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After The Revolution coverThere’s a rift in contemporary SFF when it comes to depictions of US military culture. One vein of military science fiction, most often published by more conservative presses, frequently depicts modern and near-future combat with both intimate knowledge of its operations and an attendant reverence for real-world service and righteous conflict. Meanwhile, other forms of speculative fiction—space operas, alt-histories, colonial fantasies—often avoid verisimilitude, which allows authors to explore war without coding favourably for current right-wing politics.

Does this work as an ethical divider? Not really. Many readers and viewers who consider themselves progressive will still accept, in the form of diversity-forward Marvel TV shows and queer-flipped novels of empire, the same military-industrial-complex propaganda that they’d more easily spot and condemn in other franchises.

Also overlooked in this artificial divide is the fact that many leftist writers grew up in, and continue to struggle within, the thick of US military cultures. Not all trans people were raised in liberal urban centres, and many queer people believe that concealed carry is a vital tool for self-protection in a world of police who probably won’t step in to stop a hate crime. Although queerness and progressive politics are often treated in mainstream SFF as self-evidently removed from firsthand familiarity with guns and military cultures, this erasure of so many lived experiences does literature and activism alike no favours. If anything, the false dichotomy impoverishes our ability to imagine better futures extending from the societal fabric of today.

But there are openings for change, and Robert Evans’s first novel, After the Revolution, is one such contributor to a vital bridge over this subgenre divide. Set fifty years into our future, this speculative fiction imagines a not-so-United States where Christo-fascists have succeeded in turning parts of the Southern US into their dominion, the Heavenly Kingdom. This territory also serves as a staging ground for further warfare. Our three protagonists are all tour guides of a sort—for readers, at least—each leading us through a different facet of this complexly traumatized future; but our first is also literally one, a fixer named Manny who is helping Reggie, a British journalist, navigate the fraught borderlands between the Republic of Texas and the Heavenly Kingdom while investigating an unusual bombing that might bode poorly for the fate of the whole ongoing conflict.

Manny thinks he’s not really invested. He’s just looking to earn his way out of this nightmare, and maybe also on the cusp of the good life if war tourism continues to be lucrative for a little longer—but life’s full of surprises. When an attack hits ground that Manny had always taken for granted as safe, and as he witnesses the death of people he’d known and respected, fighting to the last to protect their homes … well, no, he doesn’t magically suit up and become a righteous soldier for the cause himself. But he does get embroiled in a messier flight to freedom than expected—and, in that flight, develops a deeper sense of connection, and of what it means to choose to stay and be a part of something. In other words, he grows up.

One of our other POV characters, Roland, a “chromed-up vet,” also considers himself somewhat detached, thanks to a range of science-fictional military modifications that give him superhuman strength and suppress his memories to a haunting extent. But he, too, is inextricably tangled up in both past and present. As our story unfolds, and as his narrative takes us into a world of transhumanist anarchists fierce in their protection of an isolated mutual-aid existence, we’ll come to learn that missing huge slices of oneself isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, no matter what run of daily drugs one uses to keep, oh, everything at bay.

Meanwhile, our third POV character, Sasha, believes she’s made a commitment entirely of her own volition when she runs away from her mainstream Christian home to join her beloved Alexander, a “Martyr” in the Heavenly Kingdom. Evans’s depiction of grooming practices will be familiar to anyone who recalls indoctrination tragedies like that of the British Muslim teenagers drawn into Da’esh (ISIS) in the 2010s. His illustration of the recruitment process (for young women, and for young men used as frontline fodder) is as compassionate as it is careful in highlighting the techniques applied to make young people feel like they’re joining a righteous cause—right until it’s too late to get out of the rape, forced birth, and death cult that are actually on offer.

Structurally, After the Revolution colours within the lines, so to speak: our three-way POV is evenly divided between chapters, leans a little heavily at times on blunt exposition to depict character motivation, and finds its predicted intersection of storylines in a mission that brings Manny and Roland into the dread heart of the Heavenly Kingdom, where Manny and Sasha meet in a way that offers both of them a different kind of escape.

While it could be said that “playing it safe” is common to first novels, the familiarity of this structure also has an interesting tonal effect, intentional or otherwise. The events described in this near-future SF are bleak, and have increasingly numerous touchstones in our current world every day. And yet, there’s a surprising level of optimism embedded in the idea that these three disparate characters, with such completely different subject positions, might nevertheless find and cultivate a sense of community in the struggle with one another, if only for a while.

That same gentle optimism also emerges in the book’s wild romp through transhumanist anarchism, especially in the city of “Rolling Fuck,” so named in part because having too much reverence for territory is what brought our world to its current crises in the first place. Despite the extent to which intense drug trips and extreme sex figure into everyday life for this remote and well-protected enclave of “post-humans,” the denizens of this mutual-aid society also take death and loss seriously. More seriously, perhaps, than many of we “stock sapien” normies of today. And so, when the city decides to lend its superhuman forces to the struggle as well, they also gather to mark the depth of humanity lost with each and every friend and foe killed in battle.

In this way, After the Revolution makes perhaps its most pointed rejoinder to the argument that writing about real-world conflict while performing deep familiarity with existing military cultures need ever be a tacit endorsement of one and the same. This isn’t a game of “goodies” versus “baddies,” and no one ever wins when conflict is set upon us. It’s all about protecting people, from people. Truly messed up people, sometimes—but people all the same.

This notion of “bearing witness” runs throughout the work, too, but with the clever nuance of being something that many of us think we can avoid doing, right until the struggle reaches us where we are—or else, until we can no longer deny that we’ve been living in the struggle all along. Indeed, the book even opens itself to the possibility of a sequel precisely because some of that work of self-discovery and community organizing (for its own good, and against external threat) remains unfinished at this adventure’s close.

In the meantime, though, Robert Evans’s After the Revolution invites fresh lines of critical discourse: in genre writing, as in activism. It’s an impressive first outing that challenges us to think more seriously about how to build stories of a better world inclusive enough to meet each of us where we are—no matter how complexly implicated our own subject-positions might be in the wide-ranging cultures of hate and violence that face us here and now.

M. L. Clark is a Canadian immigrant to Medellín, Colombia, and a writer of speculative fiction, reviews, poetry, and cultural essays.
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