Afterland: Chapters 1-5

[Content Note: Transphobia, Child Sexual Abuse (CSA), Racism]

Kissmate is down for us to read Afterland and report on the handling of gender therein. My plan is to read one chapter a day unless my willpower breaks and I either have to quit or end up maranthoning the entire book just to get it over with. Why are we reading something we expect not to like and which may cause us pain? I don't want to upset anyone who likes the book and/or the author, but this sort of transphobic premise keeps being mishandled and we need to talk about it.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 1.

"Cole: Naming Rights"

Cole is the mother in our apocalypse scenario. She has blood on her shirt and is anxiously checking over her son, Miles, who has unspecified drugs in his system. Cole, a white woman, is worried about Miles being taken away from her by the government. "She’ll be arrested. Miles will be taken away. In America, they steal kids from their parents. This was true even before all this."

Cole is described based on her reflection in a mirror. "She looks old. Worse, she looks scared. Cole doesn’t want him to see that. Maybe that’s what superheroes are concealing behind the masks: not their secret identities, but the fact that they’re scared shitless." They're hiding out in a "looted gas station store". I'm a little surprised because I thought this was a relatively orderly apocalypse. Apparently not, okay.

We have a dead husband (Devon) and a sister (Billie) against whom unspecified violence was enacted by Cole. I know from the plot summaries I've seen that Billie is the villain. I have some feelings about the masculine naming scheme so far: Cole, Billie. [Racism] I think the son, Miles, may be biracial. His skin color is described as "coffee with too much cream."

Relevant Link: Writing With Color

[Text reads: NEVER use the words ‘chocolate’ or ‘coffee’ or any other food related word to describe someone’s skin color, especially someone of color. I wrote a whole paper about how referring to darker skin tones as specifically chocolate was about aggression and appropriation and has links to colonialism. Think about it, what is the best way to show dominance? By eating someone - like in the animal kingdom. It’s a disgusting practice, so please watch yourself while writing biographies and replying to people, or even in your short stories/novels.]

Miles is immune to the Gender Plague because of his genes, we're told. "One in a million. No, that’s not right. One of the million left in America. The rest of the world has more than that, but barely. Less than a one percent survival rate." She's fleeing with Miles because he'll be locked up for his own safety otherwise, apparently. "Holy living boys, Batman. Gotta catch ’em all! And keep ’em, forever and ever. Future security, the Male Protection Act, for their own good, they keep telling her."

Cole dresses Miles in girl clothes, to which he protests. We get to look at what "girl clothes" are in this world: "a dusky pink long-sleeved tee with a faded palm tree overlaid with bedazzled studs, skinny jeans with too many zips, and a handful of sparkly barrettes." This is...amazing. "What are little girls made of? Unicorns and kittens and all things that glitter." This is all in chapter one, this determined contrasting of boy things and girl things that wouldn't even make sense in this setting.

Miles protests. (“I can’t wear that,” Miles rouses to protest. “No way, Mom!”) Why? I don't know how old he was when the plague hit, but this clothing should be what he sees every day on his peers, right? But he knows it's "girl" clothes and not just kid clothes.

[Racism] "“Pretend it’s trick or treat,” she says, pinning the barrettes into his afro curls. She remembers the workshop she dutifully attended when he was a toddler—White Moms: Black Hair." She "dutifully" attended the workshop? DUTIFULLY learned how to style her biracial child's non-white hair. Dutifully. Like she deserves a medal of honor for going above and beyond, for meeting the call of duty.

We learn Miles is one month from thirteen years of age. Cole can't tell whether the 12-14yo shirt says "ho" on purpose or not. Gripping commentary on gendered clothing this is not.

“Con artists—that’s cool,” he concedes. She takes a step back, evaluates the look. The slogan picked out in pink glitter over the faded palm tree design reads “It’s How We Do” and “California.” Except the W has come off so it reads “ho” instead of “how,” or maybe that was intentional, even in the twelve- to fourteen-year-old section. The slim-fit jeans make his legs look even more gangly than usual. He’s shot up, that gawky phase of being all limbs. When did that happen?

Cole wears her dead husband's watch on her wrist and it's much too big because Man Bodies and Women Bodies are going to be like that in this book. Devon's voice in her head laments dying of "man plague". I just want to be clear that you can't put in two whole references to trans people in your book and act like that's the sum of your responsibility to world-building while you go back to calling prostate cancer "man plague".

