Afterland: Chapters 16-17

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

I have to break off another new thread. This one will be Chapter 16+.

I care a lot about writing as a craft, which is why I think these deep dives tend to end up being more about writing as art rather than the transphobia that drew my attention. Like, the transphobia in these Gender Plagues is usually the same stuff repeated ad nauseum, but there's so many more and varied and interesting ways in which a book can go Terribly, Terribly Wrong.

Here at Chapter 16, I believe something happened. Maybe the author read back over her previous stuff real quick before churning out a chapter. Maybe a writing partner looked at it. We'll probably never know. But somehow the idea was implanted that, just maybe, the American government hadn't been made villainous enough for Cole to hate and fear them so much, when all they've done so far is feed and shelter people and protected Miles from violent cultist mobs.

Most books would have some sort of editing process to go back and tweak what has come before in order to better align to the story you want to tell, but this book is written by Retcon Fiat where new chapters just overwrite old ones. So here we go.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 16.

"16. Cole: Departures"

We're told this is Cole's chapter of living at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, and that the setting is "two years ago". Chapter 12, Miles' experience at the base, was "one year ago". Whoops? There's probably a way to math this into working, since Miles' chapter was about One Bad Day (which wasn't that bad, really, and in which very little happened) whereas Cole's chapter is about her entire experience there until they leave, but it's jarring. If I had been in charge of this book at some point during creation, I would have said that the flashback chapters needed to be dropped entirely. They aren't unfolding information in a way that enhances the main plot; they just keep the reader from knowing things.

We now learn, at long last and with no room for ambiguity, that Cole (a) lived on the same base as Miles (as opposed to on the outside) and was fed and sheltered and educated there, (b) saw Miles daily, (c) for 3 hours a day. "Cole settled in at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She had no choice. The DSRs were only allowed to visit the QMs for three hours a day. You know the world has gone for shit when everything is reduced to acronyms. Quarantined Males, Direct Surviving Relatives."

I had been thinking maybe families were only able to see their men/boys once or twice a week for an hour at most, but 3 hours a day?? I'm trying to remember whether my father saw me that much at 12. There are single moms who don't get that luxury. I'm not trying to tell Cole her priorities but she is a single mom in an apocalypse that is still surfacely capitalistic and requires her to have a job and money and things. I don't think she'd see Miles that much if they were outside on their own working for a living.

The acronyms are silly and unrealistic, as is the fact that the government sees the female relatives as "plus ones" at a party, with the real gold being the surviving men/boys. We established that they think the immunity came from the moms (and is in the sisters),so it's bizarre that the women aren't being tested as much as the boys. Moreover, why are none of the women being given incentive to breed to see if they can repeat this immunity? Cole may be past menopause (I have no idea if she is) but there must be some who aren't.

Cole's biggest frustration is that the visiting hours aren't flexible. "And if your little boy or your husband or your uncle or your elderly father...needs you in the between times because the tests have been especially intolerable today, then it’s too bad." Again, Miles' chapter established that the tests were mild and--speaking from experience--sometimes people just need to rest after medical tests and not be surrounded by high maintenance family members like Cole.

But Cole is a martyr in her own mind. "She’d done her best to cooperate. Because it wasn’t kids in cages, it wasn’t American concentration camps". I am genuinely nauseous that this humane protective custody is being compared to the ICE camps in any way.

Cole fills out Miles' medical history and stresses that there's not a way to get across how deeply SPECIAL he is, "so full of concern and compassion that it sometimes overwhelmed him." This is the boy who yelled at a guard for looking at him. "When he was little, he used to burst into tears if he stood on someone else’s foot." and this, too, aligns with Miles yelling at Jonas and throwing him into a glass table in a previous chapter. I'm okay with Cole having rose-colored glasses when it comes to her baby, or with Miles having grown and changed since his childhood, but it just feels glurgy and inconsistent here.

