Armed with nothing more than keen wits and a healthy body, a man can survive indefinitely in a moderately favorable environment, rude and primitive though it may be. Alone, forage is plentiful enough if you know where to look. With others, the progression from forager to farmer requires little imagination, even if grit and luck remain indispensable ingredients for success. At the size of a small town, basic specialization and commerce become viable. With a dozen people, everyone has to know how to throw clay, card wool, tan leather, fire brick, hew timber, tend flocks in roughly equal measure. With threescore, a community can afford the luxury of a potter, a fuller, a currier, a mason, a lumberjack, a shepherd. In the fullness of what we might fancy an advanced civilization, the great-grandchildren of doughty yeomen and bandy-legged fisherfolk toil under the baleful glare of unblinking machines, wrangling code rather than horseflesh, forging regressions rather than steel, mining data rather than coal. But no matter how rarefied, how esoteric, how arcane a man’s vocation might become in the eye of civilization’s flower, it takes more than merely torching the complex web of production and exchange that characterizes a sophisticated economy to slay a man in fertile territory under a warm, forgiving sun.
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d reckon some combination of vanity, despair, surprise, sloth, and bad luck killed more people that first year than all the banditry and pillage put together. There is—rather there was—a certain class for whom the romance of apocalypse overran their better judgement. Playing at Roger and Jack, they studiously ignored the boring fact that society flourishes when peopled by Piggy, Simon, and Ralph. The sad fate of the opportunistic cannibal is inevitably to gnaw his own bones. Worse yet were the lone, lonely crab-chewed corpses littering the corrugated tin shacks I took to raiding for fishing line, lures, and netting when my tackle wound up lost or damaged. Few of these abandoned husks left final messages for scavengers. Those that did leaned laconic. A terse “alone” or “goodbye” smeared across an interior wall was a common enough sight opposite a greasy shotgun splatter, spiked forearm, or some other short voyage to the endless twilight.
Delusion I could understand. Despair too. Laziness I still can’t fathom. Under different circumstances, I might easily forgive my fellow citizens for believing the lights would switch back on soon and the grocery stores would be restocked. Under different circumstances, even full-scale nuclear war would mean a temporary supply chain disruption to be remedied by survivors. But these weren’t different circumstances. We all felt it. We felt it as surely as a snapped bone from falling out of an old oak. Hope perished that day. Faith too. Murdered. Left to rot in memory’s bog. No one thought the TV would flicker back on. No one imagined the garbage trucks would come round again. The mutilation of our uneasy interdependence blossomed rapidly, tangibly. You could feel the ragged edges of the excision when you gingerly probed the contours of your soul in the dim gloaming. Moping in your bungalow when there was firewood to be cut, seedlings to be planted, or calves to be whelped was slow suicide. Call me crazy, but if you wish to kill yourself, be kind and head out to the back to conduct your business with a truncated shotgun and double-ought buckshot. Slow starvation in the dead of winter, gnawed from the inside is extended masochism.
Perhaps I should count myself lucky. When we can plan beyond the end of our noses, when we can expect others to honor agreements, when we can rely on the market virtues, people are a blessing. People toil for mutual benefit. People turn their considerable wits to making labor less intensive and more fruitful. People create beauty, reveal truth, raise voice in song, and minister to each other. People make the world lovely by seeking to make themselves beloved. That describes the world as she was. With the gentle urges of Providence in tatters, people—strangers, anyway—become something of a liability. Bereft of felicitous exchange opportunities, fellow humans are simply rivals for the natural bounty of the earth. It is a coarse, perverse sentiment, one unfit for a functioning society, but I confess that every rotting corpse stinking up a clapboard home on the Gulf Coast those few years after the world died meant little more than another half dozen cans of beans or a cheap bottle of well whiskey for me. Good riddance to irrelevant rubbish.
Yakima laid the mortal remains of my eviscerated moral sentiments upon a dissection table and handed me a hand-knapped scalpel for a long-overdue post-mortem. I had thought that fallen hope would have rendered obsolete the urge for dominion. I had thought that faith in tatters would have curtailed ambition. I had thought that if you tore the heart from the beast, it would cease its slathering. I was wrong, but not for the reasons I might have suspected.
