A Coffee Break in the Future

A review of Kameron Hurley’s Meet Me in the Future.

As may be obvious from the shifts in my content, I’ve been reading a lot lately.  I’m writing on a daily basis, reading has proved a workable ritual for lubricating the process, and besides, I felt it was finally time to do something about the endless parade of interactions with friends and family wherein we agree, amidst enthusiastic exhortation, to consume media we never really intend to touch.  The last two–Labyrinths and Shantaram–were for that purpose.  Kameron Hurley’s Meet Me in the Future was too, but it was a more modern sort of enjoyment.  It’s neither the middlebrow literary or high-concept philosophy of the prior two, but it’s not not a thinky book.  Nominally, it’s sci-fi.  Truly, it’s well within the realm of speculative fiction, but how well any of the stories conform to the expectations of their genre varies with, apparently, Hurley’s mood.

I’ll say before the grit of it that I very much admire Kameron Hurley.  Her work is generally well-executed, extremely unique, uncomfortable in cool ways.  Also there’s just something vicariously cathartic about an author whose (professional) social media presence is mostly cooking and gardening.  If only I could so grossly and incandescently not give a fuck.  Prior to this point I had read about half of the Worldbreaker Saga, and Meet Me in the Future mostly delivered on my expectations for both enjoyment and heightened difference.

One of Hurley’s specialties, on full display here, is a particular brand of lexical worldbuilding.  She presents you with a situation in a strange setting, hints that none of the words she’s using to describe it mean what they should mean in everyday English, then lets it run.  This works awesomely in character-focused narratives, and the book comes out swinging with it in the first story, “Elephants and Corpses”, about a mercenary who uses lost tech to transplant his consciousness into corpses, hopping from body to body in an odd impression of ersatz immortality.  That story is one of the book’s best, which isn’t meant to be a dig at the rest, but I do recommend it as a starting point.  Beyond it, the book’s undercurrents start becoming less undercurrent and more the point.

Hurley, for those unfamiliar, is an opinionated writer, and this is an opinionated book.  That is by no means a bad thing–her opinions are well worth the illumination–but most would appreciate knowing their coffee is black before the first lidded sip.  I find it productive to think of it as a contrarian impulse, a starting point of a world where our social and biological preconceptions don’t apply, whether that means the four-gendered social structure of the bayou-punk “The Plague Givers”, the flip-flopped male-female predispositions in “The Women of Our Occupation”, or the simple-but-obvious question of how gender works for a person who regularly swaps out their body.

Again, nominally sci-fi, but practically, I found that the stories fall into a few categories.  The first is, well, actually sci-fi, where Hurley minds her responsibilities as a sci-fi author and explores not only a premise but also its implications (e.g. “The Sinners and the Sea”, “Warped Passages”).  Another is a sort of weird fantasy, where the story is more character-focused and the speculative elements serve more to disrupt your prejudices than explore anything intrinsic to themselves (e.g. “Elephants and Corpses”, “The Plague Givers”).

The last category I tracked–not valueless but weaker for me personally–is a class of story that presents a speculative premise alongside a bucket of exposition and…leaves it at that.  For some, I was able to take it for what it was, as in “When We Fall”, but for the weightier examples of this category (e.g. “The Women of Our Occupation”), I tended to find myself more distracted by the questions the story did not answer than taken by the ground it covered.

All this said, even the least palatable of these stories is well worth reading, but on a more personal note, I did take note of a particular phrase on the back cover before I opened the book:

“It’s weirder–and far more hopeful–than you could ever imagine.”

As someone who worries often that my work is too somber for a wide audience, I have to laugh.  I don’t anticipate–and I mean this kindly–that that description will ring true for you.  These stories are in fact quite depressing.  But I’ve long held that staring into the abyss helps us remember the value of the Fire.  Drink your coffee black, I suppose, and wake up.

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