“You can’t imagine how much the world can change in six months.”
Lauren Beukes has established a name as a writer who crosses literary, SF, and other genres, producing some of the best speculative titles of this century. Penned before the current pandemic but not published until 2020, Afterland has most of the male human population die from a plague that hit in, as it happens, 2020. The overwhelmingly female future is no women’s paradise. Our protagonist, Cole, and her son, Miles, find themselves on a nightmarish road trip, with representatives of legal and criminal enterprises in pursuit. Among her adversaries: her own sister, accompanied by a pair of mercenaries.
Author: Lauren Beukes
First Published: April 6, 2020
A pandemic has eradicated most of the male population, and a woman with an infection-resistant son finds herself on the run. Along the way we encounter female gangsters, cheerful agents of a dystopia, meth addicts, beach-town hipsters, and a bizarre order of nuns.
Beukes, who has a past as a journalist in South Africa, has always created excellent social landscapes, and the dark roads in this novel take us to a range of settings, all plausible, in the same post-disaster world. No country or era is ever one thing, and the United States, like the future, has always excelled at defying easy definition.
Speculative fiction often asks us to accept certain concepts as a part of the novel. However, while I understand the theoretical reasons behind the international treaty against reproducing until they’ve solved the pandemic, they do not entirely make sense, and there’s no way on earth such a treaty would pass or could ever be enforced.
More to the point, the novel, with a few revisions, could exist without it.
Originality: 3/6 Children of Men and numerous apocalyptic and dystopic SF novels have addressed many of the issues Beukes tackles here, but her particular take is her own.
Others will compare aspects of it to The Stand. It’s a fair comparison, and perhaps worth noting that Stephen King really liked this book.
Story: 5/6 Beukes has penned a gripping story that asks questions, though often indirectly.
While I didn’t dislike the ending, it plays a little too Hollywood for the standards set by the book. Then again, sometimes life plays a little like Hollywood.
Characterization: 5/6 The sisters and Miles, in particular, are strong characters, and Miles feels credibly twelve.
Emotional Response: 5/6
Overall: 5/6 Beukes has written stronger books, but Afterland remains a compelling, often unsettling read.
In total, Afterland receives 34/42
Some people have accused the book and, by extension, its author, of being transphobic. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that is the book’s intention. The attitudes are expressed by characters, and many of the characters express a range of abhorrent ideas. The one clearly trans character has bowed to intense religious and social pressure, during a sex-selected pandemic, to adopt a certain outlook. I do not see the existence of that character as endorsing those attitudes, any more than having a book with a racist character makes the book or author de facto racist. I do not see the “sex over gender” attitude of the book’s future America as implausible, given the circumstances. That does not mean the author finds the attitude laudable. Beukes often writes books with ugly and problematic content. A number of reasons exist to approach Afterland with caution, and the handling of sex/gender, trans-related issues, and intersexuality is one of them.