3 New Novels About Visions for the Future
The concept that one person can change the course of history is both comforting and terrifying. Being completely powerless is unsettling, having to watch one’s every move for fear of ruining humanity even more so. The protagonists of the new novels in this week’s book club each have a special talent, or curse, to see the way things could change drastically for the better or worse. Each of our heroines has prescient plans for the present and future, but is battled by doubters and naysayers who believe the change is impossible. We predict three fascinating new reads in your future.
1. The Heavens by Sandra Newman ($26): “Ben met Kate at a rich girl’s party. He didn’t know the rich girl personally; it was one of those parties where no one knew the hostess. He’d come with the rich girl’s cousin’s co-worker, whom he instantly lost in the crowd. It had started out as a dinner party, but the invitations proliferated, spreading epidemically through friends of friends until it turned into a hundred people. So the rich girl opened up both floors, made punch instead of risotto, and ordered a thousand dumplings from a Chinese restaurant. It was August and you had to let things happen the way they wanted to happen. Everyone was in their twenties then, anyway, so that was how they thought…New York City, so everyone was interning at a Condé Nast publication or a television program or the UN. Everyone a little in love with each other; the year 2000 in the affluent West.”
In Kate’s world, the Green Party won the presidency, and the year 2000 is all about optimism and peace — we’ve cut our dependence on fossil fuels, and even things in the Middle East have quieted down. Kate meets Ben, and sparks fly between the two. Ben is warned that Kate is a little different, flighty, unreliable. But their relationship continues apace, with a small wrinkle. Kate shares details from a dream she’s been having recurrently since she was a child, where she becomes Emilia Lanier, a woman living in England at the end of the 16th-century with connections to one very famous individual. The dreams seem scarily real and vivid, and Kate becomes certain that they, and she, are having some terrible effect on the future.
This is borne out in what happens when she wakes — soon, her wonderful, progressive world is vanishing, and even her family, and Ben’s, are no longer the same. Kate can’t believe the changes that are taking place seemingly before her eyes, but nobody believes her story that the world should be different, because they don’t remember how things used to be. As the book ricochets between past, present, and future, we see how Emilia’s choices, however small, have severe impacts on the world Kate and Ben call home. Ben must wrestle with his feelings and concern for Kate, and questions of mental illness hang in the air. Is Kate a victim of her own mind? Or can she really change the future?
2. The Cassandra by Sharma Shields ($28): In Ancient Greek mythology, the story of Cassandra is its own particular brand of tragic horror. Cassandra was cursed to predict the future with absolute accuracy. The catch? Nobody would ever believe her. Shields’ novel follows Mildred Groves, a woman with a similar curse and fate, only this time, the setting is the genesis of the Manhattan Project during the Second World War. Despite essentially putting an end to the war, the atomic bombs killed hundreds of thousands of people, poisoning both living creatures and the environment.
“I stayed silent, balancing the line of my mouth on a tightrope of strength and humility. I knew better than to tell him the truth, that I had dreamed about Hanford, that I had seen myself there. I had, in fact, sleepwalked into Eastside Park, awaking with a start beside a grove of black cottonwoods, the trees shedding puffs of starlight all around me, the wind whispering through the branches my fate. He would hire me because I had envisioned it, and my visions always came through in one way or another. As if sensing my memory, the recruiter’s face tightened. ‘You can no doubt imagine the outcome if secrets were shared with the feeble-minded.’ I leaned forward gravely. ‘Our nation would be destroyed, sir.'”
Twenty-year-old Mildred longs to escape taking care of her emotionally abusive mother, and her visions provide her with an answer. She applies for and receives a highly-classified job in Hanford, Washington, becoming secretary to a top scientist at the Hanford Research Institute. Initially, she does not know what is being created behind the scenes at her workplace. Once her visions kick in, however, she is suddenly privy to a terrible knowledge of the project’s fate — and is seemingly powerless to change it. With themes of blind nationalism and silenced women, Shields’ book warns of an even-worse future we could create if we choose to follow the same path. It’s our job to decide if we’ll listen.
3. The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders ($27): “The Progressive Students Union meets under basements and behind larders. Usually between five and fifteen of us, talking about systems of oppression. Bianca’s long black hair hides her face as she leans forward to listen, but her hand brushes mine. A mop-headed boy named Matthew is talking about the ordinary people whose every waking moment at the farmwheels, the factories, the sewage plant, or the power station, until they die. Then Bianca stands up and her voice rings out, like we’re all inside her heart and we can hear it beat. She wears streaks of purple and silver paint, to frame her eyes, and I never want to look away. ‘If you control our sleep, then you own our dreams,’ she says. ‘And from there, it’s easy to master our whole lives.’ Everything in Xiosphant is designed to make us aware of the passage of time, from the calendars, to the rising and falling of the shutters, to the bells that ring all over the town…But nothing in the city is ever supposed to change.”
Anders, former editor of io9 and Hugo and Nebula Award-winner for 2017, writes a story of a divided future world in stasis. January is a colonized planet split into two halves, one always bright-hot and one always freezing dark. The two habitable human cities straddle the small zone of dusk in between. One city’s caste system is as rigidly split as the two halves of the planet; Sophie is one of the only students at the Gymnasium, Xiosphant’s institution of higher learning, to come from its lower, laboring class. Desperate to avoid a forced marriage, she fought for acceptance, working to reach the pinnacle of academic achievement and rise above her station. Her upper-class roommate Bianca seems to admire her deeply for this, despite the occasional class-related social faux pas, and Sophie is certainly in intense awe of Bianca.
Sophie’s infatuation with her roommate’s magnetic personality leads her to join a small group of student revolutionaries, who talk a big game about changing the world. It’s in this authoritarian state’s interest to remain static and unchallenged, and it does so it many of the usual ways. When Sophie takes the fall for a seemingly-minor transgression on Bianca’s part, the police banish her to the dark side of January; it’s supposedly a hellish place filled with terrible creatures, from which nobody is expected to return. Sophie, however, is different. Forming an unexpected psychic bond with the creatures that are far more sentient than described, she also meets a nomad named Mouth, the last of her culture. Together, the women set out to avert environmental collapse. But can Sophie really trust Bianca to come through for her, or is she blinded by her affection? Perhaps they really can change the future.
What books are visionary? Tag us in your next prophetic read @BritandCo.
Brit + Co may at times use affiliate links to promote products sold by others, but always offers genuine editorial recommendations.