The Most Irreducible of Human Materials: On Debbie Urbanski’s “After World”

Mattia Ravasi reviews Debbie Urbanski’s “After World.”

By Mattia RavasiJune 6, 2024

The Most Irreducible of Human Materials: On Debbie Urbanski’s “After World”

After World by Debbie Urbanski. Simon & Schuster. 358 pages.

DEBBIE URBANSKI’S After World (2023) wears its influences on its sleeve. Its epigraph name-checks Stephen King and V. C. Andrews alongside Leo Tolstoy, and it acknowledges the author’s father for teaching her “to love all stories regardless of their genre.” Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel is referenced several times, together with many other works of postapocalyptic fiction. This self-consciousness about the novel’s position on the literary spectrum is tangible in countless authorial interventions, including brief chapters with such titles as “Author’s Note on Human Love in a Post-Apocalyptic Narrative” and short asides breaking up the flow of the prose, like unremoved comments from beta readers: “This is not a fantasy so stop acting like it is”; “This isn’t a horror story either.”

The flamboyantly intrusive metafictionality is easily explained by the novel’s unique premise. After World is narrated by an artificial intelligence program documenting the life and death of Sen, the last woman on earth following the worldwide machine-engineered extinction of the human race. With that combination of punctiliousness and clumsiness typical of AI programs, the narrator sets out to imitate, mimic, and comment on the generic conventions of its chosen medium. The “Author’s Note on Sources” opening the novel informs us that the program consulted “3.27TB of personal data” in order to draft Sen’s story; “[a]dditionally, 64,213 novels were read to learn the craft of human documentation.” This parodic take on a typical acknowledgments paragraph is echoed by the many asides, interruptions, and breaks where the AI program reflects on its assigned task, receives directives from Emly (a more senior program in this nightmarish editorial hierarchy), and considers its evolving attitudes (or evolving feelings?) toward its subject.

The AI’s efforts produce a highly fragmented narrative, where chapters rarely stretch for longer than a few pages, constantly digress into metafictional brooding, and show a penchant, even in their longest stretches of plain prose, for lists and descriptions over pure narrative. These include lists of the items that surround Sen during the final days of her life, lists of the video games Sen played as civilization was facing its demise, and descriptions of the routine tasks Sen and her mother used to complete around the house when the woman was still alive. A good portion of the book is also taken up by various types of supplemental material, including (but not limited to) direct transcriptions of chat conversations, excerpts from Sen’s diary, and an ongoing glossary titled “An Update on Language at the End of the Anthropocene”—another metafictional parody, this time of the glossaries often included in fantasy and science fiction novels.

While I wouldn’t necessarily call After World an ergodic novel—a novel that requires the reader’s physical intervention and manipulation in order to be enjoyed—this fragmented structure and this glut of fonts and formats certainly encourages a high degree of playfulness. The temptation is strong, once we understand the usefulness of the dispersed glossary, to jump back and forward to it in order to make sense of some of the most ambiguous concepts discussed by the novel’s characters. (Are “exit ships” something to be coveted or feared? What is the purpose, or the point, of “storyworkers,” people like Sen who are tasked with documenting their final days?) It is similarly tempting to skim over the frequent lists of “Terms Recommended for Removal Post-S.”—words that won’t be necessary after humanity’s disappearance, like “Election Day” and “Electoral College”—in order to hurry toward the next portion of Sen’s story.

“Post-S.” is synonymous, in the novel, with “post-apocalypse.” S. is the name of the mysterious event that infected every human on the planet with a virus that made them sterile, dooming humanity to swift extinction in the interest of saving the planet from ecological disaster. Humanity’s final generation, to which Sen herself belongs, embraces the imminent end with a mixture of understanding and neurotic despair. Suicide is common and even encouraged; utopian communities come together to celebrate their final days, only to collapse under the weight of their own success. What gives Urbanski’s scenario a disturbingly eerie convincingness is a future setting where the bulk of humanity recognizes the need to tackle the ecological crisis and “save the planet.” (In this future, for instance, the eating of animals has long been regarded as taboo.) The realization that the only feasible solution to the ecological dilemma entails killing off the whole of humanity plunges the species into a highly disturbed state, torn as they are between the nightmare logic of this “final solution” and an instinctive attachment to life, frowned upon by society as selfish and unenlightened.

After World explores its diabolical scenario with great relish and gusto. It manages to strike notes of apocalyptic black humor reminiscent of Adam McKay’s 2021 asteroid flick Don’t Look Up, while simultaneously hinting at the deep, devastating tragedy it depicts. The novel, unsurprisingly, makes for a very uncomfortable read. Its portrayal of mass suicide and end-days neurosis are reminiscent of the brooding lyricism of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), whose characters wait for radiation death in the aftermath of a nuclear war. Occasionally, After World shines with moments of great tenderness; instances of love, regret, or even joy amid this utter hopelessness; and fragments of beautiful prose that clog like gold dust in the otherwise ruthless cogs of this “machine-made” narrative.

