The Resisters is an uneasy tale of a backward-looking future America. It’s also a nominally SFnal novel by a well-established author who has not previously ventured into genre territory. Jen demonstrates an expert ability to keep her story engaging despite some plot shortfalls, and has certainly picked an important subject to explore. The novel focuses on tech-accelerated racial segregation, and class segregation, in an AI-governed USA reshaped by climate change. It uses selective glimpses of the history of baseball, America’s “national pastime,” to explore the way organized sports have sometimes acted as vectors of social justice, and sometimes as fully co-opted public relations organs of an illiberal state. We’ve seen the push and pull of these conflictual traditions within the NFL, the WNBA, and the NBA accelerate into varying degrees of new turbulence in recent months: there’s no doubt that Jen’s novel is timely. But The Resisters is not informed about or comfortable with the literary field it is located in. It doesn’t know the territory of speculative futures, nor is it familiar with the range of possible topics and forms of exploration this territory invites. I was unsettled throughout by the contrast between the skillful and energizing voice of the book, and the considerable wry self-awareness of most of its characters, versus the ways it boxed itself in or reverted to disputational cliché when the matter of its own meaning came to the fore. And I think this is because The Resisters is, fundamentally, a self-identified and self-limiting humanist novel which believes that the way forward is back; that the antidote to too much technology (a sinister AI government, for instance) is a return to “the human.” That value, that standard of excellence—pure humanity!—is understood to be absolute, in Jen’s writing of it. It’s a term you don’t question, like “freedom.”
We’ve heard it said more often, lately, that genre needs to get off its back foot and start to understand itself as a mainstream twenty-first-century literary mode, instead of being a scrappy outsider that needs to punch up to be recognized. This is all true and I am thinking about it hard, even now. But if you’re new to a discipline, and you think it’s a real discipline—or area—or specialization—don’t you read up on it?
I don’t think Gish Jen read a lot of science fiction before she decided to write science fiction. And while I enjoyed her observations on family life, and the social and intellectual seductions of the future/now neoliberal university, and enjoyed in general the weird, smart sideways comedy of a lot of The Resisters; while I was forced, by reading it, to learn more about American baseball history, and am grateful for that because it is fascinating and informative about current conditions; while these things are all true, nevertheless, Jen’s novel tweaked me, it did. I distinctly felt myself assume a pricklier stance as a reader once I realized The Resisters wanted to be SFnal and also, simultaneously, not engage in any debate whatsoever about the nature or absolute value of the human qua human.
Wher’s my evidence that this is what’s going on? I’m drawing from two quotations in particular that jumped out at me as I read. Here’s the first. On p. 213 of The Resisters, Jen describes a scene where the book’s younger heroine, Gwen Cannon-Chastanet, returns to her childhood home. Gwen begins to describe to her childhood baseball league the things she’s learned during her time away in the privileged world of the technocrats, the “Netted,” who benefit from the same AI government—here called “Aunt Nettie”—that has kept her community, the “Surplus,” in a constant state of deprivation and surveillance. Et voila:
… because they were listening, [Gwen] explained. Little by little, she got them to see something of the strange world she’d come to know—or so it seemed as they fixed their attention, and questioned, and nodded. Aunt Nettie learned via a million trials and a million errors, made in a flash, but humans, it seemed, still slowly gleaned things by leaning forward on their arms and putting their chins in their hands … [T]ransfigured by the firelight and her efforts to convey something she knew—Gwen looked for all the world like her grandmother, and her great-grandmother, and her great-great-grandmother, and all the other teachers who had come before her in her long line. (p. 213)
The novel is really gearing up for its final push here, and what we get as we approach that push is a clearly signaled argument that we need to get back to basics. According to The Resisters, in the best possible scenario for resisting and recovering from an AI dystopia, everyone goes back out under the stars and learns the way humans should, slowly, by firelight (!). It’s a primal anti-tech scene, and also the return of the wandering heroine to become the savior of her people. But shouldn't an SF novel at least contemplate the value of learning to toggle between useful assistive tech and an unmodified human sensorium? Although the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, isn’t it still possible that what you really need to do is hack the shit out of them, instead of throwing them into the sea?
I just wasn’t convinced by this move, given the fact that in The Resisters technology is interfering and dangerous, and everywhere. There’s no way you can get around that via pure renunciation. But Jen tries it elsewhere too, with strange consequences for her worldbuilding. For example, The Resisters is very clear about the way that climate change has ravaged the entire future globe—there are fewer birds, we learn; there are sharks still but few fish; there’s far less landmass; wildfires rage unchecked; we all know the drill, alas that we know it, Eheu! Yet the book still insists that one way for citizens of autocratic AI governments to fight back and regain a modicum of autonomy is by “going back to the land.” What? What arable land have they got left?
In ChinRussia, the backlash against Total Persuasion Architecture was growing … The few human workers left were indispensable. Yet more and more, they were quitting, moving back into the long-abandoned countryside, and supporting themselves farming. (p. 179)
Being able to support yourself by farming (in groups? As smallholders?) seems highly unlikely, given the world the novel describes. It’s a clear self-contradiction, revealing how powerfully Jen is committed, as an author, to the idea that “traditional” human society and practices are the absolute summit of possible achievement. But this is not actually an answer to the problems of AutoAmerica. And it’s not an answer to our current, runaway IRL problems either.
