Until We Fall

Nicole Zelniker

Jaded Ibis Press

Jackson Shore was plenty used to press conferences at this point. All he had to do, for the most part, was stand there as representative of the Militum and watch President Dexter Powers tell the American public that he was winning the war against the terrorists, praise God, blah, blah, blah…There were a few journalists in attendance, largely at the same newspapers Powers and his allies owned. The handful of others worked with the understanding that if they spoke out, they would be suspended, or worse, killed.

                from Until We Fall



Dys·topia (“bad place”)

For some reason, dystopian tales continue to be immensely popular these days, as evidenced by the many films, novels, comics, video games, and nightly news.

A recent addition to this burgeoning literature is Nicole Zelniker’s Until We Fall, where increasingly bitter partisanship has resulted in a second American civil war. The state of California secedes from the union, and the remaining United States become a democracy in name only: students are spooned a pabulum of history, easily digestible, one that avoids their nation’s complex story; military police—called the Militum—carry out extrajudicial killings of opponents considered “domestic terrorists;” the courts have been filled with justices who do the president’s bidding, and the free press has been cowed, free now only to serve the government. Citizens are encouraged to report their neighbors. (Texas, always one step ahead of dystopia, already offers $10,000 rewards.)

Of course, this is all wrapped in the language of patriotism, religion, and “family values,” though closer to Taliban family values. Women have been relegated back to tending the home. Their reproductive rights have been reversed, along with same-sex marriage; LGBT people are once again considered criminals.

Isla is a Black trans girl who is able to “pass” as female. When her favorite teacher is arrested for teaching controversial interpretations of history and imprisoned, Isla protests and also winds up in prison. Escaping, they join others fleeing to California. What shines through Zelniker’s story is the humanity of her characters: their bravery, their warmth and compassion, their aspiration for a more humane world.

Typical of dystopian fiction, there are implausible aspects to the story that stretch the reader’s credulity, for example, that a teenage trans girl could hide her male anatomy in prison, as well as the prison break itself, their “hike” from Illinois to California, and the final rebellion.

But while parts are implausible, it is the story’s plausibility that is truly frightening: the tempting lure of a demagogue who appeals to people’s fear, greed, and ignorance with simplistic slogans and empty promises; the rewriting of history to serve the present regime; the suppression of a free press—or easier still, simply buy them out and write the news yourself; and how that demagogue can subvert the democratic process to undermine democracy. In dystopian fiction, Big Government is often the evil perpetrator, yet we are reminded that to some degree government always reflects its society. The Nazis didn’t grab power; they were voted into office.

It’s true that reading dystopian fiction is rarely a feel-good experience, but if the reading gets too depressing, you can always put down the book and turn on the evening news.



This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (November-December, 2021.) Reprinted with permission.