Moving on, we come to the Evil Government portion of our chapter: Cole has been either illegally detained OR some weird new laws have been hastily passed in the 1 year between the New Flu and the Cancers beginning to occur. “Attempted trafficking of a U.S.-born male citizen, moving a male citizen without federal authorization, importing and attempted trafficking of controlled substances…” and it took her too long to realize they were talking about Miles...only half fucking American".

I'm pretty sure this is the first time we've heard of Miles being born in America and I'm honestly confused because it was previously made clear that Devon moved to South Africa to be with Cole and married her there and they lived there and only ever visited the US. Then there's everything else about this which is wrong. Dual citizenship doesn't make Miles "half American". Taking your son home doesn't seem like "trafficking".

Why, in the midst of a plague causing devastating impacts to the federal government, would they require "federal authorization" to move a male, when all males are sick and dying anyway? Why wouldn't FEMA mention that to Cole? She hadn't boarded a plane or even bought a ticket--she'd gone to the airport to ask nicely for one--so how is that an attempt to move him without authorization, which one would presumably apply for at the airport? How did Cole not know about these new laws?? She is, however, totally guilty of trafficking controlled drug substances, so that part is true. Without a trial of any kind "she was officially a criminal, and Miles was a national resource for “future security,” and they weren’t going to be allowed to go home".

Even now the world-building is so squishy. She's a criminal without trial but Cole thinks she can fight "the charges" when there are no charges! Cole "asked for law books when they wouldn’t let her see a lawyer. She’d fight the bullshit charges on her own." Instead of imprisoning her or deporting Cole, the government nefariously tells her they don't have any law books and encourages her to train "in PMdFs, yet another acronym—Previously Male-dominated Fields. Agriculture. Electrical engineering. Plumbing. Medicine."

The cherry on top of Cole's martyr milkshake is that the other women hate her. "She was a pariah among the smattering of other women after it got out (or General Vance had deliberately leaked it) that she’d been caught at the airport with hoarded painkillers." These Americans all think "holding on to medicine, even a handful of pills, was unforgivable. No one would talk to her, no one would even look at her. As if she was personally responsible for every single man and boy and female casualty who died in agony."

I find this unintentionally hilarious, as if hoarding pills isn't an American pastime given the sad state of our healthcare system. But it does mean that once again we have the socialist mentality being bad (sharing pills, housing, food is wrong) and the libertarian mentality (everyone out for themselves and the weak perish) is the right way for our heroes.

Cole wakes up from a memory-dream in which she was unfairly and wrongly searched in a store when she accidentally set off the security alarms as a new mother. ("the woman security guard unearths a lipstick with the tag still attached from between the diapers and the wipes, which is what happened in real life when she absentmindedly dropped it into her bag instead of the shopping cart. Shoplifting via sleep deprivation.") You can just feel her outrage that her bag was *searched* just because she set off a theft alarm and it's amazing.

There is a Days Inn at the military base and it is here that Cole is staying in her own private room that apparently everyone has. I would've stacked people in like firewood for that dystopian lack-of-privacy feel. She has woken from her memory-dream because of an alarm going off on the base. It is 3:46 am. The base is being bombed. No, wait, that would be interesting. The base is not being bombed. The base alarm is going off because a hospital in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, is being bombed. And...I guess the Americans assumed they would be next and evacuated?

I mean, they do evacuate, that's just a fact. (“Bombing,” calls a soldier helping another mother, hoisting one of her children onto her hip. “Everyone evacuating. Move!”) What I can't understand is why Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington felt they needed to. "She finds everyone gathered in the breakfast room, watching the footage of whatever happened in Kuala Lumpur on the big-screen TVs."

"The text at the bottom of the screen tickertapes updates on the casualties: eighty-six women dead, most of them doctors and nurses, some family members—and this was the horror spoken of in solemn tones by news anchors—fifty-three HCV-resistant men and boys killed." [Racism] "An act of terrorism, ...No one claiming was the work of Pembetulan, a Malay group affiliated with the triads, meaning “The Corrective,” an extremist Muslim group". The group "believed that the death pangs of the world needed to be hurried up, that their apocalyptic god needed human help to finish off what he had started."

