Rachel Swirsky’s 2022 January Fifteenth is a stand-alone near-future science fiction novel1.
Every January 15th, Americans receive their annual Universal Basic Income check. Ostensibly this is to ensure all Americans, even the sub‑1 percent peons, have the minimum necessary funds necessary to survive with some degree of dignity and security.
Never underestimate the propensity of humans to fuck up the implementation of simple ideas.
The (extremely vaguely described) circumstances that facilitated the passing of UBI were transient. Even though the UBI was implemented, its opponents demanded and got certain conditions designed to make collecting UBI somewhat onerous. Ever since it was passed, opponents have been working to undermine the “universal” part of UBI.
Nevertheless, for the moment Americans can expect a check on January 15th. How this plays out in practice is highly variable, as demonstrated by these four characters.
For Hannah in New York, UBI provided her and her children with the means to flee her abusive ex, Abigail. What UBI cannot do is prevent Abigail from stalking the trio. Thus, Hannah and her children are forced to be nomads, moving every time Abigail hunts them down. At least, that’s the case until Hannah’s nosy landlady decides to take an interest.
Janelle in Illinois is a journalist of sort, to the extent there are still journalists. What her bosses want are UBI stories. This means that she has a narrow window each year to write the pieces that account for a disproportionate fraction of her income. What she does notneed on January 15th is for her younger sister to embrace activism in a manner that requires Janelle’s personal attention.
Like the rest of her old chums convening in Colorado, Olivia does not need UBI. Thus, for Olivia and her friends, January 15 is Waste Day, when the well-to-do squander their windfall in various self-indulgent ways. It’s all deliciously decadent, so why are none of the assholes and losers whom Olivia calls friends happy?
For the most part, pious wives like fifteen-year-old Sarah do not concern themselves with household monetary affairs. However, even women in one of Utah’s extremist Mormon sects get UBI, which means picking up their checks in person. However, not only does the pregnant teen chaff at the bullying doled out by her older sister wives, she is painfully aware that young boys are vanishing … leaving the unmarried girls of the community to be snapped up by the elders. Such a fate awaits Sarah’s younger sister if Sarah does nothing.
I don’t for a minute buy the idea that anything short of direct alien intervention could result in a UBI in the US. However, it is tradition in SF to allow authors one implausible gimme, something to make the story go (FTL drives or single-payer health care in the US2).
Once we accept the gimme, we can appreciate the author’s exploration of its possible consequences. For example, Sarah’s cult uses a combination of grotesque child abuse and fraud to enable patriarchs to commandeer the UBI of their wives and progeny. Cult welfare fraud is nothing new, but this particular instance is novel.
Had this novel existed back when I wrote Six Stories That Find the Drama in Utopian Settings, I definitely would have included it. Swirsky hits here on one dependable way to derive plot from situations that might appear to us utopian or quasi-utopian, which is to present the protagonists with problems that are orthogonal to the axis along which their setting is utopian. Sure, everyone has a basic income in this America of tomorrow, but that won’t do squat to address abusive spouses, troublesome teens, and one’s choice of stupid, dickish friends.
This book is more than a hand-off exploration of UBI; thanks to Swirsky’s deft prose and characterization, readers will actually care what happens to Hannah, Janelle, Sarah, and to some extent Olivia. Even had this been an entirely mundane novel3, the characters would have been sufficient to carry the book.
1: In the introduction, the author calls this book a novella. It is longer than many of the novels I read as a teen.
2: Single-payer medical care is not a feature of this future, as we are told that UBI allows poor folk to afford medical care. Swirsky is being plausible here; the crisis meant that one big change could be implemented and the one that got picked was UBI.
3: Hey, remember Mundane SF? Yeah, most people don’t. This would qualify as such.