We get dribbled details of a picture: Sister Billie tried to kidnap Boy Miles and Mom Cole hit her with a tire iron and drove off. This is possibly a felony and maybe worthy of the death penalty. "Reckless endangerment of a male citizen is probably the worst crime." The vagueness is bothering me. Why "male citizen"? Are male non-citizens fair game for reckless endangerment, or is this just imprecise language? Cole wonders "is the death penalty a thing again"; does she not pay attention to politics? It feels like the author doesn't really have those details herself yet and is keeping the door open to defining the world-building later as needed. That's not really easy for the reader to orient themselves into this Strange New World.

Miles is told he has to be "Mila". "they can hit up the local Sephora for all the girly cosmetics a boy in drag could require." This is- I know the boy is cis, but wow, this is a hell of a thing to read as a trans guy over here. Thirteen year olds don't need to be dolled up like Toddlers and Tiaras to pass for a girl!! Why all this heavy, almost TERF-esque talk of coating Miles in "cosmetics"? You're going to make him look MORE suspicious and noteworthy!

OH GOOD, we're going to be misgendering Miles in the narrative. "She hustles him toward the car. Sorry, her. Get it right. She can’t afford to make a mistake. Any more mistakes." ...except she immediately goes back to calling Miles "he" in the next paragraph, so I don't know. The plan is to cross the American desert to Johannesburg in South Africa. LOL, nope, we're back to calling Miles "her". I guess we're just going to flip a pronoun-coin every paragraph. That will be fun, and definitely not triggering for trans folks, and definitely super easy for a reader to follow.

[Misgendering, Transphobia]

* Regarding Miles, a boy and her son: "“On the run. Like outlaws,” her daughter says, trying to rally."

* "She can’t look at him. Sorry, her."

* The narrative is now calling Miles "Mila" for no adequate reason. "“Okay,” Mila says, frowning."

There really does seem to be the impression left that clothing *confers* a gendered name and associated pronouns. He was "he" and "Miles" in boy clothing and he's "she" and "Mila" in girl clothing, because gender magic.

That's the end of Chapter 1. The entire chapter is about changing Miles' name to Mila without his consent and over his objections. I have to assume that's the meaning in the chapter title of "Naming Rights": Cole has rights over Miles' name. Again, Miles is a cis boy (as far as I know) but this *reads* like a mother forcing her trans boy son to misgender, deadname, and closet himself. It's really brutal and none of this seems necessary for an apocalypse thriller. Why is it here?

We're taking a break here, probably until tomorrow, because already it's so much worse than I expected. I knew we'd be calling prostate cancer "man plague"; I didn't expect misgendering a major main character for no reason.

I just realized that if Miles is an immune "one of the million [men] left in America" then the author/narrator doesn't include trans men as men because we already *have* roughly a million+ trans men in America. So trans people were "included" in this novel as dead trans women, and trans men were just left out of the man/boy count because trans men aren't *real* boys (just ones looking for a Blue Fairy to turn us into one, per page whatever-that-was).

The only other thing I'll say about Chapter 1 so far is that this dystopia already feels unrealistically cozy. Men are rare and locked up, but.... Cole gets to keep and raise her son *UNLESS* she commits a felony? Why isn't he tracker-tagged or already removed from her? This is supposed to be HANDMAID'S TALE with a modern flavor, but Offred's daughter was already taken away on the flimsiest of pretexts. This dystopia is too nice! Where is the scene breaking Miles out of Boy Camp? Where is digging the tracker out, Matrix-style?

Maybe that comes later, but given how little happened in Chapter 1, it feels like the only "real" threat to Miles is Sister Billie. One woman. I feel like a dystopia should aim higher than your shitty older sister for a villain, idk?? (I'm only assuming Billie is older; I don't even have that much information about her.)

I'm having a hard time concentrating on anything else tonight, so I think I'll attempt Chapter 2.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 2.

"2. Vanishing Point"

This chapter is written from Miles' point of view. He uses Twitter hashtags in his narration. "they didn’t make The Worst Terrible Mistake leaving the safety of Ataraxia, even if it was like being in the fanciest prison in the world. #bunkerlife."

I'm confused by this apocalypse. Miles wonders if the distant city skyline represents "promising junk food, a bed, maybe even TV—if all that still exists". If all that still exists? This isn't a zombie world or a war world, as far as I can tell. It's a No Men world.

I was talking with Kissmate about this over lunch and it reminds me of @SlacktivistFred's work on the LEFT BEHIND books. There's so many industries that would change overnight if half of humanity disappeared, sure. But just because the industries would change (and they would need to!), that doesn't mean they wouldn't necessarily repackage themselves. And I wish an economist or something *would* tackle a book like that, because it would be fascinating but SO HARD.