I feel so many levels of grossed out by this and it's hard to suss out all the reasons why. We see "a soldier in niqab" who I believe is supposed to be one of the terrorists and I just- Fuck this book. Riots in the Middle East oil countries and now murderous Muslim terrorists, while the white countries have kumbayahed their way into free furniture stores and magical parking garage community gardens. The Mormon church in Utah is alternately praised for being woman-centered and progressively socialist while still being mocked for their wacky alien beliefs, but it's still not being shown as murderous and a source of terrorist violence like Muslims are.

So far we've had no whisper of American militia groups, of Rapture fundies, of Second Amendment followers making America dangerous. Here with the Muslim group there's a brief mention of them being "like the Christian New Revelationists" but it's a passing reference. Cole doesn't worry that she'll be blown to bits by American terrorists on her way across the country during her little road trip, so they don't sound like a big presence in the country. Meanwhile, in Malaysia: Murder Muslims. Fuck.

The Malaysian incident is seen as something that could conceivably happen here, so a split decision is made at 3:47 am in the morning to move everyone to a facility which is, I guess, meant to be secure via Secrecy rather than secure via Fortified Military Base. "General Vance arrives, bustling with self-importance. “Settle down, everyone. I have an announcement...We’re moving you to other facilities. For your own protection, and as a matter of national security.”"

Someone heckles the general and "she deflates a little" because she knows she's been a Bad Woman. I would've gone with having soldiers smack the heckler around a little, really establish the government as evil and authoritarian, but whatevs. Cole cynically thinks the government doesn't want to keep all its cajones in one basket" and huevos would've been better there. Such a good joke opportunity, now wasted.

But also, YES, all the immune shouldn't be kept at the same facility and it's maddening that they didn't think of that before now. There are a million reasons not to store all your Future Of The Human Race folks in the same room. The author could've had them realize that to start with, or used a Christian militia group, or hell had an asteroid from space threaten the facility, but nope we're moving because of Malaysian Muslims and the threat they pose to a base in Washington.

That's the end of Chapter 16. The government is bad because they've called dibs on all surviving men (and did so back when no men were even expected to survive, which is weird) and they've extra-judicially imprisoned Cole in a comfy facility slash community college. It is genuinely bad that they've denied Cole legal representation and her day in the courts. She should also have had access to her consulate (strange that she never asks in the narrative!) and South Africa should've been allowed to fight to get her and Miles back.

The implication is that she's been un-personed and that she and Miles have basically been disappeared into the facility without given a chance to appeal. That's bad! It's also so much better than it really ought to be, given the dystopian apocalypse we were promised.

Before I start another chapter, I need to issue some corrections and meandering thoughts.

Friend @/elibyronbaldrsn has pointed out that "Bhavana" is a name common to India and South Asia, and that the character was described as "brown" so I may possibly have been incorrectly describing her as Black. She's a woman of color but possibly not a Black woman.

I believe the error occurred in my head when Cole described Bhavana as one of their "tribe" to Miles; since Miles and Devon are Black, I thought this was an attempt to signal Bhavana is Black herself. I now no longer am sure. In a novel which tries to be, when it remembers, a searing commentary on how America treats Black bodies, I would appreciate it if the narrative actually made it clear who is Black and who isn't. I only really know Cole is white because of a much later chapter. (Well, and the fact that Cole *acts* like a white woman, but setting that aside for the moment.)

Under the "meandering thoughts" category, I keep coming back to how much this novel feels as though it has strayed from the premise presented to us in the first few chapters. We started in an abandoned gas station, and traveled to an empty retirement community to loot it for canned goods and prescription meds. Desert-based cannibal biker gangs were threatened! The whole thing felt very Resident Evil: Extinction (the 3rd movie) and Last of Us (the game) and Mad Max (the series). Miles even felt like he was in a zombie apocalypse game, for goodness sake.

