Afterland: Chapters 11-15

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

Before I get to Chapter 11, I want to talk about LEFT BEHIND. This is ancient history now, but I got into deconstructing books because I loved @SlacktivistFred's amazing deep dives into the LEFT BEHIND books.

LEFT BEHIND is about the Christian rapture, in which every child under the age of 13 or so, plus every True Believer adult, is summarily slain by God and taken to heaven without passing Go or collecting $200. (A little Monopoly game joke for you there.) This AFTERLAND book actually shares a lot in common with LEFT BEHIND. Not all the children are dead of course--only 50% of them--but all the fathers are gone. All the uncles and brothers. Every cis man minus a few million exceptions are dead.

Fred Clark talks about how the LEFT BEHIND books don't grapple at all with the kind of worldwide grief this would entail. The characters have all read the back of the book, know it's a Rapture story, and dutifully go back to their jobs and lives. No one ever breaks down in the middle of public life sobbing "the children, the children are all gone, I miss my daughter, please bring back the children." Everyone is almost eager to get back to their day job. It's obscene, like a capitalist wet dream.

In reality, it's just bad writing. The authors don't know how to depict this unprecedented magnitude of grief, so they don't try. They model their cab drivers and septic tank workers off the ones in their daily non-Rapturey lives. You probably see where I'm going with this, yeah?

I'm stunned by how much AFTERLAND doesn't grapple with this level of grief, even as the book tries to sell the grief as a meaningful threat to Miles. It doesn't exist until suddenly it needs to threaten him, then it's forgotten again. We're meant to believe that women miss male companionship so much that they will *tear Miles apart* in a tug-o-war over who gets to keep him. Yet women placidly sit in bars and watch old Superbowl clips without so much as a sniffle or a teardrop.

Grief invades our lives and this is a shared traumatic event. Yet there's no social acknowledgement of the plague. When Cole meets Bhavana, there's not that little social ritual we would surely have in this world, sharing who was lost in the Event. "I lost a brother, a father, and three sons," Bhavana would say, the words so often repeated they have become ritual. "Their father died before the plague, in a car accident." "I lost my father and my husband," Cole would share in ritual response. Shared grief.

Not everyone would do this, of course, but MANY would. It's a thing humans do: they make connections over shared experiences. There's no experience MORE shared than this. Half the world's population died in 6-12 months time. The largest disaster ever imagined. Who did Bhavana lose? Who did the septic tank worker lose? Who did the drunk woman lose? ("My husband, of course, but I didn't mind," she would slur, alcohol making her more candid than usual. "He...wasn't a good man. Tragic, right? I win; everyone else loses.")

Under and beneath and through all this collective grieving would be individual variations. Women so mired in grief that they can barely carry on. (Why aren't they mentioned in Bhavana's world-building re: the government hotels? It's just people "looking for work"!!) There would be women who were trying to get on with their day but still broke down at random moments. Women crying at the gas pumps where Cole gets gasoline--a thing we don't see and have yet to see, save for Drunk Woman who was maudlin about pussy-eating.

Cole, our *main character*!!, should be witnessing this ever-constant iceberg of grief and dealing with her own monstrously-unfair stroke of luck: she is one of the only mothers (of sons) on this earth who *didn't* lose her son. She has won the lotteriest of lotteries. She's characterized with off-and-on grief about losing Devon, but *everyone* has lost their Devon. That grief should be mixed with the panicky survivor's guilt that comes with having been spared the worst. She lost her husband but her son didn't die. A miracle.

Nobody is reacting like they would in this sort of situation, because it's easier to write service workers as chirruply giving you Important Airport Information and really really hard to write service workers who have lost half their loved ones in the space of a month. I don't think I could do justice to the sheer amount of grief necessary to carry a book like this. But that's why I didn't write this book. It's why I would've sent this one back to the editors with a sternly-worded note about world-building.

There's this, as well!

@perdricof. on that subject, she should be wracked by the fear that maybe he has got it, maybe it's slower, maybe the signs just aren't showing yet. as if this incredibly fragile miracle might at any moment be snatched away from her.

By the time we meet Cole in the present day, she knows Miles is immune because the government took tests, but (a) fears aren't rational, (b) viruses evolve, and (c) she doesn't know that in the flashback chapters!! The flashback chapters have a single reference to hording pain meds for Miles to use "if" he gets sick. She isn't obsessively quarantining him to keep him well--she's dragging him through a crowded airport! When he presses his hand to his stomach and groans, she correctly reads him as grieving rather than worrying he might have caught the magical cancer. Ditto when he's convulsing on the floor and vomiting.

Her desire to get him home at all costs (to then live in strictest secrecy in the attic forever, I guess?) regardless of the danger almost reads as anti- invested in Miles' health. The government was using the full extent of its resources to keep him alive and healthy. This is easily solvable in a narrative by making the government care about the needs of the many over the needs of the few: have them plan to harvest Miles for sperm or for genes so they can study and replicate his immunity. But...they both concede quarantine was fine.

This is the most ethical, caring government I've ever seen in a dystopia, actually. They're only confining people for their safety in the face of mob violence, and the confinement is both luxurious and pleasant. There's a lot to be said for a character who doesn't want to be a caged bird in a gilded prison, but when the world outside the prison will instantly eat you, the urge to flee starts to look like something you should resist or at least rethink.

Coming back to the grief and loss that everyone should be experiencing (and yet somehow isn't), it would affect different communities differently. Cole would bear witness to that as she moved through the world. She's traveling through Utah; what happened on all those FLDS ranches where a small number of powerful men kept dozens of wives and hundreds of children? She's going to an anarchist socialist commune, whose members are almost by definition not majority cishet. How is the queer community doing? We would be devastated by the loss of so many queer men.

We'd see the trans men who have to live with being some of the last beacons of masculinity in this world. The trans women who survived because HRT changes your prostate and testosterone. The grieving of those who lost partners, friends, lovers. Hell, the queer community's loss of All The Fathers would be different than the way the cishet majority experiences that loss. Many of us are estranged from our dads. Grief would span from "good riddance" to "now we'll never reconcile; he'll never learn to accept."

Here is where an author would outline the type and strength of threat the government poses to Miles: how are they treating the trans men and trans women and butch women? Do gender-sniffing dogs regularly bust the place looking for illegal cis men to capture? How does society react to the trans men? Society is apparently so grief-stricken that they will tear Miles apart, maenad-style, but they still want to watch (dead cis) men on television and see convincing living "men" (cis women in drag) perform on-stage. Do the lesbians end up having to do the grocery shopping for trans men, so that they don't trigger everyone at Walmart, or become unwilling trauma sinks for every woman to weep at as they move through daily life? Is there a new and lucrative career in online sugar-babying for women who want a replacement lover or even a replacement son to dote on?

There's so much world here to explore and we get almost no world-building. Cole wonders aloud what the "economic impact" would be of so many cars without drivers but she doesn't know and neither does the author, so we never find out. We just get her musings and move on. I've always resisted writing an End of the World novel because I felt the research burden would be enormous, but this book side-steps around all that by having a character with no expertise who just muses her wonderings but isn't curious enough to look up answers.

Anyway, wasn't there a chapter I said I'd do.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 11.

"11. Billie: Message Failed to Deliver"

I am coming to really dislike the chapters from the villain POV, and not because I'm some kind of gentle Disney princess who cannot bear coarse language. Nor because I am tetchy about how much this feels like authorial training wheels on a bike, constantly reminding the reader that there's definitely a plot in here, I promise!, and it's not just a rambling flashback-ridden road trip through the desert!

No, I oppose these villain chapters because they are inherently tension-draining. Without them, I could worry that Billie the Villain is around every corner. She could be at the gas station! She could be in the panel van! She could be waiting at the commune! Oh, no, nevermind, she's still on the Cali coast, dealing with a head wound that is killing her in the slowest progression of lethal head wounds I've ever seen. I think a pimple I once had was more straightforwardly lethal than Billie's ever-bleeding concussion.