All or most of which is to say, The Resisters represents a case where audience matters. If you are not a regular reader of contemporary SF, you may respond with enormous relief to The Resisters’ ringing endorsement of the anti-dystopian value of tech-stripped essentialist humanity. So it has been, so it rightly will be again, the mantra goes. We’re going to get through our current and future nightmares together, and we will still know who we’ve always been. That idea will certainly strike a huge chord for a lot of people … indeed, it’s the basic marketing technique of both political parties in the US right now, though they’re operating with different sets of apocalyptical subtexts, and one is aiding and abetting an autocratic attempt which, God help us, we will know more about by the time this review is published. But (back to The Resisters) if you are a regular reader of contemporary SF, the novel’s assumption that you will respond with a sense of relief, belief, inspiration, and conviction when the “humanity! humanity!” chord is played is not going to hold up. In fact, when it sounds, it will kick you right out of your reading trance. Hmm, you will think. So, no … adaptation. No willingness to become more “alien” in order to learn more, to live. No indebtedness to Octavia Butler then. Or Le Guin, or Charlie Jane Anders, or … argh, have a link compiled by Annalee Newitz. I haven’t read a tenth of the works Newitz sets out here, but even my far less granular knowledge of the ways that SF literature has examined, challenged, and expanded our definitions of “the human” was enough to set a siren blaring as I puzzled over the wit and narrative sophistication of The Resisters, while also wondering at its imperious insistence on a restrictive set of core principles that simply didn’t make sense as applied to the story they appeared in. What to make of a book that hits certain notes really well, but also doesn’t seem to know which tuning it’s using? Here’s what I decided, in the end. The Resisters is not an SF novel. It’s a seriocomic, stylistically exaggerated we-are-already-living-in-dystopia novel that Jen decided to trim up in decorative SF apparatus in order to feel more possessed of full freedom of invention, and also perhaps in order to retain her sense of hope and sense of humor. Many people who don’t read recent SF will probably like it. Most people who do read recent SF probably will not.
The Resisters is utterly on point about a lot of terrible things that are already happening or nearly happening, which Jen has pushed to new fictional heights for emphasis. Its America, AutoAmerica, is as aforementioned run by an artificial intelligence that have-nots, or Surplus citizens, call “Aunt Nettie” while haves, or Netted citizens, call it “The Autonet.” AutoAmerican citizens designated Surplus are people whose jobs have disappeared due to the expansion of AI and automated tech. Materially dependent on the state, they are supplied with a Basic Income and allocated undesirable living quarters: fully surveilled AutoHouses grouped in floating communities due to climate-change-related loss of AutoAmerican landmass. The Netted, by contrast, enjoy ten-acre zoning on what remains of solid ground. All of this follows well-established current vectors in the States. None of it, to our national shame, is hard to imagine—though it is hard to conjure in the lively manner Jen is very much in command of throughout.
One of the Surplus’s primary duties is to consume AutoAmerican products, especially food, known as “NettieFood.” Given that we’re all being exhorted to eat more restaurant food these days, in order to keep local eateries in business during the pandemic, that directive hits hard. It was a weird feeling to be in the middle of reading The Resisters when the UK introduced its subsequently shut down “Eat Out To Help Out” campaign, and continues to be a weird feeling every time I walk to our (American) downtown and see posted window signs encouraging me to order food, to order more, to do my part.
In very exaggerated form, and with the exchange of money for goods displaced by pure consumption as labor, it’s a set of bad conditions that Glenn Chastanet, the narrator of The Resisters and a member of unofficial Surplus aristocracy, discusses here:
… the mall-truck food—NettieFood, as we called it—was free. In fact, we Surplus received Living Points for eating it, as we did for consuming generally … But might those endless trays of dumplings and calzones and taquitos contain a mood-and-mind mute that amounted to a love sap—the ultimate aim of which was to reduce our numbers or, as we Surplus put it, to winnow us? Let’s just say that our household grew our own food, thank you, and that we shared it with our friends, who viewed it as lifesaving. (p. 11)
This quotation will introduce you to Glenn’s curiously ornate and oblique method of communicating, which takes some getting used to, and (he tells us) is the result of a “certain formality” handed down from his Caribbean schoolteacher mother. It also introduces you to one tenet of The Resisters, which is that once an AI government takes power and decides one section of its population is desirable and one section is not, it will quietly pursue the reduction or elimination of the undesirable section of its citizenry by any means necessary. Jen’s AI government has clearly decided to make it a matter of unadvertised but systematic policy to discriminate against and harm the Surplus (this policy is nothing Aunt Nettie would trouble the Netted with, of course). And Jen’s point seems to be that it’s only the wholesale systematization and deliberate, universal implementation of that discriminatory policy which differentiates Aunt Nettie’s behavior from the way America’s elected government—both local and federal—has treated many of its own citizens throughout its history.
