The Future Will Be B.S. Free asks the remarkably prescient question: what if the only hope for a dystopian America was a bunch of smart, realistically petty teenagers? It’s not the destruction environment that’s ruined us, but simple fascism: in the future, a strongwoman president controls the government, the media, and the economy. There’s spying on citizens, curtailing of basic civil rights, devaluing of education, complete militarization of police—all aspects of real-life fascism and dystopian fiction that are recognizable. What author Will McIntosh brings to the table is the idea of a real-life revolution piloted by seventeen year-olds who are a recognizable mess of hormones and noble urges.
Sam (the narrator), Rebe, Basquiat, Boob, Molly, and Theo may have lost the opportunity to go to school (their science and technology program has been shut down). The (admittedly on-the-nose) specter of Russian malfeasance lingers over the story: after losing to the United States in what is called the Sino-Russian War, the Russian government hacked and tanked the United States economy. Their city’s infrastructure is neglected, their family incomes decimated. But these prodigies have been keeping busy inventing what they think will be the key to financial success (per Sam, Rebe, Basquiat, Boob, and Molly) and the key to bringing down the corrupt terror of the government (Theo): a lie detector, eventually called the Truth App, that always works. When Theo, the idealist among the group, is found dead under suspicious circumstances, the remaining five teenagers must decide whether it’s better to be safe or better to be free, going on the run with Sam’s mother, two of her fellow war vets, and a teacher from their high school as the government begins to hunt them down.
With most of the YA dystopian fiction I’ve read, teenagers often lead the way to a better world, but they largely manage to keep their emotions and adolescent angst under control for the greater good. Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior might have issues with love triangles and/or boyfriends, but McIntosh takes it a whole step further, refreshingly making his group of protagonists actually resemble real-life teenagers. The group begins with four guys and two girls, several of whom have dated or who have wanted to date one another, meaning that when you throw in beta-testing a lie detector into the mix, uncomfortable truths are going to come up, risking friendships even as stakes get higher. They may be at risk of murder by their government, but damn if they aren’t going to flirt and pine! There’s jealousy and hypocrisy present in all of the teen characters, but none more so than in Sam, which we get by virtue of his first-person narration. He simultaneously pats himself on the back for being mature while veering dangerously close into Nice Guy territory at times towards Molly, who has the gall to be dating Sam’s best friend Basquiat. Even though we see everything through Sam’s myopic viewpoint, the adults in The Future Will Be B.S. Free are also largely well-characterized, especially Sam’s mercenarily protective mother and the jaded Mr. Chambliss (the aforementioned high school teacher), who should be played by Sterling K. Brown when they make this book into a movie.
The dystopian America McIntosh creates seems to rest on the more dramatic aspects of a society under a dictatorship than examining its root causes, which can be explained by the fact that seventeen year-olds can have limited viewpoints and aren’t necessarily thinking of class-based oppression when looking to fight a bad guy. The war, the subsequent hacking, and the takeover by a former general who gets term limits abolished all feature much more prominently than any of the current American struggles over race or class, although the latter is addressed in ways more material than philosophical: Sam’s mother can’t afford enhanced prosthetics; their high school teacher’s ex-wife lives in a tony private community free from excessive military interference. The media landscape of McIntosh’s story resembles our own, with a few disturbing skips ahead: at one point, the government uses fake footage to turn the public against our heroes, predicting what might easily happen with DeepFake tech in the future.
When the Truth App hits the streets, as it inevitably must do to raise the stakes, there’s really three directions the narrative can go. The first is the unrealistically happy ending, where all evil quivers in fear of the almighty truth. It’s clear that McIntosh respects the readers of The Future Will Be B.S. Free far too much to take this unsatisfying, fairy-tale shortcut; you know that there’s going to be a wrinkle to complicate the third act of the story. The two divergent paths for The Future Will Be B.S. Free, and how they differ, arguably offer insight how McIntosh views our current precarious relationship with things like “truth” or “facts” (the real kind, not the alternative kind). In the first scenario, the truth is too powerful and too harmful for people to bear, twisting the protagonists’ admittedly noble goals into a mechanism that destroys the fragile foundations of society. The protagonists then must grapple with the unintended consequences for relationships both public and private of everyone’s deepest, darkest secrets being revealed. Alternately (and more likely, I would cynically argue based on today’s political reality): the truth, as plain and painful as it can be, ends up simply not mattering, with society choosing to accept a version of “truth” that dovetails with their own established beliefs, and attacking the very concept of objectivity and truth itself.
McIntosh chooses scenario one, and does well with it, using the natural naiveté of his adolescent protagonists to bolster the direction of the story. Because the heroes of our story are largely teenagers who still believe in the positive power of truth and honesty, naturally it follows that their worldview is severely damaged by seeing what too much truth can do. In this case, it’s not about absolute truth versus absolute lies, but about how adulthood arguably means understanding the amount of navigating and finessing that are required for people to interact with one another—a totally smart theme for a coming-of-age novel. In scenario one, things can be fixed—there’s an adjustment period as people learn how to reevaluate their relationships to others and to themselves. But I would have been curious to see how the latter situation was explored—how, when the lies are revealed, the truth struts into the spotlight, nothing changes at all. McIntosh’s choice reveals perhaps a more optimistic view of humanity, but one that, in 2018, still feels like wishful thinking.