Review of January Fifteenth
Rachel Swirsky. January Fifteenth. Tordotcom, 2022. Paperback. 239 pg. $15.99. ISBN 978-1-250-19894-6.
There is so very much to examine about our present right now, but ironically, a crucial issue that concerns us all has been generally overlooked in recent science fiction. The issue is economic inequality, a subject of serious concern and equally serious implications for both the future of humanity and the planet. It brings suffering and misery and hardship to countless people, and all the forces of greed and corruption seem arrayed to support it.
There’s great dramatic potential offered by an issue with such grave planetary and societal import, yet I see few stories that try to grapple with it, except as background dressing (or as an aspect and outcome of post-apocalyptic disaster). This to me represents a missed opportunity, because some of the greatest literature in any genre is that which, first, has something to say about ourselves and the human condition when subjected to immense stress and second, describes what happens when people attempt to solve vital problems. I believe the genre would greatly benefit from more stories in which people apply similar degrees of resources, thought, or effort to economic inequality. Acting with narrative boldness to counter the seeming inevitability of capitalism’s continued dominance may seem as science fictional (fantastical, even) as it gets, but the limitless reach of SF’s imagination should not preclude us from envisioning possible solutions or alternate economic pathways for ourselves, even if, as Rachel Swirsky demonstrates in her intelligent novella January Fifteenth, the consequences aren’t predictable or even, sometimes, just.
Set in a near-future United States, the novella takes place over the course of a single day, the day every American receives their yearly Universal Basic Income payment (“UBI” is defined by the Basic Income Lab at Stanford University as “a periodic cash allowance given to all citizens, without means test to provide them with a standard of living above the poverty line.” From that basic definition there are all manner of differing opinions on what qualifies as UBI or who should receive it.). Swirsky’s novella benefits from timeliness, certainly, since UBI as a method of reducing economic inequality has become a part of the national economic conversation in the USA over the last few years, with debates involving people as disparate as Andrew Yang, Hillary Clinton, economist Thomas Piketty, Bernie Sanders, and Mark Zuckerberg weighing in. It is an idea that appeals to many, and it is no wonder that Swirsky has turned her narrative gifts towards a fictional exploration of its potential impact on the complicated lives of human beings.
The novella centers four women, each from a vastly different stratum of American society and each impacted by UBI in a vastly different manner. Although the four never interact, Swirsky’s story amounts to a kind of mosaic, where the different lives and fates of the central characters come together as diverse bits making up a greater whole—the overall societal picture of UBI and the ways, great and small, that it impacts people and society. In upstate New York lives Hannah Klopfer and her two small boys—for Hannah, January 15th is a day less about economic security and opportunity and more about trauma. It is the anniversary of the day she took her boys and fled her abusive, mentally unbalanced, former wife—now stalker—Abigail. Hannah is on the run and living as quietly as she can; picking up her UBI check is a time to be watchful and scared of discovery by Abigail.
In Chicago, Janelle, a freelance reporter in a post-journalism world, scrounges at the request of news aggregator services every January 15th for man-on-the-street interviews of people and their opinions on UBI. For Janelle, an orphan who raises her 14-year-old sister Neveah alone, the day is one of predictable banalities and arguments with her firebrand liberal sister over the injustices of UBI. The story moves west into Colorado, where Olivia is a freshman in college and the child of great wealth; for her and her friends in Aspen, January 15th is “Waste Day,” where the fabulously rich compete to see who can burn through their UBI in the most dramatic and flamboyant manner. And last, there is pregnant teenager Sarah, a “sister-wife” in Utah whose “family” travels the long route on foot through Utah to pick up their UBI payments in person.
What makes Swirsky’s novella so intriguing is not that it lays out the details of a UBI-based society, nor that it explores the traditional arguments about UBI (freedom vs. dependency), but that it instead concentrates on how traumas, abuses, and everyday circumstances “affect our lives. They affect our happiness. They certainly affect how and why Universal Basic Income could change our circumstances” (Author’s Note). In the United States of the novella, UBI fails to actually solve any of the characters’ individual problems on its own, but it provides avenues and opportunities for people to evolve and change. It also, like anything else, can be a negative force: Sarah notes that “the prophet’s wives and children trekked on foot every year to protest the state’s requirement that they go in person to receive their benefits. The state claimed that it was to mitigate ‘abuses of the system,’ but everyone knew it was just another way to harass them for having different beliefs” (35). Meanwhile, the yearly UBI gives license to Olivia’s friends to be crushed under the weight of their own decadence and insecurities. And darker elements are hinted at—at one point, Janelle hears rumors of Native women being sterilized or else having their UBI withheld, and people being forced to sign loyalty oaths to receive their money. As Swirsky notes, money does not solve everything, and it can not necessarily correct injustices in an already problematic system.
The imperfections and limits of UBI are important themes of the novella, in fact. At one point, Janelle and Neveah argue over the history of the program, Neveah appealing to Janelle’s youthful liberalism. In this scene, the compromises and betrayals and hidden motives that accompany any reform are laid bare:
[Nevaeh] added, “I don’t believe you’ve really changed everything you think.”
“What I think – and what I thought – is that UBI is better than having nothing.”
Neveah started to respond. Janelle held up her hand.
Janelle continued, “What I think – and what I thought – is that we had an extraordinary moment of political will after Winter Night. The whole country was breathing a sigh of relief. We weren’t just trying to get ourselves back on track; we were trying to figure out what kind of track to get on. It was like we had this dream together of improving the world.”
“Right? So- “
“What I said was that it would be a one-shot deal. We had one sure arrow to fire from that bow. And whatever we didn’t make sure to fix then, it probably wasn’t going to get fixed for a long time.”
“You were right!”
“Yeah, I was….UBI is definitely better than having nothing.”
“But you were right about everything,” Neveah said. “You called it patchwork legislation…you said once the opposition realized UBI was definitely happening, they were going to try to make it hard to collect. Like drumming up paranoia about bank breaches to make us use checks and the mail. You said they’d start saying states needed the right to make their own rules, but they’d really mean states should be able to make people jump through hoops. You said it was ‘enshrining unequal access.’”
Janelle shrugged. “And now the law’s been written.” (55-56)
Through a single day in the lives of four wildly disparate women, each bearing their own particular emotional burdens and life experiences, January Fifteenth provides a smart and thoroughly realized series of proofs that the human element is vital to the outcome of any attempts at economic or societal restructuring. It shows how narratives of economic inequality, no matter the genre, cannot be simplistic if they are to be either remotely realistic or conducive to imaginative considerations of real-life reform. Society is complicated, people and their relationships are complicated, and realistic stories about this kind of inequality—stories we need to tell—will be complicated, too. Economic inequality is a corrosive phenomenon that threatens us all with an ever-more uncertain future, and Rachel Swirsky has done us all a great service in writing a story that thoughtfully explores the human impact of attempts to reduce it.
“What is Basic Income?” Stanford University, 5 Jan. 2023, https://basicincome.stanford.edu/about/what-is-ubi/.
Jeremy Brett is an Associate Professor at Cushing Memorial Library & Archives, where he is both Processing Archivist and the Curator of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Research Collection. He has also worked at the University of Iowa, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the National Archives and Records Administration-Pacific Region, and the Wisconsin Historical Society. He received his MLS and his MA in History from the University of Maryland – College Park in 1999. His professional interests include science fiction, fan studies, and the intersection of libraries and social justice.