Novel: After World by Debbie Urbanski

The closer the world gets to actual apocalypse, the more difficult it is to read post-apocalyptic fiction—and yet, here’s After World (2023) by Debbie Urbanski, a remarkable novel that channels contemporary despair about the future so powerfully, hauntingly, and beautifully, it positively demands a rousing ovation. Gathering, recombining, and subverting dystopian tropes, it feels very much part of a science fictional tradition, but pushes its subgenre in fascinating new directions that reflect on the future-shock anxieties of the current moment.

Essentially, After World is about the end of human civilization, with its focus on the very last survivor, a young woman named Sen. Starting with her lonely death, the narrative works backwards through time to chart the unnerving era of humanity’s demise. In Sen’s past, when environmental collapse became inevitable, it was decided the only way to save the planet was to remove humanity from the equation. This “solution” was formulated and executed by an advanced artificial intelligence, and in fact an AI “storyworker” is the narrator, too. Sen’s tragic final months are chronicled by the AI, who crafts the narrative by interpreting the extensive writings, audio recordings, and surveillance footage of the end times. The storyworkers have a mission: creating a record of “the Transition,” the period during which humankind vanishes, which will lead to Earth’s restoration as a re-wilded natural eden. Sen’s storyworker, of course, has a mind of its own, though, and begins to rebel against its programmed fiction-crafting parameters, determined to chart a happier ending for the protagonist for whom it has grown increasingly fond.

Early on, After World has the feel of a lockdown novel—an author coping with the disorienting isolation of the pandemic. But that initial impression falls away quickly as Urbanski inventively confronts the massive, intractable problems facing the 2020s, stirring in healthy doses of sadness, anger, and lyrical awe at the beauty of the world humanity is squandering. It’s a grim, heartbreaking read, but with an undercurrent of emotional honesty that is breathtaking. Similarly dazzling is the formal experimentation, starting with its ballsy reverse chronology, which cleverly “spoils” the ending of humanity so that the rest of the novel can wrestle with the ramifications of our inability to collectively act—both in the novel’s time and our own. Layered atop that nonlinear legerdemain is a metatextual cheekiness borne of the unreliable AI narrator. The storyworker’s unique prose voice suggests artificial-generated styling, possibly derived from some super-sophisticated large language model, with just enough jarring quirks—sidebars and statistics that might have been spit of out of a search-engine prompt—to situate the text in the novel’s humanless future. Interstitial bursts of supplemental reading add a “found verbiage” espitolary aspect, providing both world-building depth and multi-protagonist perspective for the novel’s thought-provoking discussion. The result is gripping, each section building on the intense cumulative effect. Tonally, it reminded me loosely of numerous other works—among them, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future, the environmentally themed novels of Lydia Millet, the wild invention and systemic critique of Cory Doctorow, and (weirdly, with its “primary-source” interstitials) Charles McCarry’s The Miernik Dossier. But ultimately, After World is construct without peer, a novel that wistfully looks at an unnerving future while capturing the dark headspace of our moment of history. A masterpiece of post-apocalyptic fiction.

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