In Borne, Rachel’s childhood in a world of extreme climate change, war, and deprivation is sketched in, more suggested than depicted at much length. In American War, that’s the whole book. Specifically, a second American civil war in the 2070s-2090s, this time over the South’s insistence on fossil fuels rather than slavery. American War’s Sarat and Borne’s Rachel are both non-white, though the books handle race very differently. Sarat is a dark-skinned black woman with black and brown parents, born near New Orleans. Rachel has brown skin and is from:
[…] an island that fell not to war or disease but to rising seas. […] My mother had been born on the island, too, but her people came from far away, from the mainland, and it was a scandal when the two of them married because it wasn’t ever done. That scandal gave me my name, Rachel, because it came from neither family but from outsiders. A compromise.
Rachel’s outsider name is a mask to us, the readers, concealing any hint of the culture of language of her parents. Sarat’s name is an insider name, self-chosen, a secret origin:
Her name was Sara T. Chestnut but she called herself Sarat. The latter was born of a misunderstanding at the schoolhouse earlier that year. The new kindergarten teacher accidentally read the girl’s middle initial as the last letter of her first name—Sarat. To the little girl’s ears, the new name had a bite to it. Sara ended with an impotent exhale, a fading ahh that disappeared into the air. Sarat snapped shut like a bear trap.
Sarat and her family survive the early years of losing their home and growing up in a camp. Her brother joins a militant faction of the South, is badly hurt but eventually, long years later, recovers. Sarat herself eventually becomes a combatant, a sniper who successfully carries out a high-profile assassination of a Northern general. She even finds a girlfriend. For a while it seems like this is going to be a different sort of book, a more conventional milsf arc of heroism and fighting. But then a drone—the drones have long since gone out of control, and are now autonomous death from above, attacking indiscriminately—kills her sister, and when Sarat comes home to grieve, she is captured and imprisoned by the North. She is tortured for seven years, until she is broken and changed beyond recognition.
Eventually, with the end of the war, she is released. She lives with her brother and his new family, heals a little from her injuries and trauma. Her former fellow militants arrange small measures of revenge for her: they capture the prison guard who tortured her, Bud Baker, along with his family (she kills Baker, but lets his family go); she hunts down the man who betrayed her identity to the North, her recruiter and one-time mentor, and kills him too. But these measures are not enough. She hungers for more, and this is where the book’s heart is, not in the action-film sniper dramatics, but in revenge: in the grief and rage that comes from having lost and lost again.
Sarat laughed. “Revenge,” she echoed. “Revenge, revenge. I hurt one man. Do you think it was just one man who hurt me? […] Why don’t you line them all up for me—can you do that, Joe?—you line up every man who made me what I am: the ones who killed my father, the ones who killed my sister, the ones who killed my mother, the ones who made it so my brother will never be whole again, the ones who drove us from our home, the ones who slaughtered all those people in Patience. You line up the whole lot of them for me, Joe. Then I’ll have my revenge.”
“And supposing I could?” Joe asked.
Joe’s real name is Yousef Bin Rashid. He is an agent of the Bouazizi Empire, a new superpower in the age of America’s decline, “a single entity stretching from the Gibraltar Pass in the state of Morocco all the way to the edges of the Black and Caspian Seas.” Yousef freely admits that his involvement in supporting the South is purely because his government wishes to accelerate that decline. If the South was winning, he says, they would have supported the North.
Sarat smiled at the thought. “You couldn’t just let us kill ourselves in peace, could you?”
“Come now,” said Yousef. “Everyone fights an American war.”
This reversal is a familiar reusable big Kirbytech device in science fiction. I’ve written about its use in Aztec Century and The War of the Worlds. TV Tropes calls it the “persecution flip,” and it’s ubiquitous. To do it well is to show truths that are obscured by ideology, and to make them stark and visible by turning history upside down; to do it badly is to paternalistically justify that history, for example by presenting enormity as benevolent (Childhood’s End) or by presenting the reversal of enormity as even worse (Farnham’s Freehold).
American War—and what a title, in these dregs of a long grim age of American war—walks that line far better than most. The machinations of the Bouazizi Empire, while monstrous, are not more monstrous than those of the long British-American empire. It is a fictional parallel that remonstrates with the real, while also pointing out that all great-power games are like this: there is no salvation in the precession of superpowers. But the thread of Sarat’s gathering revenge is what raises American War above being just a competent execution of an established SF device.