What all would change if all the men were magically raptured? Car industry, of course. Not just the models that are marketed to men, but the fact that there's a huge surplus of cars now. There would almost have to be a huge buy-back subsidy. The clothing industry would face massive challenges. Housing, with half the renters gone. The food supply chain would certainly face massive challenges with half+ of the workers raptured, so I can well imagine that "junk food" might be impacted. But I can't fathom why beds would be gone, nor television.

"Television" is one of the few industries that can continue on pretty much unfazed, I'd think! There's a huge backlog of material, and sure you would need to trigger warn for what had men in it (now a possible source of trauma), but LOTS of people would want to watch. The infrastructure to stream the television might be impacted, but again I have no sense that a war has ravaged America; just an unprecedented illness and worker-loss. Which happened, I think, two years ago. If I understand Devon's ghostly snark correctly.

Cole tries to talk playful to Miles, saying the desert sand looks like "gold dust" they could swim in. It reads like the words and tone you'd take with an 8 year old, maybe. Not an apocalypse-hardened 13yo youth. Authors are kind of notoriously bad at this: writing kids as Too Young for their actual age (or Too Old when it's an actual toddler/lil' kid), and I'll admit I don't have kids, but I have babysat my share of 13yo nephews.

Miles has a memory of Cole's fight with Billie, though the details are again (annoyingly) withheld. "He’d never seen Mom so angry. They were fighting about him, because of what Billie said, her big idea, and he flushes with shame and disgust all over again. So gross." [CSA] I'm assuming the "gross idea" is that Billie wants to milk Miles for semen to sell on the inexplicable underground market that only exists because apparently the government has forbidden all pregnancy, in a rule Americans would definitely go along with. But I feel like if that assumption is correct, you kinda need to make it clear to the reader that it's going to be that kind of story, not coyly dance around it.

Cole turns off onto a retirement community exit before the city; Miles protests. Cole: “We’re not ready for civilization yet. We don’t know what’s out there. It could have been annexed by a colony of cannibal bikers who want to turn us into tasty, tasty human bacon.” I- Is that an actual thing? Miles treats the suggestion with contempt so presumably it is not a real possibility, but this is an apocalypse that so far still does not have any established rules or setting.

We've gone a whole page without unnecessary gender bullshit so:

“Okay, sorry. There are no cannibal bikers. I promise. I need to rest for a bit. And I want you to have time to practice being a girl.”
“How hard can it be?”
“Hey, sometimes I don’t know how to be a girl.”

I am informed that the author isn't a trans-exclusionist, but this is so weird? There's this terf-esque running thread through the book that Miles faces a herculean task by pretending to be a girl, a thing no boy can easily do. And like? Pretending to be a girl when you're (a) pre-pubescent and (b) living in a world *almost entirely without boys* is the easiest thing in the world!! This thing where Miles has to montage-train and dress up in a sparkly tiara and a pound of mascara makes no sense!

It's the most baseline of terf illogic: the idea that people can just tell gender by looking, that we can be correctly assessed at a glance. Miles has to uber-hyper-mega-super-femme because otherwise everyone will know he's a boy!! And...reality isn't like that. There's also a weird thing where Cole keeps calling Miles "tiger" and it feels like a need to reassure him that he's a boy, and it's- there's just so much unnecessary gender baggage in this unnecessary gender plague.

Miles is nervous of searching the abandoned retirement village because there could be people there who want to hurt them. This feels like a Resident Evil 3 apocalypse, the kind with Biker Cannibal Gangs, but we know there's a functioning government military. It's entirely possible that the military "keeps the peace" (please imagine that said in a sarcastic voice, because dystopia) in the cities and leaves the outskirts to bandits, but I tend to rely on authors to establish that for me.

Something else weird:

Miles: “Okay, but what if there are actual cannibal bikers here?”
Cole: “Nah. No tracks. Ergo, no cannibal biker ladies.”

Cole keeps obsessively reminding us that all the people they meet are women, ladies, breasticles, uterinne, etc. I noticed that in Chapter 1, too; she feared "women in kevlar" and not just folks or people or armed thugs or jackbooted military or whatever other word you'd like to employ. "Women". "Ladies". It's again and again, distractingly so.

