It is an old chestnut among science fiction fans, coined by Isaac Asimov and distilled by Frederick Pohl, that “a good science-fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam.” It's a cliché for a reason: at its best science fiction can explore both the unintended consequences of new systems and the ways in which they interact with society at large. So it is with January Fifteenth by Rachel Swirsky, a book which sets out to predict not the by now widely discussed idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI), but rather the expanded dole queue, and the cascade of social consequences it might unleash. Characteristically of Swirsky, the result is a spare, well-observed story about complex human beings, which does not concern itself with providing clean and simple answers.
The book follows four women living in different parts of the USA on “UBI Day,” the titular January fifteenth: Hannah is a single mother who used one of her UBI payments to flee her abusive partner; Janelle is a freelance journalist, balancing the market's demand “for the same, repetitive Universal Basic Income stories” with caring for her younger sister; Olivia is a rich kid staying in a mountain resort while her fellow scions of wealth compete to waste their payouts as spectacularly as possible; and Sarah is a child bride and member of a cult which treks on foot “to protest the state’s requirement that they go in-person to collect their benefits.”
These four viewpoint characters enable a fairly expansive social portrait. The novel is broken up into six sections, each woman one chapter within each section, starting with “UBI Day: Early” and ending with “UBI Day: Late.” Each chapter opens with a description of the weather, following a storm as it develops over the course of twenty-four hours. This effectively grounds the characters' struggles in the messy minutiae of a single day, and hints at the lives of others going on around them, even if Swirsky's descriptions sometimes stray into the overwritten. The sense of scale is a consistent strength throughout the book, and not only in the way it skilfully portrays the intimacy and relative smallness of these women's lives. UBI has clearly transformed the world, but it has decidedly not revolutionised it; people still struggle to feed themselves and pay the rent, there are still cogent demands for government reparations to Black citizens, and Americans still despise the IRS.
In her Author's Note, Swirsky disclaims interest in the implementation or administration of UBI as a policy, instead being “curious about other questions.” The four narratives here demonstrate that wider curiosity; the focus is less on UBI itself than on what it enables. The answers are both good and bad. We get background texture on yearly “windfall parties” thrown with people's “oobi” payments, as well as a seasonal consumer goods boom, with products like spring fashion lines being “released earlier and earlier every year for anyone impractical or impatient enough to sacrifice closet space for fantasies of warmer weather.” These small details are neat, but the book is most affecting in moments like Hannah's recounting of her decision to flee her abuser, Abigail:
She’s obsessed because January fifteenth is when we left. I was opening my check—I got it in the mail back then—and I thought, Here’s something that’s just mine, that she can’t get to. It was big enough for me to start my own bank account and put a deposit on a rental house on the other side of the country.
Similarly moving is the moment when Sarah, waiting in line for her UBI payment, decides that this is her chance to flee the cult, calling to a government bureaucrat and saying simply “We need help.”
But not all the interactions with UBI are so straightforward. Janelle is called away from work when her sister Nevaeh shows up to school wearing a T-shirt saying “FUCK UBI. REPARATIONS!!” There is clearly discontent with the nature of UBI along racial justice lines. Late in the book we meet Grant, an older Black man who has long refused his UBI payments due to concerns about the government tracking him, asking if Nevaeh is “Too young to know about Tuskegee?” There are also mentions of elderly people who lost their homes due to “problems with the transition from social security” and even a suggestion of the government “illegally withholding basic income from native women unless they agreed to be sterilized.” For all that they are not the focus of this story, Swirsky does not duck the very real logistical problems to which any implementation of UBI would likely lead, nor the ambivalence that many would feel on a personal level about such a payment.
The book's wider political engagement is layered and interesting. Though set in the twenty-second century, the book is peppered with images that feel distinctly 2022. In a shopping centre we find mannequins wearing “state-of-the-art masks with sweat-absorbing fabric and high-quality voice filters,” and when Janelle makes a school visit she chastises her sister that “Some parents get mad when you ask kids their pronouns these days, especially little ones.” These are obvious extensions of the popularisation of masks amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the current transphobic panic in American schools. But Swirsky also taps into contemporary frustrations with political gridlock in the US. The most bleakly funny note in the book is that it apparently took a near-miss with nuclear winter to spur the American government to implement UBI, but the progressive stasis of our current political moment apparently reasserted itself after that. Janelle says she warned at the time that “whatever we didn’t make sure to fix then, it probably wasn’t going to get fixed for a long time,” and Nevaeh bitterly asserts that “You were right!” The book is clear-eyed about policy decisions and their impacts on the characters, but it is never didactic; it's a winning formula that prompts political reflection while still feeling emotionally honest.
All of which said, there are one or two weaknesses on display. Much stress is laid early in the book on one of Janelle's camera drones breaking, but this inconvenience never really plays into the story again, leaving it a setup without a payoff. You may also have noticed a lack of quotes from the Olivia strand in this review; this is because her chapters are remarkably static. While other characters trek for miles, fend off home invasions, and pound the pavement looking for interviews, Olivia stays in one room and gets high with a bunch of wealthy arseholes. It's an effective portrayal of the sociopathic rich, and it leads to an effective gut punch of an ending, but this section of the book can't help feeling less dynamic than the others given its focus and concerns. And while the individual plotlines are all effective bits of fiction on their own terms, the decision not to have any of the viewpoint characters meet each other may leave some a little disappointed. A chance encounter between any or all of them might have pushed the book from good to transcendent, and allowed for some commentary on how these different strata of society interact.
Readers looking for a definitive statement on the value or misguidedness of UBI as a concept will not find it in January Fifteenth. They will, however, find a compelling story about people, told with nuance, conviction, and style. While individual characters have clear thoughts, motivations, and agendas, there is no proselytising from the book itself, beyond an unwavering commitment to human dignity. You may approach January Fifteenth with a few questions about UBI, but you will likely leave with several more to guide further reading; with yet more blueprints to design your own traffic jams.