Now we're in a civilization that looks essentially the same as it does right now. Septic tank workers drive about the country emptying septic tanks. Meteorologists drive cross-state every week and don't worry about being set upon by lawless post-apoc bandits. The details we were given before now make no sense. Cole was hated by the other women for hoarding meds when they were in such short supply, yet meds were freely lootable from the retirement community. Moreover, Cole was arrested and indefinitely detained for trafficking prescription medicines! So...the first thing they do is loot more?? Aren't they worried about being searched and detained long enough for Miles' identity to become known?

We leave those thoughts to the wayside and continue on, because we must.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 17.

"17. Cole: Impossible Correspondences"

Cole asked to use the internet when she moved into the guest cottage, and was previously told that Bhavana would bring her a suitable laptop. Now, instead, she takes Cole upstairs to a guest room to use Bhavana's laptop "because it has a VPN that reroutes the traffic". VPNs are not a bad idea, and I can even buy that these anarchists with "Russian hacker friends" would use them, but it makes it all the more glaring that they handed Miles an unsecured internet-accessible phone and didn't caution him against social media use.

Bhavana brushes Cole's hand and Cole flinches and blushes. Previously Miles thought she was flirting with Bhavana (an odd thing for a 12yo to think about his widowed mom, I feel) and now Ghost Devon says "Don't let me stop you" and Cole calls him a "pervert". Swell. Normally I would be over the moon for a bisexual protagonist who is crushing on a lady friend, but it feels stilted here in the context of being spied on by the ghost in her head. Like Bhavana is an object of shame instead of a person and friend.

Cole says she knows how to email but it's "been a while". "“Why?” Vana looks at her, perplexed."

“I know how to email,” she says, flustered. “I mean, it’s been a while, but…” “Why?” Vana looks at her, perplexed. Because of course she hasn’t been restricted from communicating with the outside world for the last two years, what with censored messages at the military base and zero tolerance at Ataraxia, and here she is, giving the game away. Con artist level: blundering rookie. “On a Mac. I’m a PC user.” Smooth.

Wikipedia tells me that the author is 44 years old. I wish I knew how old Cole was, because "I haven't forgotten how to email" *sounds* so old to me. She's been denied internet for a year or more; the more relevant concern would surely be whether she knows her password. What *does* the internet look like in this future where half the population is dead? Ads would be irrevocably altered, for one. Does Gmail still exist? Are the Yahoo servers still running? Why is Cole so certain her email provider even still runs and exists?

Then there's Bhavana's confusion, which I'm not sure I understand. Cole doesn't have a smartphone (WHY? There's a whole chapter in How Not To Write A Novel about how to / how not to remove your protagonists' phone if that's what your plot needs.), which seems way more surprising to me than this, but if Bhavana took the lack of smartphone in stride then "hasn't emailed in a while" makes sense because how else would Cole email while on the road? Then again, I don't know how long Cole told her they'd been traveling.

"And she sets up a new email account anyway, VPN be damned. The Department of Men will be watching her account, all her social media." She names her new account "Glitterpukegal" which somehow wasn't already taken, lol. This is probably wise, but I am genuinely deeply disappointed that we won't see Cole's old email accounts. It's been 2 years since she logged in, how many Netflix emails will she have? Can she filter the obvious spam by searching for the phrase "unprecedented times"?

For that matter, Gmail now has to grapple with the fact that probably half of their users are now just gone. Would they delete those accounts? Purge anything not active for the past number of years? I was genuinely so much more interested in the contents of Cole's email inbox because it would scratch a very real world-building itch, dammit. I didn't want a new account. For that matter, I'm impressed she has her friend's email address memorized.

Cole types up the "salient details" to email her friend, and- oh my god. [Racism] "A federal offense, an accidental death she could be blamed for, and hey, listen, this isn’t a 419 scam, but I do have a prince of Africa with me, and we need to get out." She's describing her son Miles as a "prince of Africa" because he's Black. I want the earth to open up and swallow me after reading that. What the hell.