Libido-suppressing and generally unhealthy chemicals included as a matter of course in state-provided meals? Of course! It only makes sense! One thinks of prison food, food deserts, and more. There’s worse, too. A functional absence of habeas corpus. A tendency for anyone whose skin is darker than the Netted’s persistent shade of “angelfair” to end up on Aunt Nettie’s wrong side. The constant fear, for Surplus families who live on floating houses, that if they do anything to offend the government “Enforcers … [will swim] under [their] houseboat at night … slitting their pontoons with knives” (p. 13). The Surplus have no guaranteed safe spaces whatsoever. At the start of the novel Glenn’s fierce and talented wife Eleanor, a lawyer and former champion fencer, is contemplating a class-action suit to establish the dangerous nature of the “Surplus fields.” These are Aunt-Nettie-run recreational fields, where all state-sanctioned Surplus athletic activity must take place, but which—everyone suspects—are producing unhealthy “emanations” that harm those who inhale them. Already, Eleanor’s pursuit of basic rights for Surplus citizens has pegged her as a Resister, gotten her incarcerated, exposed her to physical harm, and more.
Glenn and Eleanor, and their near-supernaturally-talented daughter Gwen, are the focus of the novel. The stakes of the novel are bound up in the question of what Gwen is going to do with her life. Is she is going to use her abilities and charisma to become “a Resister” like her parents, and work to improve Surplus living conditions and access to legal rights? Or will she succumb to the pleasing conveniences and abundance of Netted life and become one of Aunt Nettie’s prize exhibits instead, a kind of living AutoAmerican sports trophy?
If that all sounds a little insular, I think it is. The novel’s focus on the powerfully magnetic Glenn-Eleanor-Gwen family exchange is extreme. Their glowing trinity of exemplarity washes out the other characters in the book, including Gwen’s plot-crucial and troublesome occasional best friend Ondi, who is so jarringly described throughout—as an object of both love and repulsion—that it often felt as if Jen was protesting too much about her significance. By the same token, though, one of the things I really enjoyed about The Resisters is that although it’s got all kinds of unstably founded Science-Fictionish things going on throughout, it’s also a very loving depiction of the way parents are undone, mesmerized, redirected, stymied, and astonished by their kids. When Gwen is born, Eleanor has been ducking and weaving and fighting Aunt Nettie for years, with Glenn’s assistance as an internet-jammer and general IT interference-runner. But once Gwen arrives, the couple cannot help themselves. They become for a time entirely about their daughter, and her present and future, all of which involve whacking great doses of baseball, as well as Surplus civil rights. Jen’s descriptions of Gwen as she grows up, falls in and out of friendships, and becomes a legendary pitcher in the revived AutoAmerican Baseball League are very moving. Born with a “golden arm” which underpins her love of a nearly forgotten sport, she is nevertheless certainly not proof against the usual vicissitudes of growing up. Here, Glenn relates his concerned observations of her as a twelve-year-old, as she tries to recover from a dramatic breach with Ondi:
… how hard to see Gwen emerge from her room the next morning, her hair cut so savagely short that all that was left of her beloved blue dye was a kind of patchwork. While still not as wayward as mine, her hair was gnarlier than it was when it was longer—and now, the way that she had cut it, raggedy. Her eyes, too, were swollen … (p. 15)
Clearly, he’ll do almost anything to try to make things right or at least better for Gwen, and Eleanor is equally committed. Because they are who they are—which is to say annoyingly correct, quite privileged for their context, and extremely effective as a recruiting and administrative unit—Gwen’s besotted parents are able to organize an entire underground baseball league to support her talent for pitching, which ultimately secures her a desirable, a dangerous, a potentially family-breaking invitation to the premier Netted educational establishment of AutoAmerica, Net U. And that is how she eventually circles back for a reunion with her Surplus friends, which leads to her “teaching” them via ancestral firelight.
I am, I hope, not surprising anyone by revealing that Aunt Nettie and her well-to-do, often charming Netted student body do not succeed in co-opting Gwen; that, instead, Gwen slowly educates and subverts her Net U community. Her presence and achievements help spark “increasing interest in the New Segregation among the Netted” (p. 175). This in turn opens up new avenues for Eleanor and Glenn—who have returned to their original work now that they’re empty-nesters—to advance lawsuits that militate for better quality of Surplus life, and a basic structure of human rights to govern relations with the state. But it’s a very dangerous form of work for Eleanor in particular, who has been persona non grata in Aunt Nettie’s view for many years. Once she resumes her political activities, she has to endure the invasion of her very thoughts and personality via a forcibly implanted brain-jammer called a BioNet. This is the final form assumed by the novel’s visceral technophobia.
That’s not the worst of what’s to come for the Cannon-Chastanet family, not by a long chalk. They will not emerge from their confrontation with Aunt Nettie unscathed. There’s much to admire in the struggle Jen describes in The Resisters. And there’s much matter of serious interest in the book, both topically and stylistically. But I think Strange Horizons readers are unlikely to be satisfied by its premises, and its methods of persuasion.
 How often before have you noticed the inevitable “N” in all of those organizational titles? Never, in my case, but I can’t look away from it now.