The protagonist of Sarena Ulibarri’s Another Life is Galicia Aguirre, the mediator/leader of a Death Valley utopian community called “Otra Vida,” where residents live, work, and eat together in a utopian vision of sustainable energy and brotherly love. In this world, a failed plan to transplant humans to another, cleaner planet somehow led to worldwide collapse and the rearrangement of national borders, as well as another civil war in the United States. Otra Vida exists as a self-sufficient commune hidden from the chaos that followed that war. Having achieved what the founders envisioned, Otra Vida must now protect itself from predatory and unscrupulous farmer groups that want to destroy it and steal its water source.
As the novel opens, Galicia is preparing to run for re-election as mediator, but after a couple of decades with no opponent she must now face a member of the younger generation who doesn’t understand what it took to build Otra Vida from the sand up. On top of this, we learn that one of the residents has perfected a reincarnation detector that can tell certain people who they were in their past lives. Galicia finds out that she was a man named Thomas Ramsey in her previous life—and Ramsey was the leader of a hated movement made up of people trying to escape from Earth. Despised and reviled all these years later because he wanted to leave rather than try to clean up the planet, Ramsey is considered responsible for all of the terrible things that happened after the spaceship he had prepared exploded on the launchpad, killing thousands (including Ramsey himself). Galicia spends the novel trying to reconcile her identity in this life as an activist and mediator trying to better the world with the knowledge that her soul was a part of a destructive process.
Another Life, then, wants to be about many things: reincarnation, climate change, renewable energy, social justice, and “communalism.” Ultimately, the novel argues that, no matter who you were in a past life, you can have a positive impact on the world in which you currently live. But it doesn’t quite merge all of its many strands effectively. This may be in part because the author is trying to include too many disparate ideas about social justice, climate change, and technological innovation, and in the process flattens each of them. For example, much of the technology that humans are currently developing in our own world, with all of the failures and setbacks that entails, “just work” in the novel, as if everything has simply been solved. Similarly, the communal harmony also sounds just too good to be true. This may be my cynicism taking over, but from what I’ve learned from history, human nature has so far meant that only the smallest communities can sustain this kind of system without breaking down.
I also had so many questions that were never (and couldn’t be) answered, including: how and why were millions of people conned by Thomas Ramsey into investing in the failed spaceship? Why is it just a given that the failed mission led to apocalyptic disaster? How, after all of the vague destruction and chaos, did people then figure out how to build a working sustainable community from landfill materials? Also, how do the commune residents get their supply of electric cars, how are they charged, and how do the cars get enough charge to make it from Death Valley to ... anywhere else? How are the batteries cleanly disposed of/recycled after they’re dead, since Otra Vida is expert at recycling everything? (I know this novel is not supposed to be a manual about electric cars, it’s just that these questions inevitably came to my mind).
And then there are the questions about the reincarnation detector. The explanation for how it works is vague and unsatisfying. It’s only near the end of the novel that we find out the reason that the detector was built in the first place—its inventor wanted a connection to his deceased father. But what would technology like this tell us about free will and determinism? Galicia at one point recognizes a personality trait that she shares with Ramsey. Is this tendency toward leadership and grand ideas what made them both able to attract followers and build successful movements?
Layered on top of all of this is the subplot of a new resident who proceeds to bomb parts of the commune in an effort to undermine it on behalf of a jealous farmers’ group. The police (or “Protectors,” as they’re now called) show up to investigate and threaten to arrest the entire commune, thinking that Otra Vida is a terrorist organization. It’s up to Galicia and her colleagues to find out who is trying to sabotage them and then stop them. Another Life is simply trying to accomplish more than is possible in only 154 pages, and doesn’t fully develop most of the characters, whose only motivations seem to be tied to their anger over the failed Ramsey project. Yet the worldbuilding simply cannot support the characters’ emphasis upon their world’s past.
That is: what exactly happened with Ramsey’s movement? The author makes numerous references to her protagonist finding out more about Ramsey as a person, rather than about the cardboard cut-out villain that he’s become, but we never ourselves learn anything further. Why were people so receptive to this man’s plan, and how did he build the ship? When Galicia learns she is a reincarnation fo this man, is chaos and pain is the result—indeed, it’s only at this point that at last we see a more believable description of the commune members, since they cease to work as a harmonious unit. But the reader’s questions about Ramsey are never answered, and so everything lacks weight.
However, this book did make me think more deeply about what I expect from speculative fiction. Often in fiction that imagines a future world, explanations of new technologies are vague, unsatisfying, or frankly unbelievable, but sometimes that doesn’t matter when the setting is far enough into the future, or the technology is unlike anything we currently have. Perhaps it’s because Ulibarri draws on current technology for her novel that the solutions presented here seem unconvincing at times. Ultimately, a longer, more fully-formed novel about this commune and its aims would have been more successful. But I would very much like a prequel to Another Life that is just about Ramsey’s movement and the collapse that followed its disastrous end.