Keletso--a person who I still know nothing about except that she's some kind of friend to Cole--writes back 48 minutes later and tears into Cole. It's both satisfying and confusing that the author is able to so clearly articulate why Cole's plans are bad ones. Keletso tells Cole to find a lawyer and negotiate terms under which she'll turn herself in. That she's never going to be able to flee the country and this is dangerous to Miles. "You’ve taken your kid away from somewhere safe, and you’ve put him in danger. Stop this."

I am 100% team Keletso but then the author performs magic and summons one "Sisonke" who calms down Keletso and convinces her that Cole is and always has been right. I'm so sad and I find myself resenting this new character. She feels inexplicably magical. I almost can't breathe at how bad this chapter is. Keletso does a complete 180 and declares that she trusts Cole, she's willing to be an accessory to several major crimes, and that while she does want an explanation someday it can wait until Cole is home.

Keletso then somehow, magically, comes up with a convoluted escape plan to get someone out of America based on illegal cruise liners. She comes up with this entire plan in ONE HOUR of learning that Cole is alive and on the lam. I'm just- I'm just going to show you the entire email. Okay? I'm sorry.

To: From: Subject: RE: RE: RE: S.O.S. Okay. It’s been an hour since I sent my last email and I’ve calmed down. I cried it out with Sisonke and she pointed out that you’re not stupid, and you would never endanger M. unless you had to, and there’s probably a reason that you feel you can’t hand yourself in. She also pointed out that you’ve been my best friend since we were twelve and that means it’s my job to help you hide bodies, if it comes to that. My point is, you owe Sisonke bigtime. I know there’s a lot you’re not telling me. That’s fine for now, I get that your super clever email address disguise isn’t exactly foolproof (yes, I do remember the time your cat ate my glitter body lotion and threw it up on my shoes). But buddy, if you want me to be your long-distance accessory to what’s happened, you’ve got some explaining to do. This is bad. But fine, let’s get you and M. out of Dodge, then you can explain to me how the fuck this happened.

I’m assuming you can’t Skype or voice chat. I’ll talk to a lawyer. You’re not going to be able to fly out of the country. You could go to Mexico or Canada, but I don’t know what border controls are like, and there will be flags on the National Males Registry. Honestly, I think your best bet is a boat. Old-fashioned, I know. But coastal borders are the most porous. I checked with a fellow hack here researching a story about Culgoa refugees. There are gray boat runs: repurposed cruise liners sailed by the surviving female staff that truckle people across the oceans, no questions asked. They’re not cheap, but they’re pretty reliable. The tricky part is getting to them; on the U.S. coastlines, they don’t allow them into the ports, so they park in international waters and speedboats do a shuttle and dodge to get passengers out to them. That’s the expensive bit. Boat beggars can’t be choosers, though, so just focus on getting the hell out of the U.S. You might need to grease a few palms, so bring as much cash as you can get your hands on. We’ll take care of what happens on the other side later. Most African countries welcome immigrants now that most of the sick people are actually dead. Matriarchal cultures seem to be less uptight in general. Mostly.;) If you can get to Luanda, or any point south of that, I’ll send a jeep to come fetch you. Not everywhere is worse off now the men have mostly gone. Some countries are thriving now that there are no all-male terrorist groups or militias roaming around, and also there’s some seriously fascinating stuff about alternative economies emerging. I’ll keep researching. Once you and M. are safe, we can focus on getting you home to South Africa. Tjaila. And then you can explain to me IN DETAIL how the hell you got yourself into this mess, and I’ll decide whether I can ever forgive you for getting me involved in this. It will be okay. Don’t panic. I love you. Also, fuck you. Kel

I don't know how to talk about this email. I don't. There's so much here. THERE'S SO MUCH. Where do you even start? I mean, obviously we have to start with Sisonke who has so much faith that Cole isn't "stupid" and hasn't been radically changed in 2 years by a massive pandemic and the resulting apocalypse. Why is Cole being extended this belief in her good faith and good judgment? Moreover, why is Sisonke telling Keletso that being best friends since twelve morally obligates someone to be an accessory to major crimes?? Does anyone actually think like this? Because I don't, but maybe I'm a terrible friend.

