Recently I read two outstanding and thoroughly thought-provoking works of dystopian science fiction and now I want everyone to know how excellent they are. As in the case of two thematically similar books by Octavia Butler that I wrote about last year, they do what all good science fiction is supposed to do: make us think critically about the world we’re living in today and where it’s headed.
First up is Afterwar, by Lilith Saintcrow (2018). The setting is what’s left of the United States in the late 2090s in the immediate aftermath of a civil war that broke out when a Christian fascist regime took power in Washington. The latter loses the very bloody conflict to the ‘Federals’, who want to restore the old US, albeit without most of the secessionist Western states. Most of the story focuses on a mysterious woman who initially calls herself Lara. At the start of the book she is being held in a camp run by the fascist regime and forced to serve as a sex-slave for one of its commanders. She is rescued by a group of ‘raiders’ (paramilitaries allied with the Federals) called Swann’s Riders. Since she was also a medic in another raider unit before being captured, they take her in and treat her as one of their own – and give her the nickname ‘Spooky’ because she’s so haunted, but also has telepathic abilities that put everyone around her on edge. Otherwise, Swann’s Riders are folded into the regular army after the war is over, and sent on missions to track down and capture fugitive war criminals from the just-toppled regime. One of their targets ends up being a geneticist who experimented on camp prisoners – and he may have actually had something to do with Lara’s apparent mutant abilities. The newly restored Federal authorities want him captured – alive – perhaps not solely motivated by the desire to bring him to justice.
That very concise summary, of course, can’t come close to conveying the depth of the story and the themes explored therein. Saintcrow’s writing is evocative and, at places, haunting – some of the scenes/situations really stuck with me long after I’d put the book down. Perhaps my only criticism is that she placed the chronological setting a little too far into the future – given recent events in the US, an outcome like the one she describes seems like it could happen sooner rather than later…
The other book is After the Revolution, by Robert Evans (2021). Evans is otherwise a journalist whose work I’ve been following occasionally for several years: he used to contribute to Cracked.com and currently writes for the news site Bellingcat among others, and he podcasts extensively – most notably his weekly history podcast Behind the Bastards, as well as Worst Year Ever, together with Katy Stoll and Cody Johnston (two other former Cracked.com alumni who produce the outstanding ‘Some More News’ videos). This novel is Evans’ first stab at published fiction, and damned if he didn’t knock it out of the park…
Set in the 2040s, it also depicts a US torn apart by revolution and civil war into a number of smaller successor states, many of which are still beset by outbreaks of violent unrest and armed conflict. The novel’s setting is Texas, where the armies of a Christian dominionist movement called the Heavenly Kingdom have launched a bloody campaign to take control of the entire state. The basic plot follows the course of an offensive to seize Austin and the resistance against it, viewed from both sides of the battle lines.
The story is told from the standpoint of three characters: the first is Manny, a young native of Austin who works as a fixer for out-of-state media crews covering the warfare (I really appreciated this touch, as I spent a fair chunk of the 1990s working as a fixer here in Croatia); the second is Sasha, a high school senior living in the rump US on the east coast who – after being converted to extreme Christianity online – decides to defect to the Heavenly Kingdom; and the third is Roland, a technologically modified or – to used the book’s own jargon – ‘chromed post-human’, basically a cyborg whose body is maintained by amazing regenerative nanotechnology that makes him a virtually unstoppable killing machine. His memory is shot, though, and at the start of the book he’s living in a shack in Arizona – all he wants to do is get high and be left alone. Of course, no such luck for him, as he’s cajoled by a former, also chromed comrade-in-arms into going on what’s supposed to be a brief mission. Eventually the paths of all three of these main characters cross and their lives become intertwined.
Again, that’s a very bare-bones summary – I can’t even come close to conveying the complexity of the story without writing several pages of text. Like Saintcrow’s book, so much of what Evans covers here sticks with you afterward, and his characterization in particular is so well done. I almost started to think of his protagonists as real people.
By the way, although there’s an Amazon link to Evans’ book above, it’s also available as an e-book or audiobook free of charge at its official website. Evans has also launched a Go Fund Me page for the sequel, but also for any other books he may write. Basically, what he wants to do is get enough donations to free him up to write more and make everything freely available online as with this book – which is explained in greater detail at that link and in the embedded video you can find there. So if you take the free route to read this one, I’d suggest throwing some money his way for anything else he may write and publish.
I can’t recommend these books enough. Both are sobering reads, because they’re obviously very much informed by the political situation in the US today. But both are also just really well-written pieces of literature.
(An interesting bit of trivia – well, interesting to me, anyway – is that Evans currently lives in Portland, OR and Saintcrow lives just across the Columbia River in Vancouver, WA. Don’t think they know each other, though…)