Wither, Ch2

Last time on Wither, kidnapping.


For males twenty-five is the fatal age. For women it’s twenty. We are all dropping like flies.

That’s our chapter opening line, and it’s a good one.

A lot of the fanfic I read last month got complaints about it being slow or filler, or how it never actually got to the point. So far, the structure of this book is very good. We have an opening bang of a chapter, then the second chapter pauses, takes a breath, and starts explaining things.

The explanation turns out to suck, but structurally this is gorgeous.

Also, for the record: women live longer than men. Women live longer than men for several related reasons – whoever’s in charge of raising kids tends to live longer, for one, and another is that the X chromosome has a lot of good stuff and you’re better off with two copies. It is totally plausible for something to kill women earlier or more easily than men, but it’s got to be something that hits them worse for some reason.

For example, I read a book where the 1912 flu was instead some freaky ebola thing that never went away. There were fast cases, where you just popped, and slow ones where you slowly bled to death over the course of years. Women in this world tended to die at puberty because the slight bleeding involved in a period wasn’t. (The book had an incredible worldbuilding B plot underneath a painfully stupid A1 plot with an even more painfully stupid mary sue A2 plot. …I’ve read a lot of those kind of books, come to think of it.)

On to the explanation. We’re told it all started seventy years ago, with science. They cured cancer, and you know that just never goes well.

Immune system boosts given to the new-generation children eradicated allergies and seasonal ailments, and even protected against sexually contracted viruses. Flawed natural children ceased to be conceived in favor of this new technology. A generation of perfectly engineered embryos assured a healthy, successful population.

So, all STDs that weren’t viruses continued to infect people. Also, allergies aren’t caused by a weak immune system. And “seasonal ailments” are going to adapt. You could have someone whose immune system shrugged off diseases easily, but they’re still going to get colds even if the disease’s expression is muted and the sick period is shortened.

Also, the way this is written seems to suggest that on Day 0, science figured this out, and on Day 1, everyone ordered their kids out of a catalogue. Just look at the insanity around genetic engineering right now! People are afraid of cloned beef because cloning sounds like it has to do with generic engineering. That’s what we’re dealing with. Then there’s people with religious/philosophical objections, as well as people who are just cautious and want to make sure the bugs are worked out.

I mean, my family is 110% in favor of science. Dad’s always getting excited about how there’s this new paint with nanoparticles that’s an almost perfect insulator! But he did not, in fact, paint the underside of our roof in nanopaint, as cool as he thought it was, because the stuff was new so it wasn’t clear how durable it was or if it’d flake off and migrate into our brains. (The fact it was ridiculous overkill for the problem of our house not being well-insulated was, obviously, not a factor.) And he stuffs all sorts of vitamins down our throats, but he requires the stuff be around and stuffed down other people’s throats for a minimum safe period – though I’m still dubious of the pill full of stuff that makes chickens live longer. I think we should be feeding it to the chickens, they’re the ones the tests said it actually helps.

So even my family, who are way too far toward the “early adopter” side when it comes to this stuff, would hesitate to sign up. Assuming this came out before they decided to have me, I’d probably get born five to ten years later, depending on if this was already well tested and there were an existing proof of concept babies when it was released, exactly what modifications were made and how many of them were “well, we’re assuming gene modification X stops cancer safely and doesn’t just make all their cells spontaneously commit suicide three years in, so…fingers crossed!” and so on. That’s a five to ten lag for the people who like the concept.

The sort of people who really, really want their kid to have the best life are going to want to make sure what they’re buying doesn’t make things worse.

Now, there are ways to make it more likely. I read a short story once where a woman was considering having an immortal kid, and the scientists were pretty clear on what was and wasn’t changed. It was a simple alteration that was either going to work and make the kid immortal, or they’d be aging normally. It’d worked in animals but none of the humans changed were old enough to show signs of aging yet. That makes the choice down to if human frailties should be gotten rid of, not also if this would actually do the opposite and make a sickly miserable kid that dies at ten. And even then, the majority of people weren’t comfortable with it, and most people couldn’t afford it either.

Which is the next problem – even if you could get people willing to do it, that doesn’t mean they’d have access to it. Just regular fertility clinics are expensive.

So getting a solid generation of these kids out is going to be tough.

Anyway, in the present day this first gen is still mostly around, because it seems the scientists got aging right too so their lifespan is enhanced.

There’s only one way I can imagine this working, and that’s if it’s relatively few fixes that are universal across related animals, they did extensive animal testing and then plugged the result into humans. And that’s probably not going to work, because we’re very, very weird monkeys, to say nothing of how different we are compared to things like rats that you’d expect most of the testing to be one.

For example, humans have borked cell defenses. It may be a quirk of our evolution, or it may be tied to other important stuff, we don’t know. You can totally fix this, but you can’t do much outside of human testing. You can try to inflict it on another animal and then see how to fix it, but that’s assuming it’s not connected to anything else. And thanks to medical care, you don’t really need it – it’s there because dogs tear their foot open and then play on shit-covered ground, but it’s not such an issue since we finally managed to get doctors to wash their hands and stop coughing into open chest cavities.

