Review Details

Review type: Book

Title: After World

Author: Debbie Urbanski

Publisher: Simon and Schuster

Release date: 18th January 2024

After World

Reviewed by: Nadya Mercik

Other details: hardback, £14.15

After World by Debbie Urbanski

Nadya Mercik

Welcome to the Afterworld. A project to save humanity and to end humanity. To give the world a chance. And probably, just maybe, redeem humans for the wrongs they’ve done.

Welcome to the novel by Debbie Urbanski, which, in this vibrant collage of diary transcripts, AI reflections, various chats and supplementary readings, creates a dialogue about what it is to be human, to live in this world, to tell a story of oneself in it.

As the environmental collapse of the planet is inevitable, humanity resorts to the help of AI to find a solution. It offers a very elegant fix – just eliminate humans from the equation, and the planet will have a chance to flourish once again. With the help of a virus, people are sterilised to give humanity no opportunity to return. Simultaneously, a process of uploading consciousnesses into Maia, or Afterworld – their new virtual habitat – begins. However, some people receive jobs in exchange for provisions before they are to leave for Maia.

Sen Anon is still a teenager when the whole conundrum unfolds. She is assigned the witness role by the Department of Transition. Drones deliver her notebooks on a regular basis and collect and scan those she has filled in. She is supposed to document the change the planet is undergoing and how the exodus of people influences nature for the best. But for Sen, it is difficult to focus on those things; she doesn’t even know/remember the names of different bird or plant species. As more and more people disappear from the planet, Sen finally finds herself totally alone and pretty miserable since she exists in a cold hut with a toilet outside, her rations are limited to two portions of protein with a disgusting taste, and there is a lot of trauma and fear to process.

On top of uploading Sen’s transcript into Maia’s database, Sen also has an AI storyteller assigned to create her full story (which she is totally unaware of). Using various examples of literature, including references to post-apocalyptic science fiction, different writing manuals and non-fiction, [storyworker] ad39-393a-7fbc processes the video- and audio feeds from multiple cameras around Sen’s current dwelling, the recordings of her past, and her own notebooks’ transcripts to compile a file of her life. However, the more it works and the more information it absorbs, the further it develops, to the point when it turns into “I” and the AI tries multiple ways of writing themselves into Sen’s story.

The novel unfolds simultaneously backwards and forwards as the narrative jumps to see how Sen got to the cabin, how she lost her two mothers to suicides, what was happening to society, and how she is approaching her last days. First seen as credible, the AI becomes more and more obsessed with Sen, and as a reader, you start doubting whether that has really happened or it is something the storyworker picked up from another novel and introduced into his file. We also see glimpses of other people’s life. Some bits focus more on Sen’s mothers, their actions during the Transition period as the virus spread and affected people, and their final decisions. There are also supplementary readings, including “An Update on Language at the End of Anthropocene”, which starts as a dictionary of newly introduced words, words proposed for elimination and more additions to the vocabulary and ends up as a diary of the person who was tasked to compile the list in the first place.

The novel creates a rather bleak and gloomy world. You see Sen’s attempt to connect to anybody through Humannetwork and then simply talking to herself, people taking exit pills and going on death shuttles, and the dictionary’s author referring to the directives of his boss, who isn’t responding anymore. And, of course, there is the countdown of the remaining matches Sen possess to start her fires, as there is no electricity in the cabin.

But then the evolution of the AI narrative, their stubborn attempts to write themselves into the story, to save Sen and be with her, this adoption of a human perspective by the machine speak of the strength and inextinguishability of spirit. The extinction of people is declared to be necessary, and yet, like all the other forces of nature, it perseveres to survive, bringing some sort of hope.

As I mentioned at the very beginning After World is a conversation. Though it offers you enough plot points and twists, counting those invented by the AI, it is there to ask you unworded questions, making you think. With the topics that the novel brings up – those of environmental damage, sacrifice, the meaning of one person, the development of machines, motherhood, and the purpose of life – there is no set-in-stone answers or prognoses. There is plenty of food for you to think about, though.

The way people in After World choose sacrifice as a solution to the problem together with the perfect new habitat called Maia, where the consciousnesses are going to live, there are some religious vibes to the novel. Urbanski also opens a conversation about ChatGTP and the possibility of AI creating a piece of literary work. The narrative written from the AI point of view definitely stands out in the way the machine chunks the factual information into the story and goes about characterisation and world-building processes as part of it. There is some sort of crudeness to these bits, yet they remain an essential part of the story.

In my opinion, After World is a novel of discovery in the sense that you can come back to it to ponder over the themes presented in it. At first glance, it might look like a quick read or a tedious read in those places where the AI gives you a lot of enumerations or lists of words that are to be eliminated from the language since the objects or processes they denoted are no longer in use. But all of that has its weight; even the clunkiness of the AI language is a declaration of sorts. Perhaps, in a way, the novel itself is the documentation of our transition.

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