Lauren Beukes’ new novel imagines what happens after a virus kills nearly every male
It can’t be easy to have a pandemic novel hit the market in an actual pandemic. You do all the research and plotting and hard work of creating a plausible apocalypse, and then when it publishes, people can experience the real thing by doomscrolling Twitter.
Lauren Beukes, to her credit, has created a different dystopian vision than the one we’re all currently enduring. In her new novel Afterland, Beukes — the author of The Shining Girls, recently ordered to series by Apple TV — imagines a world where 99 percent of men have died from HCV. It’s a virus that triggers massive, fatal cancers, starting with their prostates.
The manopocalypse, as it’s called, has been done before in Brian K. Vaughan’s comic-book series Y: The Last Man, although Vaughan killed every male on Earth but one (and his pet monkey). Beukes’ pandemic is slower and more grounded in science, but the result is still Biblical in scale: 3.2 billion men and boys dead.
Bleak new reality
Three years later, Cole and her son Miles, one of the last 12-year-old boys on the planet, have escaped from the custody of the federal government. They’re trying to get home to South Africa. This is complicated by Cole’s sister, Billie, who’s promised Miles to human traffickers. There are people who will pay almost anything for a live male.
After cracking Billie across the head with a tire iron, Cole and Miles, disguised as Mila, take off on a road trip across a transformed United States. Along the way, they encounter abandoned senior living developments being reclaimed by the desert, an anarchist commune in Salt Lake City, and finally, the Church of All Sorrows, a cult dedicated to apologizing profusely for the plague in the belief that it will eventually bring the men back.
A human hero
Cole, unlike most of the characters of apocalypse fiction, is not an omnicompetent action hero. She’s human, trapped in an impossible situation. She makes mistakes, like allowing Miles to post their location on Instagram, and she’s wracked with guilt and sorrow and loss. At one point, overwhelmed, she forces Miles to beg the Church for a ride. All Cole wants is to protect her son, but in the process, she reveals a conscience that will not stop hectoring her about the steps she takes to do that.
Miles is 12 years old, so of course he appreciates this not at all. On the edge of puberty, he’s often annoying or a jerk to his mom, because there are some things that not even the end of the world can change.
To be fair, neither of them are aware that Billie, still alive despite a brain injury, is hard on their trail, assisted by a couple of armed thugs. Billie is instantly recognizable to anyone who’s had a perennial fuck-up in the family. She has no idea why the collection agency is calling, she didn’t think you’d be so uptight about borrowing your credit card, she barely even touched that cop, that judge was being so unfair. She is the particularly ugly variety of selfish that cannot imagine anything more important than her own needs, even if that means selling her nephew.
Wishing for more
But outside of the chase, there are moments when the world that contains Cole and Miles and Billie feels strangely incomplete. Beukes’ Beautiful Monsters shows she can make her settings come alive with almost surrealistic attention to the key details. There is an interlude that describes how the world deals with the Thanos-like reduction in population, and it only feels like the beginning of the story.
Half the humans on Earth have died, and it seems like the survivors would still be knee-deep in bodies rather than posting on social media and making Starbucks runs. Globally, we are currently at less than .02 percent of that death toll, and we are not handling it well at all. It’s unfair that we can test fiction against reality here in 2020, but there are times in the narrative when maybe there should be more endless screaming.
A world without men
Still, that might be male ego talking. Rebecca Solnit has argued that disasters unite people, rather than separating them, so it’s possible that women are simply better at getting their shit together in the face of a global pandemic. There’s strong evidence that this is the case in the real world. See Germany and New Zealand, or the way my wife makes masks and friendship bread while I binge-read comic books.
And getting rid of all the men would definitely solve the problem of the guys in the zombie movies who hoard supplies, shoot others at random, and hide their infection until it’s too late. (It’s worth noting here that men commit the vast majority of all violent crime in the U.S.)
That’s not to say the women-only world is a utopia. As Beukes said in an interview, women can be bad guys, too. It’s nice to hope for a villain-free society once the men are mostly gone. But Billie and her collaborators show that sociopathic assholes aren’t just one gender. That’s sadly true outside of fiction, too. Witness every YouTube video featuring a Karen Gone Wild or the CPS files of mothers who abuse their kids.
Afterland challenges the assumptions that we’ve swallowed in our constant diet of apocalypse porn, especially the belief that we will all inevitably descend into cannibalism and chaos. It is not a zombie movie, or the world according to Mad Max. It’s our world, cut in half, and Beukes shows us how the survivors try to live with the wound.
(Tor, July 28, 2020)