really couldn’t have imagined a better way for this to go.

BSF: Now that we have the lineup settled and everything, this book could have been a giant dump on 45 from beginning to the end, but it wasn’t. Was this a request made to the authors or was this what came back from them?

Adams: Well we weren’t too specific in terms of what types of stories exactly we wanted, obviously we gave them guidelines and we specified where the idea was coming from. Obviously the idea was inspired by current events and the troubling direction we saw the country going in, seeing people being oppressed, people of color, immigrants, women, Muslims, other religious persecuted groups, queer people, trans people, we saw all this happening just anew even after we made so much progress in the previous 8 years under Obama, we just sort of laid out that concern in our guidelines to the writers and then just ask them to try and speculate what shape the country might look like in the near future.

We gave them free rein to either take it in the more dystopian direction or dance around the margins of what’s happening today, sort of less connected directly to politics, but they all sort of touch on it in some way. I think that’s kind of the only way you can approach a book like this, give the authors the freedom to just tackle the issues the way they creatively sort of feel like they need to, otherwise you get too constrictive about, then it comes across more like a manifesto rather than a piece of entertainment. We view it as a piece of entertainment that will hopefully open people’s eyes to the issues that are plaguing the country today and maybe help them see things in a new light, that’s what I hope would happen.

Editor John Joseph Adams. Photo credit Jeffrey San Juan.

BSF: Most really good Sci-Fi that’s what it does.

LaValle: And the other thing, the other reason it didn’t go the way did is 25 stories just coming down hard on Trump, Trump is not the cause of all people’s problems in the United States, he might be the personification of the sort of forces at this point but certainly the problems of this nation predate anything from this administration and will continue after. What was kind of great about seeing the stories come through, they were talking much more about the ideas of how do a people or groups of people, work to assert their humanity, their freedom, their rights, all this stuff, just within structures that oppress them and that is really on some level that is never just down to one person. I would think it would be too unrealistic if all of them are just like it all started here and it’s all this guy’s fault. That would just be weird, that’s why we certainly didn’t tell anyone they couldn’t write about him but it was great to see that that was not the focus of the majority who wrote.

BSF: When I read it I didn’t know what to expect and I think that’s a good thing, I like going in blind and getting hit with different things, they were stories, as a straight guy, I never thought of, I never thought of issues of transgender Identity or just making it through the day, so it’s good to have stories that give me a new perspective. In that vein of being surprised and the unexpected, we’re not supposed to pick our favorite children, so instead of picking our favorite, which child surprised you the most?

LaValle: I would say surprise for me is such a broad term. I almost feel like another way I would think is each of these kids has a quality I love. Like Charles Yu’s pure humor, like oh okay I didn’t know that was going to come, especially in a collection like this, it was such a blessing to have a piece that was just not just a laugh but really made me laugh and then on the total opposite end we had Violet Adams story that by the end I was practically sobbing and I could talk that way about all these stories but I was just surprised by the depth and breadth and feeling that these stories would bring up in me and how different they were. Seanan McGuire, to my mind, is one of the most hopeful or tender and sweet of stories that was a glorious surprise as well. So yeah I guess it still falls back to its tough to pick a favorite child, so instead I’m just going to brag about all our kids.

BSF: Nicely danced.

Adams: I could kind of answer the question two ways. One, I agree with what Victor is saying about the sort of humor with Charles Yu’s story and the hopefulness of Seanan McGuire’s story. And anthologist usually approach the order of an anthology in a certain way, this is not really a secret, how you generally approach it is that the first story and the last story are usually two of your favorite stories in some regard, and then I like to put one of my favorites right in the middle as well and so if you so think of the first or the last story as the beginning and the end tentpoles and the middle is the tentpole to keep the whole thing holding up right in the middle, I’ll leave it to your imagination to which to figure out which one counts as the middle. The first story we picked because we both loved it, we thought it was really great, it was really representative of the anthology and accessible. One consideration for picking the first story is that you don’t want something that’s too challenging to a neophyte reader, for instance, we wouldn’t have put Melaka Older’s story first because it’s more of a challenging dense story, just because of the whole excerpt thing that it’s doing.

And for the last story, you tend to grab one of those stories that’s one of your favorites that also has an emotional punch to it that hits you very hard and leaves you with this great feeling of having read something wonderful right when you close the book. Because obviously, you pick up an anthology, you can read it in any order you want, but as an anthologist, you have to sort of put it together but the table of contents together in the order the ideal reader will read it. We try of shape this emotional journey for the reader so once they get the book you leave them on the note you want the book to end on, I think we did a great job with that. As far as surprises, Ashok Banker really surprised me, his story is a riff on the Heinlein story, also called By His Bootstraps, It’s a very interesting story to look at in sort of conversation with the Heinlein story or Heinlein in general who was really right wing. I really didn’t expect his story to be so in your face at Trump like that and thought he did a great job with that.

BSF: John, you edit a bunch of anthologies, Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy being one of them, was taking this on because you felt like you didn’t have enough work to do?

Adams: No, and on top of all the anthologies I also have a novel I’m working on. The reason I wanted to do this was that I felt so despondent about what was happening and if you think of the feelings I had on Election Day in 2016 it was this horrible sinking feeling, I thought it was a joke this whole time and there was no chance he would actually win. And then as things progressed after the election, all of the damage that started happening I just felt like it was like well what am I going to do? I can call my Congresspeople, things like that sure I could do that, but anybody could do things that, but I work in publishing. Publishing has the power to reach beyond all that if we can produce art that can speak to people and maybe make some progress that’s what I have the ability to do.

