Synopsis: Three years after a virus wiped out 99% of the men on earth, a mother and son are on the run. All Cole has left in the world is her boy, Miles. With men now a prized commodity, keeping him safe means breaking hastily written new rules – and leaving her own sister for dead. All Miles has left in the world is his mother. But is one person enough to save him from the many who would kill to get their hands on a living boy?
Together, Cole and Miles embark on a journey across a changed, hostile country, towards a freedom they may never reach. And when Cole’s sister tracks them down, they’ll need to decide who to trust – and what loyalty really means in this unimaginable new world.
Science-Fiction inherently has a speculative element to it, often predicting trends or inventions before they actually happen. However, I doubt that Lauren Beukes expected her latest novel Afterland to be quite as prescient and timely as it is. Written before the COVID-19 outbreak, Afterland tells the story of a world without men after a flu-like pandemic wipes out 99% of the male population. The early chapters describing the outbreak and spread of the virus resonate more effectively after we have experienced our own pandemic, and what may have read as pure sci-fi last year feels like a “worst case scenario” this year. Beukes’ virus is far more deadly than COVID-19, causing aggressive prostate cancer within men and boys whilst leaving women as carriers. Only 1% of men prove to be immune, making them (and their semen) a valuable commodity in a female-led society.
While the concept has been seen before, most notably in Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra’s comic book series Y: The Last Man, Lauren Beukes puts her own spin on the concept and introduces a matriarchy that attempts to adjust to the loss of men through a variety of methods, whether it be lesbianism, religion or criminal acts. Beukes focuses her story on the relationship between Cole and Miles, mother and son, who through a series of events have found themselves in America during the crisis and unable to return to their home of South Africa. With Miles kept in captivity for research and “his own safety”, Cole desperately seeks a way for the pair of them to return home to a relative freedom. What transpires is a botched ‘prison break’ which transitions into a noir road trip across America. At times the novel reminded me of the videogame The Last of Us, with Cole and Miles’ relationship mirroring the same growth seen from Joel and Ellie on their journey. Despite its dystopian stylings, Afterland lacks that same bleak hopelessness of the genre and instead focuses on Cole and Miles’ attempts to find somewhere to belong.
Disguised as a female whilst he is currently going through male puberty, Miles (or Mila) is an interesting character and as one of the three rotating narrators, the reader is regularly exposed to his hopes and fears. Beukes does a great job at conveying his frustration and confusion at being one of the few men immune to the virus, forced to take up the responsibility of maintaining a dying gender, yet also showcases his immaturity. Equally his mother Cole, the second of the three narrators, is given a distinct personality – a Sarah Connors-esque survivor desperately attempting to her son to safety even if she doesn’t always make the right call. Finally, we have Billie, Cole’s sister and the antagonist of the novel. I really liked how Beukes wrote Billie as both devious and self-deluded, blaming everyone else for mistakes she made and refusing to take the responsibility. Her narration was the most engaging of the three, and she injected a real sense of tension to the novel as her behaviour often seemed erratic.
Beukes’ world-building is extremely effective and she regularly weaves in pop culture references to make her characters seem more identifiable and grounded to the real world. The multi-narrator structure serves the novel well, allowing the reader to get closer to the characters and creating a sense of pace as Billie attempts to catch up with her sister and nephew before they leave the country. I did feel that the novel slowed down in the middle as Cole and Miles found themselves ensconced with a travelling church, and the novel begun to move away from its central premise to tackle questions of religion. The ending also felt slightly rushed, especially after such a long build-up and I would have liked to have seen a longer confrontation between the two sisters. Some of the most engaging elements were the flashbacks to the midst of the pandemic, and this element was reduced in the second half of the book, again removing some of the tension to focus on the religious angle.
Afterland is a refreshingly female take on the post-apocalyptic road trip genre, giving readers an “end of the world” situation that looks very different from the usual nuclear or zombie wastelands. Beukes’ novel focuses primarily on one specific family, but I would have liked to have seen a wider focus at times as the concept felt ripe with possibility. As a male reader, I felt particularly haunted by the suggestion of a virus that could potentially eradicate my entire gender and it would be interesting to read female interpretations of the novel. Strongly-written and engaging from the outset, Afterland demonstrates Lauren Beukes’ unique and quirky voice in science-fiction and I look forward to reading some more of her work in the future.
Score – ★★★★
Afterland is available in hardback format from Amazon and all good book stores or as a digital eBook via Amazon Kindle. It is also available as an Audible audiobook, and can be downloaded free as part of its trial promotion.