Humans also already live unnaturally long. You know how every now and then you’ll hear that scientists have uncovered some longevity thing that triples an animal’s lifespan? Humans by best estimate already tripled it. Mammals generally have a million heartbeats clause. We’re at three million. Our closest relatives, chimps, have a max lifespan of sixty – evidence suggests our own max cutoff is a hundred twenty years.

Now, you totally can modify humans – we’re a mess, it’s a great idea. But most modifications would probably be straight up structural issues. Heart disease is the big killer, not cancer. Then there’s crappy eyesight, the fact we can’t grow new nerves to repair hearing (plus the fact our eardrum doesn’t heal well from damage) every last thing about our joints… Those are almost all mechanical issues, which means they’re much safer than anything messing around with our immune system, which is currently set in a delicate balance between being low and letting anything run rampant throughout our system, and high and having our body carrying on perpetual civil war on healthy cells.

Back to the story.

Anyway, what happened was this new generation had kids, and those kids were as healthy or, somehow, even more than the parents…right up until twenty/twenty-five, when they drop dead.

For fifty years the world has been in a panic as its children die.

Wait no. Even if we assume all of America switched over immediately, there’s absolutely no way you can convince me the rest of the world switched at the same time as we did, so there’d be plenty of people left who don’t have suicide genes.

Also. Even assuming it’s released and everyone in America stops having regular kids in favor of these the next day, including no accidental pregnancies, even if we assume all current pregnancies were terminated immediately, that still means that the oldest original model kid will be nine months older than the first new model.

Let’s assume none of the new model kids, not a one, have a kid until they hit thirty. That means that the old models will be fifty-one when the first second-gen women spontaneously dies.

That’s about menopause. And by “about” I mean “the middle of when it happens, on average”

Menopause has a wide starting range, but can usually be expected in the age range of 42–58.

Thank you, Wikipedia.

Note also that the word is “starting”. A woman entering menopause will have trouble conceiving, and probably shouldn’t try for related reasons. She’s not sterile, though, not yet. And it’s not like her ovaries spontaneously combust, you can alter this with hormones. And men don’t go sterile at all.

The only way for this to work is if the government mass sterilized everyone as soon as the wonderbabies arrived. I think you could just about swing this if you look at it happening over a thirty year period – the first kids are born, they grow up, they’re way happier and healthier than the original model kids, they manage to have kids of their own, and people start pushing to prevent accidental non-wonderbabies getting made. Even then, you’d think they’d leave some eggs and sperm frozen in a vault somewhere, and most sterilization would probably be of the tube-cutting kind, since cutting stuff out entirely leads to hormone imbalances.

(Considering the batshit fringe of the disability rights movement, I’m not sure even that makes sense. Maybe if it came on the heels of some massive backlash for respecting people’s right to choose for their kid. Maybe the antivaxers trigger a child pandemic before or during this – that would also make people want super-healthy kids more, and you could swing that having a side population of kids with weakened immune systems was creating a similar disease reservoir. The pandemic might also lead to a lot of the survivors being sterile, so sterilizing the remaining few would be less of an impact, and let’s just say they have some magic way to irreversibly sterilize people without messing up their hormones.)

But even that doesn’t truly work.

See, genetic engineering isn’t like, oh, nuclear radiation. You can’t just throw genes at a problem and hope it does something, and then decades later surprise cancer everywhere. If you can genetically engineer something, you have to know what you changed. That means they must know what the original state was. All they need to do is make more embryos and alter these ones to be normal again. Even if, I don’t know, all their notes were burned and their computer backups melted and rogue magnets and stuff, original model DNA is still all over the place. Not just in all the still living old originals, but in all the even older corpses. Comparing the two should be easy. And even if you can’t compare it, just get some and stuff it into egg cells.

I realize there’s a lot of worry about this kind of thing, and there are many valid issues, but “we accidentally the entire human genome” isn’t one.

Oh yes this is looking like a worthy successor to Hunger Games all right.

Okay. Back to what’s actually in this book.

The wealthier households refuse to accept defeat. Gatherers make a living collecting potential brides and selling them off to breed new children.

That doesn’t follow, book.

First, why can’t poor people refuse to accept this and keep having kids? Indeed, they must have because there’s no way the wealthy people alone are producing all the kids, or else they’d have no girls to keep stealing. Since when are the wealthy the ones who want to grit their teeth and keep doing what’s hard instead of passing their time doing cocaine off hookers?

Second, why do they need to steal people? It’s not like the issue is “if you have a kid, you die at twenty”, there’s no reason why women wouldn’t be fine with marriage and having kids. Women marry rich people all the time.

Third, being wealthy means you only have boys? Why are there no female kids? Why aren’t they kidnapping healthy-looking boys for their girls?