Clay: “Holy selection effects, Batman.”
Me: “Where do you suppose they keep the men?”
Yakima spills out from a cleft in ruddy hillsides to the north. From Cle Elum, the rail line parts company with the ruins of Interstates 90 and 82 right around the junction. Clay and I left the excessive clockwork rig parked behind the abandoned, yet oddly colorful electronics shop in favor of a pair of remarkably restored vintage single-speed bicycles. Ever since crossing the Cascades, I had been at turns puzzled and amazed at just how barren the major thoroughfares were. Everywhere else I had been on the mainland, interstate freeways were clotted with the detritus of terror: torched cars, scattered luggage, buzzard-pecked bones. This country was different. The severe authority in Sacramento had pushed derelict auto chassis by the thousand into the bar ditch to make room for the long grove of leafless trees that lead to the heart of the city. Along the cannibal arm of the high Texas desert, whole stretches of asphalt had been dynamited, late-model Ford trucks and all. Here though, no evidence remained that internal combustion engines had ever set tire to pavement.
The more we thought about the barren highways, the more unsettling it became. Clearing even a single mile of abandoned automobile steel and glass implied a frivolous waste of animal work. High-altitude nuclear weapon detonation assured that starter motor windings from San Diego to Millinocket had been instantly converted into inconvenient paperweights. The tedium of rewinding thin copper by hand assured that they would stay that way. Even if by some odd accident of imagination someone would organize mass repair of a highway’s worth of horseless carriages, volatile fuel rots in the tank. Absent a functioning oil refinery, the only plausible technique for clearing the roads is old-fashioned muscle power, mostly likely buried under the hide of oxen or horse. The notion of hitching yoke to ox to pull scores of miles of snarled traffic jam to some undisclosed wrecking lot overwhelmed our quartet imaginations.
Stranger yet when we rounded the last bend of the eerily-empty river canyon road leading into the verdant valley and descended past the cotton-candy colored checkpoint was a remarkable death of the male of the species. After all the dreadful tales of oppression, torture, and cruelty that wafted out of the valley, the last thing we expected to find was an overwhelming preponderance of women.
Clay: “Underground bunker, maybe?”
Me: “I haven’t seen female-only security since…” I rummaged through dusty memory bins, consulting the two months I spent in Orlando, sharing recruit basic training facilities with female-only companies in neighboring buildings. “Since ever, and I went through boot camp when K companies were still a thing.”
Clay: “What’s a K company?”
Me: “Female-only. Integrated companies were still fairly new in the early 90s. C companies were male-only, I companies were integrated, and K companies were female-only. If memory serves.”
Four well-armed, sturdy, taciturn women in worn riot gear surrounded us. Each of us had submitted to a brief identity-verification ritual much like the one I endured at the Baroness’s estate. Our bicycles and rucksacks had been confiscated for the duration of our visit. Fortunately, transportation would be provided by what appeared to be a chop-top electric jitney. Unfortunately, my inquiries about the origin of such an odd vehicle were met with stony silence. I was feeling antsy, and judging by the beads of sweat on Clay’s brow and the slight tremble in his voice, he was no better off than I. Our conversation was the falsely-breezy sort of yammering one indulges when seized by incipient panic. The ride was impressively smooth, but perhaps my expectations were skewed after having heaved a pedal-and-sail-powered monstrosity over an intimidating mountain pass.
Clay: “Maybe it’s part of the politics here.” He turned to the guard next to his elbow. “Hey, can I get a copy of the rules of this place?” There was a placard near the gatehouse we passed through, but the writing on it had been redacted with electrical tape and permanent marker. My best guess was that someone had passed a rule outlawing the public posting of the rules. Clay’s guard remained silent.
Me: “You might be right. I can easily imagine a ‘only women can bear arms’ rule or something similar. By my count, we’ve driven past at least fifty ladies with at least a pistol on their hips.” More oddly yet, these women were all out reaping
Clay: “You said something about how the folk theorem can land on any old equilibrium, right?”
