At the end of the 21st century the rich are able to extend their lifespans up to three centuries with highly expensive medication. The cause of this expense is implied to be proprietary; the medication doesn’t require tremendous resources to create, but the patent is enforced with Orwellian fervor. Laurie Penny’s Everything Belongs to the Future is an incisive work of science fiction, exploring classic transhuman anxieties with a keen political eye.
Penny plants her readers in the world of Alex, an undercover agent in deep cover as a member of a radical art collective living in opposition to the life-extension procedure. He insinuates himself into the group, living in their colony, participating in their resistance efforts and even starting a relationship with one of the other members. The text and its afterword leave no room for ambiguity: Alex, by his actions, is a rapist. He manipulates a woman, Nina, into sleeping with him under false pretenses and violates her right to make her own choices in ways both subtle and overt. Penny is unflinching in her condemnation of her protagonist’s behavior and its real-world antecedents. While Alex may admit to feelings of guilt about betraying his friends and Nina politically, his narration still grasps to rationalize his rape. He convinces himself that he is betraying Nina for her own sake, in order to protect their love. This self-deceit only collapses when Penny’s female characters are able to speak up, dismantling his excuses with a few stark proclamations.
The stakes are high in Everything Belongs to the Future, and while Penny never lets her reader excuse Alex’s rape she does provide the tools to understand how a man like him would come to be. Alex is, at his core, a selfish coward. When his handlers offer him a 50-year life extension in exchange for his service, he’s unable to refuse. When he believes himself to have fallen in love he tries to secure the same deal for his ‘partner’ (a term he uses only grudgingly, as a sop to Nina’s notions of equality). He claims that once the deal’s made clear she’ll “have to” forgive him. Never mind the fact that Nina is radically opposed to the life extension procedure, never mind that his end of the deal requires him to double-down on thwarting the activism that gives her purpose. However much he may think in terms of love, Alex ultimately sees Nina as an item to be possessed.
I can’t cast myself as an expert on Laurie Penny, but she is a journalist whose work I’ll always make time to read when I come across it. It’s thrilling to see her branch out into the world of science fiction, and I came into this book with high expectations. If you’re a fan of Penny’s generally, then Everything Belongs to the Future should not disappoint. If you haven’t checked out her non-fiction, consider giving some of it a peek if this book appeals to you.
Everything Belongs to the Future is a quick read, and while some of its thematic territory is well-trod the characters are believable and well realized. While it devotes most of its time to the process of radicalization, the injustice of medical inequality and the leverage of the state into an apparatus of rape culture, it also takes time to explore the worth of art in human life and the immeasurability of time. Penny’s journalistic background feeds seamlessly into her fiction as the text repeatedly signals the real-life seeds from which her story is grown. As far as I understand this is Penny’s first major work of fiction, but it’s clear that her political insight will make her a major asset within the Sci-Fi genre for as long as she cares to dwell there.