Novel: Afterland by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes returns with another bracing, inventive read in Afterland (2020), her first new novel since 2014’s Broken Monsters. In the true spirit of 2020, it’s set in a dystopian America during an out-of-control global pandemic, not to mention charged with social commentary on gender and religion. Despite the weighty subject matter, Beukes instills it with her trademark energy and wit, so it’s definitely more fun than it sounds.

Afterland’s characters are expatriate South Africans, who wind up trapped in the United States when a super-spreading virus begins killing off the world’s men, triggering an unstoppable wave of terminal prostate cancer. Cole and her teenaged son Miles, abroad visiting family, have been held by the American government to “protect” Miles, who may be immune from the virus. They escape with the help of Cole’s treacherous sister Billie, who was planning to turn Miles—and his priceless sperm, now a rare black-market commodity—over to a rich benefactor. Protectively, Cole spirits Miles away from Billie’s clutches, and the two of them, with Miles in disguise as a girl, set off across the continent, with designs on getting from California to Florida and ultimately onto a ship back home. Along the way, they embed with a traveling religious group whose teachings gradually begin to win over the impressionable Miles. Meanwhile, Billie engages in a precarious alliance of convenience with her benefactor’s dangerous colleagues, working to track them down.

Like the author’s other novels, Afterland is swift and engaging, a post-collapse thriller with humor and bite. Beukes’ work often lands squarely in speculative genre spaces while also treading along their edges. Afterland is no exception, its unmistakable science fictional setting just near-future enough to ground its sociopolitics. I did feel a little at an arm’s length from this one, at times: stuck to its surface, rather than seeing through to its themes and messaging. I’m not sure that’s the writing’s fault, or simply the byproduct of the subject matter; it does have a tragically prescient relationship with current American political failures, which might have left me with a “too soon” emotional reaction. But overall, Beukes continues to deliver the goods as one of our more unpredictable and entertaining storytellers, this time with a frenetic skiffy-thriller road trip.

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