Me: “Sure, in theory. But in practice, you don’t normally see something like,” I waved my hand at the tableau outside, “this. You’ve heard of the Overton Window, I assume.”
Clay: “Refresh my memory.”
Me: “I think of it as a relational two-column list. On the left, we have topics that are open to political discussion. On the right, in a one-to-many arrangement are the possible policy positions of each topic. The left column is more or less stable, the right comparatively volatile. Entries come and go, and when they do, it’s called ‘moving the Overton Window’.”
Clay: “Can you give me an example?”
Me: “Sure. Privacy is a good one. One of the Enlightenment principles is ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated’, right? So in the US, privacy was in the left column after all those general warrants issued by colonial governors on behalf of the Crown. But it wasn’t until the Nixon tapes surfaced that anyone thought to think of privacy itself as a distinct category, up for political discussion.”
Clay: “So a community of well-armed women doing manual labor with no men in sight is…”
Me: “Is not in any Overton Window I ever heard of.”
Our destination was a ruddy Depression-era Art Deco office building about ten blocks west of I-82 along the main drag. The Larson building was, and has been for its tenure, an oddity of Eastern Washington. What a sleepy agricultural community needed with an elegant eleven story office building erected in the midst of the dust bowl beggars imagination. Stranger still, the interior was all red and black marble, accented by brass inlay. A stranger taken from afar waking in that building could easily be forgiven for assuming she’d opened her eyes in Manhattan or Florence. Constructing such a building was a bold act of hope. Keeping it occupied after hope had been slain took cheek.
Clay: “I’ve seen some peculiar societies since the world fell apart, but most of them were flashes in the pan. Bandit camps. Petty, wannabe warlords. Raiders and brigands. The only stable communities were farms, like you’d see at Colonial Williamsburg or something.”
Me: “A fart in a bathtub.”
Me: “Huh? Oh, nothing. You say ‘a flash in the pan,’ I say ‘a bathtub fartbubble.’ In Lithuanian, there’s a saying that goes ‘dingo kaip pirdalas vandeni.’ It means ‘disappear like a fart in the water.'” I could see the guard nearest Clay masterfully suppress a giggle. She was the youngest of the squad, but still had the discipline of a weathered soldier. I was impressed.
Clay: “Uh-huh. So you think that Nomic thing is responsible for this here taco party or what?”
At this, the guard who had maintained her composure the comment prior let out an audible snort. This was evidently enough to rouse the team leader to comment.
Team Leader: “Erin, do you have something to say?”
Erin: “No, ma’am. Sorry ma’am.”
Team Leader: “Gentlemen, you are guests here, so I cannot expect you to understand the history of this valley. I assure you that we have perfectly good reasons for the way things are right now.”
Clay: “Oh. You are able to speak after all. Hi. I’m Clay. What’s your name?” His tone and demeanor were friendly enough, but I might have chosen more diplomatic phrasing. I grimaced. She concealed a slight softening of her posture as we careened over a pothole.
Team Leader: “Lieutenant Francine Harm. My friends call me Frank. You two may call me Lieutenant Harm.”
Clay: “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lt. Harm. I’d like to hear more about the history of the valley, if you’re willing to indulge us.”
Me: “I thought you weren’t supposed to speak to us.”
Frank: “They’re not supposed to speak to you.” She nodded towards the other guards before giving me a look that I believe is correctly described as a “glower,” though I confess I’m insufficiently adept at facial expression recognition to describe the differences between glower, glare, and scowl. “I simply don’t want to.”
Me: “Are there any men at all here?”
Frank: “Eisenhower High houses the detention facility for the males that survived the winnowing.”
Clay: “The winnowing? What’s that?” He kept his tone light, but I could see sweat starting to bead on his forehead.
Frank: “We made a mistake. The winnowing was how we tried to correct our mistake.” I shifted my attention to my peripheral vision, trying to judge the reaction of the guard nearest me. Lt. Harm’s response hedged a great deal more than I would have expected from an officer hosting foreign visitors.
Clay: “What kind of mistake?”
