Natalie Ironside, “The Last Girl Scout” (2020) – This fucking ruled. It’s two hundred years after a mid-21st century nuclear war! Some shit is still fucked — heavily nuked areas are still radioactive and have “roamers,” zombies more or less, products of biowar weapons, roaming around — but civilization has rebuilt in some areas. One such is the Ashland Confederated Republic, a communist federation of survivors in Kentucky, Tennessee, and parts south (until you get to the “exclusion zones” around nuked-out Birmingham and Atlanta… I guess they didn’t bother with Nashville? It’s ok). Across the Ohio River they face off with the Blacklands New Republic, a white supremacist fascist state. You might wonder why survivors of an apocalypse would, a hundred years later, decide to take up early twentieth century ideologies, complete with trappings (the Ashlanders still debate about Trotsky; the fascists have Arditi and often use Italian or German phrases). Well, post-apocalyptic (or generally futuristic) atavism has been a thing in scifi forever, with monarchies, feudalism, the Wild West, and god knows what else coming back after the bombs fall- so why not ideological struggle circa 1937? I dig it!
Natalie Ironside, an IWW organizer, doesn’t mess around, and her main character, Magnolia “Mags” Blackadder, is a commissar, the supposed avatar of communist evil. But this is a state where communism works, more or less, and the commissars are there to ensure the rights of soldiers (keeping those pesky officers in line) and in general be kind of wandering Jedi of the revolution. Mags is young, her family got all fucked up in a famine, she’s a transwoman, and she lives for her work- advancing the Revolution and fighting fascists. She’s sent on an impossible mission- crack The Citadel. Deep in the “Exclusion Zone” in the Acela Corridor, the Citadel shines bright with the sort of technological salvage the communes could really use to up their automation game and advance towards utopia. It also shines with menace- few who have tried to take the Citadel have ever come back. Except for Ohio Nazis (“I fucking hate Ohio Nazis”)- they’re going to the Citadel and coming back. It’s ominous.
First, of course, Mags needs to gather a team. There’s the Prof, her old professor at the academy who knows Old American tech. There’s Connor, whose wife was horribly killed by a vampire (there’s vampires) last time out to the Citadel. There’s TJ, who they kind of pick up at an anarchist bar along the way, but they seem cool? And most importantly, there’s Jules. Jules is a renegade fascist Arditi, a transwoman and survivor of harrowing abuse at the hands of her former co-fascists. She labors under a crushing weight of trauma and guilt. She and Mags meet up and it’s love at first sight. They talk trauma and fuck all the way from the anarchist zone of the communist state (there’s some amusing insults back and forth between anarchists and communists but they work together in the crunch) in the Appalachians to the Baltimore suburbs where the Citadel waits.
There’s a few different kinds of action in the book and Ironside handles them all with aplomb. There’s a lot of fights, both “unbalanced” horror-style violence — her vampires are genuinely scary — and action-movie style fights dealing with unfriendly bandits and fascists. There’s also a lot of emotional relationship talk! Having read a lot of military science fiction due to Reasons lately, I’ve read a lot of both lately — your military scifi always has dudes thinking about love — and I think Ironside ranks with the best of them at military action and beats them all hollow on the relationship stuff. She comes out of the fanfiction scene and this is self-published, and if I’m being honest I think it could have benefited from professional editing — it gets repetitive — but not at the cost of Ironside’s style (hell, you ever listen to people talk relationships? Or politics? It’s repetitive!). It works quite well as stands.
There’s so much more, even in the first part, that I can’t give due consideration to — a friendly early 2000s hipster girl vampire (kind of a Marceline type)! Kaiserine/Nazi vampire experiments brought stateside by Operation Paperclip AND involving a gay WWI vampire romance that goes bad because one vampire becomes a Nazi and the other a Communist! A fascist prison camp/bordello for transwomen! Terrible revenge! Tac nukes! — and it’s just a hell of a lot of fun.
And then there’s the second part! If I’m being honest I think this could have been a separate book. It’s rare when I want more of a novel, but I wanted more of this one. After the Ohio fascist plan revolving around the Citadel goes up in smoke, the fash say “yolo” and try to bulldog the Ohio River anyway, just as a meeting of the Soviets is happening! The Soviets are doing the math and are realizing — except for some lame Stalinoid class reductionists — that they need to take these fash sons of bitches down. They can’t coexist. They’re expanding in the west against the Indigenious portions of the Republic. Who knows when they’ll find some other superweapon? They can’t do “force against force” — there’s more people in the fertile Ohio farmland than in the rocky Appalachia soil — but they can subvert the fash from beneath (which I like because it’s the fascists’ straight up worse nightmare). But the fash strike first! Mags, Jules, a new lover of theirs, and some of the rest of the old crew are sent into enemy territory to help light up the kindling under the fash’s asses.
This is also overstuffed with cool shit — fash vampire long-range raids to take out artillery! Guerrilla action! Inter-fash political bullshit! Commie spies using their control over the illicit cigarette and coffee trade to smuggle arms to the gay underground in fash cities! Forgiveness and revenge! More emotions talk! — to the point where, like I said, I would’ve liked to see it as its own big book. But it’s cool as is.
If I hazard a criticism beyond the editing/structure, I’d say that in the action, she could use to vary up the patterns of setback and victory a little. Ironside has made clear that she is not telling stories of dystopia, even with all the terrible shit that happens in the book and it’s background, she is telling stories of hope. We can build back better, together- we can be who we are and find love and peace. That’s cool! I would say it creates a pattern wherein we are frontloaded with tragedy — setbacks in the action and revelations of terrible trauma for the characters — and backloaded with victories. That’s fine as a first-level pattern. The victories feel earned. But I think she could heighten the tension and drama by having more setbacks and more contradictions — in the process of achieving victory —. She’s got the characters with depth for it, and the knowledge; clearly, she knows her stuff about politics, war (something tells me she’s followed the news out of Syria), ecology, etc. But, hell, when she wrote a book this fun, she can do her own thing. It’s been a long time since I “geeked out” over fiction, but here I am. *****