Fourth and most importantly, IF YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT THE EXTINCTION OF THE HUMAN RACE, WHY ARE YOU MASS MURDERING GIRLS? HOW THE FUCK DID THAT SEEM LIKE A GOOD WAY OF HANDLING THIS?

(Also hot =/= good breeder, okay? There are many interesting overlaps, yes. But it’s not a perfect match. And it especially wouldn’t be after the modifications, because extreme health and prettiness are probably the influence of new model genes, and those are where the problem started. You want mutants and throwbacks, not these “reluctant yet beautiful” girls.

(Admittedly, there’s nothing yet about exactly what their beauty standards. Fatness, for example. Being fat may hurt your overall lifespan, but it tends to increase your chances of surviving other things along the way. It’s possible that beauty standards have shifted, but I think we’d have heard about it if it wasn’t the usual, and certainly the girl on the cover isn’t exactlybreaking new ground.)

Also, if the issue is children, why not steal babies? Or kidnap people and force them to have sex, they’re already fine with women getting raped so why would they mind men so terribly much? Also, obviously IVF is a thing given the world’s made of designer babies now, so how on earth could they not even know about artificial insemination?

Anyway.

Apparently, our narrator’s brother used to be all about fighting this but no longer cares.

There was a time when he wanted to learn more about the virus that’s killing us

Wait. Back up.

What “virus”?

Where does a virus come into this? They make a generation of superkids, something’s wrong with their gonads so when they have kids the cells are messed up and die young, the change carries over to any kids those kids have. I would assume something nasty happened with the telemeres or there’s some imbalance thing going on with the immune system. Interestingly, women mature faster than men, so that might also explain why they’re dying first if there’s something that’s turning on at the end of maturity that does it.

But a virus has nothing to do with it. I mean, you could have a virus that the superkids were immune to but their kids aren’t, but in that case the superkids would be all that prevented adults from getting completely wiped out. This whole thing seems like it’s just a collection of buzzwords vomited onto paper – sexually transmitted viruses being stopped instead of sexually transmitted diseases, specifying “seasonal illnesses” because apparently the year-round kind are different, now calling the illness itself a “virus”… Maybe the author heard that genetic engineering is done with viruses without knowing what a virus is.

Actually…that brings up another question, why don’t they just implant more superkid embryos? Those apparently work fine. I mean, sure, it’s bad that we accidentally destroyed our ability to reproduce naturally, but superkids will at least have more time to work on the problem than the twenty/five set.

Okay, let’s try to work this out.

I said it doesn’t make sense that a whole generation could switch over so fast. So there aren’t superkid embryos in the first place. They used a virus to modify existing kids. Take out that bit about the embryos being engineered. Say the virus worked on everyone. That would also better explain how this happened to the entire world – though there should still be some isolated people. It would also explain why the change apparently just boosted the immune system instead of any structural improvements.

The viral DNA is incorporated into the offspring…but the virus is still in the environment, so it infects those offspring as well, and that’s where the problem starts, extra copies of whatever the genes were is too much. Or – even better, say the problem is the virus isn’t safe for children below a certain age. So there’s nothing wrong with the new model generation’s kids, the problem is solely that they’re getting exposed too young. Maybe it was never supposed to get loose.

The problem with this is that the solution should be to try to raise the kids in a sterile environment. So perhaps this is a particularly nasty virus that can get into the womb easily. Since everyone’s infected, all their kids are even if you use clean embryos. And that would make sense as something that might be overlooked when doing initial testing.

That would also kind of explain why people seem so haphazard about solving the problem by having kids. They’re just hoping for a resistant mutant. The more babies, the more chance of hitting the genetic lottery. Still doesn’t explain in the slightest why murdering girls is a good idea.

(Also, in such a world you’re best off saying the virus killed off related species, otherwise people would be doing stuff like trying to use apes as surrogates.)

Their parents are dead, though, so her brother’s given up on those thoughts.

For hours I pace the bedroom in this lacy nightgown.

She explains she has a whole walk-in closet of clothes. It seems weird she wouldn’t change. Sure, those clothes aren’t her clothes, but neither’s the nightgown. I tend to find normal pajamas flimsy, let alone a nightgown, and I’d want as many layers as possible under these circumstances. We’re told she’s looking for a way out, but…surely that’s easier done with actual clothes on?

Outside her window is a beautiful garden. She says her mother used to plant flowers.

They would grow healthy and vibrant, thriving despite the wasteland of dirt and dust.

Uh…you do understand plants like dirt, right?

She says the only other flowers are ones sold in stores, wilting carnations and red roses that always look rubbery or parched in the windows. I guess this could be a sign of a breakdown of the supply chain, but there’s lots of flowers, including ones that can easily be grown locally, so why wouldn’t they just switch to those?

They, like humanity, are chemical replicas of what they should be.

Because this is the chemical garden series? That’s what it means, that humans are like fake flowers?

Also.