Moreover, the Billie chapters are making me notice just how much Cole isn't thinking about Billie. Cole was worried she'd *killed* Billie back in Chapter 1, but wasn't certain. Billie thinks about Cole *constantly*, but there's no reciprocal thought from Cole. No grief or anger over her sister's actions, no thought to her death, no worry that she might still be alive and coming after them with her powerful friends. I suspect the reason for this omission is that the author knows Billie is alive so Cole doesn't think about Billie because she'd either have to be repeatedly wrong about her death or she'd anticipate Billie's hunt for them and make better choices.

("Better choices" like not getting into a van with a stranger who could be WORKING WITH BILLIE FOR ALL YOU KNOW, COLE. Like Billie couldn't find and bribe someone who looks trustworthy. And this is again why the villain chapters drain tension: I'm not worried that the "commune" is part of a trap because I know Billie isn't in on all this. She's stumbling around the coast with her head wound. Etc.)

The other problem with these villain chapters are that villains are scariest when they're competent. Billie, when we see her choices and actions, is demonstrating that Cole wasn't the only one in the family hit with the Bad Decision stick. Let me illustrate: when we last left Billie, she was driving in a random direction to chase her sister. (I assumed, foolishly, she was tracking the car since she says the car has a tracker in it, but haha, she does not currently have the tracking reader with her.) So she literally just picked a random direction and drove, hoping to catch up with Cole. I would get the impression that this particular version of Cali has only one road and everyone just has to take it, but Cole was on "back roads" so that doesn't work either.

Anyway, while Billie was driving in a random direction hoping to find Cole, her concussion caused her to wreck her car and possibly wound herself further. She convinced a passing Good Samaritan to take her to a hospital in San Francisco. Given that Billie is working for some unethical people, I'd have assumed she would go to the hospital, get bandaged up, and then face her shady employers with the details of her fuck-up armed with a clear head, a good story, and a fast tongue. What Billie *actually* does, however, is forgo the hospital entirely and show up on her employer's doorstep with a head-wound, a septic tank worker, a bunch of bad excuses, and no real apology or explanation to save her.

She's so dizzy she's nearly falling over, but she's confident that she can smooth things over with her employer and *then* go get necessary medical attention. Given that she's late by several hours (days?), it's surreal that she doesn't get her head bandaged first. Billie's terrible decision-making means that we can't chalk Cole's terrible decision-making up to a personality quirk we're supposed to notice. They both just make bad decisions because their author was throwing darts at a Next Action?? dartboard. I think.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Chapter 11 opens with Billie and the septic tank worker stumbling around "the yacht club boardwalk" in the rain looking for a specific house. I didn't know they built houses on boardwalks which cater to yachts, nor do I understand why Billie's uber-rich employer is slumming it here in a little "whitewashed wooden house" which is covered by overgrown shrub. Billie reminisces that these yachts aren't "like Mr. Amato’s superyacht" to which he had fled with an all-female crew hoping that the virus "couldn't cross the water". The virus turned out to not be made of tiny vampires, I suppose. (Little Dracula humor for you.)

I do not understand why Thierry Amato didn't take his wife on the boat with him. He seems to have genuinely loved her. But her absence lets Billie be the hero when he gets sick. "Billie was the one who insisted on sealing up the master cabin and sailing him home to his wife instead of turfing the body into the ocean for shark bait. “How kind you are,” Mrs. A. had said when they turned up at the Amato compound in the Caymans. “How thoughtful.”"

A note on the mystery illness: "But he’d already been infected, or one of the crew was carrying it". I do not understand this illness progression at all. You get a bad flu and then die of cancer 4-6 months later. So how can they not know whether Theirry Amato had "already been infected" or not? Surely it's as easy as checking the calendar to see when he last had a bad flu! I think this is foreshadowing that women can be a carrier of the virus; I know from the reviews that once you've had the flu, you're a silent-but-deadly carrier that can kill any man with your presence, but again this feels like an employment questionnaire issue.

Billie's narration reveals that she managed to bully the septic tank worker into driving her to Belvedere rather than San Francisco (her earlier destination). I remain impressed that the roads are clear and open, devoid of the government checkpoints Cole fears. Hell, I'm impressed that the Golden Gate Bridge is still standing. This is standard apocalypse racism, by the way: the brown people in other countries immediately rioted and burned all the oil fields, but America is mostly free of riots and property damage.

Billie is here now in Belvedere seeking "one of the safe houses for operations". I still do not understand why her employer is here, at the place where crimes are being done at. [CSA] Billie thinks: "Easy access to the water. Bring Miles in, hop on a boat, head south via Mexico and Panama, back to the Caymans, where the laws don’t apply, especially not the reprohibition, Miles would make a few deposits, and they’d be set for life."

This is utterly bonkers and once again the plot has instantly exploded. If "reprohibition"--the laws against pregnancy--is just an American thing, then:(a) why are people saying no kids will ever again be born(b) why is Miles necessary at all? We were told in Chapter 1 that a million or so American cis men survived, and that the rest of the world "has more than that, but barely." Why aren't non-American men selling their semen to rich women like Mrs. Amato?? Why does she need to kidnap a child?

Billie's motivation in Ch. 6: "The window is now, before they discover a cure or a vaccine, which will mean decriminalizing reproduction, throwing the sperm banks and embryo storage units open. [T]hen a few specimen jars of boy juice won’t be worth millions anymore." If semen is worth millions of dollars, then why isn't that supply being provided from the places where the reprohibition laws don't exist / don't apply? Why does Mrs. Amato need to break American laws when she can just leave America on her boat?

[CSA] All of this would make more sense if Miles were special to Mrs. Amato in some way that any other random man can't provide! Like if Billie were Thierry's daughter and Miles his grandson and Mrs. Amato wanted to be impregnated by her husband's lookalike relative. THIS MAKES NO SENSE. I just- I needed to get that off my chest. This is banana-bread-bonkers.

California scrub has grown to cover the little whitewashed wooden house that Billie's fantastically rich and pampered employer is, against all sense, staying in as she awaits the arrival of a kidnapped boy and NOT the cops who will take a dim view of endangering a boy. Like, in chapter 1 Cole told us that reckless endangerment of a man/boy was now a death penalty crime, so it makes sense that a wealthy woman would just hang out in this safe house awaiting a kidnapped boy for her to kidnap further. Sure.

Billie knocks on the door and her Good Samaritan nervously observes that this doesn't look like a health clinic for concussions. A guard with a gun asks their business. Good Samaritan doesn't leave, even when it's clear that Billie knows these people. Billie talks her way past the guard and everyone takes their shoes off inside the door. There are "fuck-me stilettos" inside the door and I have a million questions about them. Does Mrs. Amato wear "fuck-me stilettos"?? Are those from one of the guards? (There are also "tan Timberlands and black military-style books". Are the guards barefoot??) Does Mrs. Amato keep her expensive shoes with the shoes of the help?!?

Julita Amato is waiting for them in a kimono. We've had zero description of her and her husband, so I don't know her race; "Thierry" and "Julita" are French according to Google and "Amato" is Italian? So they could be white but they could also not be. The small scrub-hidden wooden boardwalk safe house is bigger on the inside, like a Tardis. There's a courtyard and a lap pool.

They walk sock-footed through the living room, with white leather couches and an enormous gold and lapis-lazuli bull’s head, supposed to pass for art, mounted above the fireplace to the doors to the patio, where Rico is waiting for them. The doors to the garden are flung wide onto a Moroccan courtyard, all stone and sunken seating, with a sliver of a lap pool at the far end turned into a narrow band of choppy blue by the rain. Rico ushers them out across the wet tiles, which is all right for her in her rubber-soled slippers, but Billie’s socks soak through instantly.