The retirement village is abandoned and they're still miles from the city, in a desert, with only a couple gallons of water and no means to refresh them. So Cole decides to ram the SUV into a garage door to open it. *Picard facepalm* Only the headlight breaks and nothing else, so I guess it's a good SUV or a bad garage door. She popped the driver's side airbag though, and is fine and unscathed. I popped my airbag once and immediately blacked out when it nearly broke my nose. Considering that she plans to be driving through government check-points later and wants to look inconspicuous, I hope she has a plan for explaining the massive airbag in her lap.

"It feels like stepping into a first-person shooter and his fingers twitch for a gun, or, truthfully, for a controller, so he can press click on random items for information, like the healing values of the tin cans scattered all over the kitchen floor." I...feel like this book is asking me to just imagine THE LAST OF US in lieu of actually putting in the work to craft a setting, and I resent it a little. "In a video game, there would be boxes of ammo, various weapons, medpacks, maybe even a llama piƱata or two."

Cole scavenges canned goods and a can opener. Miles "scoops up the medicines without bothering to check the labels and dumps them in the toiletry bag, because that’s what you’d do in a game unless your inventory was already full." I still do not fully understand the plan here. If they expect to talk their way past a check-point and pretend to be Normal Everyday Citizens, then it seems like a bag full of canned foods and two-year-expired prescription meds is kinda suspicious?

Cole insists on checking the bedroom because "we need cash" and I'm stunned to learn that paper tender from before the manpocalypse is still worth anything. This is a remarkably cozy dystopia. Cole and Miles are worried about being found, so naturally they use a wind-up record player to blast German opera, which will be audible over the entire hopefully-abandoned complex.

We finally learn something about where they're from and apparently he was in a Boy Camp: "notorious outlaw Miles Carmichael-Brady, one of the last boys on earth, took shelter with his mom that fateful day after busting out of a luxury bunker facility for men." I...feel like maybe this is an unfair criticism on my part, but shouldn't we see this Luxury Bunker Facility to understand why it's worth fleeing across the desert? I'm willing to believe it's bad! us that?

At night, Cole and Miles--still mindful of the fact that they don't want to draw attention and be caught--whack golf balls off the deck into random directions. *deep breath* And that's the end of the chapter. That was less bad gender stuff and more... patchwork world-building that doesn't make a lot of sense to me. A little Resident Evil, a little Last of Us, a little Mad Max, and yet after all that... no actual threat, and more "caution theater" than actual care. No amount of perimeter checks while clutching a golf club fixes the "blasting loud music" and "playing roof golf" security faux pas. Either this world is scary-dangerous and not an abandoned playground or not.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 3.

Another day, another chapter of this book we're live-reading. I'm still struggling to orient myself because the threats and setting aren't clearly defined. Maybe chapter 3 will flesh that out.

"3. Billie: Black Hole Sun" We're going to get a villain POV.

It's important to make each point of view unique from the other so the reader can orient themselves, and this can be a very hard thing to do as a writer. Miles differentiated himself from Cole with constant video game references. Billie thinks in music band references. She's waking up in a haze after her altercation with Sister Cole. "That could be a Nick Cave song: “The Bile & the Darkness.” She’s not going to succumb to the black-hole suns, swimming across her vision. No, that’s someone else, another band. Not how the lyrics go."

Billie realizes that Cole has taken Son Miles and fled. She is rather bitter about this, having apparently been the brains behind the "Get Miles To Africa" plan prior to the fight. She emigrated to America to retrieve them and bring them home. Billie was left behind in the "billionaire hideout wine farm" (??) where Miles was being held for his own protection, I think. I can't stress enough how vague the world-building is. "She’s in the mechanics workshop. Among the cars."

The keys are kept elsewhere. "Same reason all the cars here are manual transmission, another layer of security, because they assume the inmates can’t drive stick. To be fair, the American ones probably can’t. But the South Africans can." I don't know why the billionaire hideout wine farm has cars. Are these novelty toys for the owner? Bug-out cars in case of emergency? Are they armor-plated against the huddled masses? I don't know.

Nor do I know how much work you can do on a car with the keys locked up in another building. Earlier, Cole seemed to be unaware that vacant getaway cars do need to be driven or the battery will run down. You can't just leave them in a mall lot until you need it.

The billionaire hideout wine farm has a lockdown procedure to protect from terrorists. "In case of terrorist attack, like what happened in Singapore. No, Malaysia. And Poland, wasn’t it? Bombing the last remaining men to death." I'm honestly confused as fuck at this point. All the men died and a bunch of radical feminist separatists decided to terroristically bomb the rest of them dead? Why? Literally, WHY? Terrorists do things for Reasons, what is the reason behind this?

