I’ve often wondered about the post-apocalyptic subgenre. Specifically, how gender impacts the perception of it. I enjoy post-apocalyptic stories; I read a lot of them because I like the idea of reconstruction, and I find it interesting to see how many different ways authors can imagine that reconstruction happening. But it’s useless to pretend that there aren’t certain expectations set within that rebuilding, elements of story that can be relied upon to pop up again and again.
One of those things is the concern with reproduction. Apocalypse makes for a dangerous life, for mass deaths and a plummet in population. The lower that population gets, the lower the standard of living gets. If only a small group survives, what if there’s no doctor? What if there’s no engineer, no one experienced in growing or sewing or other useful, practical skills? Skills that not only preserve life but make it a little easier. The lower the population, the greater the chance these skills are lost. The thing to do, then, is to increase the population, to maximise the potential skills base in future.
And oh, we’re so interested in that increase! Disaster has come, we must repopulate the planet—whether you like it or not. In fact, it’s actually best not to give options about that repopulation to those that are left. Can’t let a thing like personal choice and control over one’s own body stand in the way of human destiny, after all. No surprise, then, that reproductive capacity comes to be seen as an exploitable resource, and let’s make no bones about it: most of the time, after most of the apocalypses, that exploitable resource is women.
I wonder, sometimes, what it says about us as an audience that this forced repopulation is so, well, popular. Yes, sexual assault following traumatic events does occur. Anyone living in the shadow of war can tell you that. But must we always expect the worst? And why does this worst so often come in this form? (Is cannibalism as prevalent in the post-apocalyptic world? Is non-sexual slavery?)
Love post-apocalypse stories as I do, it’s terribly depressing how many of them fall back on sexual assault and reproductive control. It’s a rare story that doesn’t at least mention the possibility. (The Rain Never Came  by Lachlan Walter is a recent exception, three cheers for it.)
And this is always where I start to think about how gender impacts the perception of genre. Post-apocalyptic stories are frequently dystopian, frequently science fictional. More and more, though, I begin to see them as flat-out horror. Which makes me wonder whether the authors see them as horror as well.
It’s much easier to see a story as horror when that horror is fundamental to the narrative. When it’s not background noise, slapped on in there for a little bit of (off) colour and not really necessary to the story as a whole. In Sweet Fruit, Sour Land the forced reproduction is centre-stage, affecting all the characters, and it’s remarkable how cleanly the characters are split by gender.
Nearly every woman with any pretensions to even a supporting role in the text is against the idea of having children. Nearly all of them, and they’re presented as choosing—or wanting to choose—the way that they do as a direct result of the post-apocalyptic environment. “To bring a child into this nothing is cruel” (p. 95). Hunger is rampant. To have children is to watch them starve, to watch them die young, probably, from preventable disease—because without a functioning health system, without an industry dedicated to the production of antibiotics and pharmaceuticals, even fevers can kill. To become pregnant is to run a genuine risk, too, of dying in childbirth.
It’s a question of rationality, of determining the quality of life that a child may expect—and then deciding if that quality is good enough, or if that hypothetical child deserves more. Repopulating the planet is a discussion that comes a far second, a question that the women barely engage with, and that’s interesting in itself. All their focus is on immediacy, all their focus is small and local. If I have a child, will it have a good life with me? No? Then there will be no child.
There is no interest here in making a small and innocent creature suffer, potentially, for the common good. The need to rebuild is not need enough, and each woman finds her own way of navigating her chosen childlessness: underground contraception, petitioning powerful men for surgical sterility. They forge connections with other women—“We look out for each other, don’t we?” (p. 172)—so that they can maintain control over their own bodies. So that they can maintain the integrity of their choices, so that their judgment of the (un)suitability of the new world for offspring is respected as valid.
“I was a woman second, and a human first,” (p. 95) claims Mathilde, and this goes against all we’ve come to expect from reproduction and post-apocalypse, when the ability to bear is so often the fundamental role, allowing for no other. This deliberate, chosen distancing between reproduction and self, between reproduction and judgment, is such an interesting thing. It’s also, as might be expected, quite hopeless.
Because while Sweet Fruit, Sour Land differs from a lot of other post-apocalyptic narratives in privileging the choice not to be maternal, and by setting that choice so firmly in both gender and apocalypse, it also realises the fascination with forced reproduction, the justifications that some people will go to in the enforcement thereof. This future vision of dystopian Britain is all about forcing women to breed, even if in their judgment need doesn’t justify suffering. And there’s something so sniggering about the forcing. It’s so underhanded and smug, full of game-playing that allows the people in power to take sadistic pleasure in deception and threat.
Mathilde, having her reproductive fitness checked by a doctor, is reminded that she’s coming up to the age deadline by which all women are expected to have bred. She’s still got a few years of freedom, but her doctor isn’t taking any chances. He escorts her out of the clinic the long way, just so she’ll get to observe—quite by chance, of course!—what happens to women who are a little too stubborn about putting off their supposed duty.
Inside, amongst the writhing women with saline drips, was one in particular who was being held down forcibly, her arms and legs strapped to the bed, a sheet draped over her middle. She woozily rocked her head from side to side, and a screaming gurgle escaped her lips as a nurse rubbed her arm and walked towards her feet. As she reached under the sheet I thought for a moment that she was in labour, and we had ended up in the delivery suite. But after a few movements, the nurse left, syringe in hand. She walked past us out of the room, and said casually to another nurse: “Tell her to keep her legs elevated.”