We are told early, in the prologue itself, that the war was followed by a decade-long plague:
... when one of the South’s last remaining rebels managed to sneak into the Union capital and unleash the sickness that cast the country into a decade of death. It is estimated that eleven million people died in the war, and almost ten times that number in the plague that followed.
So when Joe/Yousef offers to help Sarat achieve her revenge, we already understand quite straightforwardly where this is going, long before we see it play out. This is not apocalyptic; this is not a revelation. This is perfectly in continuity with Sarat, and with the history of American war.
American War is the slow burn of how Sarat becomes this person who can commit mass murder on such a tremendous scale: her fury, her exhaustion, her long hard road to the monstrous. If Borne is a weapon who struggles to become a person, Sarat is a person broken down into a weapon—except that, by the end, she is a weapon wielded only by herself. Her youthful ideology and sense of righteousness are long gone. She has long since stopped believing in the cause of the South; she disdains it, and all it stands for. American War warns the reader early what it’s about:
This isn’t a story about war. It’s about ruin.
And that’s why it works: because it’s not about honour or glory or heroism or service, or whatever other contemptible clichés of war; it’s not about history being written as the acts of larger-than-life characters; it’s not even about the games that great powers play. It’s about a particular, ordinary person in an extraordinary situation, who does terrible things and has terrible things done to them. It’s about war as ruin.
(I read Rohini Mohan’s Seasons of Trouble not long after finishing American War. This is a non-fiction book about the war in Sri Lanka, following the lives of a few particular, ordinary people who are facing extraordinary and terrible situations, and in some cases—I’m thinking of Mugil executing prisoners of war and recruiting child soldiers, no matter how willing—doing terrible things. It’s a credit to American War that it felt more like a fictional analogue to something like Seasons of Trouble than it does to anything in military science fiction.)
In a wildly implausible irony, Sarat is aided in her final revenge not only by Yousef and her other allies among the Southern rebels, but also by Martin and Bud Jr. Baker, the sons of her torturer, the man she killed. Now grown and soldiers in the Northern military, they come across her at a checkpoint while she’s on her way to unleash the plague. Martin is the one who lets her through, in the end.
Perhaps to reduce the sting of implausibility, this scene is not directly shown: wonderfully, we only see it being discussed and described in the transcript of a hearing before a Committee for Truth and Reunification several decades later. We don’t hear the exchange between Sarat and the Bakers, and neither does the Committee: the surveillance footage lacks audio, and the Committee’s experts have lip readers trying to reconstruct the encounter, but Sarat’s face isn’t visible on camera. We are left to assume that perhaps Martin remembered that Sarat let them live and escape, or perhaps that the torturer’s son himself might have been unable to face his father’s victim, might have been driven by despair and guilt into letting her pass.
The guilt of a torturer’s son lies at the heart of A Spaceman in Bohemia, too. Where Martin Baker’s father in late 21st-century America drowned his victims—drowning is how he broke Sarat—Jakub Procházka’s father in late 20th-century Czechoslovakia uses the Iron Shoe. He falls from grace after the Velvet Revolution and then dies along with Jakub’s mother in a cable car accident, so Jakub is sent to live with his grandparents. A few years later, when Jakub is thirteen, one of his father’s victims comes to his grandparents’ house.
Grandpa sits with a beer, while the stranger puts his wet backpack on the table and pulls out a rusty metal shoe, so large it could only fit a proper giant.
The stranger—for a long time Jakub thinks of him as Shoe Man—tells the story of how Jakub’s father took him to the secret police headquarters and put him in the iron shoe and electrocuted him through it. Shoe Man become a wealthy man after the revolution, profiting immensely from privatization. He bought the shoe from a friend at the police inventory, he says, identifying it from the serial number burned into his skin.
Shoe Man contrives to evict them from Jakub’s grandparents’ house, using his friends in the new government to have their home given to him in compensation for the torture. He forces them to leave the village and move to Prague, which is already very different from the city that Jakub remembers from when his parents were alive:
We drive past the shopping malls and multiplexes rising from the ruins of old community centers, the places where Prague youths once gathered to watch educational films about doing their part for the Soviets and played football in red T-shirts. I don’t recognize this city—its new, well-dressed explorers, its taxicabs and Tommy Hilfiger billboards. I don’t know this free Prague, but I’d like to. So many luxuries are now within reach, and I cannot afford any of them.
