Demitria Lunetta’s In the After is set in a post-apocalyptic world where Earth has been invaded by massive green people-eaters who quickly move to devastate the planet after their arrival. A handful of survivors live furtively in the crumbling remains of society, and Amy is one of them, camping out in her house in Chicago with a young girl she calls ‘Baby.’ In a world where everything is topsy-turvy, with Amy remembering what it was like before the invasion and struggling to adapt, everything is about to get even more disrupted as Amy is rescued and brought to a secret colony of other survivors.
Being rescued sounds like a good thing, but is it?
This is an intriguingly structured book, with three distinct sections where we get to see three very different parts of Amy. In the first, we learn about how she adapted in the immediate aftermath of the disaster; she was fortunate to have a few advantages over her neighbors including a heavily secured home with an electric fence, a rooftop garden, and solar panels. In fact, within the confines of her fence, she could live a pretty normal life, complete with a shower, flushing toilet, and the ability to cook and prepare food, although her fresh food options were limited.
Together with Baby, she learned to adapt very rapidly to a world in which your survival was dependent on extreme silence, where a single word or cracked stick could attract Their attention, and where you’d be a meal seconds later. It’s a harsh and lonely existence, especially since Amy quickly learns that other survivors are not necessarily her friends and allies, but in a way, she and Baby manage to function very well because of their youth, which allows them to understand this as the new world around them, rather than forcing them to constantly relive what it was like before and despair.
That changes when she’s picked up and rescued, discovering that her mother miraculously survived and is heading up a compound of survivors. Initially Amy settles in well, but she starts to think that something sinister is going on, and it is here that the narrative begins to fragment, splitting between different timelines as Amy discovers the secret of her rescuers and deals with the aftermath of her horrific and startling discovery.
In the After involves a lot of exploration of trust in a post-apocalyptic world. While I’m used to reading post-apocalyptic narratives where we see people adapting and learning to survive, this book took explorations of trust a lot further than I’ve seen them, and highlighted the way people fundamentally change in their relationships to each other in a landscape where everything, and everyone, could be dangerous. Watching Amy’s trust change over the course of the book, we see how she started out spoiled and relatively innocent before, and shifted radically to survive after; and how that skill ends up saving her life time and again.
Her relationship with Baby is also fascinating, as the two consider themselves like sisters and cling to each other, but Baby is more prepared to adapt to life in the compound and she’s also more ready to trust the people who live there. That forces Amy to make some tough choices as she tries to reconcile herself to the fact that her relationship to her adopted sister is fundamentally changing and that Baby may not be able to follow her along the paths she’s going to have to walk to find the truth. Meanwhile, Amy’s trying to decide if the cute scientist she likes, or the Guardians she’s become friends with, are people she can rely on, or part of a larger conspiracy.
Lunetta also explored the consequences of a post-apocalyptic society where most humans are dead and people are trying to repopulate. This becomes a serious plot issue in a lot of these kinds of books, where we’re often supposed to believe that humanity can magically repopulate itself through love and fairy wands. Other books, like this one and the Chemical Garden Trilogy, face facts head-on and discuss the kinds of decisions people might make in the belief that they’re acting in the best interest of society, which pretty much inevitably leads to forced reproduction and a lot of questions about bodily autonomy and whether women should be compelled to have children for the greater good.
I think we all know how I feel about the answer to that question, but it’s interesting to see how the characters handle it, from the hot defenses of a forced pregnancy policy to serious questioning of whether it’s right or appropriate to demand that women be compelled to get pregnant and have children. And, for that matter, whether it’s fair to insist that men ‘donate genetic material’ for said pregnancies, whether a society should practice eugenics as it tries to rebuild itself by selecting specific people for breeding and carefully curating the gene pool.
Books willing to probe into these questions where others might shy away are performing an important service not just to themselves, because they should be an important part of the plot structure of a novel set in a future where there are almost no people left, but to larger conversations going on. We should be talking about bodily autonomy and control, as well as eugenics and the handling of human relationships. If readers start doing that because of reading books like In the After, that’s a good thing; and the book makes a great launching point for these kinds of discussions in a classroom setting where a teacher can moderate a conversation that could potentially become quite passionate.