Review: January Fifteenth by Rachel Swirsky

January Fifteenth—the day all Americans receive their annual Universal Basic Income payment.

For Hannah, a middle-aged mother, today is the anniversary of the day she took her two children and fled her abusive ex-wife.

For Janelle, a young, broke journalist, today is another mind-numbing day interviewing passersby about the very policy she once opposed.

For Olivia, a wealthy college freshman, today is “Waste Day”, when rich kids across the country compete to see who can most obscenely squander the government’s money.

For Sarah, a pregnant teen, today is the day she’ll journey alongside her sister-wives to pick up the payment­­s that undergird their community—and perhaps embark on a new journey altogether.

In this near-future science fiction novella by Nebula Award-winning author Rachel Swirsky, the fifteenth of January is another day of the status quo, and another chance at making lasting change.

Publication details: 14 June 2022, by Tordotcom. Review copy provided by the publisher.

Rating: 4/5


I was after something short and punchy to read for a plane ride earlier this week, and January Fifteenth seemed like a good fit (with the added bonus of getting ahead on my ARCs). It mostly fit the bill as it read very quickly, though it does deal with plenty of tough topics – so some readers may be better off picking up something else for their flight.

January Fifteenth is less a novel and more a series of vignettes about the experiences people might have if a Universal Basic Income (UBI) scheme were to be introduced in the near-future United States. Three of the four stories are explicitly about marginalised or under-represented groups: a lesbian Jew who has survived domestic violence; a black woman and her transgender younger sister; a young Mormon girl who has suffered abuse within the church community.

Something I found interesting about Swirsky’s choice of perspectives is that a UBI program isn’t portrayed as a universally good thing for these people. In some cases the implementation of the program is still classist and racist, as certain recipients must jump through hoops to receive their money (similar to voter disenfranchisement in many countries); in other cases characters question whether giving everyone the same amount of money now is sufficient reparation for historical injustices. There is no easy answers to these questions, but Swirsky isn’t necessarily interested in providing them, simply getting the reader to think through some of the potential challenges we would face were we to ever implement such a system.

Swirsky also does an excellent job of creating a near-future America where things are mostly the same but kind of different: technologies have evolved (phones are now ‘wristers’), and the weather is unseasonably bad but not yet apocalyptic. But January Fifteenth also has the occasionally moment of perceptive wit and isn’t afraid to poke preemptive fun at what cultural trends might continue in the years to come, with a few throwaway moments (you’ll know them when you see them) that made me snort.

The vignette format won’t be for everyone, and it does have a few pitfalls; one section tries to do too much by introducing too many minor characters and unfortunately distracting from the key message in the process, and overall I found the ending a little too abrupt. It’s also less political than I expect some readers will want: the text never makes a decisive statement about whether or not introducing a UBI policy is a desirable choice, nor does it explicitly refute pro or anti UBI statements.

But there’s definitely a lot to chew on here, and I’ll be thinking about some of the questions raised for a while, so I highly recommend it on that front.

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