Here, Jakub grows up carrying the guilt of his father’s sins. He goes to university, studies astrophysics. He meets Lenka, the love of his life, and they have a grand romance. They marry. After graduation, as an expert on cosmic dust, Jakub comes to the fore when a vast new cloud of cosmic dust accretes between Earth and Venus. The cloud—codenamed Chopra—changes the night sky to purple, and becomes Earth’s new scientific obsession and the target of a new space race, especially after uncrewed missions fail to capture samples.
This is when Jakub is approached by the powerful and ambitious Senator Tůma, who recruits him to be the astronaut for the Czech mission, which will be the first human crewed mission to Chopra, with this magnificent, nakedly manipulative, openly cynical rant:
“Your father was a collaborator, a criminal, a symbol of what haunts the nation to this day. As his son, you are the movement forward, away from the history of our shame. Jakub Procházka, the son of a loyal communist, the glowing example of a reformed communist (you’re not still a communist, are you? Good, good). A man who grieved through the death of his parents, who grew up in a humble village on the humble retirement pay of his grandparents, and despite all odds unleashed his brilliance upon the world, becoming a heavyweight best in his field. The embodiment of democracy and capitalism, while also a humble servant to the people, a seeker of truths. A man of science. I want to put a Czech in Space, Jakub, and that Czech will be you. Europe will scoff at us, burdened taxpayers will cry out in skepticism. But there is a future here, meaning for the country, and we can sell it as such with you on the packaging. The spaceman of Prague. The transformed nation embodied, carrying our flag into the cosmos. Can you see it?”
Part of the reason the Czech mission can overtake the American, Russian, Chinese, and German missions is because there are concerns about astronauts’ safety in proximity to the cloud. Senator Tůma sells the idea locally as a grand project of nationalism and overrides these concerns. Jakub, signed up to be the first spaceman of Bohemia, instantly becomes a national hero and celebrity, though he resists attempts to rebrand him for better marketing. Unlike Borne’s Rachel, who was given her Western name as a child and never got a chance to object, Jakub is asked if he wants to change his name to something more exotic, more Western, befitting a hero, but promptly refuses—it’s the name his parents gave him, with their long-destroyed aspirations for him and their country alike. It’s a common, simple name: Jakub says that twice in the opening paragraphs of the book. His justification for keeping his name unchanged is how he opens his story.
Jakub’s willingness to rush headlong into a probable suicide mission in space—without so much as consulting her first, the supposed love of his life—alienates Lenka deeply, though she struggles to present a supportive façade for a while, playing the good astronaut’s wife. Senator Tůma pegged Jakub’s weakness accurately: his need to compensate for his father overrides everything else, at least for long enough to get him on the shuttle, the JanHus1, and on the way to Chopra. By the time Jakub understands that he’s destroyed his marriage and lost Lenka, he’s alone deep in space. Lenka leaves without explicit warning, in much the same way that Jakub himself left her.
In an emotional crisis, when the alien appears on Jakub’s ship he thinks he’s hallucinating at first—even going to far as to imagine the specific Freudian analysis that his government-appointed therapist would make of his vision. (The same therapist, meanwhile on Earth, is the one who encouraged Lenka to do what’s right for her, even if it meant upsetting the national hero.)
But no, it turns out that the alien, who looks like a giant spider with a human mouth, is real, and telepathic: he asks Jakub to name him after a smart human, and Jakub names him Hanuš, after a 15-century clockmaker from Prague. Hanuš eats all the Nutella onboard.
While Jakub is processing first contact, he’s also insisting to mission control that state security should find and surveil Lenka for him. He gets increasingly comical/creepy updates from agents of state security on what Lenka is doing, who she’s meeting, their theories on whether she’s having sex with them. Meanwhile, he and Hanuš become friends of a sort; the alien, able to move through other dimensions, has lived in Earth orbit for a decade and studied other astronauts and formed opinions on humanry. Together they enter Chopra, but the JanHus1 disintegrates within the dust cloud. Jakub gets a hero’s death, as far as mission control is concerned. Hanuš appears to die; Jakub is rescued by a secret Russian ship—it turns out there are many phantom space programs and Jakub is only publicly the first mission to Chopra. The Russians bring him back to Earth, though in an attempt to escape their intentions of imprisoning him to protect the secret of their phantom missions, Jakub accidentally causes their ship to crash, and is the only survivor.
