Afterland: Chapters 18-19

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

I took a few days off from this Afterland book because it's just so awful and I feel like the previous chapter 17 broke me. The email between Cole and Keletso isn't just bad--though it is--there's this layer cake of issues where a white woman is calling on her 2 best Black friends to ride-or-die her out of major crimes on the grounds that they were playground buddies back in the day.

I know that internet naming sites are often riddled with inaccuracy so take this with a grain of salt, but Names dot org says Keletso means "advice" or "wish". And this is the friend who answers Cole's wishes by laying out her advisory plan for leaving the country. Names dot org says that Sisonke means "we're all in this together" / "all of us", and this is the woman who convinces Keletso to stick with Cole in spite of the immense personal risk involved in abetting major crimes. These Black women aren't *people*, they're plot devices. The one named Advice gives advice and the one named, basically, Solidarity stands in solidarity. They're magical Black best friends to call upon when the white protagonist needs a mountain moved. I hate it.

At no point does Cole ask how either of them are doing. What their lives are like. Who they've lost. Whether now is a good time to be involving them in federal crimes. Nor do they volunteer this information, because they don't exist outside of Cole's story. Keletso gushes about "fascinating stuff about alternative economies" because that's of interest to Cole and the author, but we don't know about her family and friends and life. Does she have kids? Did she lose many loved ones? We don't know. She's a cipher.

I started this read to talk about the obvious transphobia, but there's so much racism. I don't feel qualified to unpack it properly, but at the same time I'm frustrated with the white authors who effusively praised this book and seemingly didn't care.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 18.

"18. Billie: Cold Calling"

Billie still has a major concussion that is taking its sweet time about killing her. "They are two days behind Cole, maybe less. Or more? It’s hard to tell. Time feels mushy with her head ringing all the time." We get a blast of worldbuilding, the only important bit being: "presidential hopeful Mari Rytkonen campaigning on lifting the sperm bank embargo, followed up by a bunch of very serious science wonks talking about how that could be disastrous in the fight against HCV". Billie's only reaction to that is "better hurry up and find Miles while the milk market is still lucrative".

She figures Miles might use social media, borrows a phone, and lo and behold they find his pictures of the Salt Lake City public art that Miles has been posting. Such tension, much edge of seat. Billie's cultural reference points for the modern art is that he's a "bald Captain Picard motherfucker" because dated references continue to be comedy gold.

From there the women go door-to-door at the government run refugee hotels. "“Transitional Housing Authority—reuniting families across America!,” the sign outside says, like it’s not a rundown Hilton hotel playing refugee camp cum homeless shelter." I'm still unclear why so many people *need* reuniting; this wasn't a plague that separated people in the way a war or natural disaster would. And the excellent government response continues to be sneered at because it's not individualistic and glam.

The door-to-door knocking doesn't work well because the government workers care about things like "safety" and "privacy" and won't give out personal information just because Billie claims to be a relative with a sob story. Billie screams at a Black woman worker. Billie is also now hallucinating that she's 8 years old again and that a little girl is Cole, so the 4-day-old concussion is coming along great. At least I think it's been 4 days. The timeline is basically an exercise in imagination.

The villains do email at the library because it's 'harder to trace' than phone. "She had to wait for a computer, sandwiched between a scrawny teenage girl surreptitiously browsing what seems to be erotic fanfic, and a well-worn hausfrau knitting and watching [YouTube]." I can't get over how much the Gender Plague is just a... background detail that no longer affects anything except Billie's kidnapping motive. It's like the gender plague didn't exist *except* to give Billie motive, then the author promptly forgot about it.

Like, how is this different from any other day at the library? I don't really know what I would give people to do, internet-business-wise, in the wake of a gender plague that killed 50% of the world's population, but it wouldn't be this? Like. LIKE? "In the children’s reading area, someone is giving a talk about eco-friendly waste management to eager adults, all perched uncomfortably on the pint-size furniture, with their knees up to their tits." Who, 2-3 years after the death of every boy and man they know, is salivating to learn about eco-friendly waste management? They think the world is over! That no one will ever breed again! That they're the last generation!