Here's what we do get of Julita: "Mrs. A. has had too much work around her eyes, she knows, her chin tucked, but her hands betray her, the crepe paper texture, the liver spots. She’s in her late sixties, maybe early seventies, short and stocky." I'm so confused. This makes no sense. Mrs. Amato is in her 70s!?!

[CSA] We know--I looked ahead--that Billie is trying to harvest Miles sperm to make women pregnant and not as an exotic food item or hand lotion. I had assumed her buyer was the one desperate to breed. This would almost (ALMOST) make sense if Julita were on the cusp of menopause and frantic to get pregnant now, unwilling to wait for the government to discover a vaccine and left the reprohibition law. And it would make even more sense if Miles were connected to Thierry in some way. Amato could be obsessed with having a biological link to her late husband. Making a baby that looked like him, etc. This would also neatly side-step why Miles is the one being sought, when rich (white?) people seeking expensive sperm donors tend to racist and to want white children that will look like them and share their race.

But now we see that Amato is in her 70s and isn't the one who will be getting pregnant, sooooo what gives? What's her motive in all this? Is she just wanting to broker the sperm to other buyers? Why? There's got to be easier and legal ways of making money! I just- I don't *want* a villain who is obsessed with getting herself pregnant with her dead husband's surviving relatives, but it would make more SENSE, is the thing?? And if Billie were related to Thierry, it would explain her connection better than "exotic chef who convinced Mrs. Amato's of her discretion and loyalty in the most ridiculous flashback ever" which we are now subjected to.

Billie used to memorize the hotel names that the Amatos stayed at. "She was just one of the help, then. Brilliant chef or not, she slept on the yacht with the rest of the crew. But not for long." Wait, okay, PAUSE. I'm sorry. Pause.

In Ch.6 Billie told us: "That’s what she was doing for Mr. and Mrs. Amato, executive chef, catering exclusive dinners in exotic locations where the law was…squishier, shall we say. From Manila to Monrovia, Bodrum to Doha. Someone has to feed the rich and unscrupulous." I foolishly thought that meant Billie was serving them endangered species and, like, maaaybe human flesh. But, no, Billie was just a regular chef and the "squishy laws" weren't relevant to her job.

The "exotic locations" that the Amatos were going to were because they do Unspecified Crime in those areas and aren't just wanderlusty tourists with too much money and time to spend. Billie doesn't even know what those crimes were/are, I presume because that would have required the author to do some research on what crimes would be reasonable for rich people on "superyachts" to do with their bare hands (as opposed to electronic crimes). This is just... ugh. So lazy. The Amatos are just criminals who go to Criminal Countries to crime.

So now in Ch. 11 we learn that Billie was just a normal brilliant private chef living on the "superyacht". "She was just one of the help, then. Brilliant chef or not, she slept on the yacht with the rest of the crew. But not for long." In a flashback, Billie takes a break from kitchen work during a fancy business dinner (*laughs at the head chef taking a long break during dinner*) and runs into Mrs. Amato in the garden. Billie asks her employer for a cigarette. Julita is the rich wife of a rich businessman who has rich clients to entertain, and only now asks her chef whether the food is "exotic". Billie answers that the food is "local" and "sustainable" which uhh isn't quite the same thing.

“Can I have a cigarette, please? I didn’t bring mine.” “You’re the cook?” Mrs. A. tapped out one for her, passed it over. “The chef. Billie Brady.” “Ah. Tell me about the ingredients you order in. Are they very exotic?” “We try to source local where possible, so it’s fresh, sustainable.”

Texas beef is local but the meatpacking industry isn't usually considered sustainable in the sense of "sustainable impacts on both environmental, economic and social systems that surround food". Or if it is, I've learned something today. I'm a little heady at Julita, a rich (white?) woman, having never before considered the food she's putting in her mouth. She's not vegan? Vegetarian? On a series of diets, each more ridiculous than the last? She doesn't read Gwyneth Paltrow's GOOP missives as gospel?

Mrs. Amato urges her chef to "“You should consider more imported specialty items. Mr. Amato likes his treats. You know what men are like. I have suppliers I can put you in touch with.”" and gives Billie a name to order from. Billie somehow naturally and correctly (!!?) assumes that this is a smuggling overture, and sure enough the ordered consignment of frozen pheasants has a "vacuum-sealed brown paper package" stuffed in the body cavity of one of the birds. This is how the author thinks crime works and I am making a low keening howl.

She was expecting cocaine or abalone or rhino horn or, hell, assault rifles. It could have been some of those things—she never found out, never asked. Because Billie didn’t open the vacuum-sealed brown paper package she found stuffed in the body cavity of one of the consignment of frozen pheasants. She took it directly to Mrs. Amato herself, taking a shore pass to catch a taxi up to the Chedi hotel. “If you’re going to smuggle things in via my kitchen, you want someone you can trust to get them to you.” “Don’t you want to know what’s inside?” “I believe discretion is a commodity.” “And can I trust you to deliver?” “Of course.”

She was "expecting" assault rifles to come in because she ordered pheasants from a supplier Mrs. Amato gave her? And she didn't open the package because she was SO SURE it had to be something illegal and not, like, giblets?!? Then she put the ILLEGAL GOODS in her purse and hailed a taxi and drove the ILLEGAL GOODS over to her employer to put the ILLEGAL GOODS directly in her hands, because that's how rich people do crimes.

How was the smuggling supposed to work if Billie hadn't taken the ILLEGAL GOODS via taxi to Mrs. Amato? Was Billie just supposed to cut open the giblet-package and blithely serve Mr. Amato his pheasant-and-assault-rifle-au-beurre without noticing?? Mrs. Amato is impressed by her chef's street smarts at bringing ILLEGAL GOODS directly to her via taxi cab and, I guess, hired Billie to do more ILLEGAL GOODS although we don't really know because the flashback stops there and we're back in the now.

Billie internal monologues about how kidnapping Miles for his sperm was entirely her idea, and I still do not understand the angle for Mrs. Amato. She seems to Do Crimes compulsively because she is A Criminal. Good writers, important writers, gushed over this book. I just- How is this plan going to work? I am seriously asking. I- Does the author know anything about artificial insemination?

Sure, for once, she hasn’t delivered. She doesn’t have her nephew tied up in a bow, but shit happens. She’ll make it right. This whole grand scheme was Billie’s idea in the first place. A living boy, her direct relative, someone she could get to, no harm, no foul. Trade some black-market jerk-off juice for wealth beyond their wildest dreams, help a bunch of devastated women get pregnant because reprohibition is bullshit. Get rich, save the world. It’s practically altruism.

Because, here's the thing: you cannot just turkey-baster a donation into someone and hope for the best unless you have a LOT of "deposits" and not just the couple that Billie thinks they need. For one, you're going to waste a lot of sperm that way. 1 deposit = 1 woman isn't efficient at all. For two, sperm motility--the wiggle-waggle that gets the swimmers from canal to egg--decreases over time from ejaculation. If you freeze the sample, it goes down to zero. The swimmers stop swimming and just sit there.

If you take the eggs out of the body and start using tweezers to pair 1 sperm to 1 egg, then yes, you can get a lot of embryos from one deposit. But you need a specialist doctor at this point to take the eggs out, put them back in, and wield the tweezers properly. At that point, why aren't you paying your specialist lots of money to just nip sperm out of storage at the sperm bank or HELL save yourself trouble and just grab fertilized embryos directly out of storage and implant THOSE. No tweezers or sperm needed. No kidnapping. This isn't just illegal and dangerous and immoral, it's also the least intelligent way to do this! I'm pretty sure no research was done into how to get pregnant when there's no PIV intercourse going on.