As an anthologist, I can wrangle all these other people that can help me do that, I can’t do it myself I need all these other people, I can rally the troops to get them to speak with one voice and try and make a difference. That’s what I wanted to do with the book and that’s why I felt compelled to do something about it. It’s really the most important book that I’ve ever worked on without question prior to that selling The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy series was meaningful because of how much I love Science Fiction and Fantasy and having it taken seriously as an art form and being treated properly as a different branch of literature. But this is important on a whole different level and I’m just really thrilled to have been a part of it, I’m so thrilled to work with Victor to bring it to completion, it was like he magnified all of my abilities and together we were exponentially greater than just individually. I feel like we ended up with something that was really fantastic and I hope can really make some difference.

LaValle: This is one of the things it will be interesting to people, they’ll never get to see the back and forth John and I had, talking through stories going back and forth, our feedback, our reaction to stories our edits, our suggestions for edits, it was great to be part of that editorial team to speak to John’s point I really felt the same, each of us just feeding, like putting our thoughts together into a letter John would write to the authors and this is what we were thinking like a team of brains and what we might suggest you think about doing or adding or changing or the third part of that the great magic part of that was what the writers came back with what we didn’t even think of that just made the story pop, again it was just really a thrilling process to be a part of.

BSF: As much as I loved the book I hope there won’t be a need for a 2nd volume, but if you do will it include new writers or have a more focused theme? Victor, would you contribute to it?

LaValle: Oh what a depressing thing to think if we have to put out another one in 2021. I really feel like you just told the scariest story I could imagine, but yeah I think people seem really electrified by this one and I’m going to say the more hopeful thing or wonderful thing might be what would a second volume look like if things took a turn, like this one is a people’s future when things seem to be on the brink and let’s say some things change for the better, we got some new people in politics, or many new people in politics but that’s not going to make the world perfect right, certainly climate change as a force that outweighs any political division for what is threatening us. All those things will be there but I wonder and now there’s a part of me thinking like if every four years we have a new one like 25 writers take on the state of the world now. So who knows is what I’m saying, next time I would love, the truth was I couldn’t see under certain circumstances how to be in the editorial mode and also write something, John was very kind saying he’d love to see something, but I didn’t see how I could do it, I would split something and I really wanted to serve the anthology and the writers in it, at least this time.

BSF: Would you if there is a brighter future in another two years or three, I’m not sure what the turnaround time was for putting this out, what would you imagine it to look like if there were a second volume?

Adams: I don’t know, I like what Victor was just saying, you know maybe we would see what it would look like based on how our political future shifts. We have so far to go, there’s always going to be these kinds of issues that we fight about, as Victor alluded to if climate change doesn’t kill us all, I don’t know it’s kind of a hard thing to consider a follow up volume to before it even comes out and we see what kind of impact. I mean God forbid Trump gets reelected or some similar type minded politician gets elected. I can totally see how something like this is still necessary, but I really like the idea that Victor was saying of checking in with writers to see the state of the People’s Union.

BSF: Are there any things you want to add to the state?

Adams: I’ll just say when we started you asked about the title and I feel like we gave you the correct answer but it wasn’t a very explanatory answer and I feel like Victor talked about the connection to the Zinn book in the introduction, but the Zinn book is basically a history of the United States but focusing on people from marginalized groups is the focus of the Zinn book on their history, so that was the kind of the shape of the anthology in terms of the future of the United States as pertains to those groups and things like that so I think that was more of an actual clarifying answer why that title besides Victory suggesting it which is true.

LaValle: It really was the right spirit of the thing and that goes back to the beauty of the collaborative process all around. I really that’s the last thing I would say if there’s a reader who’s into speculative fiction whatever that might be to them, then there really is more than one story in there for them that’ll hit that sweet spot and I’m going to predict now they’re going to be a bunch of stories in there that’s going to be classics of this year of the genre, whether they’re recognized this year or 10 years or 50 years it doesn’t matter I know we have some bangers.

BSFAs I was reading it, I was thinking Black Mirror all the way.

LaValle: From your lips to somebody’s ears.

A People’s Future of the United States: Speculative Fiction from 25 Extraordinary Writers is on sale now along with several events nationwide to promote the book, check for a location near you.

A People’s Future includes authors: Charlie Jane Anders, A. Merc Rustad, Lizz Huerta, Maria Dahvana Headley, Malka Older, Sam J. Miller, Tananarive Due, Ashok K. Banker, Omar El Akkad, Daniel José Older, Lesley Nneka Arimah, Justina Ireland, Violet Allen, Gabby Rivera, Tobias S. Buckell, Hugh Howey, Jamie Ford, G. Willow Wilson, N.K. Jemisin, Charles Yu, Kai Cheng Thom, Daniel H. Wilson, Catherynne M. Valente, Seanan McGuire, and Alice Sola Kim.

Victor LaValle is the author of the short story collection Slapboxing with Jesus, four novels, The Ecstatic, Big Machine, The Devil in Silver, and The Changeling and two novellas, Lucretia and the Kroons and The Ballad of Black Tom. He is also the creator and writer of a comic book Victor LaValle’s DESTROYER. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

John Joseph Adams is the editor of John Joseph Adams Books, a science fiction and fantasy imprint from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He is also the series editor of Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, as well as the bestselling editor of more than thirty anthologies, such as Wastelands, The Living Dead, and The Apocalypse Triptych. He is also the editor and publisher of the magazines Nightmare and the Hugo Award-winning Lightspeed, and is a producer for WIRED’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.


George Carmona 3rd is an Artist/Writer, former Milestone Media Intern, former DC Comics paper pusher, current book lover, and lifelong comic geek. He is the author of the DC Super Friends Joke Book from Penguin Random House. You can find his work at FistFullofArt.com or follow him on Twitter at GCarmona3.

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