Incognito, he finds his way back to Prague and meets his friend and ally from mission control, Petr, who is shocked that Jakub is still alive. Petr agrees to help Jakub find Lenka again, but helps him heal from the hardships of his experience first. Jakub does not intend to return to his former life in any respect, except for Lenka.
Petr assured me that no one was going to recognize me. It was because people don’t think of dead men as physical bodies, he said, but glorified concepts. Aside from that, I knew that no man, woman, or child could confuse my transformed cheekbones and sagging eyes with the fresh-faced hero of posters and television screens.
After Jakub’s recovery, Petr takes him to Plzeň, where Lenka now lives. But when Jakub finds her, she seems self-contained and happy, an artist. He can’t bring herself to disrupt her life by returning from the dead. He moves on and leaves her be.
There is one thing he can’t move on from, though: one grand continuity in his life, and that is Shoe Man. Jakub discovers Shoe Man’s real name, Radislav Zajíc and that he’s apparently been a childhood friend and lifelong advisor of (former Senator, now Prime Minister) Tůma: the man who evicted him from his grandparents’ house and the man who launched him into space, both post-revolution opportunists. Confused and enraged, Jakub contacts Zajíc and meets him, punches him, and demands to know if this was all a plot to torture the last Procházka. Zajíc denies this: it turns out that he, too, has been obsessed. Jakub’s life has been surveilled by Zajíc all along in the same way that Jakub did to Lenka.
“After you left Středa, I couldn’t let go of you. I’ve been married a couple of times, and each of my wives had caught me whispering your name in the dark, thinking you were a lover of mine. I watched you grow up, saw your grade reports, statements of purpose for university. I wanted to ensure they would admit you, but you didn’t need the help. I watched your grandfather’s funeral from a distance. I asked the vineyard where you and Lenka married to quote you a small rate and I paid for the difference. You’ve been a charm from the old life, and I wanted to see, always wanted to see—were you going to turn into a bastard? Was it in the blood? And you kept being good. Determined.”
But this is also Zajíc’s self-image as an idealist, even as he admits to his own corruption, for which he is about to go on trial. He admits that he’s considering fleeing to the Caribbean to live out his life in luxury rather than be punished for his crimes. Zajíc is not like Sarat: he has the same obsessive rage over what was done to him, but his revenge has been to enrich himself, and to buy and reclaim the components of his own torture—the shoe, the building he was tortured in, the son of his torturer. The collision of ideologies is perfect, in that Jakub’s father was a committed communist and Zajíc, in turn, became a committed capitalist.
With this encounter they reconcile, at least insofar as Zajíc returns to Jakub the keys to his grandparents’ house, and Jakub abandons thoughts of revenge. Instead, Jakub returns to live in the old house, in a blatant full circle that would be grating if he were not so damaged by his journey, if he weren’t talking to the spiders in the ruins of his grandparents’ house and believing them to be Hanuš.
Dreams Before the Start of Time is also about an ideological collision, though one that’s slower and more subtle. Two very different—and in many ways directly opposed—marginal cultures become mainstream and widespread in British society, colliding with all the urgency of tectonic plates and melding into an orogeny that takes several generations to pan out.
On the one hand, we have the end of the default/enforced hetero nuclear family (most recently recognizable from the artificially-masculine Wick, the human-feminine Rachel given an outsider name, and the alien-child Borne, the three isolated from any broader family or community and playing out their internal psychodramas on a lonely stage) and the proliferation of various kinds of different family/household configurations in British society at large, rather than as a fringe queer/spacepeople-of-bohemian culture on its margins.
It’s not the unconventional family structures that are the novum; it’s that they are no longer marginalized or unconventional in any way, but are finally, by the 2030s, arriving as new norms in the very heart of the extremely comfortable British white middle class. That comfort is lampshaded early. For example, Millie’s parents are the kind of people who can promptly buy their daughter a house in London when she tells them she wants to have a baby using a donor instead of with her boyfriend. Atticus can just decide to live and work in China for a few years because he feels like it, and his obliging employer will transfer him to their Shanghai office and pay for his girlfriend’s tickets. Toni is the kind of liberal who worries about the possibly distasteful politics of a potential boyfriend or sperm donor, but in the very same breath is fully on board with the eugenicist project of “cleaning up” the child’s genes.