Mrs. Amato and her villainous security team ask Billie about the missing "cargo" in front of the septic tank worker, who only now (ominously) receives a name: Sandy. Billie doesn't think it's weird to discuss blatantly illegal things in front of Sandy. Billie insists that the situation is salvageable; she just needs the tracker that was installed in the car. (Why was a tracker installed in the car? This wasn't supposed to go sideways the way it did, and they took no other precautions for failure.)

Amato asks if she wouldn't also like a gun, and her henchwoman presses a gun into Billie's hands for the fingerprints before shooting Sandy, the innocent and helpful septic tank worker. No one asked Sandy anything like whether she'd called/texted a friend with her location, but I'm sure it will be fine. Amato and henchwoman gloat that they have Billie's prints on the murder weapon. That really isn't leverage when the murder occurred IN YOUR HOUSE. Like, they clearly intend this to work as long-term leverage and that doesn't really work. "Officer, I only just noticed that a woman was killed 3 weeks ago in my pool lounge. This gun might be the murder weapon, could you run it for prints? There's a dear."

Julita explains that she has to Do Crimes because of a world without men means the women must all work harder to prove themselves. This is snickerdoodles logic.

“I’m sorry,” Billie manages. She can’t get back up. Gravity has shifted. It won’t support her, like her tongue in her mouth, garbling the words. “I fucked up. I’m sorry. I’ll make it up to you.” “It might be too late for sorry. Here I am, eagerly waiting for a boy, and what do I see? There is no boy. Not here. And your sister has fled with him and the evidence, what she did to you, does not suggest that you have the situation in hand. Bringing a witness to my house? You think I’m stupid? You think because Thierry is not here that I will be the soft one, the pushover? You know that women must work harder to prove themselves. There is even more to prove now, the way the world is.”

Like. LiKE? Patriarchy meant women had to work harder than men in order to prove themselves to the men. Now that the men are all gone, we have Double Patriarchy and women have to work even MORE harder to prove themselves? WHaT? Julita Amato is now on the hook for kidnapping and murder, as well as a host of other crimes, in order to get sperm she cannot personally use and oh-by-the-way, there's plenty of non-American, non-illegal sperm she could buy in Panama.

Billie insists that she's the only one who can get Cole and Miles back. Amato and Henchwoman point out that *they* have the tracker, so what is Billie bringing to the table? [Mental Illness] "“No. You don’t understand. I’m the only one.” Say it like you mean it, or you’re dead, bitch. Head full of bloody mashed potato in the rain. “She’s paranoid. Cole. My sister.” The will to live. The conviction of fear. “She’s off her meds. Bipolar.”"

I'm about to launch off on a mental illness rant--'I said Cole would work better as someone with paranoia, but you can't just throw 'bipolar' around like that, that's not how this works'--but it's immediately revealed to be a lie. "Lying has always been easy for her. Ever since she was a little kid and understood you could remake reality with words, or at least enough to make other people doubt it." The word "bipolar" doesn't appear anywhere else in the book. I checked.

Billie says: "I’m the only one who knows her. She’ll ditch the truck as soon as she can. She’ll head for Mexico. Or Canada. I know her." Ah, yes, you know her so well that you know she'll go EITHER south OR north. One of those. This is particularly funny to me because Cole wanted to go to New York and Miles voted for Mexico, so Billie doesn't really know her at all yet I don't think that's intended to be a deliberate piece of characterization. But, eh, how hard can it be to search both the Mexico border and the Canada one at the same time? Amato sends Billie with two henchwomen (Rico and Zara). 3 people, 2 borders, 1 car.

The chapter ends there. None of this makes any sense. Surely it would be infinitely easier to kidnap another man/boy than one which is off the grid, forewarned, and running. Billie even says that they'll need her personally to convince Miles because "he trusts me". So she's really taking on faith (or from a direct line to the author) that Cole isn't bad-mouthing her to Miles and telling him how dangerous she was.

I need a break and maybe some pheasants to dig around in. Who knows, I might find a vacuum-sealed pony! The only good thing I can say about this book is that the plot is so bonkers that the transphobia is somehow easier to deal with, because the sheer constant illogic has a steadying effect, like an anchor in a storm. I mean, a major main character thinks she might have found an assault rifle in a tiny frozen pheasant, how can I NOT find that comforting among all the misgendering and clothing dysphoria??It's like ALICE IN WONDERLAND, but with transphobes instead of Cheshire Cats.

I half expected the pheasant to turn into a pig and run off. (Wonderland deep-cut for all my fellow English majors out there.)

Okay. Okay. Here we go.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 12.

"12. Miles: Lab Rat Boys"

I think we're finally going to find out what Government Quarantine was like, which is the sort of thing I would have established much earlier. One thing that's neat about reading a book where the author doesn't feel compelled to stay consistent to what has been written in previous chapters is that every new chapter is a surprise! Miles previously said quarantine was fine but now it might be absolute torture!

We're in "one year ago" time and Miles has already tired of living on "Joint Base Lewis-McChord" after "several months". The excitement of seeing all the army stuff has worn off, and "all the soldiers are women". written like it's a drawback or disappointment. Miles biggest complaints are:

- He hasn't seen or ridden in a tank at this military base.
- There are medical tests.
- Sometimes the lady-soldiers stare at them while trying not to sob about their lost children and Miles hates being "in a boy zoo".

Today there's a newbie soldier in the cafeteria who isn't used to seeing boys, so that's Miles' source of angst. They load up on "a special treat of waffles, and fake bacon and fresh fruit", because the government doesn't want them dying of scurvy or bad meat. The newbie guard keeps sneaking glances at them and Miles and Jonas gripe about how much they hate being stared at like they're "in a boy zoo". They flick berries at the guard. “Where are your manners? Didn’t your mom teach you it’s rude to stare?” Jonas is 12 and Miles is 11-almost-12, so I realize they aren't going to be paragons of empathy but... the woman just lost every man she ever knew or loved! The boys aren't being stared at *maliciously*; she's got trauma and they're a complex trigger for her!

Quarantine has therapy for the children and Miles hates it because he thinks it's useless. "[S]he tells him it’s okay to be angry and it’s okay to be sad or scared or frustrated or have questions. Like he doesn’t know all that already....She also says it’s okay to talk about it, and would he like to talk about how he’s feeling? He would not. Thank u, next." I don't really like how therapy is being treated here as useless, just like all the other social services are being treated.

In our first and only mention of religion so far in this book--an odd omission given that churches should be all over this apocalypse thing--it's randomly dropped that people outside the quarantine are worshiping the boys inside. These visitors crowd outside quarantine bearing gifts and singing hymns and hoping to catch a glimpse of the gods inside. The soldiers bring in the best gifts for the boys. This amazingly accelerated cult timeline given that we're only 1 year into the pandemic.

“Did you see who brought them?” He perks up. It’s half-creepy, half-hella cool that the base attracts pilgrims who gather outside the fences hoping to catch a glimpse of them. Like they’re boy bands, Mom says, or gods. They bring presents a.k.a. tributes, and the soldiers select the best ones to bring inside and then the moms and sisters and aunts and wives can sort through them and decide what they want. Fat pickings. Sometimes the pilgrims sing songs or hymns, but it’s hard to hear outside sounds through the reinforced walls where he lives in the quarantine unit. “I’m going to guess it was a librarian, because they’re all library books,” she says, taking them out one at a time, trying to flatten the swollen pages with the heel of her hand. No comics, this time. “Or a library thief.”

I'm a little stunned that the soldiers are so chill with massive crowds surrounding the building holding their "gods". That sort of thing tends to end badly. We learn that Cole is watched "extra closely" by the guards because she threw a chair at a general when they were first brought here and she was told Miles needed to be tested and quarantined for his own safety. Jesus.