Billie apparently decides to abandon her previous plan of begging Cole by email to come help bail her out with the government and now emails this: "Hey Fat King Cole, Itsa-me, Mario." Okay then. Billie has been getting by with snorting something she thought was coke and which is now revealed to be Ritalin. There's a lot of rambling nothing (because god forbid this book do anything or go anywhere) and then some fresh random transphobia:

"Badge-lady has a small girl, maybe, ’cos gender is a construct, peeking out from behind her skirts." Gender IS a construct, she's not wrong there, but you don't get to make a flippant joke about that when you've spend an entire book killing-and-ignoring trans people. This book has repeatedly refused to acknowledge trans men and boys as our gender--referring to only a million males surviving the plague in America when we already have a million or more trans men here--and trans women aren't mentioned until chapter 29, iirc. Meanwhile, Miles is being misgendered left and right in the narrative for no damn good reason, and/but/so it's cute to throw in this "well, she might NOT be a girl because gender is constructed, amiright, hahaha" flippant reference.

"Badge-lady has a small girl, maybe, ’cos gender is a construct, peeking out from behind her skirts. Shyness is a construct too. We’re all constructed. In need of anchors. Billie is flying here. She wishes her mom was still alive....Memories are also a construct." This is just edgelordy repetition of concepts from a mistaken belief that the words themselves are inherently funny, like if Billie repeats "X is a construct" often enough we'll all laugh like good little robots.

The chapter ends when Billie finds another social media photo from Miles. This chapter, like all previous chapters, was 80% filler that could've been condensed. This feels like a stream of consciousness draft! Presidential elections, yelling at service workers, ritalin!

I'm going to try to keep going, because we're almost a third of the way through this long book.

AFTERLAND. Chapter 19.

"19. Cole: Queens of Narnia"

The constant pop culture references are starting to get to me. They're so dated and there's so many of them. I'm going to try to list off the top of my head what's been referenced so far: Adam West's Batman show, Pokemon, Mario, Narnia, Terminator, Mad Max, Alien. I think there was a Fortnite reference, which was probably the most recently released franchise. There was also a Spongebob reference, and you've reminded me there was Jaws and Minecraft.

It makes the apocalypse feel weirdly...static. Where are the new memes? We have "the Rona"; they would have jokes about this gender plague. Where are the references to shows that suddenly got attention and money because the Default Viewer has suddenly become a woman? Ongoing shows where male characters were edited out as too upsetting? Where are the HGTV shows in which professional crews remodel Man Caves at home and sports bars downtown? Where is the all-female She-Ra spin-off? (Previously majority female creative teams had a brief but crucial head-start pitching their new ideas.)

The places to sprinkle this in were at the library, instead of using Generic Erotica and Generic YouTube. Show that the world has changed! The book is called Afterland, but the After Land is identical to the Before Land!!

Chapter 19 is set "three months ago" and they've left "Joint Base Lewis-McChord". Reader Depizan looked it up and JBLM "has a total active population of nearly 210,000 inhabitants, making it the fourth largest military installment worldwide by population." Unless the base has significantly grown to swallow several adjacent tracts of land, I'm struggling to understand how it was housing (a) one million male survivors, (b) their families, (c) sufficient guards and doctors and support staff. We're given to believe they're being moved off base to spread out the survivors across multiple "baskets" so they can't all be wiped out in a single terror attack, but there's no way they could've been in a single basket in the first place. This is a problem of scale!

They're taken to the "billionaire wine farm" which has been such a point of confusion. It's fortress with housing for 20 families and 50 staff. That ratio feels very wrong! Fewer staff than guests?!

But fortresses are also placed up high, with views for days and Napa Valley wine farms don’t usually come with security patrols and electric fencing and five stories of underground bunker. It was built in case of nuclear war or climate change or revolution by the proles or, heck, disgruntled Uber drivers, the sex robot uprising…who knows what the rich douches of Silicon Valley feared in their long, dark nights. There was a state-of-the-art hospital, luxury accommodation for twenty families and slightly less sumptuous accommodation for fifty staff, a subterranean hydroponic greenhouse, a running track, classrooms, a recreation center with a gym, a wine cellar, a goddamn swimming pool fed by a borehole, and Cole’s personal favorite and most absurd: a jungle-theme tiki bar. None of which saved the owners from HCV.

