Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis

Every book wants to be read in the context it was created. Every book is read in the context of the reader. And that gulf can be huge, because of the specific reader, because of time since creation, because of shifts in the world.

Eleanor Davis conceived The Hard Tomorrow, I would guess, in 2018, or maybe a little earlier, and finished it in early 2019 for publication in October 2019. I didn't read it until March of 2021. That's not much time, but the protests in Hard Tomorrow, and the tactics of the police responding to them, now resonate much differently after all of the 2020 protests and, as the massive counter-example, January 6.

So Hard Tomorrow is already an alternate future, I guess. Davis shows rather than tells this very mildly SFnal story, but it's clearly set after a different 2020 election, and maybe also a 2024 election. 2030 is still in the future, but the president is named Zuckerberg -- yes, that one. Literal killer Facebook drones sweep the skies. Protestors are loud and passionate, and, as far as this story shows, utterly useless and ruthlessly suppressed, they way they would be in a dictatorship.

Our main character is Hannah, an activist with Humans Against All Violence (HAAV). She's a regular, but not a leader: passionate and devoted to protesting against war. There seems to be some level of US-backed chemical warfare going on in the middle east - probably using those killer drones as well. Again, Davis never stops to infodump or give background; we see events and guess at the background. Hannah lives in a camper and pickup truck with her boyfriend, Johnny, a minor drug dealer and would-be farmer who is (far too slowly for her) building a house on the land they own. They're in Louisville, Kentucky, or a town on the outskirts, I think: the book never says so, but the local media are the Courier-Journal and WLKY.

Hannah may be part of HAAV in large part because of Gabby, a woman she is fascinated with and may be quietly in love with. Davis implies this - or has her characters hint and joke about it - but doesn't really let us see what Hannah thinks about that. Is Gabby just a model to her: a woman of the kind she wants to be? How real is that sexual tension?

Hannah's day-job is an in-home health aide for an elderly woman she calls Miss Phyllis, who is sick and tired in multiple ways and wants to die but can't. Hannah is positive and helpful: her job is to be positive and helpful, and she's good at it. She's a good person, as we see her: in all areas of her life, she's as good a person as she can be. She's also trying to get pregnant: Hard Tomorrow, in its quiet, unshowy way, is about building a good future for the next generation. I think it mostly comes down on the side of "God, no! It's horrible to bring any new life into this crapsack world," but the last few pages go in the exact opposite direction. Maybe Davis is conflicted herself.

Hard Tomorrow follows Hannah, and to a lesser extent Johnny, for a few eventful days in what I think is the spring of whatever year this is. Call it 2023 or 2025: the protests feel like off-year protests, aimed at the President rather than at anyone who will be facing voters that year. Things are not good for HAAV to begin with; there's no sign that anyone is or ever will listen to their protests, that their voices will or could change anything. And then it gets much worse, in multiple ways, very quickly.

And then...the whole book shifts tone and ends on a quiet note of uplift. I'm not sure I believe it. I don't think that moment is earned from the events beforehand, frankly.

Hard Tomorrow is a book that mixes the personal and political, but prioritizes the personal. It's somewhat hampered by the time Davis created it: protests became much more personal, and the matter of protests in particular, the year after she finished this book. Protesting chemical warfare on the other side of the world is a very different thing than protesting police violence in your own community. If the protests in Hard Tomorrow were more personal - maybe about anti-Semitic attacks, since anti-Semitism does get mentioned a few times - it might have welded those concerns together more tightly.

As it is, this is a beautiful, thoughtful, almost meditative book that comes from an entirely different historic moment. That moment was only two years ago, but it feels like ages now. Davis's art is gestural and evocative as always, with a deep energy and swiftness. But this doesn't feel like our tomorrow -- not that ours will be necessarily better, or even that a lot of the details couldn't be the same.

That's the splendor and danger of near-future SF always, though. The world moves. At times, it can move much faster than any of us. It did this time. Hard Tomorrow is still worth reading, worth thinking about.

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