Let me tell you about roses, internet. The rose you see in stories and gardens is not a wild plant. Roses are the product of a fuckton of human manipulation. And yes, they and many, many other flowers also require massive quantities of chemicals to grow on an industrial scale, but you know what, so does that pretty little garden outside your window. Rubbery and wilting just means the flowers have aged. It has nothing to do with chemicals or nature.

If you want a comparison between modified humans and modified flowers, it’s already right there in our current gardens where plants require constant human effort, including chemicals, to survive.

I wonder if the House Governor is merciful enough to let us go outside freely.

It’s disturbing how she puts this.

You know, I guess part of it is…I can completely believe this is a plausible character. But. Just because one of the plausible responses to being kidnapped to get raped and pregnant is to think about how maybe at least you’ll get to go outside doesn’t mean we need stories about it. Particularly not YA stories that don’t give any sign they mean to be portraying this as anything but fine.

(Yes, we’re on the second chapter, so maybe there’s a huge denouncement near the end, but god I doubt it. This doesn’t seem the type.)

So…I can’t say people shouldn’t be allowed to write this sort of a character. But I think it really should be done minimally. Just that it’s one way people do behave doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the one that should be picked for the character.

Anyway. She says all she knows about the governor is that either the man is an under-twenty-five or an almost seventy first model. The math there doesn’t work. We know the world has known the second gen kids die at twenty for fifty years. That means the original second gen kids were born seventy years ago, not first gen. The only way this works is if the earlier statement was horribly worded and she meant second gen kids started to be born fifty years ago – in that case, the world’s only actually been watching them die for thirty years.

She says the first gen husbands are a rarity because the first generations have gotten sick of dead children.

So apparently that guy she saw picking them wasn’t her future rapist and she has no idea who the guy is yet. Which at least fits with the idea that this is more about breeding than just having a hot wife.

They even join the protest rallies, violent riots that leave irreparable damage.

Protest rallies against what? It seems everyone’s in favor of curing this. Or maybe they protest against the idea of these forced marriages? In that case she should hope a mob shows up on her doorstep.

She thinks about her brother and how worried he must be.

No doubt he’s beside himself; he warned me about those ominous gray vans that roll slowly through city streets at all hours.

…so, is the kidnapping legal or not? Is it just that the rewards for it are so high that police can’t catch the kidnappers fast enough, because they’re always being replaced? Why don’t these violent riots ever get turned on those vans?

And she says it wasn’t even one of those vans that took her, so there’s even more kidnappers total.

Our protagonist does keep her eye on the prize, though – she’s determined to find some way to escape and find her brother. She doesn’t see any way out of the room, but she thinks maybe if she’s allowed out into the garden she’ll be able to find an end to it. Or maybe if she plays along she’ll get taken to one of the parties she’s seen brides at.

I have seen so many reluctant brides on television, and I’ve always wondered why the girls don’t run. Maybe the cameras neglect to show the security system that keeps them trapped.

Yet again, is this legal or not? They’re being shown on public television, yet they don’t start shouting for help. If it’s legal, then there’s no need for a particular security system, the police will just fetch them for their owner.

Anyway, she thinks that she’s only got four years left to earn the guy’s trust, and maybe that won’t be long enough.

I try the doorknob, and to my surprise it isn’t locked

…she was in there for hours without even realizing she’s not locked in?

This honestly feels like something quite plausible, where she’s so sure she’s locked in she doesn’t think to check the actual door, except for how bland she is about it. There’s no internal rant about how dumb she was not to try the obvious and how apparently the cage doesn’t even need to be locked for her to stay. There’s no sudden hope that what if this means all the doors aren’t locked and she can just run for it. It’s just oh, I guess I can explore the hallway too.

Out there, she hears moans and gasps from another room.

I freeze where I stand. If the House Governor is with one of his wives trying to impregnate her, it would only make things worse for me if I walked in on it.

The book seems to very carefully keep avoiding the part where this is all rape.

I don’t know what would happen—I’d either be executed or asked to join, probably, and I can’t imagine which would be worse.

So I guess that sort of answers my question for last chapter of if she thinks sex or death is worse. But not well. She wasn’t frozen up last chapter unable to decide if she should hope she was picked or hope she wasn’t, she tried not to be picked and then meekly went along after she was. So maybe she just means she’s especially disgusted by the idea of a threesome, which seems kind of a minor thing to be concerned about given the overall rape issue.

But she realizes the sounds are strictly female, and she’s alone which apparently means it’s fine to go in! Our narrator is not a worldly one.

Apparently luck is on her side and the woman inside is just sick.

this room is far more decorated than mine, with pictures of children on the walls,
and an open window with a billowing curtain. This room looks lived in, comfortable, and nothing like a prison.

So there’s a window she can get out through!

There’s medicines all over the place as well, and the woman asks our narrator’s name. Rhine, apparently. Like rhinestone? She asks if Rhine brought her medicine.