I have no idea where all the expensive and complex medical tests and surgeries are going to be performed; I assume the "jungle-theme tiki bar" will need to be repurposed into a sterile operating room. (/sarcasm)

Apparently the separation between families has eased up now because Miles has a female friend, Ella, and not just male friends. (Ella was previously mentioned and I was hoping she was a trans girl, but she seems now to be a cis girl family member.) Since the "three hour a day" limit was Cole's main concern about quarantine and that's now been lifted, I'm still unclear why she wants to leave safety and healthcare and security for the uncertainty of Out There, where boys are torn apart by maenads.

Miles and Ella, who are 11 years old, have a clapping game and these 11yos are...unlike the modern 2020 ones I know. I'll just say that.

Tell me, tell me, who is the dead king of Ataraxia? Was it a tech billionaire or an investment banker? Was it a corrupt politician or a movie star? Or a god of rock ’n’ roll with a gold-plated car? Was it a Saudi prince or a Russian oligarch? Or a narco druglord with a pool full of sharks? We won’t ever know! Because they’ll never tell! The king of Ataraxia keeps his secrets in hell! She always thought wealth was about feeding envy and insecurity; handbag brands burning surplus stock, the luxury camps at Burning Man, the rich kids of Instagram deranged on private jets and gold-plated everything. Being at Ataraxia, though, Cole sees now that wealth isn’t about lifestyle; it’s about a whole other kind of life. And total security—in a way that even a joint army-naval base can’t offer. But heaven is its own kind of hell, if you’re not allowed to leave, not allowed to live. Their forever limbo vacation, Cole has come to think of it, wrapped up in suffocating luxury like cotton wool. At least they’re done with acronyms. The boys are referred to as “menfolk” now, but the quaintness has its own sinister quality. Gotta protect the menfolk. Lock up your sons and brothers, your fathers, your husbands and cousins and friends!

"There are fourteen of them, eight men and boys and their direct surviving relatives, plus a staff of thirty-two, which seems a lot. Groundskeepers and medical staff and cooks and cleaners and guards, because they might have the freedom of the grounds", but can't leave. I don't know how to parse any of this. How do 8 men/boys only have 6 female relatives? It's not even a falsely strict "close" relative; one of the men has his niece here with him. What killed the rest of their families? (Again: was this plague once not a gendered one?) How is 32 staff "a lot" for a massive place like this, and how can a guard staff of >32 provide "total security—in a way that even a joint army-naval base can’t offer." How is that even possible??

Then we have this: "Mercifully, they’ve stopped the tests. Maybe because it’s not a great sample size to determine any real results, and maybe because, Cole suspects, they’re the reprobate survivors. Not exactly prime specimens." To be clear, Miles and Cole are living together in total safety, complete luxury, they can see each other all the time, there's no pesky medical testing, and they don't have to work for a living, but they want to escape to the dangerous outside world because Freedom. This plague is considered to be the end of humanity if they can't solve it, and not only are they ignoring the female survivors (who are considered to be the source of the immunity!) but they're now not looking at some of the males because eh, why bother.

Oh, and they also have group therapy sessions which Cole is dismissive about as Miles was in his chapter. Everyone is introduced and... *deep breath* I don't know whether it's even worth repeating all this since they'll be escaping soon, but here goes. Andy (here with niece Ella) is "[a]live because he had had his prostate removed—one of the lucky few, where the operation had worked." So she does know that prostates can be removed! And yet here we are! Toby is 5yo and his mom is a QAnon theorist. Then there's... this:

[Rape] "Jethro, nineteen, with his mom, Stephanie, who guards him like a pitbull, as if they are all rapists and sex fiends waiting to get their hands on him, even though he’s insufferable—a smug SOB with a weak chin." I'm so grossed out by this I'm actually experiencing nausea. Cole is offended at being thought a rapist because the guy has a bad attitude and is ugly. She's- that's how creepy abusers talk about why they wouldn't rape someone. I have to walk away from this for a little while; I'll finish out the chapter later if only because we hear about when/how Billie arrives. But christ this is grim and gross.

