Gish Jen's The Resisters predicted the future, and it wasn't entirely an accident
In Gish Jen's The Resisters, citizens of a futuristic America (now known as AutoAmerica) live among the after-effects of devastating climate change, are separated by class (some have jobs and live on literal higher ground, others are unemployed and relegated to swampland), and are lorded over by an AI Big Brother. The prolific author wrote the book — which released in paperback this month — three years ago but its themes and, more importantly, the warnings within, are more relevant than ever. Here, she talks to EW about what it feels like to have predicted the future.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: It's hard to talk about this book without spending the entire time in awe of how prescient it is to this exact moment in time. Could you ever have imagined this?
GISH JEN: When I sat down to write this book in 2017, we were only 10 months into the presidency and I think you can see pretty clearly that I was already worried about the future of democracy. Some of the elements of the book were already in the making. Of course, at the time that I wrote them, I thought this was a far-off dystopian future, that it would be quite a ways off.
It's easy to imagine that you're alarmed about how quickly everything came to pass...
In my book, there are riots where people overtake the Capitol. And there's the whole idea of people without jobs; I'm sure you've seen the recent write-ups about who exactly has lost their jobs during the pandemic. Just like in the book, we see how certain members of society are seen as expendable. I wrote this because I was afraid we might be headed in that direction, and because I wanted to raise the question: where are we going? Is this there we want to go? I certainly could not have predicted that by the time the paperback came out, we would be very well along that road.
What methods did you use to build out this world in The Resisters? Was it based on research or specific predictions for society, or did it come purely from your imagination?
It was really from my imagination. Obviously I do read the news and in terms of my concerns about technology, I'm paying attention. But I don't think I pay attention more than your average citizen. But I suppose that all of these fears were probably heightened or more salient for me in particular at the time — I had a child going to college, and as soon as you have a child leave the house you start thinking about the future. There was an urgency, especially around the Trump presidency because I have a daughter, that I just couldn't ignore.
When the book released last year, you mused over the role of the dystopian novel — do you see a different role for the genre when we're actually in a dsytopia?
For me, I've largely been interested in realism. Sometimes the fable tells us what we most need to know, but in the Western world realism really has been helpful to our own self-understanding. It — hopefully — helps us realize what we need to do, and to see ourselves in the characters. People have asked me whether The Resisters is a political novel, and I don't like that work because it suggest you're writing out of an ideology. This is not an ideological book, and I don't believe that model makes for a good novel. But I do believe that a good dystopian novel, that unsettles people enough, can be effective.
Is there a certain element of the dystopia within The Resisters that feels the most harrowing to you personally?
Well, in general, climate issues are big for me. But in the book, I don't know if there is one thing. I think the marriage of power and technology is pretty terrifying, especially in the wrong hands. We can see how technology has amplified and enabled people who previously would not be able to organize. I don't think we've seen the end of it.
Have you changed any of your behavior in a concrete way since you wrote the book, as a result of the fear it brought up?
Oh yes, in little ways. I try not to give data away. I'm aware that not all data is used for nefarious purposes, but I'm careful about it. I see the convenience of it, but I ask myself: will this be used to manipulate me?
The Trump presidency impacted your book and has inspired so many novels. Now that we're entering the Biden era, do you think literature will shift away from that reactionary work?
I don't think we're done. I think it's wonderful that Trump is leaving office. But I think that when you look at the 70-million-plus people who voted for him, and the people who approve of Capitol insurrection, we have our work cut out for us. I think that the damage has been done to our democratic institutions and that it will take a generation to set things straight. And to the degree that the project of the novel is to help people understand the world, I think the novel will have a role to play for a long time.
A lot of the resistance in my book is not so much political resistance but everyday dissidence. You know, the poet, the physicist, who suddenly finds himself a dissident simply because their work is now at odds with their environment in some way. I think the same thing is happening now: you know, a meteorologist used to be an innocuous career. And now you're a meteorologist-slash-dissident, at least to a climate change-denying administration. I'm interested in all the ordinary people who were just doing their thing and find themselves in a polarized environment. They're accidental resisters.
Has your own appetite for reading changed as things in society get worse and worse?
I think I'm reading a little more nonfiction. I'm like everybody else, I'm trying to figure out where this moment is coming from, if it's the same as movements we've seen before in America, how it's different. I'm just trying to get a grip. I've been more interested in the interplay between literature and the political reality.
Has the political moment hindered your creativity?
I'm a little embarrassed to report that this has been a good period for me, creatively. Of course, so many people are suffering and I don't want to be painted as if I'm somehow exempt. I had COVID in my family — my mother died from it. I haven't been untouched. But for whatever reason, this has been a tremendously productive period for me. I think I better not look to hard at why, but I'm thankful to the powers that be that I have a way of processing everything that's happening to me. And it's a way that's turned out to be helpful for me and for others.