“No,” I say. “Should I get something?” Now it’s clear that she is delirious, and if I can make up an excuse to leave, maybe I can return to my room and she’ll forget I was even here.
“Stay,” she says, and pats the edge of her bed. “I’m so tired of these remedies. Can’t they just let me die?”
Is this what my future as a bride will look like? Being so entrapped I’m not even allowed the freedom of death?

Gah, yes, this is pretty awful.

She reaches her trembling hand and touches my blond hair. She holds up a lock of it for inspection, and then a horrible pain fills her eyes.
“Oh. You’re my replacement.

The woman also has blond hair, so apparently Rhine isn’t just a general replacement wife, she’s specifically there to be the younger version of an existing one.

But then she calms and asks if Rhine hates it (yes).

“Then you should see the verandah.” She smiles as she closes her eyes.

She starts coughing up blood, which reminds Rhine of nightmares about her parents, who apparently were murdered instead of just dying.

A servant eventually comes in after Rhine’s covered in red.

“Oh, Lady Rose, why didn’t you press the button if you were in pain?” the basin woman says.

“Medicine in the water,” the coughing woman moans. “I smell it. Medicine everywhere. Just let me die.”
She sounds so horrible and wounded that, despite my own situation, I pity her.

…okay, I know that the whole thing where she asked if you hated it here and then said at least there’s something pretty you should see was kind of messed up. But why wouldn’t you pity her when your “own situation” is the same one she’s in? You don’t have any problem liking the servant boy who’s complicit in all this, but you’re don’t feel sympathy for your kidnapper husband-rapist’s previous victim until things get this awful? And even what she said, at least she seems to understand that your situation is horrible and is maybe just hoping to make things easier for you, a far cry from your servantboy friend and his “oh, the other girl was so confused she accidentally tried to jump out a window!” bit.

Said servant boy appears and apparently, Rhine’s door wasn’t supposed to be unlocked. He yells at her to get back there and Rhine is desperate for any reason to get out of the room, so she bolts.

Unfortunately she isn’t looking where she’s going. She crashes into someone.

I look up, and I recognize the man who has caught me in his arms. His smile glimmers with bits of gold.
“Why, hello,” he says.

Oh fuck.

Oh fuck.

I don’t know what to make of his smile, whether it’s sinister or kind.

…What?

This is the guy who looked over a dozen kidnapped, terrified girls and was pleased with what he saw, then picked three and had the rest killed. I don’t know what’s confusing you. It’s sinister. Knee him in the groin and keep running.

He’s thankfully distracted by the fact she’s covered in blood and rushes off into the room.

I run into my bedroom.

Interesting it’s already “my”.

Or it would be. The book doesn’t seem to notice, though.

I tear off the nightgown and use the clean parts of it to scrub the blood from my skin, and then I huddle under the comforter of my bed, holding my hands over my ears, trying to hide from those awful sounds. This whole awful place.

I find this even harder to believe than that she didn’t change out of the nightgown to start with. She’s been kidnapped so some guy will rape her, and she’s totally fine being naked in a bed?

She falls asleep and wakes up when the boy eventually shows up with dinner. She asks him to stay.

And I’m not sure what it is about him—that he’s close to my own age, that he’s so unobtrusive, that he seems no happier to be here than I am—but I want his company.

So…plot fiat.

I think you could do something interesting with this if it were intended to be irrational, where she’s latching onto things for all sorts of subconscious reasons, but that doesn’t seem to be the book’s intention.

She asks who the woman was. Well, her name’s Rose, as we already found out, and she’s Rhine’s future rapist’s first wife.

All Governors take a first wife; the number doesn’t refer to the order of marriage, but is an indication of power. The first wives attend all the social events, they appear with their Governors in public, and, apparently, they are entitled to the privilege of an open window.
They’re the favorites.

That’s not what a first wife means!

It can’t be. Let me explain. The only way you could have a set title for a wife that means “favorite” is if people never change their mind. So they marry one wife, but they know she won’t be the favorite, then they marry a second and know it’s ~true love~ and none of the other wives will ever match up. And that’s really stupid. Especially when marrying involves kidnapping a girl so you can rape her, but it’d still be pretty dumb by itself.

Maybe you could have a title that means “official” wife. That would make sense in that there’s no sign yet that having multiple wives is generally approved of (Rhine certainly seems disturbed by the idea of being in a polygamous marriage), so they can’t just swap one for another at will. That official wife would be the conventionally attractive one you could trust to behave herself. I’d expect official wives to be the ones who were the girls from other rich families, though, since you’d expect them at least to want to make sure their daughters were treated properly. If the families have enough clout to make mass kidnapping, rape, and murder fine, surely they can find enough to make sure their own daughters are insulated from the worst of it.

But if it’s just meaning the favorite, you call her the favorite. And you never “take” a favorite wife. Wives can always fall out of favor, and a guy can always meet a new one he likes better. It’s not the sort of thing that can be set before marriage.

Rhine asks what’s wrong and it’s the virus. Of course it’s the virus, Rhine, weren’t you paying attention? She claims she’s never seen anyone with it up close, despite it apparently being the primary cause of death for everyone.