This is the second marginal culture that becomes gradually mainstream and ubiquitous: the fascist project of eugenics. In a fragmented, ahistorical neoliberal culture with privatized healthcare, there is no broadbased pushback and no serious regulation of what kind of screenings and modifications are possible in a world of artificial wombs and remote gestation.
As with alternatives to the cishet nuclear family, this society does not connect that idea with its twentieth-century history; the characters, already comfortable as they are, simply take it in their stride. Like American War, Dreams Before the Start of Time is a slow burn, but its darkness is lowkey, an undercurrent of disquiet that never overspills. The fascist dystopia creeps in on little cat feet, never announcing itself with guns and explosions. It is not even resisted; it simply wins, so quietly and thoroughly that nobody ever even calls it what it is.
It only takes two or three generations for an Eloi-Morlock class split. The wealthy use artificial wombs and genetic screening as a matter of course and the poor go au naturel. Gerard—who was almost the adopted son of Rudy, whose mother is Millie who got the free house in London—crosses the line by hooking up with a working-class woman, Freya, who gets pregnant and unilaterally decides to keep the (genetically unmodified) child, Skye.
Years later, when Skye is a young boy, Freya gets in touch with Gerard, who is now married to a suitable Eloi woman and has a eugenically-approved child of his own. They have a deeply transactional encounter at the quayside in Bristol, where Gerard thinks the SS Great Britain would make a good talking point for his encounter with his unwanted Morlock child. Nervous that Freya is trying to actually entangle him in her life, Gerard jumps at the chance to talk numbers first.
“My wife wants me to make a deal with you. A one-time deal. A single payment. You’ll have to sign papers.”
“You’ve not even met him yet.”
“Which is better. Let’s talk about the money first, the compensation.”
She walks off to the back of the deck. He joins her, and they look out over the waterway. Each seems hesitant to make the first move, to make the first indication of a ballpark figure. It’s all about trade, Gerard reckons—this much effort, this much risk, for this much reward. He imagines times past, the dock jammed with ships, under repair after long sea journeys. Iron pots to Africa, slaves to the New World, sugar to Bristol.
Gerard is repellent, of course; the Eloi often are even when they aren’t, and he actually is. His casualness about the slave trade and Bristol’s part in it is entirely in keeping with how he thinks of Freya as a kind of subhuman and Skye as damaged. He can’t quite square this with his actual encounter with Skye, who seems happy and healthy, but he manages to find both shame and comfort in the thought of some “hidden incapacity” in Skye.
Meanwhile, Millie’s actual granddaughter Julia (as opposed to her could-have-been grandson Gerard) is some sort of finance Eloi who attends the kind of thinktank where smart rich people decide what is to be done with poor people. We don’t see much of the meeting because Julia is preoccupied with her talking dating app, but we see enough of it to hear the theme being laid out:
For the coming three months, we’ll discuss a persistently thorny issue—the participation of lower-skilled citizens in the workforce. Specifically, we’ll address ourselves to the question: What are the obstacles, political and educational, in creating gainful employment for an underskilled underclass?
The only part of the subsequent discussion we see is a quick, amused dismissal of a devil’s-advocate argument for reducing automation and increasing employment. That’s a total non-starter, someone says. The horse has bolted. The date that distracts Julia from this meeting is one where the traditional middle-class mating ritual, mildly augmented by AI assistance and heavily brokered by an agency, has seamlessly absorbed the new eugenics:
We cover the bases—where we work, where we’ve studied, where we’ve lived. Our assistants know all of this already, and more, and they’d have flagged up any dealbreakers: a major differential in salary or education, any genome alerts.
But what’s interesting about that seamlessness is also how much continuity it has with previous generations’ obsessions with breeding, bloodline, and race. There has been no rupture in this history: this is a trajectory that traces back smoothly to the empire and the slave trade. This dystopia is extremely close to the one we actually live in, in other words, right down to how little affected any of the Eloi characters are by climate change. Rising seas and resource wars were life-uprooting disasters for Borne’s Rachel or American War’s Sarat, but there must have been people like Julia in their worlds too, people who were insulated from it all by wealth and privilege. To Julia, rising seas are quaint: a thing that makes some maps into valuable antiques.
The book saves Freya and Skye’s Morlock story for its penultimate chapter; this feels like very deliberate placing, because it’s a relief by that point.
