Currently Reading - The Year's Best Science Fiction: Fourth Annual Collection


24. “Down and Out in the Year 2000” by Kim Stanley Robinson

The backdrop makes this science fiction, but I don’t think it needed to be. This is a story of poverty in America as the world falls apart in war, which it feels like I’ve read five times already in this book alone. It could have been a shared world piece with Swanwick’s “Covenant of Souls”, frex.

Normally when I say something like that I mean it as some sort of savage criticism, but I liked this story. And I liked it despite its science fiction elements, not because of them. It could easily have been a work of contemporary non-genre fiction, although maybe I say that because I assume the 1980s were more similar to the 2010s in joblessness, urban decay and unrest than is justified. But I do think it’s so.

The only characters whose ethnicity is marked in this story are white. Something I see too rarely which says to me the great majority of characters in this piece are people of colour (if I had to put money on it, I’d say black, because various contextual clues).

I liked that a lot for selfish reasons - it’s a technique I’ve intended to use myself, so it’s gratifying to see it work for communicating character ethnicity while centring on their own perspective. But of course KSR is himself a white guy so it’s possible this is badly messed up [1] and I’m just failing to see it.


[1] Such as the one story in this collection centred on black Americans being also the one story that is about falling on hard times and being poor in America. Particularly in that by being so as a science fiction story it immediately stands out and captures interest, whereas as a work of ‘non-genre’ or crime(!!!)[2] fiction it might get lost in the shuffle.

[2] In this context I would count slotting in well amongst crime stories against “Down and Out in the Year 2000”[3], whereas normally I would be all over a good crime / sf hybrid. The problem is that this isn’t one of those, and reading it as crime fiction is clearly the wrong approach. But, that genre is one where it is much more normal to encounter the pattern “black guy hits hard times, takes to selling pot to get cash together for the sake of the sick woman in his life”. The only thing that’s missing is the crisis-crash-object lesson pattern that’s put me off non-detective crime fiction, and is the reason it doesn’t quite fit.

[3] Just realised that as I write this I am equidistant from the year of story setting as the story was in its year of publication.


What I’m saying, I suppose, is that in isolation I find this a pretty excellent story. Engaging, well-written, well-characterised in ways most I’ve read fall short on. But in broader context the association of blackness-poverty-failed-by-system, while reflecting the reality of the world as it is, stands out among a lack of science fiction positing alternative possibilities.