My parents were first generation, well into their fifties when my brother and I were born

That doesn’t actually explain how you never saw anyone else with it, or even pictures.

Also…the age of the first generation keeps changing. First we’re told that people have known for fifty years that the second generation kids die at twenty/five, then that “most” first gens aren’t even seventy yet. But if Rhine is sixteen, and her parents were nearly sixty when they had her, then if they were still alive they’d be older than seventy…

Your name is Rhine?”
He’s looking at me now, so I nod, suddenly aware that I’m naked under these blankets.

It’s really hard to believe how unselfaware you’d have to be to take that long to remember the thing where you’re naked when you’ve been kidnapped to be raped.

But that’s not important, apparently. What’s important is asking his name.

“Gabriel,” he says. And there it is again, that almost smile, hindered by the weight of things. I want to ask him what he’s doing in this awful place with its beautiful gardens and clear blue pools, symmetrical green hedges.
I want to know where he came from, and if he’s planning on going back. I even want to tell him about my plan to escape—if I ever formulate a plan, that is.

I mean, I really can see someone being this messed up and unstable under the circumstances. I just can’t view it as a normal reaction, and I have yet to see any sign the book realizes this.

But these thoughts are dangerous. If my brother were here, he’d tell me to trust nobody.

It’s not about trusting no one, Rhine. It’s about not trusting someone you know nothing about besides that he works for your kidnapper and future rapist.

“You might want to eat and get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day.” His tone implies I’ve just been warned of something awful ahead.

Ugh! See! He knows what’s going on. When he showed up with food the first time, he knew she’d been kidnapped and drugged, and as soon as she started to get upset he ran off. Then he was upset to see her out of her room. Then he tried not to talk to her again. And now he’s aware that some new horrible thing is happening – her rapist shows up? And all he does is say to get plenty of sleep so she’s well-rested for it.

Do you see, Rhine? You’re better off making friends with the current wife. Maybe she’ll let you out her window.

He turns to leave, and I notice a slight limp in his walk that wasn’t there this afternoon. Beneath the thin white fabric of his uniform, I can see the shadow of bruises beginning to form. Is it because of me? Was he punished for making my escape down the hallway possible?

Or you could just keep insisting he’s secretly a wonderful person who’s on your side I guess. Rhine, you understand if he actually wanted to help you, he could tell someone about the kidnapping thing? Assuming it’s illegal, I mean.

Then he’s gone. And I hear the click of a lock turning in the door.

Well. That’s the end of this chapter.

So, our worldbuilding so far makes no sense. There’s a crop of genetically modified kids with better immune systems who replace all others immediately, but something’s wrong and their own kids are messed up, but they can’t just make more of the original kids or take out their changes, and somehow this makes it a virus.

And Rhine, growing up in this world, has somehow never seen someone sick with the virus. It’s probably there for infodumping purposes, but I see no reason she couldn’t have recognized it and told us, instead of asking and having someone else tell us.

There’s a missed opportunity here too – maybe Rose is right and the medicines are somewhat working, and normally the disease doesn’t go on so long. I’m reminded of diabetes, where the initial treatment was to starve the person and eke out a year or two more of life. Someone getting treatment for diabetes would be very different from someone who just died quickly, even if it wasn’t doing changing the actual mortality rate. That would be a good example of showing us how far people are going to try to find a solution to this disease.

Also, this book really seems like it’s just a scifi veneer over a gothic romance. She’s pacing around in a lacy nightgown this whole chapter. She meets her fellow victim and acts more like the love interest of any romance finding the soon-to-be-widower’s wife (who has fantasy tuberculosis). There’s a servant boy she feels a mysterious connection to, and the scary man with a golden smile who’s maybe secretly kind! She’s been stolen away by a nobleman to be his soulmate, not kidnapped by a rapist to be impregnated.

Now, if you want to write gothic dubcony romance, okay, fine. But know you’re doing it. Don’t make a big deal of the suffering of others, don’t set up a horrible world where this is just normal. If Rhine is the only girl ever in this situation and she just happens to be weirdly okay with huge chunks of it and her main problem is she misses her brother and not all the impending rape, it’s implausible but it’s not messed up like making setting have institutionalized mass rape going on right to the side of the screen and then trying to write a gothic dubcony romance like “ooh, is the mysterious man with the golden smile sinister or kind?!” is what people should pay attention to. Idfic and realism need to stay as far away from each other as possible.

It’s entirely possible that the fanfic versions of this are more tolerable because they’re not aiming to be high literature. One of the common writing mistakes of fanfic is that the world doesn’t really exist beyond the main characters, but it means you’re more likely to have a story where a character happens to be grabbed by a sexy vampire and somehow this turns out to be true wub, instead of a world where vampires rule the world and grab people for rape and murder constantly but hey look, these two fell in inexplicable love and that’s what we should care about. (This is also why fanfic that tries to move toward being literary so often goes horrible places very, very fast.)

