I have a lot of things to say about Joshua Whitehead’s Love after the End: An Anthology of Two-Spirit and Indigiqueer Speculative Fiction. An overflow of sentiments and thoughts often happens when I review anthologies. The multiplicity of stories often means a multiplicity of narrative voices, and any time I sit down to write a review it feels as if someone has shouted “fire” in the theatre of my brain, and everything I want to say is running towards the exits. This is especially the case for anthologies that deal with the end of the world, as Love after the End does. The urgency to talk about everyone’s work, as fast as possible, inevitably starts to feel like a mission that I mustn’t fail. The problem with this method of review is linear time. When everything happens at once in my head, it may feel like a delightful chorus of voices, but to commit something to paper means that I risk hierarchizing the stories, favouring some details over others, and by implication, some authors, some narratives, and some perspectives over others. So sometimes, I end up not saying much at all whenever I read anthologies. I will try not to make this mistake with Love after the End, however, because this collection is too important for our current time period.
Love after the End is a fantastic collection of speculative fiction, one that fills me with hope as much as it encourages me to think critically about our current reality, but it is a collection that does not exist in a vacuum. Love after the End is a collection of “Indigiqueer” speculative fiction; that is, speculative fiction written by those who identify as Two-Spirit as well as those who, as Whitehead writes in the introduction, “reject[t] queer and LGBT as signposts of my identity, instead relying on the sovereignty of traditional language, such as Two-Spirit, and terminology we craft for ourselves, Indigiqueer” (pp. 7-8). This demographic’s new terminology is extremely important since Two-Spirit people, as well as the Indigenous community more broadly speaking, have a long history of others speaking for them, others reinterpreting their history and cultural stories, and outright appropriation, in addition to the more horrific and problematic realities of genocide and colonialist rule. I think Joshua Whitehead’s introduction to this collection summarizes how necessary Love after the End is precisely because of that precarious history:
I write this new introduction in the age of COVID19, a time of global pandemics, social and physical distancing, and a time of unprecedented mourning, loss, and historical triggers. I find it particularly apt for us to be sharing these stories with you once again, in a newly polished reformation, if only because these are stories that highlight a longevity of virology and a historicity of genocidal biowarfare used against Indigenous peoples across Turtle Island since the docking of colonial powers into our homelands. I have asked myself: Who names an event apocalyptic and whom must an apocalypse affect in order for it to be thought of as “canon?” How do we pluralize apocalypse? Apocalypses as ellipses? Who is omitted from such a saving of space, whose material is relegated to the immaterial? […] For surely, like the histories of virologies written into our codex, from smallpox, to HIV/AIDS, to H1N1, and now COVID-19, the histories of our queerness, transness, non-binaryness, arc back to originality and our vertebrae are blooming heart berries and dripping seedlings. What does it mean to be Two-Spirit during an apocalypse? What does it mean to search out romance at a pipeline protest—can we have intimacy during doomsday? How do we procure intimacy in a sleeping bag outside of city hall when the very ground is shaking beneath us with military tanks and thunderous gallops? What does it mean to be distanced under the weight of colonial occupation and relocation? It’s a story we know all too well. We find one another in the cybersphere, hyper rez sphere, in the arenas of dreamscapes and love grounds. We emerge in pixel and airwave, and we have never lost the magic of our glamour within such a vanishing act; we’ve always controlled the “I” of our narrativized eye. I suppose I note these ruminations in order to announce: Two-Spirit and Indigiqueers are the wildest kinds of biopunks, literally and literarily. (pp. 7-9)
I have always seen the promise in utopian fiction for broader LGBTQ struggles since so many pop culture narratives that deal with LGBTQ people end in death or destruction (such as Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, David Ebershoff’s The Danish Girl, and the films Dallas Buyers Club and Philadelphia to name a few examples). Therefore, crafting a romance storyline that exists in an imagined future world where every single LGBTQ character lives, and lives happily, can be deeply freeing. I have always loved romance and speculative genres for their ability to focus on possible happier futures. These utopian dreams, however, are not an act of the author burying their head in the sand. These stories are often built on the historical processes of the past and present moment, and explore other trajectories for often maligned or ignored populations. From Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ability to imagine a utopia in Herland, a world filled with women and the new society they envision and built on Gilman’s own struggle to be taken seriously as a woman, we now come to a similar exploration of the struggles and triumphs for Indigenous people in Whitehead’s utopian—but also romance-oriented—speculative collection. As the quotation from Whitehead notes, these future imaginings cannot be separated from their sometimes precarious histories—and the same goes for the reader who approaches this work. Whether Indigiqueer or settler, you cannot be separated from your past. In fact, we must learn from it in order to survive, change, and do better in the future. The introduction as a whole does a fantastic job of explaining that problematic history of settler-colonialism, along with situating this anthology within our current period of plagues and political upheaval, while also focusing on a perspective often maligned or ignored during historical times.