I'm struggling with all this because quarantine doesn't sound that awful? It's clearly not ideal, of course! But the tests Miles keeps complaining about are "mild discomfort" not "evil government torture" and I've been through way worse as a disabled kid. Furthermore, a lot of his complaints aren't things that would be any different outside. Women in here stare at him, but so would women outside. The food isn't tantalizing, but there's been a pandemic. There's not many boys his age, but there's fewer "back home"!

This book reads like Miles and Cole are blaming the inconveniences of a global pandemic and apocalypse on the government which is trying to help everyone comfortably survive it, and that's- it's just breathtakingly privileged. The people in charge of this place carefully explain to the boys why they're here and what the goal of this place is. It's all very clearly outlined and not dystopian at all; no one is kept in confusion or fear.

I'm not a doctor but I'm pretty sure all of this is suspect.

Then she put on another animated video that explained that virus receptors were like keyholes and the viruses like keys, and something inside their bodies, from the genes inherited from their moms, meant that their keyholes were blocked and HCV couldn’t lock on to their cells, and that’s why they survived. And if they have kids, their daughters (who are xx) will survive too because the gene is x-linked. And the scientists are working very hard using the very best technology in the world to make sure that soon, really soon, in the next few years, baby boys (who are xy) will survive too. But that's why all the countries around the world have agreed to have a Reprohibition, where no one is allowed to have babies until the scientists and doctors can figure it all out. So that's why we have to do all these tests on everybody.

For one, we have the usual cis-fail of assuming that all girls are XX and all boys are XY when it's more complicated than that. For two, I'm puzzled by the grammatical structure of "if they have kids, their daughters will survive too" when cis women aren't dying. For three, *ding ding ding* we have retcon! "all the countries around the world have agreed to have a Reprohibition, where no one is allowed to have babies". Billie previously implied Reprohibition was an American thing but now it's the Entire World. Everywhere.

Can I just say how ridiculous that term is? It's so obviously a call-back to Prohibition, a thing that everyone on the planet now thinks was a foolish Puritanical law that tilted against the windwill of human nature and got a lot of people unnecessarily killed. You might as well have named the law Unpopular McSlappypants and then pretended that was an unbiased name. Why not the "CARES Act" or the "HEALS Law" or something I would actually believe? Kissmate suggested PregBan. I like MercyPause.

If the virus was originally planned to kill everyone regardless of gender--that ambiguous "their daughters will survive too" haunts me--that might explain why people aren't having babies. But when it only affects boys, that doesn't explain why they aren't having girls!

Miles has (anxiety) stomach pains and night terrors about a monster called Cancer Fingers. He refuses to take pills for the stomach pains and won't discuss this in therapy and I'm frustrated because we have SO FEW depictions of pills and/or therapy helping people. Like, yes, I think it's realistic that a traumatized 12yo boy would self-harm by refusing any and all help, but that doesn't mean I have to like this choice. Miles thinks "he’s glad for the tests (don’t tell Mom), because it means he can ask: are you sure I’m immune? Are you sure I don’t have cancer?""Don't tell Mom" he's glad for the tests? Because she'll be upset with him?

Miles always checks the door to his single-occupancy room at night and tonight the door is unlocked by accident. He decides to explore. All the doors are unlocked tonight (electronic failure? duty shift mix-up? who knows) so Miles frees his blond friend Jonas, who draws dicks on whiteboards and talks about how all the researchers care about is breeding them when they get older.

Jonas tells Miles that the scientists will probably try to get Cole pregnant (the immunity gene is inherited from the mother, so presumably any children Cole has will be immune like Miles) and Miles goes into a hazy rage and attacks Jonas, shoving him to the ground. "[Miles] wants to get outside, he wants to bust out of here and go home. His real home, to their house back in Johannesburg with their cat and the people he knows." A soldier finds him and sends him back to bed. That's the end of the chapter.

So now we're finally seen the government quarantine that Miles and Cole are fleeing from. It's safe, ethical, and caring, with good food, good medicine, and good therapy. It keeps boys and men safe from cultists who want to worship them. It's the only place on earth where Miles will have male company his age and where he will be safe from kidnapping and exploitation. He's allowed to see his mother on regular visits. He's treated well but not (unhealthily) worshiped by the guards.

It's not freedom and I'm not trying to up-sell it as a great place to be!! But Miles wants to leave it because he's associated the pandemic with the quarantine, and Cole wants to leave it because Cole wants full control of her child with no one telling her what to do. These aren't healthy reasons to leave the one place keeping Miles safe from kidnapping, murder, cult-capture, and so forth. Quarantine doesn't need to be an unmitigated Good to be BETTER than the alternatives.

And the absolute best alternative Cole can offer, the Best Case Scenario here, is that she gets him back home and hides him in the attic for the rest of his natural life. He can never come out, not for exercise, not for air, not for medical care, nothing. He'll never see another human being in his life except for Cole. Because if he does, he'll be torn to shreds or worse by the grieving women outside who want him for his maleness and bodily fluids.

I've gone over this whole chapter twice and I can't tell (a) where Cole lives when she's not visiting Miles (is she on base? is she being tested too?) nor (b) how often the family visits are. It's possible the visits are daily: today they have "early family visits today, because of their operations later." And again, I'm definitely not going to say that this sounds like a utopia, but a dystopia it is NOT.

They're even told: "Nobody was going to put any pressure on them, it was her job to keep them safe and happy, she said, and the only thing she wanted to ask them to do was live their best possible lives in these difficult circumstances and it wasn’t going to be forever and she promised them that the government was working on a viable long-term solution that put their needs front and foremost and got them back to normal, whatever that looked like, as soon as possible." 1984, this ain't.

I'm struggling to sleep, so let's see how much of this I can do before I fall asleep.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 13.

"13. Billie: Angry Cats"

Oh good. Another chapter in which the villain does inept things. God forbid we return to that whole "Utah commune" destination. Perhaps I'm being unfair and other people love these constant flashbacks and side-leaps that stop the action every few paces, but it's really hard to stay invested in a story that keeps slamming the breaks.

Billie is vomiting in the bathroom because she's still got a concussion. We need to be reminded that she's a villain, so we learn how she got drunk at 11 and framed the cleaning lady and got her fired. Cole, it is stressed, was innocent of these villainous deeds. Yawn. Amato's henchwomen--Rico and Zara--are tending to Billie's wound because I guess they're qualified to sew up a concussion, who knows. The pain is artfully compared to an orgasm. Oh, they're just bandaging it, no stitches? Ok.

The bandage is duct tape. Rico and Zara tell her that it's a concussion and she needs a hospital but that "Medical privileges are for closers", as in people who closed their end of the deal. So, okay, Amato continues to be ineptly Evil for the sake of evilness, since she thinks it's wise to let her one lead for tracking Miles be confused and disoriented and blacking out repeatedly. Really smart. I ponder whether or not it's misogynistic to make your lead villain a 70 year old woman with crepe paper hands and planning so inept she should've been caught by bumbling Inspector Lestrade of the Scotland Yard years ago.

I guess Billie instantly blacks out because Rico finishes a sentence and then Billie wakes up in the back of a car. There's no segue to orient the reader: "“You really let Mrs. A. down. The buyer is very disappointed.”She’s in the back seat of a car. Zara is driving". Billie is given sandwiches and an energy drink and non-specific pills because "we need you in fighting shape." Because that's a viable substitute for the actual medical care she needs! Duct tape and "opioids"! "Fentanyl? Heroin? She doesn’t care. Although she probably needs antibiotics more than opiates. A hospital. Brain surgery to release the pressure so she doesn’t die out here with these two."

Billie says she didn't think you could get opioids anymore and, like, why not? They still have name-brand "Monster Energy drink" and everything else under the sun! Why would opioids suddenly not be produced anymore? Time skips again--so much for the efficacy of those drugs, I guess--and we're at the gas station where Cole ditched the car. We got from the Cali coast to the gas station in less than a page. If only the rest of the novel were so efficient.

