The Resisters: A Novel by Gish Jen

A Reflection by Kelly McKisson

Cover image of The Resisters

Gish Jen’s The Resisters might seem a curious book to share in this ENST forum, especially when I tell you that it’s a story of surveillance systems, craftwork practices (knitting), and baseball. It’s relatively easy to forget, or perhaps adapt to, the changed Earth of the novel’s not-so-distant future world: seas have risen, and extensive flooding means that most live in flotsam towns. I say easy to forget, and I really mean to make a claim about the strength of the text: the narrative neither spectacularizes nor naturalizes the precariousness presented by this changed topography but instead makes clear how the environmental vulnerability is actually a biopolitically managed precarity, indexed primarily by labor class. That is, it may be easy to forget the novum of the novel’s climate changed future because the environmental dangers are so clearly linked to their social and political causes. In The Resisters’s revised version of America—AutoAmerica, a name signifying pervasive changes in both artificial intelligence and automation—access to dry land seems limited to the producing class, the “Netted.” Everyone else, the “Surplus” population, an accumulation of “Unemployables” and “Unretrainables,” mostly lives in “Auto-Houseboats.” In houseboats families live continuously at risk of being “Cast Off—set to drift on the high seas, with every harbor closed against them,” should they disobey Aunt Nettie (Jen’s revision of Big Brother) or otherwise displease AutoAmerica. (p.13)

The narrator and his family are exceptional in that they inherit a precious land right and live in “an actual 3-D printed blue-and-yellow plastic AutoHouse, complete with garden”—a fact which becomes essential to their ability to perform one kind of resistance. (p.11) Sustenance farming is resistant because, as Surplus, they are expected to fulfill their role as consumers in exchange for their basic income. For example, the narrator reports that “the mall-truck food—NettieFood, as we called it—was free. In fact, we Surplus received Living Points for eating it.” (p.11) You are right to be suspicious of these “free” gifts, as are our Surplus characters; the question about what actually is in “those endless trays of dumplings and calzones and taquitos” spurs a significant sub-plot. (p.11)

The AutoAmerica future is not a post-race future: the Netted/Surplus class division is also a racialized separation. The Netted are described as “angel-fair,” and Surplus who manage to “Cross Over” to the world of the Netted choose to alter their appearance accordingly, for instance, lightening their skin with “PermaDerm.” (p.104) In contrast, the Surplus “did somehow include everyone coppertoned, as well as everyone spy-eyed, like Eleanor, and everyone odd-bodied, too, not to say the odd-godded—Muslims, for example. It was, one had to say, quite a coincidence that the underclass looked as it did.” (p.7) That non-white persons primarily comprise the population with limited access to dry land reiterates to readers that increased vulnerability to a changing climate is interwoven with histories of white supremacy and structures of settler colonialism.

The plot is routed through baseball, which serves as an underground activity for Surplus characters, as a rediscovered tool for AutoAmerica on the global political field, and as extended metaphor as the narrator’s maturing daughter Gwen learns how to play more than one kind of game. Gwen’s pitching proficiency offers her, and the family, opportunities for class mobility. Whether these opportunities for inclusion might be steps to pull the family further into AutoAmerica’s control is unclear. The narrator’s wife, Eleanor, is a Surplus lawyer who has previously been incarcerated and tortured for her defense of, as the narrator puts it, “what was left of our rights,” and her ongoing resistance acts are a major source of conflict in the narrative. (p.3) In AutoAmerica, where HouseBots and DroneDeliverers and KidTrackers are ubiquitous, characters are trapped in a net of surveillance that threatens to expose Eleanor with every act of helpful assistance. The familial Aunt Nettie communicates through these various bots, aiming to provide “solace and advice,” and her paternalizing force is coded as a series of choices: “Don’t you find it a bit chilly? Why not choose to turn on the zone-heat?” (p.6) Characters are reminded, “Of course, you have a choice. You always have a choice.” (p.15)

The repeated insistence on the freedom to choose might prepare you for the problem of consent and the violence of consent’s absence. Although the novel feminizes AutoAmerica’s surveillance system through the figure of Aunt Nettie, the violence of male domination is far from absent in the narrative—the AutoAmerica future is not postgender nor is it post gender-based violence. In fact, the novel provides a corrective to the techno-utopian imaginary that would prefer to deny the ways that labor systems are constituted by patriarchal as well as racial structures. The novel exposes what Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora argue is “technoliberalism’s complicity in perpetuating the differential conditions of exploitation under racial capitalism”—an exposure especially valuable as technofuture fantasies continue to claim postrace, postgender, postlabor worlds.[1]

The frame of consent, as it links social hierarchies, state power, and surveillance technologies in the novel, might ask us to think differently about the experience of climate change and the conditions of our possible responses to environmental violences. The question of how to dissent when consent is assumed, or compelled, clarifies Eleanor’s insistence on acts of resistance—passivity is not an option. Yet, Gwen struggles to repeat her mother’s refrain that “right makes might” when faced with no outside to the system that constrains her choices, when there seems “no winning.” (p.87) I can’t stop thinking about a short passage from the beginning of the novel, in which the narrator voices climate crisis through the problem of choice:

No one would have willingly chosen the generating of the places we called marooned places, just as no one would have chosen the extinction of frogs and of polar bears … And yet it was something we humans did finally choose. After all, it was not the earth that chose it, or any other creature. It was we who made our world what it was. It was we who were responsible. (p.8)

Here the language of choice falters: I also do not choose the extinction of frogs, but have I given consent to extinction? Does passivity, in the face of sea level rise and extinction events, mean consent to environmental violence? Does it matter—I think it does—that the narrator, father to Gwen, is invoking the “we” of responsibility and the tone of finality here? Mary Annaïse Heglar describes the rhetoric of climate doom as effectively choosing to quit, and she asks, who has the privilege, who can afford, to quit on themselves? “There’s no denying the severity of our crisis,” Heglar writes, but at the same time, “We, quite literally, have no time for nihilism.”[2]

If The Resisters doesn’t offer an answer to the global climate crisis, it might suggest reframing climate change as a problem of social relations requiring systems of consenting agreement. And, I should say, the novel is quite entertaining, full of stolen moments of joy and inspiring models for resistance. Eleanor and Gwen’s story affirms Heglar’s insistence that “‘hopelessness’ does not mean ‘helplessness,’” as they strive to find meaningful acts in a game that is rigged against them.


[1] Neda Atanasoski and Kalindi Vora, Surrogate Humanity: Race, Robots, and the Politics of Technological Futures, Duke Univ. Press, 2019, p. 6.

[2] Mary Annaïse Heglar. “Home is Always Worth It,” Medium, 12 September 2019,