The dystopian future England of 2098 that forms the setting of Laurie Penny’s novella is strangely familiar: a woman is serving a sentence in Holloway Prison, another character goes to the Job Centre, Oxford students and townsfolk celebrate May Day at Magdalen Bridge while listening to choristers singing from the Great Tower at dawn. At first I thought the survival of all of these things—and the various other features of late-twentieth- and early-twenty-first century life which permeate the text—was rather unlikely and indicative of a failure of imagination on Penny’s part. By the end of the story, however—which, despite minor wobbles along the way, Penny lands neatly and effectively—I had come round to seeing this seemingly achronological approach as deliberate.
Among the possible meanings of the excellent title Everything Belongs to the Future is the sense that the future shapes the past to its own ends by celebrating, or even inventing, the traditions it chooses. It is not difficult from the perspective of 2016 and 2017 to imagine a ruling class spending the rest of the century shaping an England around such familiar pairings as tradition and privilege, inequality and unemployment, and crime and punishment. At the centre of Penny’s projected timeless England is an Oxford where Magdalen Bridge has not only spanned the Cherwell for centuries but will continue to do so for centuries to come: “Time works its insulting wizardry on everything that breathes, fixed or free, but Oxford never changes” (p. 57).
There will, however, always be acts of rule breaking such as the gate-crashing of the Magdalen Ball by young rebels that takes place at the beginning of the novella and which, judging from the acknowledgments at the end of the text, was also a feature of Penny’s own days at Oxford. In the novella, this action taken by the characters Nina, Alex, Margo, and Fidget, has the political aim of stealing the little blue antiageing pills lying around in bowls—in order to redistribute them in time-honoured fashion from the rich to the poor. The story’s fixation with timelessness is not just an incidental feature but an essential context for its central argument that “time is a weapon wielded by the rich, who have excess of it, against the poor, who must trade every breath of it against the promise of another day’s food and shelter” (p. 11).
While at the Magdalen Ball, Nina and Alex—the latter of whom, we are told almost immediately by Penny, is employed by the antiageing company to infiltrate and observe activist groups—encounter Daisy Craver, one of the scientists involved in the development of the antiageing drug. Daisy is in her late nineties but has the appearance of a teenager in midpuberty. She is quick to work out what they are up to, but rather than give them away makes them agree to meet her in secret in a few days’ time. At this meeting, Daisy tells them that she thinks she can develop a cheap, generic version of the drug with their help, and they agree that she should come and work with them at their commune. The communal scenes in this middle part of the novella accurately reproduce the components of such an existence—dirt, group politics, sexual tensions, and tedium interspersed with genuinely comic moments, such as the house meeting’s discussion of whether the trans man, Fidget, can have his Tory boyfriend stay overnight.
This referencing of the features of such a life works for anyone with sufficient experience of shared living and/or queer politics, but readers would need rather more of this world if they were to come really to care about these characters rather than simply compare them to their own group of youthful friends. For example, it is difficult to feel the shock we should at the eventual fate of Margo, because we simply don’t know her well enough beyond the impression that she is generally a good and caring person. Similarly, more detail from Daisy’s life would likewise have helped increase the significance of the scene in which she is torn between momentary lust for Nina and her memories of her former lover, Saladin. In this respect, Everything Belongs to the Future does feel thin at times; not because the themes are insufficient to carry a good story, but rather because they are so strong that they would ideally be explored through a longer and more detailed narrative.
In her polemical book of 2014, Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution, Penny situates sex and gender alongside money and power as equal constraints on our dreams and fantasies. Everything Belongs to the Future is clearly intended as a fictional exploration of these themes, drawing in particular on the insight from the earlier book that time is the precious core of male privilege. The discussion in Unspeakable Things specifically focuses on the wider context of the so-called “biological clock”: the apparently natural deadline for giving birth to children, which cuts across the peak career years of professions. As Penny notes, this is a social idea used to convince women that their freedom is strictly time-limited. In effect, it tends to turn the ten years of a woman’s life from the midtwenties to the midthirties into a decade of hard choices, whereas men, free of the same social pressures, are allowed to make mistakes over the same period and mess up and start again. According to Penny, those ten years make all the difference or, at least, they used to. A significant part of her analysis, however, is to suggest that the impact of austerity and of rising inequality means that most men, despite the privilege of not being held to a “biological” deadline, are now no longer able to take advantage of these extra ten years. One of the key consequences of this change is a disjunction between male expectations and social reality which leads not only to unhappiness and dissatisfaction but also to depression and/or rage. Much of the distinctive flavour of Penny’s recent work derives from an uneasy balance between her anger at continuing gender inequality and male privilege and her compassion for the lost young men who have fallen by the wayside because of the mismatch between prevailing expectations and the profoundly altered economic order which is shattering them. It is now almost as though young men also need to be told in their early twenties that their happy-go-lucky days are coming to an end and they need to make some hard choices before it is too late for them.