Let me check Google maps. Okay, the car trip from Belvedere, California (the safehouse location) to Elko, Utah (the gas station) is 8 hours. 511 miles. Billie was blacked out for almost ALL of that. But she's not so wounded she can't limp along with duct tape and two pills. This feels so lazy? I'm not saying don't move the action along--DO!--but she doesn't need to be unconscious just to justify not writing down her every itch and fart along the way.

The "desert sky is blue" and/but all the gas station lights "are blazing" so I have no concept of time. Day? Night? Eclipse? They notice an abandoned SUV and Rico asks Billie if that's the car. Billie asks what the tracker says, because she intentionally chose a "nondescript" car. Way to memorize the license plate or something, Billie. How were you planning to find Cole without the tracker??

She fantasizes that they'll shoot Cole to show these people mean business and makes elaborate plans to have Cole committed to a mental health facility for trying to kill Billie in front of Miles. Nothing interesting here, just standard villainy internal monologue.

...I'm so sorry, I dropped off last night without finishing the chapter. (I have been fighting a fever for weeks and last night I became very feverish.)

I realized a thing that irks me about the unconscious 8 hour drive from safehouse to abandoned car is that we have no indication from the tracker how long the car has been standing still. There is a very big difference between Billie and Rico and Zara driving 8 hours towards a van which is moving, vs. driving 8 hours towards a van which is NOT. And when they arrive at the gas station, they seem to have no idea. They speculate Cole may be inside, paying. This is a chance for characterization, for planning, for showing thought processes! If they arrive thinking the car is already abandoned, that spans different thoughts/conversations/plans than if it's been moving all night and only just stopped.

The van has apparently been abandoned for a while because it's already been looted by someone else, back door gaping open. Billie snaps at Zara for searching the vehicle for clues. “She’s not going to have left you a map, with Las Vegas circled in red.” Zara asks whether Cole would go to Vegas and Billie spaces out, remembering the 24yo boyfriend she had at 16. There's so much weirdness going on with Billie's villain background: she stole, she pretending to be a lesbian, she drank, she "dated" predatory older men.

This is probably supposed to read as "troubled" or even "mentally ill" but it comes across like a weirdly conservative shaming exercise, like she was a Slut for being taken advantage of by a man--not that the text presents her as a victim; she's presented as the pursuer. She was proud of being the only one her age dating a 24yo. When he broke up with her after he got bored with the "fucking", she sat outside his house and tried to get drunk enough to firebomb his family. He thought she was joking but she wasn't. Et cetera.

The henchwomen grill Billie on whether Las Vegas is where Cole would go. “I don’t know,” Billie snarks. “Let me check my sibling telepathic connection.” They hit her and she complains, but she sold her position as crucial because she *knows* her sister, so I mean. Billie: “Are you kidding? I’m helping. Shit. You need me more than before. All you’ve got is an abandoned car. But I know how her mind works. I can get to her.”

Did no one edit this book? Like, how do you pivot from 'don't ask me, I can't read her mind' to 'uh, you NEED me because I can read her mind' and not have someone--anyone!--notice that this doesn't flow well?

Billie says Cole ditched the car "because the Department of Men will be going all-out to find her." I forgot they existed because I don't think we've heard of them since Chapter 1. Why would they even know Cole is on the move? "Going all-out" to find someone feels like a recent effort, not something you can sustain for a long period of time. You don't "go all-out" on cold cases. So why is the DoM (dom, omg) looking for Cole when they don't even know she's on the move?

(Why "Department of Men"? Why create a new department? This isn't a futuristic Orwellian dystopia where we've had time to make and staff new departments! Why not the CDC or FBI? Hell, you wanted to make parallels to today's racism, so why not ICE? WHY NAME IT SOMETHING THAT ACRONYMS TO "DOM"?)

Zara hands Billie a smartphone with internet access and that crashing sound you hear is the entire plot because if smartphones exist then why can't Cole just steal or buy one and have all the internet she desires? She's hitching a ride to Utah when all she needed was to snatch a single purse.

Billie insists that Cole would go for Canada instead of Mexico because she can "speak the language" so I guess it IS supposed to be a heavy-handed joke that Billie will always guess Cole wrong (since she's headed to Mexico, via Salt Lake City). Bold choice to make your book villain totally incompetent in all things and in all ways, but here we are. I am just on the edge of my seat with tension, yessir.

Billie says they'll go to Salt Lake City (where Cole is headed! what a coincidence!) because she "needs somewhere with internet. So I can send her a message. I know how to get into her head. She’ll come to us. I know how to play her." I- The phone you're holding has internet!! Zara playfully raps Billie across the back of the duct tape and the chapter ends there. We established that Billie knows Cole is in a new car and they're both going to Salt Lake City because apparently there's nothing else in Utah/Nevada worth going to.

I guess we'll keep going. I feel like I've made my point--the science is bad, the transphobia is boiled in and wasn't just an afterthought or carelessness, and the writing is awful--but I've been told there's more overt transphobia coming up so I'm continuing.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 14.

"14. Cole: Philosophy Dogs"

[Racism] Um. On the early morning drive, Cole looks at the landscape and compares it to "Wild Wests and savage lands, hostile alien territory where anything might happen." I don't- How do- I don't even know where to start with that? To look at land that belonged to Native Americans and casually invoke a common slur against them ("savage") to describe the land while reminiscing about white-centering Wild West mythos? And "hostile alien territory where anything might happen" is treating Native Americans as hostile, alien, and ready and willing to do anything to the poor nice white woman crossing the land. What the actual eff?

Cole is anxious about arriving in a city because cities mean authority and she's not a "huge fan of authority". And...small towns are...safer and more likely to guarantee personal freedom? Cole is such a libertarian it hurts. Fun fact! Johannesburg, where Cole is trying to get to, had a population of 950,000 in 2011. [Editor's Note: This should be 4 million.] Salt Lake City had a population of 200,000 in 2018. Cole is trying to get to a VERY big city indeed but is wary of a much smaller big city.

She looks forward to meeting the farming anarchists who are living in their commune in the heart of Salt Lake City--none of those words make sense to me when arranged in that order--but warns herself not to trust anyone. "The house is a two-story painted lady that has seen better days, rambling ivy, with a mismatched collection of wicker furniture...and a tractor parked out front, “The Future Is Female” spray-painted on the side. Someone has painted “Fucked” over the word “Female.”"

Is the "commune" just "roommates in a 2-story house"? Is that what this is?

Dogs run out to meet them--dogs named after dead philosophers--and the narrative is deadnaming and misgendering Miles again, calling him "her" and "Mila".WHY?!?! Why was this considered necessary?? Why did all those cis authors praise this??? Can some folks just not get out of bed in the morning without coffee and a spot of gender violence against children??

The house is "cheerful chaos" with "a Tibetan prayer flag" (...somewhere? unclear whether on the wall or hanging free.) and a quilt "embroidered with vulvas on every panel". When asked what time it is by a sleeper, the answer given is "Time for the revolution!" In a better book I think I would find this charming, but here it just feels like a heap of stereotypes lumped together. I'm expecting the cats to be named after Shakespeare characters and to have the "BLM" letters artfully shaved into their fur. The vulva quilt is especially annoying given the transphobic premise of the book. I like good vulva art as much as the next person, sure, but I'm poised to expect these anarchists to be TERFs based on the quilt.

They meet Angel, who is covered in tattoos and whose first words are: “It’s too early to overthrow the system. I did not fucking consent to six a.m.” With a heavy heart, I realize I will need much more coffee. I am just- Yes, I have friends who talk like this. But we don't talk like this ALL THE TIME. There's a hollow tone to this that I think I would forgive if everything else were better, but it's not so I don't.

