Robert Evans, “After the Revolution” (2021) – Robert Evans hosts a bunch of podcasts! That’s close to all I know about him. A lot of people I know like his podcasts. I vaguely know some people who dislike him because he works for Bellingcat, which produces a lot of Russiagate paranoia, but it doesn’t seem he works that beat. I don’t listen to many podcasts these days but I heard somewhere he wrote a sci-fi novel about America after it fractures in a civil war. Evans also worked as a conflict journalist in places like Syria so I thought it’d be worth looking into, especially as he distributes it as a free ebook.
It’s the 2070s! The US broke up decades before. Most of the action takes place in Texas, which became a sort of weak libertarian republic, and basically allowed factions both right and left to control parts of its territory. There are three viewpoint characters. Manny is an Austin-based “fixer” for journalists from abroad looking to report on the wars in North Texas between Christian militants and the forces of the Republic and leftist militias. Sasha is a high school girl in the “AmFed,” the American rump state in the northeast, who runs away to join the Kingdom of Heaven, the “neo-Calvinist” (autocorrect wants to say “bro-Calvinist” and there’s some truth to that) ISIS-analogue growing on the plains. And then there’s Roland, a radically biologically modified former supersoldier missing large chunks of his memory who gets bribed into a “one last job” by an old friend. They all get embroiled in a surprise offensive that the Kingdom launches that threatens to overrun Texas.
One of Evans’ many podcasts is called something like “It Can Happen Here,” about the possibility of a civil war in the US, and my understanding is that it basically layers his experience doing conflict journalism onto American conditions. That’s more or less what you get here too. Sasha, for instance, is pretty straightforwardly a white American Christian skin for the sort of young people who got radicalized online and ran off to join ISIS in the 2010s. The Kingdom is ISIS, there’s an equivalent of the Syrian Democratic Forces defending Austin (without, interestingly, as much of the ethnic angle, though there’s more people of color there than among the Kingdom), there’s the “Christian states” in the South kinda-sorta supporting the Kingdom kind of like Saudi, the Emirates, Turkey etc supporting Islamist militias against Assad (paranoiacs who insist that Evans is a NATO pawn will presumably think he soft-pedals that angle here for Reasons), etc etc.
Evans makes the good choice to not linger too much on worldbuilding, and where he does, it’s on something stranger (more anon). Mostly he does action, and he’s a decent enough action writer, not one of the greats but this is a respectable first try. His extrapolations on technology — the key importance of drones, some bio-modification stuff I’m not sure I “buy” but which is fun — work pretty well and aren’t overplayed. The Kingdom is mounting an offensive based on a new technological exploit- I’m normally not into that as a plot point in scifi but it works here, as Evans depicts the Kingdom as first and foremost opportunistic, an infection exploiting weaknesses, from the corruption and pointlessness of life in Texas and the AmFed to technological flaws, half-consciously, and we’ve seen that everywhere in the twenty-first century from the altright (remember them?) to… well, mostly other right-wing formations… Manny at first wants to make enough money to escape to Europe, but gets waylaid by the offensive. Sasha gets smuggled into the Kingdom, likes it at first, then finds herself in an arranged polygamous marriage with a rapey douchebag.
This leads us to Roland, the post-humans, and the strange role Evans gives them. It’s worth noting that along with contemporary wars and ideological madness, Evans also writes a lot about drugs from a participant-observer perspective- the post-McInnes Vice magazine mix. As far as I can make out, post-humanism in this world originates with the US military, who “chrome up” soldiers with nanotech, gene modification, internal computers, etc etc. It’s all more organic than Terminators — think blood nanobots rebuilding shot-up tissue rather than “liquid metal” — but Roland’s powers meet or exceed many of those of your T1000s. But these ain’t your granddaddy’s robotic, mission-oriented cyborgs! Their extreme abilities also come with extreme desires for extreme experience. The history comes in bits and pieces, but it seems that Uncle Sam’s cyborgs, after being used for numerous war crimes in the 2020s, go rogue and try to take down the state in a vaguely anarchist direction! Things get fucked, they lose, many of the post-American states pass strict regulations on bio-modification (the Kingdom renounces all of it but does some creepy backdoor nonsense with it), and so the post-humans mostly retreat to the abandoned, climate-ravaged deserts, mountains, and plains of the continent.
It’s too much to say they “save the day,” but a major player in the story, the thing that stops it from being a tale of Protestant ISIS ravaging Texas, is the post-human nomad city of Rolling Fuck. Rolling Fuck is basically Burning Man as Burning Man would like to imagine itself. They wander the plains, having crazy sex, drug, and danger experiences enabled by their demigod-like powers (I don’t like the way people call superheros gods these days- I get it’s meant to refer to pre-Christian gods but we are all products of monotheism and I’m sorry, if you’re not omnipresent, you aren’t like god as we know Him). They stay out of politics. But then the Kingdom makes the dumb move of jacking some of their people. At first, they try to send Roland and Manny in to sneak them out. That goes south, so Rolling Fuck goes to war.
Like I said, the action and plotting are decent, especially for a first time novelist. It is… “trauma informed,” and I’m curious to see how that will play out as trauma-thinking wends its way further into the popular consciousness. Knowledge costs- Manny knows war-torn Texas at his expense, Sasha learns fundamentalism is Bad at her expense (not as harsh as it could have been- Evans knows the boundaries of what his public will accept, probably for the better), and no one pays more than Roland, for learning what it’s like to be post-human and having post-human experiences, being a walking hub of history’s wheel. Even where Evans doesn’t make Roland’s prior experiences clear, there’s just a constant fusillade of self- and other-inflicted bodily abuse, just constantly taking tons of drugs and also getting shot all the time.
Knowledge costs, it’s traumatic, but it also makes you human, or post-human. Not just on its own- it can make you sneaky, like Roland’s ex-handler, or subhuman, Sasha’s bro-Calvinist boyfriend. It needs proper management, “technologies of the self” if you will- Rolling Fuck’s drug and sex experiments, and its war ritual of sending little drones to collect the information of the people it slaughters and playing their little social media videos for the civilians back on the truck. Arguably, the implied values and worldview behind this is as interesting as the post-civil-war stuff, for its leaps and its gaps both. It’s a flexible view of humanity, more flexible than the “standard” current view, but I wonder at its bending and breaking points, particularly the idea of what seems to be a universal idea of trauma… but anyway. All in all this was pretty good, especially for a free ebook by a podcaster. ****