Then we have the 'if you want me to be an accessory, you've got some explaining to do' which is then goalpost-moved to 'you know, later, after I've gotten you everything you could ever want, and you're back home. Over tea. At your leisure.' Keletso does not drive a hard bargain, is what I guess I am saying. Then you have this utterly bonkers idea that it's hard to make a land-crossing into Canada or Mexico, but that if you can get yourself on a CRUISE LINER, then you're home free from America.

What is a "Culgoa refugee"? I only know that Culgoa is the name of the flu because it's told to us in Chapter 29. This is the first and only mention of the word BEFORE Chapter 29, by the way. So what is a Culgoa refugee?? Are Culgoa refugees men who didn't die? Women who want to leave American to get elsewhere? Who is leaving America in such droves that there are expensive-but-reliable (!!?) cruise lines shuttling people from America to elsewhere?

Is America preventing women from leaving the country? Why? Could we perhaps be filled in on these rather important details? What are these ships using for power? There's supposed to be a massive gasoline shortage! I would find it more believable if they were sailing people across the ship in Spanish galleons. The ones with the big sheets that catch wind. Those things. (I know, I know, the nautical term is "big blankets".)

There's the weird reflexive mention of "female staff", which as @/Azure_Husky points out makes no sense in this world. It doesn't make sense in OUR world, really, to need to point out everyone's gender, but it makes less sense in a near monogender world. It feels like Keletso and/or the author doesn't have a lot of faith in the ability of women. Like, yes, the cruise ship has a FEMALE staff but they're actually better than you'd think! *confused head tilt*

The last bits of the email go completely off the rails with the matriarchal cultures being "less uptight" and the world better off without "all-male terrorist groups and militias". I'm...most terror groups and militias have female support, I'm pretty sure? Like, even if you don't allow women to formally join, there are still wives and mothers and daughters who are expected to feed the troops and provide various other labor. Keletso seems to be unaware of that, which is puzzling.

Moreover, it's just highly WEIRD to end your "yes, I'll be an accessory to your crimes; here's how to get out of the country that wants you imprisoned" email with "some seriously fascinating stuff about alternative economies emerging. I’ll keep researching." It reads like Keletso doesn't really *care* about Cole's problems, which I sympathize with because I don't either, but I MEAN?? And then she italicizes her own non-English words that are perfectly well-known to Cole.

I feel like that email aged me several years. I don't even know how to get into the fact that she was hoping to get money from Keletso and Kel's advice was to basically "bring as much cash as you can get your hands on." from somewhere else. Cole, faced with this plan and the fact that at least one person is on her side, could react with joy. Or sorrow. Or defeat, given how impossible this all seems to achieve. We we actually get is this reaction: "You’re going to need a bigger boat, she tells the screen". Does anyone in this book have emotions that aren't pop-culture references??

Cole opens her old email for no reason that I can see, and she does so now as opposed to when she was waiting and flipping through a book for 48 minutes while hoping Keletso would reply. (You'd think she'd check her old email FOR messages from Keletso.) But she needed to check her old email now (as opposed to when she was antsy and bored and waiting) because otherwise these new messages from Billie would've affected the narrative flow.

Billie pleads with her to return to the billionaire wine farm, saying she's in trouble as an accessory to kidnapping. Cole doesn't believe the emails are from Billie. "Her sister doesn’t speak like that. Has never spoken like that. She never says “please,” for starters. “Love.” “Sis.” It’s a trap. It’s disgusting. The Department of Men impersonating her dead sister to bring her back. Jesus."

I find the villianization of Billie to be confusing, given that she emigrated to America at Cole's request in order to help Cole and Miles. Odd for Cole to reach out to a sister who is so alienated that she doesn't even say please, love, or sis. Maybe the implication is that Cole is editing their past experiences together in order to assuage her guilt at killing her sister, a thing she is determined to believe she did.

The chapter ends there. Mercifully. I genuinely think that chapter with the emails broke me. Are we really now going to have to do all those things before this book ends? I face the possibility with dread.


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