Frank: “You’re sort of right about how we used to make our laws. A party game grew out of control. Players used it to form assassination squads. Dozens of people were murdered, usually over petty squabbles left over from childhood. A resistance formed. There were kidnappings, executions, purges, you name it. At one point, there were three rival gangs claiming that they were the one duly constituted government in the valley. And you know what they all had in common?”
Me: “They ate at Miner’s?”
Frank: “Miner’s burned down ages ago.” I had to catch my breath. Miner’s Drive-In was one of those restaurants that was worth a six-hour pilgrimage drive once or twice a year. The burgers were the size of serving platters and even a small order of fries was enough to feed a pee-wee soccer team with enough left over for breakfast the next morning. It was a Pacific Northwest institution, and hearing that it was ash somehow hurt more than knowing that the national capital had been blasted into a submerged crater. “They were all men.”
Clay: “Aren’t they always? War is men’s sport. Always has been.”
Frank: “Calling this ‘war’ insults actual war. Even during bloody conflicts of the past, an appetite for killing can be satisfied. This was like nothing anyone could have imagined. Over the course of the first year, close to a fifth of the men and boys in the valley were clay-pit tenants. The aftermath was horrible.”
Me: “The aftermath? There was more fighting?”
Frank: “Worse. There was peace.”
Clay: “Sounds horrible.” I was inclined to jab him in the ribs, but still nervous enough to keep my mitts to myself. Our square-jawed, blonde host permitted herself a terse laugh. Mirth suited her.
Frank: “Do you remember how China had a one-child policy for a long time?”
Clay: “Of course. Some people said it was the most gruesome violation of human rights on the earth. Others said it was necessary to stem the vicious tide of overpopulation.”
Frank: “Whatever the philosophy behind it, the pragmatic fact was that for most of the mainland, male heirs were much more highly prized than girls. This led to the termination of a lot of female pregnancies.”
Me: “Adoptions, too. Chinese orphanages were notorious for being filled with girls. To say nothing of bride kidnappings.”
Frank: “The gender imbalance produced some unsavory behavior, sure. But for the most part, the huge wave of crime and conquest that demographers predicted mostly never happened. The PRC didn’t start invading its neighbors nor were there roving gangs of thugs terrorizing the countryside.”
Me: “Not that we know of, anyway.”
Frank: “Not that we know of. But if it were a big problem, it’d be hard for even a regime in full control of the press would have a hard time keeping it secret. We more or less knew what we going on inside the Soviet Union at the time, and that was way before the Internet.”
Me: “Point taken. What are you getting at?”
Frank: “What I’m getting at is that we know why the gloomy predictions were wrong.”
Clay: “Yeah? Why’s that?”
Frank: “Either of you know anything about game theory?”
Me: “A bit.”
Clay: “Ditto. I’m no expert, but I know my way around a two by two payoff matrix.”
Frank: “It’s actually called a…” She trailed off, then squinted at him with a trace of annoyance. “Never mind. Look, the people who predicted that an excessive male-to-female ratio would generate aggression were using a static, cross-sectional model of motivation. It was a one-shot game, if you will.”
Me: “How do you mean?”
Frank: “Impatient much? Pipe down.” She held up both hands. “Normally, you have one boy for each girl.” One by one, she pressed the fingers of one hand against their counterparts on the other until they were all matched: thumb to thumb, index to index, all the way down the line. “There are no leftovers. Imagine instead that ten percent of the population were unable to find a match.” She spread her hands back apart and tucked her left pinky into her palm. “Now when we match them up,” again she pressed her fingers together, “we have stragglers.” She wiggled the pinky finger of her right hand in a motion that I assumed meant “straggler.”
Me: “Excess Chinese boys.”
Frank: “In this cross-sectional model, the identity of the unmatched people matters a great deal. All else equal, boys are more aggressive than girls. You said so yourself. War is the sport of men. So if the male-to-female ratio is too high, you get violent crime, you get war, you get chaos.”
Clay: “And if the male to female ratio is too low, you get what, too many throw pillows?”
Frank: “According to this model, yes. It predicts that a heavily female society would be peaceful, enlightened, matronly. More demure, more feminine.”
Clay: “Why do I get the feeling there’s a big ‘but’ coming?” The guard named Erin snorted again, reclaiming her composure quickly thereafter.