We're told the security system is great at keeping people from getting in but lousy at keeping people from leaving, so uhh. Convenient for Miles and Cole and Billie, I guess!

The problem of how to leave in a car with no keys is immediately solved when a guard drives up and asks Billie what the hell happened to her and why she has a head-wound. Billie attacks the guard, breaks her arm, and steals her car. [CSA] The chapter ends there. We still don't know why Billie wanted to smuggle Miles out of the country nor what her plans were to monetize him. I suspect the answer is sexual in nature (milking Miles for sperm) and it's gross that we keep coyly avoiding the issue.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 4.

"4. Cole: The First End of the World" (I'm trying to understand the reasoning behind the chapter titles; so far they have felt like late additions.)

We're told this chapter occurs three years ago. "Disneyland. Summer vacation 2020." I feel a pang of pity for the author, not realizing that "summer vacation 2020" would seem like a near impossibility in the now. Ah well, this is why we so often eschew hard dates.

I am sitting here pondering whether this tells us their socio-economic status, but I don't think it does. They live in California, so it's not like going to Disneyland is a big trip for them. Oh. No, nevermind. They don't live in California; they're flying in from Johannesburg. I'm struggling for some class markers here. Devon is a "biomedical engineer", so I'm thinking solidly middle-class?

We learn that Cole is a "commercial artist" who pulls in two or three times Devon's engineer salary, but she compulsively tells people he's the sole bread-winner and her art is a "silly little hobby". Cole is proud of living in South Africa with her American husband, glad of being away from the Nazis and the guns and the racism that her Black son would face in America. "Black" isn't capitalized, I notice.

Like: "Away from everyday Nazis and school shootings so regular they were practically part of the academic calendar along with prom and football season, away from the slow gutting of democracy, trigger-happy cops, and the terror of raising a black son in America." That could be a failure of an editor or someone else, I know. I'm just reporting what's here in the finished copy, if that makes sense.

Cole wonders when and how they got infected. "All she knows is that within a few days, all eight of them came down with the flu. They didn’t know then it was HCV. No one did. Or what the strain carried inside it, like a crackerjack oncovirus surprise." This is extremely confusing because HCV is already a thing--that's the common designation for hepatitis C virus. It means something else here--"human culgoa virus"--but I only know that because I've seen chapter 29 and the "peace out, trans sisters!" passage.

OH MY GOD. "They all spent the whole weekend dripping snot and sloping feebly from Splash Mountain to Harry Potter World, on a cocktail of decongestants and flu meds she’d brought along in her family first-aid kit." Imagine writing a book in which a "summer vacation 2020" ends with a family sick with a new pandemic virus and they choose--CHOOSE--to infect as many others as possible rather than self-isolating. Like. LIKE. I am sorry but I need a minute because Cole is a MONSTER, but I also realize that prior to covid a lot of people wouldn't think about the immuno-compromised service workers she's murdering.

Four months later, one of the boys on the vacation is diagnosed with prostate cancer. They fly out to see him, "when air travel was still a convenient irritation rather than a rarity for the very rich or connected." I really do not understand this apocalypse or why air travel would be made significantly less accessible 2-3 years after most men die. If anything, you'd think the airlines would be frantic to drum up customers.

Cole buys Miles a "Fuck Cancer!" button to wear in support of his cousin, and Devon complains that it may offend the other patients. Cole brushes off her husband's concerns as uncool and out of touch. A lampshade is clumsily hung on the Bad Science: "Cole’s personal favorite, from a shell-shocked oncologist, “cancer simply doesn’t work this way.” That one got meme-d."

This is *precisely* where I'm struggling.

@Azure_Husky. I'm really struggling to figure out of we're at a "Avengers Endgame" level apocalypse where life seems to go on in a startlingly normal manner or a "The Road" level apocalypse here and we're four chapters in.

You'd think--and I realize I'm saying this against a backdrop of covid--that tests for cancer would become a new thing that everyone gets, regardless of whether they feel sick yet or not, but there's no sign of that here. The timeline isn't clear here but at the very least many days have passed since Cousin Jay's diagnosis. Possibly weeks. So why was Miles earlier wondering if a bulldozer's cab had a skeleton inside, a worker dying off during his shift? This isn't *that* rapid.

Why, too, aren't people getting their prostates removed? That's a thing we have the technology to do. I was told the handwave was that the surgeons all died too soon before they could remove any prostates, but the narrative doesn't bear that out! There were four months from the Disneyland infection to Jay even being diagnosed with cancer, and then days or even weeks seem to pass while he fights it in an otherwise normal and not overly-crowded cancer ward. Which means he's in the "first wave", to use covid-speak.