The doctor let go of my wrist. He turned and carried on walking, gesturing for us to follow, as though nothing had happened. We walked in silence behind him until he led us to another door to exit the hospital. He clicked it open and held it for us to walk through.
“It’s important that you saw that,” he said. “She was almost thirty. Something had to be done.” (pp. 91-92)
But worse than this theatre of forced impregnation is the staged hysterectomy of Jaminder. In a sexual relationship with a powerful man—and power comes with the determined desire to reproduce, and to traffic in reproduction—she convinces him to intercede on her behalf, to allow her to undergo sterilisation. Jaminder, believing the operation successful, is able to relax—except that there’s been no operation. The whole thing is an elaborate ruse by a man determined to father children. “They just put me under and scraped around and left me bruised and unchanged,” (p. 243) says Jaminder, and I am horrified and depressed and absolutely unsurprised.
The surprise, in Sweet Fruit, Sour Land isn’t that reproduction can become a forced and brutal thing. It’s the imagery around it, and the choices after.
Because this book is so much about women, so much about the female experience of post-apocalypse—and by that I mean the expected female experience of post-apocalypse, the one that turns women into resource—its images are primarily that of consumption. The memory of food is everywhere, here. Mathilde and Jaminder both reminisce, and fondly, about the foods they used to eat and the families they used to eat with—the times when food was a familiar experience, voluntarily shared, and joyous. Most of the time those food images revolve around fruit—and fruit that will likely never come again, with ecological change and sterility creeping over the land. It’s food that holds the narrative together: the magic discovery of a tin of pineapple under floorboards, the seduction-gift of peaches. But fruit is on the way out. It needs bees to pollinate the fruit trees, and all the bees are gone. (The staple food is porridge, come from oats, wind-pollinated.) “It’s hard to tell if there are more grapefruits left in the world than people,” says Jaminder, before admitting she’ll probably never know. “I haven’t seen a grapefruit in a long time, but I know that it exists, somewhere, in a different climate. Even if that climate is just in someone’s mind” (p. 43). The old world is gone. Both Mathilde and Jaminder are refugees, come to Britain from France and Kenya respectively, and all the climates they remember, all the foods and fruits, are the markers of another life.
In this life, the new life, the one so cut off from anything before apocalypse, the fruit they are most familiar with is themselves. “London made me hard like the rind of an old grapefruit,” says Jaminder, still obsessing. Messages are passed on in mentions of figs, women are trafficked as if they were strawberries. “Can you imagine it?” says Gloria, mourning her lover. “She’s in transit, already, crossing paths with our deliveries. In a van filled with strawberries” (p. 228).
It’s enough to make you hate the very idea of fruit—all that bright, soft, sweet flesh. Peeled open, devoured, discarded. The commodification of food and women, the constant analogies between the fruits (and lives) of before and after. George, the architect of so much misery, trying to preserve the fruits of other bodies. Trying to propagate from his little honeycomb room of dead bees, pretending himself the queen of the hive, the one from whom all reproduction is good and necessary.
Wind is far too chancy a thing, and in all the pages of Sweet Fruit, Sour Land, I never saw George eating porridge.
For all the purported equality of the text—this equality an idea encouraged and supposedly enforced by the remaining elite—Ley is careful that readers all realise that some things haven’t changed at all. The powerful are still holding on to power, exploiting all the flesh around them, living in their own utopia—a utopia that requires inequality, that thrives on it. That too is horrifying. I’m sure some post-apocalyptic narratives see the desire to accumulate, to retain all the old competitive aspects of pre-apocalyptic life, as a good thing. It’s the drive to rebuild all over again, but what’s being rebuilt is the worst, most destructive aspects of the old life. The ones that don’t care if children are born only to starve, just as long as they are born. Horror again, reaching down into soil and twisting.
But if all this fruit imagery is undermined by consumption, the women being consumed—Mathilde and Jaminder both—are determined that positive associations remain. The loving memories of meals, the hope of a future defined by fruit, and a different type of growth. “I imagined blackberries growing over my grave; I imagined their triumph, grasping back,” says Mathilde (p. 167). This is the raising up of fruit, giving it equal if not greater value to women (to men)—and in an entirely different way than George’s expectations of post-apocalyptic life. “That our molecules could just appear and dissolve, and succumb to the earth, be beaten by the blackberries. I found the idea of the tangle of shining beads taking our place a reassurance, that we all have our hour in the day” (p. 232). (Underlying this subtle, life-supporting theme is an awe-filled, despairing encounter with a surviving deer, which mimics in tone and response a similar scene in P. D. James's 1992 novel The Children of Men. The idea that some things will survive, and not the ones we would expect or hope, and that’s all right.)
There are two very different understandings of reproduction running through Ley’s narrative, and these understandings are split almost entirely by gender. At least it is between the characters, and perhaps between readers as well. One of those understandings is purely horrific. The other manages to carve, out of apocalypse and tinned pineapple and blackberries, the smallest bit of hope.
I know which I’d rather have.