Sunday, January 14, 2024

Novella Project: Another Life by Sarena Ulibarri

Sarena Ulibarri dares to dream. Will you?

In times like this, as late stage capitalism creaks and lurches along, I cannot help but daydream about what a better world may look like. I work for a nonprofit which does good work, which is nice, but I still can’t help but look at the general dysfunction of everything and mutter “can capitalism collapse already? This is exhausting.” Of course, reading about historical anticapitalist societies can be draining, depressing even: the Soviet Union and China became authoritarian barracks states that each starved their own people, and the CNT-FAI was crushed by the Spanish Republic following diktats of Soviet commissars (who did much the same to Nestor Makhno’s anarchist experiment in Ukraine), and anyone who survived was shot by Franco’s army. It is the sort of thing that makes you depressed, to accept the “adult” notion that to dream is folly, to aspire to a better society is pointless, to meekly accept the status quo is ‘mature.’ You want to avoid being perceived as an ‘escapist.’

But, as Ursula K. Le Guin said:

“[...] fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don’t we consider it his duty to escape?”

As such, science fiction and fantasy writers have done the most out of any genre’s writers to probe the possibilities of what a human civilization could look like beyond the diktat of the almighty dollar, a world where Wall Street has gone the way of the divine right of kings. Kim Stanley Robinson has done many novels of this type (his New York 2140 had a huge influence on my political views), as has Cory Doctorow, among several others, like Ursula Le Guin as mentioned previously (for a little known such experiment that I loved, see Meridel Newton’s The Future Second by Second, which I reviewed for Warped Factor). Today, we’ll be discussing another example of such: Sarena Ulibarri’s novella Another Life, published in May 2023 by Stelliform Press.

Almost immediately, you get struck by the notion that Ulibarri is doing a lot in a small number of pages - a slim 166, something I read in a sitting (but I read quickly). Half of the big thrust of the book is the commune of Otra Vida, constructed along the pleasant shores of an artificial lake made in Death Valley (near the border with Nevada, not far from Las Vegas, a city that figures briefly into the plot) to relieve California - now an independent country, after the United States collapsed after a bitter civil war - of its issues with drought. Otra Vida formed after the Californian government, still under the thrall of a neoliberalism that has increasingly eschewed anything liberal about it, betrayed its workers.

The book follows the story of Galacia Aguirre, one of the founders of Otra Vida and the commune’s resident resolver of interpersonal conflicts, as one of her fellow communards makes an astounding discovery: human reincarnation is real, shown through traces of shared consciousness that can be found in the DNA. This alone intrigues her, but she is then faced with a terrifying prospect: she is the reincarnation of Thomas Ramsey, a vulture capitalist of the previous generation that seems to be a combination of the likes of Elon Musk, Sam Bankman-Fried, Peter Thiel, and all the other robber barons that we are subjected to against our will by our contemporary gilded age. This, logically, strikes her core: who is she, and what is she, when this is in her pedigree?

As I said, there is a lot going on here. It’s the sort of delicate balancing act that can throw even a good writer off-balance. It reminded me of Ryka Aoki’s Light from Uncommon Stars or Greg Egan’s Quarantine, both of which I enjoyed as did this novella. Reincarnation and anticapitalist societies surviving in a world of ever-predatory capitalism do not seem to have much in common with one another, and one may be afraid of one overwhelming the other. But, to our great fortune, Ulibarri walks the tightrope between them, completing her act and delighting us. She does this by finding the theme that unites those two.

That theme is, to put it simply: can we make a better world using the wreckage of the old? This is a story of salvage, of repurposing, of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, of laying down your burdens down by the riverside and studying war no more. That is the underlying question of not merely this story, but of this century, to which the answer I can’t help but give is “well, what else are we going to do it with?” There’s an engagement with the idea that you can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools (to paraphrase Audre Lorde), which if I remember correctly is quoted in the book; Ulibarri takes a third option; can’t you use a hoe to break a mansion’s window?

That is quite literally how Otra Vida (which serves, in translation, as the title of the book) was built in a physical sense, through salvage and through macgyvering and through sheer steel-jawed utopian determination, one built on real kindness and not the gun. There’s a spellbinding scene where Galacia tries to prevent the demolition of a department store with all its wares so that Otra Vida can use them, but is met by armed police who have feigned the decency of calling them something other than ‘police,’ with guns pointed right at her. It is juxtaposed with Galacia’s internal conflict, of her realizations of the strange parallels between her and Thomas Ramsay, her fight to accept that, despite a sort of metaphysical continuity with him, she is not him (something that felt very Buddhist to me, which is appropriate as there has been much engagement between Buddhism and various anti-capitalist ideologies). This leads to some interesting philosophy, including one weird but engrossing quasi-hallucinatory scene near the end.

The story itself is told in another potential trap for lesser authors that Ulibarri again navigates with deftness, alternating between a narrative of the founding of Otra Vida and the town’s current situation, with Galacia struggling with her past life. The two interweave masterfully, dripping in information with just the right pacing that it never feels contrived.

Robert Crossley said in his afterword to Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred that a good political story must have good storytelling, and not just good issues. Ulibarri has both. Part of me could not help but think of one particular book during all of this: Yanis Varoufakis’ didactic (and coincidentally similarly titled) alternate history novel Another Now, which I reviewed at the Sea Lion Press blog. Varoufakis’ book is plodding, clearly a political tract hastily novelized, something that felt at least a century out of date so much did it call to mind the old scientific romances that existed to grind sociopolitical axes. It had poorly developed characters, wooden dialogue, and far, far too many long digressions. Varoufakis provides what not to do with books like this, whilst Ulibarri provides what to do with books like this. I wish Ulibarri could have given Varoufakis some tips (and get him to stop apologizing for Vladimir Putin’s genocidal war as well).

Another Life does what the best political science fiction does: rock us out of our complacency, indeed our intellectual laziness, and actually begin to think of how we can get humanity out of this mess. War, climate change, the long march of reaction - what Ulibarri shows us, again and again, is that all these awful things are choices. This species made these horrors, and it will have to be this species that makes something else. Immanuel Kant proclaimed that “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.”  Ulibarri counters, asking why must this new thing be straight (or cis, or white)? She has something so woefully not in vogue: faith in humanity, hope in humanity. As Gramsci did, she has pessimism of the intellect, but an iron optimism of the will. She affirms what Ralph Chaplin penned, that “we can build a new world from the ashes of the old.” Sarena Ulibarri dared to dream in Another Life; are we brave enough to dream with her?


The Math

Highlights: the sheer beauty of the world

Nerd Coefficient: 10/10

POSTED BY: Alex Wallace, alternate history buff who reads more than is healthy.