They visit Cousin Jay in the hospital. He truthfully tells Young Miles that the chemo isn't working. Devon warns/scolds him for saying this, and Jay insists he won't lie to Miles. I feel awful about what this book is doing to Devon, the Uncool Shitty Black Dad. [Death, Assisted Suicide] "Jay died at home, in his sleep, a month later." And that was with an overdose of morphine, so he could've lasted longer. I only mention that because I'm trying to time-map this disease progression.

From infection to discovery to death, for Jay, was five months and an unclear number of days/weeks. This is definitely not someone dying so rapidly that they can't remove a prostate or two if that's their surgical speciality. Cole wants to go home back to South Africa and Devon wants to stay near his grieving family and try to support them. Cole's perspective is presented as the objectively right one.

"They agreed to a compromise. A three-month contract Devon could be closer to Tayla and the family. But then Eric got sick, and so did Devon, and then no one was flying anywhere. You can’t imagine how much the world can change in six months. You just can’t."

Chapter 4 ends there. We learned there is a flu called HCV (which isn't the thing that "HCV" normally refers to, but we don't know what the full name is) and that is causes prostate cancer that acts like no cancer ever has or does. And we learned how Cole and Miles came to be in California rather than home in Johannesburg, and the reason boils down to her Black husband wanting to support his immediate family in ways Cole didn't approve of.

I'm still stuck on the fact that a scholarly conference hired a commercial artist to decorate their foyer in yarn-crafts. Not paintings or metalwork. Yarn.

They met at a science talk on gravitational waves at the Wits University Planetarium back in August 2005, tail end of Johannesburg winter, the nights breathlessly cold and crisp. She was the one who made the playful yarn constructions of the universe decorating the foyer; he was the gawkily handsome PhD student (bioinformatics: sequencing the RNA of malaria, in South Africa on a grant from a big foundation), hanging out awkwardly with a beer.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 5.

"5. Cole: Wicked Things"

I wasn't going to keep going today but I peeked ahead and there are GENDER-SNIFFING DOGS. "They should have been farther along by now. But paranoia will slow you down when you’re avoiding the highways and the possibility of police checkpoints. Dogs can sniff out gender. Cops get annoyed when you can’t show them proper ID." GENDER-SNIFFING DOGS.

None of this world-building makes any sense! There's almost no men left alive on earth! So why did the government (question mark?) go to the great expense and trouble of outfitting cities with dogs trained to seek something that, for the most part, no longer exists?? I thought I was going to be pointing out to cis people that, like, dogs *can't* sniff gender because gender isn't something we can define as a function of scent--I'm a man regardless of how I smell--but instead I'm just agog of how much this doesn't make sense.

I can't even tell from the narration if these are realistic fears or if Cole is just making shit up in her terror. Is this an unreliable narrator? Is Miles perfectly safe and all this security theater is unnecessary, phantoms in the mind of his paranoid mother? Speaking of Cole, she really wants a cross to climb up onto. "There’s probably an APB out on them. Murderer. Drug smuggler. Boy trafficker. Wanted felon. Bad mother. Bad mother is the worst thing you can possibly be."

Cole keeps them to back roads in the California desert. "But off-the-beaten-track has its own risks. Lack of food and gas stations, for example, or fallen trees across the road that mean having to turn around and retrace eighty miles, pretending not to be crying" I am genuinely confused by how many back roads blocked by trees there can even BE in the California desert; Texas deserts usually have one highway and no trees at all. You go on the highway or you don't. Maybe they're not in Cali anymore? I have no idea!

"The tank is down to a quarter full and they need to refuel. And the bitch about the new world order: it requires money, same as the old one. She feels betrayed by all the apocalypses of pop culture that promised abandoned cities ripe for the looting." I still don't understand how this *is* an apocalypse by the standard pop culture understanding of the term, but Cole (and the author) keeps insisting that it is. A lot of people are dead and the government seems maybe bad (?) but that's a dystopia, not a zombie apocalypse.

Cole even says that? "But then again, they also haven’t encountered any shambling undead, small-town utopian havens with dark underbellies, highwaymen, or crazed militias. There are a surprising number of towns still functioning and other cars on the road." I guess it's nice of her to admit there aren't any "highwaymen" (I guess even she couldn't work highwaywomen into a word) but we've just spent several chapters being afraid of them and/or cannibalistic bikers, so that seems like a waste of my time.