[Rape, CSA] I don't know how to parse this, but SO MUCH of this book is about underage/YA rape. Miles' semen being cutesily called "milk" over and over. Now this Jethro thing. It's weird that Cole makes the logical leap that Steph is protective because she's worried about rape vs. being protective because her son has experienced a tremendous amount of trauma--the way Cole is protective of Miles! And it's terrifying that Cole's response to the concern is to rejoinder that Jethro isn't pretty enough or pleasant enough to be worthy of the effort and attention. That's what rapists say! The language of rapists is "you were just so pretty I couldn't stop myself" to their victims and "are you serious? they're not pretty enough for me" to society when they're accused. That's straight out of the rapist playbook, and this is COLE. Not Billie!

Okay. Okay. I can do this. Kissmate is here with me and helping me past this part. We were introducing the survivors. "Alessandro and Hugo, and their grandmother, Dulsie, who doesn’t speak English, so her adult grandsons translate for her." No idea what she does speak nor why staff who speak her language aren't available.

Apparently the men aren't all survivors, actually? "Hank, an Alzheimer’s sufferer in his eighties....The irony is that he’s probably going to develop prostate cancer anyway. Most men do if they live long enough." Does that mean he's immune from the Special Extra Crispy cancer but he'll likely develop Regular Original Recipe cancer? Can they not treat him with medicines if/when that happens? Or just take the prostate out now?

This quarantine doesn't make any sense to me. At least one of the men wasn't immune--he had his prostate taken out--so they don't need to run any tests on him. He's apparently just quarantined to protect him from the man-killing maenads who roam the Outside World. Kissmate points out that "Most men [get prostate cancer] if they live long enough" is yet more erasure of trans men. Trans people were edited into this book at the end rather than baked into the premise. Google tells me that 1 in 9 cis men are diagnosed with prostate cancer, so "most men" isn't even within throwing distance of accurate.

"“We’re just here because the doctors are eager to see how he’ll die,” Lara [Hank's daughter] says bitterly." Are you, though? It seems like they're giving him luxury lodgings so he's not torn apart by The Man-Eaters in the outside world. But what do I know?

[Reproductive Coercion] This entire book is written by retcon, so even though the government previously had no interest in the female relatives of male survivors, now they're harvesting their eggs--apparently without consent.

Meanwhile the science wonks have pumped her full of hormones to harvest her eggs. Future-proofing. Think of the children. All she can think about is sex, the fecund orchards above, thick with bees and drifting snow dusts of pollen. My kingdom for a good vibrator. She does not bring this up in their group therapy session with the compound psychiatrist, Karyn Randall, who wears jeans and button-up blazers and quirky red socks to show how relatable she is. Instead she asks, again, when can they go home?

I've been egg-harvested before for IVF, with consent. It made me bloated and sore and suuuper emotional and not horny at all, but obviously mileage is going to vary with hormones. I'm just noting that there are more symptoms than arousal. Cole hijacks group therapy to demand a lawyer and it's the QAnon "conspiracy nut" who defends that the government quarantine is the best thing since canned peaches. I'm screaming.

“I desire a lawyer. I’m pretty damn certain it’s illegal not to provide me with one.” “Oh, here we go again,” Gemma complains. “It’s soooo awful that we’re here and that they’re feeding us real food and looking after our boys and trying to find a cure.” “I’m saying it’s not right that we’re imprisoned here. Or that other people don’t have access to the same care and resources.” “Ooh, you one of those socialist types? Why don’t we throw open the doors and let the sickos in? Virus has probably mutated six ways from sideways by now. You want our guys to get reinfected? You think too much, jelly bean. Of course it’s not fair. We’re the motherfucking chosen ones. Humanity is counting on us.”

I know the author isn't American, but how do you mess up American political subcultures this badly? The "socialists" are individualistic prepper libertarians. The "QAnons" are pro-secret government imprisonment of themselves. Also: Cole has never, in her entire life, demanded that other people have "access to the same care and resources" as herself. I refuse to believe this. She just wants to leave and this is her excuse. Oh, we do finally get some kind of reason for why they aren't allowed to email the outside world: the terrorists will find them.

We learn that Cole's legal name is Nicole Brady, because a guard comes looking for her and doesn't know her by name/face. There's 14 "guests" and 32 staff, how do you not-- you know what, I don't care. Cole's first thought is that her Black Best Friend, Keletso, must've somehow arrived with a magical lawyer. She doesn't think it could be her sister Billie (who she thinks is dead) nor does she think it could be her sister-in-law, who is jealous with "unspoken resentment that Miles was still alive when her own son wasn’t."