20 Comments

  1. Random Reader says:
    … Why /aren’t/ there any boys getting kidnapped? I mean, sure, family name, but keep their name unknown, strip them of it or just ignore it and the kids can keep the mother’s surname. These are wealthy, powerful families. I’m not exactly sure what time this is set in yet, but wealthy, powerful families should be able to pull that if they’re pulling kidnapping.

    I’m also puzzled about the murdering. In a way, the brothel almost made sense to me (in a horrible, squicky way) because if you force the girls to sleep around and don’t give them anything, hey, more kids. Shooting the leftover girls means more safety if doing this is illegal, but apparently the guys that are dumping their leftovers into prostitution rings are doing fine.

    These buyers are also horrible people for not buying the other girls even if they didn’t have use for them. (Typing this feels callous, by the way. Icky.) Why not give them away as party favors or make them servants or do anything with them if there was previous knowledge that they’d all be killed? Putting aside the morals that should be obvious here, that’s complete disregard for the the survival of humanity. Buying a few and knowing the others will be killed instead of sent to repopulate… They’re just feeding that kind of business. Why does Mr. Buyer even need so many wives? Is he somewhat infertile and desperate, or is it that he wants many kids for that one line?

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    1. Farla says:
       I would bet money the reason boys aren’t being stolen is the same reason the book is carefully arranged so that all the marriages are to an older, experienced guy. This isn’t worldbuilding, it’s a porn setup.

      I was considering that about the brothels, but I think if the idea was to get them pregnant, they wouldn’t be called that. Plus, you shouldn’t want to run it on a payment method – you should be more picky about the men than the women, because the guy’s investment is so much smaller. You don’t want some random guy’s worthless genes taking up one of her few pregnancies. The only way I could even halfway see a brothel setup is if it’s a really primitive society that doesn’t understand how kids are made beyond that it involves sex and women.

      Why not give them away as party favors or make them servants or do anything with them if there was previous knowledge that they’d all be killed?

      What’s really weird is that servant is how we’ve traditionally handled polygamy. If the guy wants to have sex with someone other than his wife, he starts hiring attractive maids or buying attractive slaves, he doesn’t say he’s getting married to another five girls. Plus, you can have a lot of maids easily, and while they’re not having kids they can do work.

      I didn’t want to start the comparison so soon in the book, but A Handmaid’s Tale, come on! That’s how people would handle this, they’d find an existing space in society and make up a term.

      And it’s not like populating your entire mansion with nothing but stolen teenagers in maid outfits and heavily armed guards to keep them from running isn’t horrible and creepy enough.

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      1. GeniusLemur says:
        Another approach to having lots of partners when you’re not allowed to have six wives is, “This is my wife, the other five are just my concubines.”
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        1. Farla says:
          But if there aren’t multiple wives, then if Rose is still alive that means Rhine is a concubine and therefore a ruined woman immediately, and even if Rose is dead, Rhine won’t get the fun of competing with the other girls for the title of first wife.
  2. Igloo says:
    I really hate the love interests. One’s flat and bland, and the other is portrayed as a “good” person despite the fact he’s essentially a rapist.
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    1. Farla says:
      I hate the idea that this is even about love interests. Rapey distopias shouldn’t be about love triangles.
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  3. Niesse says:
    I can just about rationalise the virus as something that existed before the second-gen kids, but was harmless back then, so everyone had had it and was then immune, and by an amazing coincidence it mutated and became deadly just in time to infect everyone after the first-gens. Is that at all plausible, or is the virus explicitly tied to the genetic engineering?
    1. Farla says:
      Hello to the land down under! Can you see a comment form on http://dragon-quill.blogspot.com/2012/02/wither-ch2.html or does it redirect you back to .au?

      Also I don’t even know. They seem sure the virus was caused by genetic engineering but they don’t seem to know what a virus even is.

      1. Niesse says:
        It redirects me.
        I tried a proxy, but I couldn’t see any comments.
  4. Act says:
    This is certainly right in line with the Hunger Games’ view of worldbuilding and romance.
    1. Farla says:
      I think it’s actually shaping up to be worse!
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  5. Random Reader says:
    Oh. Also. I’m curious as to why she thought/knew her special eyes would get her picked. After Googling it, and I don’t think her eye color is really a spoiler, but ignore this coming line if you care at all….

    …She has one blue eye and one brown. I have a father with one green and one blue (due to getting a staple in the now blue one when he was fixing a fence early in life, but both work fine now). The thing is, you don’t really notice from a distance, and it doesn’t look super weird or anything. It doesn’t seem like have two different eye colors should be the deciding factor here, especially when (I think) the guy saw her look up from a distance. It’d be harder to notice.

    I wonder if they’re looking for people with genetic rarities (since her eyes had no staples to help them along) in hopes that they somehow fare better against the virus. You mentioned that you’d want the “mutants” or “throw-backs” in this setting. Having no idea if this virus is supposed to have wiped out such oddities, I guess that could be a good reason to choose her for her eye color. I wonder if redheads would be more in demand by that logic too?