Gasoline isn't easy to come by anymore because "riots" burned "the oil fields" and "the prices posted on the last gas station they passed were sell-both-kidneys expensive." I find myself wondering how long gas in the tank of an abandoned car is siphonable. Cole enjoys some more mental flagellation and pop culture references. "She’s so unprepared for all this. Miles needs a Ripley, a Furiosa, Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2, and instead, he’s got her. Commercial paper artist."

The military quarantine offered her training in "previously male-dominated skills" to help survivors struggling with grief, so know she knows how to "shoot a gun, do a basic tune-up on a car, and perform essential life-saving paramedic skills." I-I really question the wisdom of teaching survivors GUN SHOOTING while they grapple with grief and the feeling that the world as they know it has ended. Hell, I have questions about teaching them "masculine skills" or whatever, period, when surely that seems likely to trigger memories of dead fathers, brothers, etc. Why wasn't this training slated towards, you know, filling the massive gaps in the workforce?

"But she can’t fly a helicopter and she can’t forge a passport, and if Miles gets really sick, or she does, they’re fucked. What she needs is cash money in hand, to pay for gas, and a hot meal, and to get online, email Keletso, ask for help, figure out a plan." I don't think a helicopter is going to get you from America to South Africa, Cole, nor do I see how "possess cash" is a useful skill that Sarah Conner had. I do love that the great escape plan here is... "email a friend, ask for help." LOL, wow. I think we all remember the stunning conclusion of HANDMAID'S TALE when Offred accessed a public library computer and emailed a friend, thereby handily escaping Gilead.

Devon's voice points out to Cole that she could turn herself in. I know this isn't really his ghost--it's just Cole's mental narration tormenting herself--but phew, Devon is just going to be the source of all bad ideas in this novel, huh? That was a choice.

Mindful of the need to not waste even a drop of precious gasoline, Cole "takes the off-ramp for Lake Tahoe on a whim, remembering a cigarette ad in the cinema from when she was a kid and such things were still legal." What the actual flipping fuck nuggets? Is gasoline rare and worth a kidney or isn't it, speedboat-owners? Is the world normal or a dystopia full of gender-sniffing police dogs or not? Pick a lane!! (Why were the cars in the billionaire's hideout controlled by hiding the keys? Just keep the gasoline tanks empty and only fill them as needed!)

As she descends the winding road, they can see down to the lake and the cabins arrayed along the shore, a single speedboat tearing a snow-white rip across the dark blue water below. On the main drag, it’s ski shops and tattoo parlors and internet cafes and a bustle and a hustle on the streets. It would be so easy to forget, to think it’s life as normal, until you realize, again, a punch to the gut, that there are no men among the people going about their business this evening. Should be used to it by now, she knows, but they haven’t been out in the world for a while. She picks a likely spot. The Bullhead Grill & Bar is all lit up like Christmas, with a parking lot full of cars and people inside bathed in a welcoming yellow light.

Cole and Miles walk into the bar, while Miles frets that people may realize he's a boy. The TVs above the bar--a thing he previously wondered if it even still existed--are playing Superbowl highlight reels of men. Customers watch "with hopeless hunger". Seems like a weird scene. You want to go to the bar for a nice meal and drink after a long day and weep over your loss which is less than 3 years fresh? This isn't nearly distant enough to make sense; this feels like decades after the Worldwide Cancer.

They have a one hundred dollar bill and after 2 orders of Coke they have $86. That's $7 a glass, which might be right in a Cali resort town. Weird to see that prices for gasoline have gone up but the foods that need to be trucked into places--WITH GAS--haven't. Cole has to find someone here to steal from, because scavenging cash from hastily abandoned places isn't working. Devon tells her to "Pick a likely target, boo."

"In the booth opposite, there’s a couple with two little girls, eight-ish, in baby doll dresses and Shirley Temple curls, as if they’re fresh off the stage at the local kid beauty pageant. The moms, in lumberjack plaid and big black boots, keep making vague friendly intimations in their direction—a smile, a nod, to acknowledge they’re in the same gang. Last of the reproducers." I really do not understand this at all. Women aren't prevented from reproduction! This isn't CHILDREN OF MEN, there's no fertility plague! There should be plenty of sperm in IVF banks for anyone who wants to breed!

We're back to misgendering Miles for no reason. As a trans boy, I hate this. He has some judgment about the Shirley Temple girls. I don't know why. "“Why are they dressed like that?” Mila is aghast at the little girls." God, the misgendering isn't just hostile to the reader, it also makes the dialogue confusing to follow:

“Maybe it’s a special occasion.” She [Cole] shrugs.
“Or they’re also boys in drag,” she [Miles] whispers.