She’s done the sums; she saves enough money walking between town and the restaurant to buy a decent birthday and Christmas present for Skye. Two good presents a year, and a mother who works hard, plus funny stories about the customers. He’ll remember all that, she hopes, rather than the shabby state of their accommodation.
Freya is poor, working as a waitress, and fully committed to the neoliberal dream: the money she negotiated with Gerard is going into her plan for a street food vendor business, an idea she’s been cultivating for some time. She reads self-help books for entrepreneurs and treats them as holy writ:
According to How to Build a Business Empire on One Good Idea, once you’ve found success, you need to reinvest. You must refresh your business offering or else, before you know it, someone will steal your market share. You’ll have no one to blame but yourself.
Her ambitions for Skye’s education are hard-headed, practical, and heartbreakingly narrow after all the casual wealth we’ve seen in the book so far: she is hopeful of being able to pay for swimming, surfing, and guitar lessons, not for fun but to prepare him for work. She thinks he could sing in bars when he’s older and, best case, start a small surfing school for tourists.
She won’t try to explain her strategy to Gerard. As she sees it, there’s little point in Skye studying hard. It’s anyone’s guess which occupations will exist in ten years’ time. Small-scale tourism is the safe bet around here.
Freya’s story is heartwarming because she exists and is a joy of relatable normalcy in this miserable dystopia of comfort for the comfortable and quiet, utterly normalized despair for everyone else. The note of hope in this story is not that Freya gets her money from Gerard, but that we get to see that her reliance on her entrepreneurial self-help books is not as uncritical as it may seem at first:
Last winter, overlooking the Gannel in Mr. Filipkowski’s mansion, Freya read Lucky Breaks of the Super Successful. The author tried to offer encouragement—stating that a single stroke of good luck is oftentimes all it takes for a person to fulfil their true potential. But Freya knew it was a lie. It made her angry. The author seemed to imply that all her years of hard work weren’t necessary, that she was a fool to imagine she could make her own luck, make it happen. She tore that particular page out of the book and flushed it down Mr. Filipkowski’s downstairs toilet.
A page down the toilet; that’s the moment of hope.
There is a last chapter in which Toni and Atticus, now great-grandparents with a solicitous, wealthy, successful, mostly genetically souped-up clan clucking over them, go on a trip to China—they’ve stayed mobile and active into their advanced age thanks to all kinds of assistive technology over the years, like AI assistants, exoskeletons, and now droid companions on the journey—to scatter Millie’s ashes and be sentimental. Placed next to Freya’s life for contrast, the shift of perspectives is so stark they might be in different books altogether, which of course is what life is like: dystopia for many, utopia for a few. Science fiction and a sense of wonder for some, and for the rest—horror.
Each of the six books on this shortlist is about complicity in the (ruptured or continuous) histories they depict. In American War and Sea of Rust, this is very direct: Sarat and the robots are themselves genocidal war criminals. In Borne, Wick and his counterpart antagonist, the Magician, are both former employees of the Company (much like Sarat’s recruiter, Albert Gaines, was a former CIA agent before he picked the other side in the civil war) and to various degrees responsible for the actions of the Company in this world and for Mord. In Spaceman of Bohemia, Jakub is not actually complicit in his father’s actions but he believes it when Shoe Man tells him that he is, and he spends most of his life trying to compensate for it. And in Gather the Daughters, the men who are individually “good”—in the very specific sense that they are abstaining from the abuse of children in a culture designed for the systematic abuse of children—are nevertheless complicit in keeping that system going. Janey’s father was born into this culture and has just barely figured out that its pieties are hypocrisies in time to tacitly support Janey’s rebellion. Vanessa’s father is privy to the secret of the outside world, so his complicity goes even further.
The unevenly distributed future of Dreams Before the Start of Time is science fiction—but also, in its quietness, in how softly horrors become banalities, in the brutal demonstration of how there is so much further for the divide between rich and poor to widen, in how that widening can happen without a particular villain to drive the plot—there’s no Magician here, no Company; no Albert Gaines or Bud Baker; no Shoe Man or Jaromír Tůma; no cabal of pedophiles; no cackling genocidal AI masterminds bent on eating the world, only perfectly ordinary people making contextually ordinary decisions in their lives and working within ideologies so immanent as to be invisible—in how all those intersecting and oh so ordinary lives form a machine for widening the gyre, this is far too close to life, and the future we don’t deserve but may get regardless, a nightmare of the end of history.