Writers don’t need to have supernatural abilities to foretell the future; we just need vivid imaginations, intense curiosity, and the ability to logically extrapolate what comes next and next and next. The world we’re writing in always has some differences from the world our books are released into, resembling the current world more or less depending on what happens between writing and publication. In an average year these changes aren’t extreme—but, obviously, 2020 is far from an average year. So prepare yourself to see lots of phrases like “eerily prescient” and “unsettling parallels” in reviews of Lauren Beukes’s new novel Afterland.
“Disneyland. Summer vacation 2020… Did they pick it up right there? On the fingerprint reader, which she’s never seen wiped down? Or was it the elevator call button at the park hotel they’d paid extra for so they could be first through the gates? Jabbing a pin code into the credit card machine at the restaurant? The handrail on the Incredicoaster? Or passed hand-to-glove from Goofy to Chewie to the kids? All she knows is that within a few days, all eight of them came down with the flu.”
But just like today’s pandemic isn’t the flu, neither is the devastating worldwide virus attacking the world of Afterland: it’s something called HCV, which morphs into aggressive prostate cancer and kills 99 percent of the world’s men. Given that this leaves women in charge of, well, everything, this premise could be a jumping-off point for a deeper exploration of female authority, as with Naomi Alderman’s The Power or Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s classic Herland. But Beukes takes a different path. The broader world of Afterland is fuzzy, blurred; the story remains tightly focused on one family, one chase, throughout.
The story rotates through three points of view: a South African woman named Cole, her 12-year-old son Miles, and Cole’s villainous sister Billie, who has fallen in with some very shady characters. Cole and Miles are trapped in America when the virus sickens and kills Cole’s husband Devon (“But then… no one was flying anywhere. You can’t imagine how much the world can change in six months. You just can’t.”) As the book opens, Cole and Miles—disguised as a girl, “Mila”—embark on a desperate cross-country journey in hopes of one last chance to get home.
Given the rareness of men in the world of Afterland, it’s not hard to see why Cole is desperate to protect her son. What’s harder to imagine is how long she thinks she can keep him safe, especially once he’s too old to make a convincing “Mila.” But the long view is neither Cole’s concern nor Beukes’s.
The near-term is the only term. Cole and Miles run; Billie runs after them. Billie is slowed down by a gruesome head wound delivered by Cole at the very start of the book, when Cole realizes Billie intends not to free Miles from a luxury government-run bunker but to abduct the boy and essentially sell him to her rich, unscrupulous contacts. Cole and “Mila” have a head start, but armed with dogged persistence,superior resources, and conveniently unburdened by a moral compass, Billie keeps the chase competitive to the very end.
There may be too much pandemic in Afterland for those seeking a few hours’ respite from the current reality, readers unsettled by our own lack of any certain after. Though the book doesn’t linger on the spread of HCV, a few precise touches here and there—the “FEMA Mercy Pack,” “the footage of the new incinerators, the refrigerated containers with body bags stacked high”—land hard. Yet the post-apocalyptic twist that sets Afterland’s chase in motion isn’t truly essential to the story; Cole and Miles could be on the run from anyone, toward anywhere.
Interviews explain that Beukes’s decision to stay away from the larger implications of the loss of most of the world’s men is intentional: “I didn’t want to tell a story that was all about the world, or the characters changing it…. but rather about the ordinary people caught up in that world.” On these criteria, the book succeeds. Even in their dramatically changed circumstances, Cole and Miles feel familiar, recognizable as ordinary people of our world. Long-married Cole is always thinking of what her husband would say in a given situation, even several years after his death; 12-year-old Miles is caught on the cusp between child and adult, obedience and rebellion, dependence and independence.
Beukes also describes how there were two threads of the story she found most engaging to work with from a feminist perspective: “flipping the narrative, where suddenly Miles’s bodily autonomy and agency are under threat because people are treating him as a commodity, a reproductive resource, a sex object, a matter of ‘future security.’ And… the idea of how a world of women is not necessarily going to be a kinder, gentler, friendship-bracelet and communal gardens kinda place.”
The issue readers intrigued by the world-of-women premise may have with Afterland is that both of those threads are fairly straightforward. The wrongness of authorities attempting to hijack bodily autonomy is appalling no matter the gender of the individual or group experiencing the hijacking. And there is no indication a world run by women would be, especially after only three years without men, substantially different from ours. So the pandemic of Afterland, as much as it may have changed the fictional world on the whole, has not added much dimension to the slivers of that world we see on the page.
With such a tight focus on Cole, Miles and Billie, the reader’s enjoyment of Afterland will depend heavily on their feelings about these three characters. Early in the book, I found myself looking forward most to Billie’s sections. She’s a villain in the vein of certain Stephen King characters, the humans who become scarier than any supernatural force by rejecting what makes them human. But I’d been hoping for a complexity in Billie I never found, and by midway through the book, her tendency to get innocent (and some not-so-innocent, it’s true) people killed in the interest of saving her own skin became not just unpleasant but repetitive. When Billie thinks to herself that she just wants “to get Miles back safe to Mrs. A., wrap this whole ugly mess up, get paid, and find somewhere with a beautiful beach and cocktails,” it doesn’t exactly read like a memorable villain’s manifesto.
Too timely for some readers, not timely enough for others, I imagine Afterland might have trouble finding its audience in the current environment. Which, prescient or not, is not a future that any writer would hope for. Like Cole and Miles, we’re forced to contend with an immediate present that is uncomfortable, unaccommodating and dangerous. Like them, we also need hope of a better future to carry us forward. Whether or not Beukes presents the wider world of Afterland, the wider world available to readers can’t be escaped; as relentless as the pace of this thriller might be, it can never truly take us away.
By Lauren Beukes
Published July 28, 2020
Bestselling author of THE MAGICIAN'S LIE and GIRL IN DISGUISE. Feminist, mother, mystery. Now out: WOMAN 99, March 2019 in the US & Canada.