Cole muses: "When there aren’t going to be any more kids, you want to hold on to their childhoods for as long as you can. There must be a German word for that. Nostalgenfreude. Kindersucht." Why is everyone accepting that there's no more children???? You can still get pregnant! You can do sex-tests on fetuses! (Or wave the gender-sniffing dogs at the pregnant belly, works every time.) You can remove prostates as needed!

Cole tells herself to focus and choose someone who isn't going to miss their wallet. I continue to be astonished that *physical legal tender* is a thing? The internet is still around in her world, so why would everyone suddenly switch back to cash? We have our first sapphic reference. "Not the woman drinking a beer alone at the bar, or the two look-alike blonds who could have stepped out of that long-ago cigarette commercial; they’re clearly on a first date".

Cole follows a drunk woman to the men's room with intention of robbing her. (Why not hotwire a car outside? She wanted to change cars anyway, to be harder to trace!) The- hooboy. [Self-harm] Random woman is out with her friend, who is turning 50. “We had a suicide pact, you know. If we hit forty, and we were still single. Or we’d get married to each other. See how well that turned out!”

Random Woman asks “Do you even like eating pussy?” “I think it’s an acquired taste,” Cole manages, and then Mila bursts into the bathroom, clutching their backpack." Does Random Woman know that women can have sex without oral? Does the author? I just. *steadying breaths*

This narrative is so awful that my mind is wandering already. Why NOT dress Miles as a boy? There'd be grief-stricken parents who would dress their daughters as boys, trying to recapture what was lost. I had assumed that Miles couldn't dress "as a boy" because there was some kind of mutual agreement that any reminders of masculinity were hugely inappropriate in public, but we're streaming old Superbowls so why wouldn't we have kids playing at being boys?

Random Woman has spilled her purse, and I have questions. "Behind her, Mila scoops up the lipstick, a set of keys attached to a foam rubber bobbin of the dancing girl-emoji, restaurant mints, a pack of nicotine gum, a used-up tube of fancy handcream, several tampons." This world in which gasoline is a rarity still has lipstick. Restaurant mints. Nicotine gum. Where is all this being shipped in from, and how? How are the supply lines disrupted for FOOD such that they're stealing canned goods, but not for LIPSTICK?

"Her fingers hesitate over the striped wallet, which has flipped open. Useless plastic cards. And dollar bills, neatly extracted, palmed away into her fist." Why are plastic cards useless? Why is gasoline a cash industry, especially since it costs so much? Is everyone now carrying two or three $100 bills in case they need to get gas on the way home from watching old Superbowl highlight reels at the bar?

“You must look after this one,” the woman sighs. “I never had kids. Never will. Didn’t want them, but now. Now I don’t have that choice. Nobody will ever again. It’s so sad. Isn’t it? Oh, it’s all too much. I can’t bear it.” WHY DO PEOPLE THINK THEY CAN'T HAVE KIDS?!? Even if you take into account this bizarre American law against breeding (which makes no sense), that's an AMERICAN law so it's weird to act like no one "will ever again" get pregnant. Was this a fertility disease at first? Cole tries to reassure the woman. “You’ll see, the whole world is working on it, the best scientists and epidemiologists.” Working on it? Working on what??? Removing a prostate??? A thing we have the technology for now???

Cole tells Miles--I refuse to participate in this deadnaming 'Mila' bullshit--that they're totally going to send the woman a check in the mail and pay back every cent. We the readers have no idea how much they got, but if $100 won't get them far, then uhh...? This is a self-serving lie and Miles calls it out. "Sure, Mom,” her daughter the thief says, eyeroll implicit. Like Cole has a checkbook. Like she even caught the woman’s name. Bad mother. She can’t help it."

Miles is not "her daughter" and I am so sick of the book saying he is, and I kinda low-key hate every cis person who praised this as, like, achingly beautiful prose because if misgendering kids was what you needed to get your day going, your priorities are fucked.

That's the end of Chapter 5. We went to a perfectly normal resort town whose very existence breaks the entire "apocalypse" premise, and stole from a drunk women while misgendering Miles a lot. And no one can ever have kids again, for some reason.

@Truthbomb_Queen. Why is there a men’s room at all?!? If there’s only one gender there are just two bathrooms. Or one and a storage room.

You'd think the new bathroom divide would be "Customers" and "Employees" and that for god's sake they'd take down the triggering signs right away, but here we are.


Post a Comment