Whitehead notes in the Introduction that the book’s publication has been delayed several times; once because of a publisher shift and another because of COVID-19. It feels as if we are already living in the end of times, but as Whitehead assures readers, the authors in this work, and their ancestors, have lived through this type of upheaval before. So too has the broader LGBTQ community with the HIV/AIDS epidemic. There have always been plagues, upheavals, and unfortunately, mass cultural and literal genocide. But people have survived it, and they are living witnesses to how integral hope and survival (in the form of romance, utopia, and speculative fiction) truly are to everyone’s lives.
I can feel that hope rising from every single page in this anthology. There are nine stories in total, and every single one manages to present a future world that is as nuanced and specific as it is universal. Every problem that the narrators must overcome also dances on that fine line between being as specific and nuanced as possible, while also hitting those universal feelings of hope, freedom, and longing for community. Whether it’s the story about a relationship with an AI rat in “Abacus”; a floating world that has broken off from the New America and an AI software onboard in “Story for a Bottle”; or a counsellor who is coming to terms with her addiction through cultural legacy and dreams in “Nameless,” each narrative presents a current problem for its protagonist, and uses knowledge of the past (through history, ancestors, family, etc.) to then craft a better future. These are all love stories—love after the end—so more often than not, there is a happily ever after or happily for now that seals the story and makes it feel satisfying, but there is also something left unarticulated and unsaid, which still gives the feeling that there is much more to explore in these worlds. The story about a family that is separated as they take over a new planet when Earth is destroyed (“The Ark of the Turtle’s Back”), another story of finding stowaways onboard made up of borg children (“Seed Children”), and the last story called “Eloise” which takes place in a world involving memory software—all end on a positive or satisfying note, but they also struck me as much too short because I wanted to keep reading, and keeping exploring these complex and wonderful futures.
These futures more often than not include families and babies. Not all the stories talk about children, and perhaps the ones that did stuck out in my mind more because I was six weeks pregnant while reading this work for the first time, but this detail or plot point surprised me more than any other within this work. I’ve mentioned before that I tend to read and write a lot of utopian fiction, especially those involving LGBTQ characters. I do so because I see those happy endings as a promising way to envision the future while still being aware of the critical flaws of the past and present moments. So, of course, this means that I love a lot of LGBTQ romance novels (and some of them I consider “speculative” since they often ask the question “what if there was no sexism/racism/homophobia in contemporary times?” and then depict that through a romance where no one is called horrible names for their desire and there is no need to introduce it to the reader; queerness, like the happy ending, is assumed). Yet, not many LGBTQ romances speak about children or reproductivity more broadly speaking. Some queer academic writing takes an outright anti-natal stance, since reproductivity is a type of productivity, and therefore, not having children is a type of Marxist rewriting of prototypical sexuality; sex acts that don’t produce children are then validated and valorized (please see The Queer Art of Failure by Jack Halberstam and José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia for more insight into these arguments). Again, not all LGBTQ writing does this, but this anti-natal stance is something that I have been especially sensitive to as a bi person who has always wanted kids.
Similarly, there is a lot of anti-natal rhetoric in some sections of speculative fiction, especially within the genre of weird fiction. Again, not all authors and not unilaterally across all works within this genre, but I think H. P. Lovecraft’s early influence on weird fiction through the development of a mythos that is so focused on the negative aspects of humanity, science, technology, and civilization—as reflected in “Call of Cthulhu” and many others—becomes reflected in the metaphors and symbols that are repeated in the more modern works of weird fiction from authors like Laird Barron (The Croning) and Nick Cutter (The Acolyte, The Troop). In these novels, children are not the future—rather, they are terrifying. They are symbolic of atavism, a step backwards in our evolutionary field, not a step forward. They become something emblematic of the worst parts of ourselves, and ultimately because of this, children must be abolished. In works of apocalyptic fiction, it is often pregnancy that is treated as monstrous and horrific. Reproductivity becomes futile (Children of Men), used as a force of violence (The Passion of New Eve; Handmaid’s Tale), or a metaphor of alien abduction (Alien). I like many of the novels and films I’m referencing here, and appreciate the broader arguments most of these authors or filmmakers are making in their works (save for Lovecraft’s rather problematic history), but I have never felt comfortable with the idea that if we wanted to save the future, or defeat any sort of monster, the solution would be to stop having children. So many of these titles seem to echo Rust Cohle, the deeply nihilistic (and heavily weird-fiction-influenced character) from 2014’s True Detective series, when he states that our broader purpose in the future should be to “walk hand in hand to our own extinction.”
I’ve always hated that sentiment—but it was only after truly absorbing Love after the End that I saw the huge problems with that anti-natal stance, and the fiction which uncritically represents that stance. If you have already experienced some type of annihilation, as Indigenous people have, the mere idea of walking into extinction as a solution is an insult. It’s horrific, problematic, and a bunch of other ten dollar academic words that echo the same point. After reading Love after the End, I can’t help but see Rust Cohle-like writers as ineffectual. Rather than denying the future where you could then make amends, solve something, change something, some writers decide to depict a world surrounded by annihilation and call it responsibility or being critical of progress. That’s not responsibility. That’s outright rejection of the most precious thing there can be: time, the future, and a new way of thinking of the world. One of the most potent symbols of the future, then, is the child. Making new life is a responsibility for that future, even on the smallest, most personal scale. So why wouldn’t we talk more about babies in speculative and LGBTQ stories?