Frank: “Brobdingnagian.” She arched an eyebrow. “But callipygian. Imagine instead of only one pairing opportunity, there were many.”
Me: “Like an overlapping-generations model?”
Frank: “You’ve studied macroeconomics, I see.”
Me: “A bit.”
Frank: “So you know about prospect theory.”
Clay: “Slow down. Prospect theory?”
Frank: “It’s a way of thinking about how people make decisions. I think the guys who came up with it won the Nobel for it. Kahneman and…” She tilted her head and looked up.
Frank: “Amos Tversky. Thanks. The idea is that people will choose the best action to take based on what they think of the likely future payoffs.”
Clay: “Go on.”
Frank: “Think about the genetic imperative. We’re animals first, humans second. We want more than anything to pass our genes to the next generation, even if we refuse to admit it aloud. Genetic fitness means behaving however we must to maximize the probability and quantity of our offspring and to ensure their survival to reproduction et cetera et cetera. This is generally true for any creature that reproduces sexually.”
Me: “I’m with you.” It was only later I realized this remark could be taken more than one way.
Frank: “So, if we take this genetic imperative seriously, creating a successful pairing is the ultimate payoff. It’s the point of being alive, if you will.”
Clay: “There’s quite a bit of literature contesting that assertion.”
Me: “There’s quite a bit supporting it too.”
Clay: “That’s fair.”
Frank: “Consider a gender imbalance. If prospect theory is useful, then being unpaired in the current round doesn’t predict behavior so much as what the expectations are for the following round. If a player isn’t successful now, he’ll compete to be successful next time. If there are more men than women, the losers will try to impress women by offering what women want: wealth, status, power, prestige. That sort of thing. In this situation, women can afford to be more selective. You end up with sort of the stereotypical Puritanical society marked by industriousness, chastity, high marriage and low divorce rates, and high savings to consumption profiles. Or at least, that’s what the model predicts.”
Me: “And if the tables are turned?”
Frank: “If the tables are turned, standards reverse. The men can afford to be choosy. Surplus women lead to indolence and sloth among men, promiscuity among women. Men who might otherwise keep their nose clean for fear of scaring off a mate are now more inclined to yield to the temptation to rob, murder, rape, and pillage. Why go through all the hard work of building something when you can have all the fun of burning someone else’s work to the ground, after all? So long as you can still get the girl in the end, it’s irrational to not have fun while you’re at it.”
Me: “Sounds pathological.”
Clay: “Eh, you say ‘pathological,’ I say ‘rationally consistent with ordinary human motivation.'”
Frank: “No reason you both can’t be right. It’s the situation that’s pathological. And it’s the one we found ourselves in after the purges. In an ironic twist of fate, fewer men meant a whole lot more violent crime.”
Me: “Are you sure you’re using that word right?”
Frank: “Spare me the lecture on irony, please. You know what I mean. At any rate, once we learned our lesson, the surviving cabal voted to contain the problem prophylactically.”
Me: “By locking the remaining men in the high school gymnasium?”
Frank: “The peaceful ones, yes. The rest got either exile or execution. Mostly execution.”
Erin: “Don’t forget the castration.” Frank glowered again, this time towards Erin.
Frank: “Thank you, Erin. I had planned on being polite to The Baroness’s emissaries. You’ve spared me the trouble.” Erin immediately flushed scarlet.
Erin: “I apologize, ma’am.”
Frank: “Some men who had specialized talents or skills needed to ensure the prosperity of our community were sterilized so that they could remain in service. Others volunteered for the procedure, preferring being gelded to being imprisoned. Most of the castrati work technical or scientific jobs indoors.”
Me: “What a remarkable community.” This is what I said. In my mind, “remarkable” was code for “barbaric,” though I had to admit I wasn’t sure what I would have done in their stead. When adversity struck our shores, I fled. I retained a self-serving notion that my cowardice was superior to the gruesome totalitarian solution on display in verdant Yakima valley, but it wasn’t an intuition I could easily generalize.
The Larson building crowned over what passed for the downtown skyline. The sooner our business concluded and the farther I could put this cursed town behind me, the happier I’d be.