Cole asks for coffee. Angel: “Rarer than dicks with the South America boycotts. I don’t know what the interim government is thinking. Just legalize drugs, put a stop to narco violence once and for all, and then we can have all the sweet caffeine imports we need again." There's so much there that I'm just- We have an "interim government"?! Why is this the first we're hearing about this, in chapter 13? Why would we be prioritizing boycotts in this situation? Why are boycotts limiting supply--does the author mean "embargoes" instead of "boycotts"? Why COFFEE?

Ten points to Gryffindor (maybe, I guess?!?) for not having the drug trade suddenly disappear because men are dead, but before we break out the "Hire More Women Drug Lords" feminism chant, I would point out that half the WORKFORCE is also gone. Hell, I'm curious about how demand is still constant, when I would suspect that drug use probably has a gender skew because of stigma. (I have so many questions about how sex work has been impacted by this apocalypse, for the same reason.) Also, if Angel is using "rare as dicks" as a colloquialism AND sleeping under a vulva quilt, I'm definitely penciling her under the TERF column.

More questions: How is this the first time Cole is hearing about the coffee shortage?! She's been stopping at gas stations, did she just not notice the signs up saying NO COFFEE? Maybe her time at the (still unexplained!!) "billionaire wine farm" isolated her from all this because the billionaire had all these luxuries and shared them with their guests (prisoners??? workforce???), but wouldn't that be disclosed to the populace there? Like, "why would anyone want to escape here, there's coffee and life's little luxuries, unlike the outside world." I swear it feels like the coffee shortage didn't exist until this chapter so Angel could pontificate about "narco violence".

Cole has already messed up her cover story, relocating the camp they need to get to from Denver to Vail, about 100 miles west of Denver. Smooth, Cole. Guess your cover story plan of "rapid fire lying" didn't work out so well. Incidentally, Kissmate asked me last night what, if any, dystopia elements there are in this book. My reply was that "the only dystopia is that Cole doesn't get her way immediately all the time."

The cats are also named after philosophers and I just. Like, even our lovely @ellle_em ran out of pokemon after a while and had to use dead poets. Another woman--Patty--walks in. We haven't been given much description for Patty and Angel (no food metaphors for *their* skin, just for Miles!) but I think they're white. Patty is an older woman "with that inner stillness that only comes from half a century of yoga."

Bhavana admits to Patty that she's been “Collecting data and random folk along the road. This here is Nicky, and the smaller version is Mila.” Patty is friendly and asks what they need; Cole asks for internet. Cole frets: "What is she going to say to Keletso back home, after over a year of radio silence? “Hey, friend, long time no speak. So, listen, I accidentally murdered my sister on top of my existing charges, and now we’re on the run, and can you send help?”" Things I don't know:

- Who Keletso is.
- What their (her?) relationship is with Cole.
- Why she should be surprised by a year's silence after an apocalypse.
- How she can help in the slightest.

Cole thinks the things standing between her and South Africa are a lack of passport, a lack of money, and the fact that Miles being a boy will get him locked up by the American government if anyone realizes his gender. How can Keletso fix any of that?

Patty says that "All the furniture is reclaimed—have you heard about the What You Need movement? We encourage stores to leave their doors open, let people help themselves." WHAT. Every person on earth is almost certainly cleaning out the "man-cave" in their house, and any sons' rooms, so used furniture should be plentiful! Why would furniture stores be asked to give away new stuff, and why would they agree?? This is the first we've heard of any kind of post-apocalypse change to capitalism, and it's so randomly placed here, like. What. What. What. "Yes, we've just convinced stores to freely give away the furniture they BOUGHT and which WAGES were paid for"?!


Patty says they've "had a lot of support from the Mormon Church" and Cole quips “Sister wives are used to sharing?” because she's too ignorant to understand that the Mormon Church isn't the FLDS. Patty snaps back: “You’re making fun, but there are a lot of women-centered communities who are managing the transition better than the rest of us.” I- what? Is she saying the Mormon Church was an unusually woman-centered community before the manpocalypse? [Editor's Note: The "sister wives" thing comes back later and the author genuinely doesn't seem to realize that Mormons are not polygamous. She seems to think that means the community has more women than men, and that makes it "woman-centered". I have no words.]

“Qatar and Egypt have more female programmers than the U.S.” Angel hands her a steaming cup. “Careful, it’s hot. Our government is trying to lure them over with immigration packages. It’s caused a real political stink.”My head hurts. This author literally does not realize that the *reason* the US has gender disparity in STEM is *because* of patriarchal blocks keeping women out, and that these blocks would instantly disappear in this apocalypse. There would be droves of women who left STEM re-entering for a variety of reasons in this scenario, along with new people being trained up for, again, a number of reasons. Furthermore, what possible "immigration package" could America be putting together to lure anyone here? "Come to sunny America, where you aren't legally allowed to birth a family and there's no coffee!"

"“I heard that,” Cole bluffs. But of course she hasn’t. She takes a sip to cover, and scalds her tongue." There is never going to be any reason given, will there, for why Cole is so ignorant about her own setting? What was she *doing* all the time while Miles was in quarantine being tested? She's like this weird anti-feminist stereotype where her entire world is her child and she has no curiosity about the rest of the planet. Only her baby.

It can be really difficult to world-build when a protagonist knows their world inside and out, I know. Having a protagonist who needs everything explained to them is a way of getting information to the reader. But the easy way to handle this would've been to have Cole in government quarantine and all information denied to them or at least heavily edited to be "pro-American" so that only now is she getting the other side. What you do not do--or, at least, what I do not recommend doing--is make a protagonist who had equal access to all this information and just never looked into any of it because, I guess, it bored her? (At least make it part of her trauma over Devon's death!)

Billie is taken out to the "cottage" (??) past the "lush vegetable patch" and the free range chickens. she sure she's in the heart of Salt Lake City? Because this feels more like the country or at least the deep suburbs. Patty tells her they've made a massive multi-story community plot garden out of a parking garage. “We grow our own vegetables here, but there’s a community plot three blocks over. Old parkades make excellent urban farms, especially the multi-story ones.” Parking garages are usually pitch-black even in the middle of the day. What are they growing in there, subterranean mushrooms? (I have also never heard one called a "parkade".)

How- Why- What would make you think a parking garage was the best place to begin with a community garden? You'd have to ship in a zillion tons of earth and growing lamps and irrigation systems! There's no natural soil, light, OR water! Zombie apocalypses grow gardens in weird places because the hordes of infected have made vertical space necessary, NOT because those are the best places to farm. Here in the heart of the city, Patty and Angel and Vana have enough space to grow all their vegetables AND space for a memorial rock garden with pictures taped to the stones. Patty's husband and boyfriend are there.

We finally learn that Cole did indeed live *inside* the government quarantine with Miles and wasn't living outside on her own. Useful information we should've had ages ago. The cottage is made of recycled bricks and 3D printed shelves, because I presume Patty is trying to win some kind of award for the most environmentally conscious dwelling in the world, and reclaimed wooden shelves just wasn't buzzwordy enough.

Patty promises to send Bhavana--who appears to be the only Black woman in this 3-person "commune" of roommates--out to the cottage with towels and sheets and a laptop. "She opens the door onto a ramshackle room, with a mattress mounted on cinder blocks...and a digital-rights activist banner that reads...“I do not consent to the search of this device,” as if there was personal data baked into the bricks. Maybe there is." This book was designed to hurt me, I swear. Personal data baked into the bricks. Why. Why.