    Still, it seems hard to tie little quirks like that to being virus resistant. Is it just there for purpose of making her extra special pretty, you think?

    1. Farla says:
      Well, she was close enough to the guy to see his shiny gold teeth, so he could have been close enough to see her eyes. It sort of makes sense on the genetic weirdness level, but not very. I mean, it’s usually caused by, as you mention, an injury, and it’s also commonly a local cell duplication error, so her egg cells aren’t affected. What they should be looking for are people with body types that disappeared with the advent of the superbabies, those are the throwback ones displaying traits last seen back when humanity reproduced properly.

      Or in short, it’s totally a prettiness thing. I will give the author this much credit – violet eyes would be far rarer and a better indication of a mutation, but it’d be violet eyes.

  6. Filip Zorko says:
    Never mind the life expectancy discrepancies (there are plenty of reasons why men could live longer, especially if the condition is genetic [if we take the author at her word it gets trickier, but I’m sure you could make up something plausible involving viruses, too]), what gets me most about the biology is the fact that apparently everyone dies at the same age? No, sorry, that is not how biology works. Nothing in biology is that regular.

    Addendum: the X chromosome situation is trickier than it sounds. “There are plenty of good things on the X chromosome” may be true, but only one X chromosome is activated in any one cell, so the difference at the cellular level between XX and XY individuals is not that great. Sure, having two Xs means more diversity, but that is not always a good thing.

    1. Farla says:
      That would make sense, but gene expression is more fine tuned than that. Max cell production for important proteins tends to be much less than the total needed, so you only need some of your cells capable of producing it. For example, there’s a genetic disorder that alters sweat cell production. Women with it will have patches of skin that never sweats, but they’re basically fine. It’s just sweat cells, right? Men with it don’t exist. There’s some point in fetal development where the same genes are needed for development, and without it cell development falls apart.

      There is one way dying at the same age could work. If the superbabies were all nearly identical, then if there’s a programmed sudden death thing triggering, it could trigger very close to the same time. But it would be indescribably stupid to do that even compared to the rest of this world, and also people seem to have too much physical variety for that to work.

      1. Filip Zorko says:
        Even if they are genetically identical, random fluctuations and environmental variables would make a difference. What, exactly, would a “programmed sudden death thing” be? I just don’t know of any mechanism which could trigger that precisely.

        Maybe I’m overthinking this. How precise is the time of death, anyway? I assume people don’t just drop dead on their birthdays.

        1. Laura says:
          [I assume people don’t just drop dead on their birthdays.]

          The way this book is going, I would expect that to be exactly what happens.

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  7. Eva Rinaldi says:
    I found these recaps via TVTropes after reading the books. As a poor american who doesn’t have health insurance, you hit on my main problem with the worldbuilding- my immediate thought was how was everyone able to get the new superbabies right away? And then I thought about mennonites and such, and how many people would probably refuse to have this done to their children. But mostly I don’t buy that unless capitalism was no longer a thing, which the books show clearly isn’t true, that poor people would have access to designer babies. Not to mention that I assume that people with access to designer baby technology would probably all ask for different things- sure most people would want a mentally stable genius who looked like Taylor Swift or whoever the ideal of clean cut american young personhood was at the time, but what about the same people who currently get body modifications and look forward to transhumanism? As far as I understand genetics, changing one thing often changes a lot of others, so if some family wanted a math genius baby or a seven foot tall baby with pointed ears, or whatever stupid thing they wanted, there’s always a chance that the changes made would impact the way the “virus” works, so you’d get an age range of death between 20-25 at best, not some magical cutoff date that was absolute. Puberty doesn’t even “age” all people at the same rate depending on weight and hormones. Some girls start menstruating at 13, some don’t start til 16. Some people’s breasts keep growing until they are 20, some guys don’t hit their growth spurt til late high school.
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    1. Farla says:
      But mostly I don’t buy that unless capitalism was no longer a thing, which the books show clearly isn’t true, that poor people would have access to designer babies.

      Hm. You know what might have been interesting? What if the superbabies were part of a general shift to a post-scarcity money-free utopia? And then it all went to hell when their kids started dying, causing them to regress back into the current mess.

      That’d also help explain other bits of the inconsistent setting, where it seems to be the super rich in their private capitalist islands, everyone else working together the eke out a living, and the gatherers as the bridge between the two. Even the super rich don’t seem to be quite working on real capitalist principles, come to think of it – they’re busy building buildings for ghosts. Like they’re trying to keep the memory of it going.

      As to the designer babies, I think they were mass produced on a certain model – because after all, if people could have seven foot tall vulcan/elf babies, they totally would have, but the first generation we see all seem to fit into the same mold. Of course, they’re still too diverse for that to quite fit, but I think that was the idea.

  8. I think I’ll just stick with Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale” for depressing dystopias with female oppression that make me cry bloody tears.

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