I absolutely loved one of the early stories in the collection, jaye simpson’s “The Ark of the Turtle’s Back” because simpson’s characters speak about having children. That’s it, really. Yes, the story is interesting and the writing is also great, but hearing the narrator state point-blank their desire to reproduce was moving for several reasons. The prose has a rhythm to it that builds into this overwhelming urge and desire for life and survival that is then echoed throughout the entire work. simpson writes:
“I want twins, Axil. I want babies on babies. I want brown babies. I want fat brown babies. I want them to speak the languages. I want them to know our songs. I want them to have everything Koko-Wahê tried to give me and Dakib. I want everything for them that we couldn’t have. I want this, with you. I can’t have this without you.” (p. 73).
To then see this narrator speak about the desire for more children at several other points in the story, and then other narrators do much the same, made me blindingly happy in a way I could not fathom. Sure, when I first read these lines I was newly pregnant and still so emotional YouTube ads were moving to me, but I know that I would have still responded this way even if I hadn’t been pregnant, because I see the symbolic nature of children in exactly the same way. They are a hope for the future, but they do not have to be conceived of and birthed through prototypical, “normal” means. The character in this story is not cis, which makes their relationship Indigiqueer, and so, even if they are able to reproduce in the standard biological way, the cultural and personal narratives they tell about their child’s conception and birth will be different. It has to be different, because the parents of this child are different. Similarly, in “Seed Children,” the prototypical mothering instinct is rewritten for non-biological children, but also non-human children. The bloodline of the person in need of care does not matter, nor does their material status: care is care, and in this collection, care is absolutely revolutionary and necessary for the future.
Care also comes up in stories that don’t actually revolve around children (such as “Nameless,” with the people the narrator counsels, and the care for someone with memory loss in “Eloise”), but I want to focus on the care of babies, children, and family lines in this queer and speculative fiction context because it is not something I’ve seen very much of. It made me realize that while I was keeping my pregnancy a secret in order to wait out the so-called” danger” period, after which it would be safer to tell more people, I was also utterly terrified to tell people I was going to have a baby at all. I was, after all, contributing to the exact problems that I knew were very much part of our current world; I was placing more strain on the environment which would only worsen climate change in the long run; I was adding more strain on my career as an academic (since those who have children in academia often lose their rank); more strain on the schools, economy, and everything else that is difficult during COVID. I was also creating a child within a seemingly standard or patriarchal household.
But this was what was on the surface, and as numerous speculative fiction stories have told us for centuries, surfaces can lie. There is always more underneath, and there is far more available to us in the future than we may have thought possible. I do not wish to walk into extinction—but neither do I wish to blindly reproduce. I saw that fine balance between hope for the future, and understanding the past in a realistic way in order to change it, expressed so clearly in Love after the End that I know it will stay with me for some time.
I have not even mentioned that, of course, I was also reading this collection during COVID-19, when everything in Canada was still in its mostly shut-down stage. Things have started to re-open, and the world is turning ever so slowly again, but I knew from the moment I was sent home from my classroom on campus that the world would never be the same again. I didn’t want it to be the same again, because in a lot of ways, it was broken. But even when I was at my most nihilistic and despairing during quarantine, I never wanted extinction. I always wanted, like so many of these authors, for something better to come from a massive event like this. And so, of course, my husband and I decided to start trying to have kids. We had already been discussing it for a year up at this point—but why not now? The end of the apparent world seems like the best period to start again.
That, I think, is truly the sentiment of this entire collection. The end of the world is not actually the end of the world. It is the end of the world as you, an individual, may understand it—but that is never the end of the collective world. You must turn towards the past in order to understand that these types of events have happened before, and then find someone else (a lover, a friend, a family member, a borg or robot or computer program) to love, and then start thinking of a new future with them and many others. It is terrifying in many ways, but that’s why there are stories like “How to Survive The Apocalypse for Native Girls” by Kai Minosh Pyle, which is about exactly what the title says it is. People have always told stories in the aftermath to both provide a rule set of how to survive for future generations, but also to provide a new cultural narrative in which to frame the future. These frameworks can change, but it is also dependent on everything that came before it, good and bad.
Love after the End is a fantastic collection for many reasons. It should be read by many people and for those many reasons—but I think more than being a necessary book to have during COVID-19, it’s a necessary book to have when things are back to business as usual in the months—or years—ahead. We need to remember the feeling of plague times; not to dwell in how horrible it was, but to learn from its mistakes, while also understanding that a massive change like that can pave the way for a new way of seeing the world. We need to seize the good whenever we can, and then keep telling stories about it as we move on, and those after us—be they children or borg or borg children—can continue the positive change we have started.