Wait, okay, so they don't have internet except that they also *do* have internet because Cole has been emailing and Facebooking ("Deadbook") everyone looking for Billie for the past 2 years. She's just being "censored, monitored, traced", which uhh? Monitored, yes. Censored, maybe. Traced? They know where you sleep, Cole. They make the bed for you in the mornings, even.

Cole has spent the 2 years thinking Billie is dead, which is unclear why. They've been out of contact since "she was working in the Mediterranean as an executive chef on a super-yacht.", but why assume she was dead? Really, SO MUCH points to an earlier draft where the "gender plague" was just a plague that killed a lot of people, so anyone missing is presumed dead. I'm guessing the "gender" aspect was added later to motivate Billie as a kidnapper. Cole, who thinks her sister is dead, reminisces on her old business schemes, and this paragraph inexplicably still exists. This is what I mean when I say nothing happens in this book and it just meanders along. There is no POINT to this paragraph.

The worst was when she convinced their dad to invest a good chunk of his pension in a pan-African travel business with a visionary ex-linebacker from Texas who had fallen hard for his African roots and wanted to make it easier to “connect the continent.” It failed, and the Texan went back to his real home, not whatever Wakanda heartland he was looking for. Billie blamed this failure to launch on the vagaries of tenderpreneur culture and corruption, and complained that her Texan lacked both the idealism to hold fast to his dream and the cynicism to bribe his way into realizing it. “He’s not Cecil John Rhodes. He can’t just brute-force his way from Cape Town to Cairo!” she’d said. She’d managed one token repayment to their father, along with a lot of promises she never delivered on.

We already know Billie makes bad business decisions and we know Cole knows that! Why this weird interlude wherein a Black Texan fails to understand Africa properly and there's a sneering reference to "whatever Wakanda heartland he was looking for"? What does this add? Why is this here? Why is there a passage in this book wherein a white woman gloats that she knows Africa better than Black people who weren't born there? What is the point of this fantasy?

Somehow Billie found Cole--despite not answering any of her emails...why?--and has applied to live here with her, which seems amazing given that this is a SECRET FACILITY that NO ONE KNOWS ABOUT in order to protect FROM TERRORISTS. The government is very worried about terrorists but they just need to test that Billie is related to Cole and then she can stay there, no questions asked, and have access to everyone in group therapy where she could, conceivably, kill them with a single butter knife.

Cole says they'll test her for "the variant gene" which I hadn't even realized they'd already isolated--why don't we have a cure, then?--and Billie says she's been warned about the egg harvesting and it's all cool. So maybe the eggs *are* with consent, who knows! The chapter ends there, with Billie now going to be an American citizen (WHY?) so she can stay with Cole and Miles. No whisper of how this is even possible, or how she found them, or why, or- Hang on.

Okay, I have gone back to Chapter 3 and dredged this up: "She came to find them. Had to petition the U.S. government to let her join her sister and nephew as part of their Reunite and Reunify program, “bringing families together.”"

All her careful planning. It was her idea, her resources. She came to find them. Had to petition the U.S. government to let her join her sister and nephew as part of their Reunite and Reunify program, “bringing families together.” And now? Left her for dead. Left her for dust.

So let me summarize: The government has a secret luxury facility with free healthcare and better food than the outside pandemic world has available to them. AND free school and group therapy. In order to qualify to live there, you just have to apply to be "re-unified" with a surviving male relative already there, and the government will let you in with no thought to expense or security risk. Just come on in and leave your shoes by the door!

Billie knew that Cole was looking for her, but instead of answering her emails, she just pitched up here for drama. Why? Because she came here all along with the intent to kidnap her underage nephew for his sperm. This will be simple to do, because despite the fact that these people are inestimably important to them, the government has assigned about 1 guard per guest at this place, figuring that's plenty.

I don't- This book is racist and transphobic, yes, but it also runs on spaghetti logic. If one person acted sensibly, if retcons weren't allowed, if internal consistency were a thing, the entire plot would be over. The government is holding Cole in *strictest secrecy* so that South Africa can't demand her and Miles back, but Billie can just file a re-unification paperwork and get a free shuttle bus to the SECRET QUARANTINE BASE.

That's it, that's the entire chapter, I need a break.


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