E. Lily Yu is a special type of author. She commonly transcends genres, breaks contemporary fictional forms, and brings a fairytale-eskness to her fiction that creates a sense of wonderment. The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi is not different.
While this newest story by Yu is quite firmly based in a technologically advanced future, it addresses a common and relevant issue of today (which all serious science fiction should do): What would people do if they were simply given enough to live?
I read this story on the heels of reading an interview with U.S. presidential hopeful, Andrew Yang. Yang has been making waves (maybe more like ripples) in the crowded Democratic field with his main issue platform: the “Freedom Dividend.” It sounds farcical to my ears, but the Freedom Dividend is a UBI, universal basic income. $1000 per month for every American is Yang’s platform. Why? Because of the GDP (gross domestic product) is not, Yang thinks, a fair reflection of a countries prosperity due to the fact that more and more products are made not by workers, but by machines.
Back to Yu’s story. In The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi there are two types of people: Doers and Don’ts. Doers do something Don’ts. . . don’t. But it’s more complicated than that. Doers are educated at a college level. They are skilled at. . . something. They produce something (in the case of this story, virtual reality design, art, and games). Don’ts on the other hand only play games. They apply themselves to things that are ALREADY created, like playing video games, watching movies, reading, etc. Jacob E. Mwangi is a Don’t. He gets his UBI from the Nairobi government and he spends it on rent, food, and playing VR games with his guild.
Everyone says Jacob has amazing potential. He’s intelligent, he could go to college–his sister even offers to send him someplace like China for his education. But being a Don’t is a source of pride for Jacob, and he’s not the only one. His game friends feel the same way. Doers are desperate, lame, and worse, self-important. What could they create that other people should be so excited about?
But when Jacob discovers a new indie game made by three women, he becomes inspired. He sees what they do well in terms of UX, but also what he might be able to improve on in the game. He thinks he could be an artist–but for that, he needs to go to school, get a portfolio together. Learn something.
The whole point of this story, I think, isn’t about VR or video games. It’s about UBI. It’s about how some people will, for a time, want nothing more than to play games, sit around, do nothing except enjoying themselves. But given time, people will begin to think, have ideas, want to act, create, produce. What will they produce? Who knows. But it’s going to be something that wasn’t produced beforehand because beforehand they didn’t have the time for such a passion project.
While Yu’s story paints a seemingly futuristic picture, it is a much more hopeful one than common science fiction. Similarly, Yang’s vision of a “Freedom Dividend” is also a hopeful concept that would let people devote more time and energy to their big ideas. While Yang is unlikely to win any nominations, he is polling at a high enough rate to conceivably be included in the first round of debates.
With hopeful stories like The Doing and Undoing of Jacob E. Mwangi, it is likely the idea of a UBI will become more commonplace in the years to come.
(Not sold on the Freedom Dividend? Find out how Yang expects to pay for this, by clicking here.