This line of thought runs through Everything Belongs to the Future in the concern expressed for Alex, the company spy, who becomes the tragic figure in the story. We are told early on that Alex isn’t a bad person. Of course he feels horrible about the fact that he is betraying people he has actually come to like, including Nina with whom he now has a relationship. Nina is so clever and kind and different from his wife. Alex feels so bad about betraying Nina that he is prepared to give her the life-extension package that is waiting for him as a reward for his activities; but ideally he hopes he can get two packages so that she will forgive him and live with him forever. This is clearly a hopeless fantasy, because Nina’s main aim in life is “total destruction of gerontocratic biopower and the money system” (p. 78). The irony of Alex’s situation is that it is precisely his acceptance of the dominant understandings of sex, gender, money and power that constrain him from fully enjoying what might be a rather more fulfilling fantasy. Even as he muses on their future together, Nina is tying him up in bed and sitting on his face. His desire to “drown in her” (p. 79) is a desire to get away from all the constraints imposed by traditional masculinity, but it is thwarted by his own actions: what would be the climactic moment of their encounter is interrupted by a police raid triggered by his own clandestine reports. In this manner, Alex is depicted as a victim of his own sense of entitlement and male privilege. So while he is eventually treated by Nina with the contempt he deserves for his behaviour, he is also allowed to achieve some sort of self-recognition and even redemption by the end of the novella.
Penny describes the commune in which Nina, Alex, Fidget, and the others live as an “art colony, like they used to have in the 1920s and the 1970s and the 2040s” (p. 47). This comparison to other periods makes the novella interesting and so much more than simply a reference to Penny’s own past. This was described in Unspeakable Things as that of a bookish, bullied, middle-class suburban kid who along with her friends was going to save the world with art. By linking to these other periods, Penny raises the idea that, while these types of activities are fairly universal, there are certain periods of time when they reach a level of significance that enables change to happen; the world was never the same again after the cultural politics of the twenties and thirties or the sixties and the seventies. Similarly, the May Day scenes at Magdalen Bridge connect with similar scenes in such diverse feminist classics as Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935), Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935) and Michèle Roberts’s A Piece of the Night (1978). As opposed to the linear time that upholds male privilege, such books and the connections between them suggest the existence of a different, more cyclical and free-flowing time. For example, a lyrical passage early in We Have Been Warned links the Isis/Thames with women’s experience and the theory of relativity, while suggesting links between Oxford and a working-class district in the West Midlands. Such a nonlinear time wouldn’t be a weapon but a medium within which people might live free, unrestricted lives.
Everything Belongs to the Future works as a brief meditation on the question of how such time might be made available to everyone. While the attempts of Daisy and the others to create a generic antiageing drug fail and their time-bomb inventions have disastrous consequences, the novella does nonetheless indicate one way in which nonlinear time might be achieved. As a consequence of everything going wrong, the characters do the one radical thing that they have never really attempted before, which is to grow up. Nonlinear time is not simply the experience of perpetual adolescence; more to the point, the endless postponement of moving beyond adolescence into maturity is no way of moving beyond nonlinear time. At the end of the novella—in a neat parallel with Alex’s trajectory—Daisy, who had at first seemed the tragic character, escapes from the unsatisfying condition of being an unnaturally aged adolescent and becomes a mature woman. It is in respect of this transition that everything that has gone before is finally redeemed in favour of a future that exists beyond the ingrained inequalities of linear time.
While Everything Belongs to the Future is clearly a slighter and much less discursive work than those I compare it with above, it nonetheless shows the way to a similar point of departure from the tyranny of the present. Penny’s journalism has taken her to many of the key sites of political change in the contemporary West, from anti-capitalist protests to alt-right rallies. No doubt she will continue to write cogent analysis of this present. But this novella suggests bigger and better works of fiction to come. Obviously, it is entirely up to her what form these will take, but I can’t help hoping that one day she will put all of her experience and interests into a huge, sprawling, subjective, and uncompromisingly political epic of the type that Mitchison used to write. Such a book would fill in all the material and emotional details of the twenty-first century that Everything Belongs to the Future sketches in outline.