Patty waits to see if Cole needs to unburden herself and ask for help, because I swear to god no one in this novel has anything to do with their time *except* devote their lives to Cole. Cole doesn't, so Patty leaves and the chapter ends. I do not know anything about how Patty and Angel make money, or if they have jobs at all. They just exist to serve Cole tea and provide Cole with free room and board and send their Black roommate in with towels and sheets and computers for Cole to dirty up. Are there other members to this commune? Are the women roommates or lovers? Do they have children who perchance might be in school? We know nothing about them that doesn't relate to The Care And Feeding Of Cole.

[Correction] I've been informed by @garland_shelley that the population of Johannesburg was 4 million in 2011 and 5.7 million in 2020, not the 950,000 posted downthread. I mis-Googled. Thank you! This makes Cole's fear of cities even more inexplicable, unless she's just afraid of American cities and thinks back home should be fine. Fun Fact: the Utah commune brings up that they've persuaded the American government to "redistribute" empty houses in the wake of the pandemic. If other countries are doing this too, it's been suggested by @zeroefficiency that Cole's may not own her old house anymore!

I can't sleep tonight, so let's try another chapter of this.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 15.

"15. Miles: Common Misconceptions"

The Anarchists have a rule that people can't stay at the house without doing chores--which against sounds like Libertarians to me and my Dad pontificating that people who don't work don't get to eat--so Miles' first chore is collecting chicken eggs. He hates it because the eggs are still warm from "the chicken's butt", which honestly seems like a mild thing for a 12yo boy to get grossed out over but to each his own.

(Like, to be clear before anyone jumps on me for hating chores, it's not that I think Miles and Cole shouldn't be asked to help out, it's just the near-religious insistence that food must be earned with labor. Disabled people exist, etc. If a traumatized woman and her kid pitched up on my doorstep and asked to stay for a day, I have very real doubts about How Soon and How Much labor I'd be expecting them to contribute to my household.)

Miles has been given an old phone "to use" (which doesn't make clear whether that means for the duration of their stay or, like, forever) and he films the chickens and edits emojis onto them. He would like to post it to the internet for his friends to see, but they weren't allowed internet at the mysterious and still-unexplained Billionaire Wine Farm, for reasons I cannot begin to comprehend. Why not? Why were they there? Who was the billionaire?

Miles ponders with some sadness that his friend Ella might be "stuck in there with the rest of them until she dies. Jonas too." and now I'm flipping madly back because Jonas was his friend in GOVERNMENT quarantine, not BILLIONAIRE quarantine, which came after. I guess we're meant to take from this that whatever event moved Miles from a military base to a Secret Wine Farm (??), Jonas came along. I wonder if books are easier to write when you don't worry about informing the reader about things.

We don't need vital plot information, but we do get dated Spongebob references. “Hey, Mila, I got more chores for you!” Angel calls from the inside of the house. “Coming,” he yells, thinking MoAr ChOrEs like on a meme, dead-eye chicken face. Once again, I marvel at how lazy the world-building is because did the planet-altering pandemic really leave us with no new memes? 4 billion people dead and we're still stuck with Spongebob? How bleak.

Furthermore, does Miles not have any friends back home in South Africa? We only hear about his friends in government and/or billionaire quarantine (okay, this is getting tedious to type; from now on it's GovQuar or BillionQuar). Yeah, I mean, all the boys he ever knew back home are probably dead and you'd think that would affect his enthusiasm to go back home, but he must have known some girls, right? Or was Cole homeschooling him to keep him with her 24/7?

The Socialists still talk like stereotypes, so while Miles tears up cutting onions Angel wistfully reminisces about all the times she's been tear-gassed and kettled and stun-grenaded and hit by cops with a riot shield "back at Occupy". (Not BLM???) Angel confides in this child the secret that she has hacker friends in Russia and India who are "trying to make the world better" in unspecified ways because details would mean more world-building. She tells Miles not to tell anyone. I groan.

Oh my god, never mind, she does give details and they're- My head. My head aches. The plan is to use DOS attacks to wipe out all debt records and immigration records, and then borders will all naturally dissolve and the government will "have to" give everyone freedom of movement. Just because.

“It’s complicated; do you know what denial of service attacks are?” “No.” “Okay, okay, we’re trying to wipe out debt records, bring down banking.” “But don’t we need money?” “No more than we need borders. That’s the other thing we’re working on, expunging immigration records.” “But what about people who want to go home?” “If you can’t prove who anyone is or how they’re here, you have to give them freedom of movement. Borders are as imaginary as money. So are property rights. We’ve got a key-card hack that overrides a lot of hotel locks, which means we can open up those rooms to whoever wants them without them having to sign a government fucking registry. Sorry, didn’t mean to swear.”

Angel's other big project is hacking open hotel rooms so that people can use them for free without having to use them for free because the government is letting them. I just cannot deal with the fact that this woman believes that if all identity records were expunged the government would just "have to" let everyone move about freely. "Have to". No choice. No alternatives. I cannot.

You'd think Miles would care a little more about how this would impact him going home, but he doesn't.

We're introduced to another roommate, Michelle, who is in her 20s. (Bhavana seems to be in her 30s, and Angel and Patty feel 40s and 50s ish.) Michelle decides that the best way to introduce herself to a 12yo is to talk about a local masturbation cult. Michelle: “I think about that now, all that semen wasted. Worth a goddamn fortune now, on the black market.” Michelle rubs her belly with both hands, ruefully. “I must have swallowed a million dollars’ worth in my time.”

What the actual fuck is this? Why is this novel so obsessed with people talking about genitals and semen to Miles the moment they meet him? This is so weird and uncomfortable and gross and borderline triggering to me. I think every Miles chapter so far has involved someone talking to him about semen. Every Billie chapter has managed to be about Miles' own semen. This is very GROSS AND WEIRD when writing about a 12yo boy.

Angel offers to take them downtown for a tour of "some bullet holes in the wall where the male militia tried to take over the city before everyone died." which implies men had time to riot but not to remove their prostates before dying. She mentions she's ex-Mormon and then makes a joke about the whole world now being "sister wives" so wow, it's not just that Cole doesn't know the difference between Mormon and FLDS, it's apparently the author too.

“Isn’t God also an alien, or am I confusing that with Scientology?” “No, you’re on the money. The Mormon God does come from another planet and it’s only the apocalypse when the Second Coming happens, when all the evil people disappear from the earth.”

They take Miles downtown and- oh god. Oh my god. OH MY GOD. Remember when this whole book was about Cole trying to find a cup of internet to borrow but there was no internet at the internet store? Well, Miles' borrowed phone has internet.And he's posting pictures and video to his social media accounts. His accounts are "private" but I'm sure Billie follows him, so his posting of video and pictures to his Snapchat of major Salt Lake City tourist spots is presumably going to backfire.

This is our plot, theydies and gentlethem: an incompetent villain, an incompetent protagonist, and a boy updating his social media and Foursquare while on the lam from the supposedly dystopian government. They've only been hiding from the government for weeks or months or maybe a year, I don't know, but I'm sure The Government doesn't have people on the inside at Snapchat monitoring the accounts of the last living men/boys.

This makes NO SENSE, by the way. Cole has been paranoid about being around people, so why would she suddenly go sight-seeing to see the downtown art exhibits? Someone could see through Miles' disguise. GENDER SNIFFING DOGS might be there. It's so contrived! Both Cole and Miles are acting totally out of their established character because otherwise the author couldn't figure out how to get Billie back in the picture. Social media posts about recognizable downtown art was the best we could come up with, really??

Angel offers to show them the local family communes. Miles asks if he can't just stay with them forever. No one answers him and the chapter ends. That chapter was just so awful. Wrong, shoddy information about Mormons that has been confusingly jammed in. Miles getting a phone just so he can immediately dox himself on his own accounts. Michelle, whose only contribution was the gross semen talk.

This book is like the slowest thriller ever--snails move faster than Cole does--with these constant weird cuts to terfiness where Miles is misgendered and deadnamed and forced to hear about genitals and semen over and over again.


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