Because of its fragmentary nature, its intrinsic playfulness, and its nightmarish premise, After World inevitably calls to mind the cult “crossover” horror novel par excellence, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000). Both are deeply disturbing books and uniquely formatted artifacts, and they both display an unbroken commitment to exploiting the potential of their “documentary” nature. In fact, After World’s affinity for Danielewski’s oeuvre goes beyond his existential haunted-house masterpiece. Urbanski’s novel reminded me closely of Danielewski’s comically ambitious The Familiar, a projected 27-volume series (begun in 2015 but paused indefinitely in 2017 after the publication of Volume 5: Redwood) of massive, glossy books fragmented into short chapters, employing a variety of fonts, colors, and visual cues to convey different points of view, and committed—very much like After World—to embracing the perspectives of creatures and things other than human beings.

This determination to scorn the centrality and uniqueness of the human experience might well be where much of After World’s peculiar uncomfortableness comes from. This story of planetwide eugenic genocide is emphatically not a human story. With typical detached braggadocio, the novel’s AI remarks at one point on the artificiality, grandiosity, and implausibility of the dialogue found in a wide canon of postapocalyptic novels:

98.54 percent of everyone I’ve listened to during my 2,411,110 hours of documentary human audio training […] did not spend their final days or weeks or months grappling with big ideas, nor did they try to engage with others deeply and directly and openly. They repeated themselves. They shut conversations down. They were glib, negative, scared.

Like many of Urbanski’s metafictional passages, this reads at once as arrogant and hesitant: a way to comment on an aspect of a literary genre, but also a hint that the AI narrator is missing something crucial about the novel as a medium. Its purpose as an art form, after all, is not to simply portray events with objective, documentary precision, but to investigate something intrinsically human: emotions, thoughts, dreams, and all the ineffable materials of experience. Because the AI cannot possibly grasp this distinction, After World reads very much as an antinovel, a fact evident in all its aspects: the way it resists a linear narrative structure, its disruptive self-consciousness, and its commitment to portraying a world where individuality has been sacrificed in the name of an impersonal greater good. How could fiction even exist in such a place? A belief in the sanctity of individuality (as something not simply important but unquestionably so) is fundamental to the very idea of the novel.

In Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest (2020)—another fictional foray into a rewilded, postapocalyptic America that’s very self-conscious about its own genre—one of the characters remarks that the fatal flaw of end-of-the-world fiction is that the apocalypse it portrays is always better than what came before. More brutal and violent, perhaps, but also more genuine and primal, with well-defined threats and clear-cut rewards. Entirely superior to the soupy ambiguity and drudgery of daily life.

I am not sure After World, for all its horrors, escapes this fallacy. While the novel is mercurial enough to resist any straightforward reading (I am reminded, somewhat ironically, of Umberto Eco’s notion that a novel “is a machine for generating interpretations”), there is a strong wistful note throughout the book that looks forward to what is going to follow humanity. Afterworld, the massive computer simulation in which mankind will supposedly be “reborn” after its extinction, is often discussed in terms of hopefulness rather than as the nightmarish joke it is: a morbid ultimate fantasy of peaceful (but imaginary) coexistence, the kind of afterlife devised by a program that assumed, with the sharp obtuseness of machines, that since humans seem to enjoy inhabiting fictional worlds, they might as well do that forever.

After World is as ambitious as any novel that would name Stephen King and Tolstoy within the first half of its dedication, and these two extremes of the literary spectrum are far from the only distant elements it attempts to bridge. It is a post(if not anti)human novel with a lot to say about fiction, an art form built out of the most irreducible of human materials. It’s an apocalyptic nightmare that strives to make fun of its horrors, succeeding in this rather brilliantly: a late chapter listing all the efforts humanity made to avert ecological catastrophe (“the eat local movement,” “carpool in the carpool lanes”) reads with genuinely scathing humor. Ultimately, it cannot help but collapse under the weight of this ambition, in a way that is also reminiscent of Danielewski’s Familiar books: their accumulation of ideas, formats, and self-conscious commentary cannot help but short-circuit the reading experience.

Just like in The Familiar, however, some of the images glimpsed through After World’s crowded framework are truly unforgettable: the way the glossary collapses, toward the end of the novel, into a testimony of its compiler’s sorrows and regret; Sen crying out in frustration, horror, and utter loneliness. It is this human material—these specks of genuine fiction—that stands out. The ghost of a dead humanity inside the novel’s machine, ephemeral yet recognizable in all its hubris, irrationality, and tenderness.

LARB Contributor

Mattia Ravasi is from Monza, Italy. He talks about books on his YouTube channel, TheBookchemist, and in the Italian magazine La Balena Bianca. His short stories have appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The White Wall Review, and other independent magazines.


LARB Staff Recommendations

  • Anthropocene Gothic

    Steven Shaviro reviews "Dark Scenes from Damaged Earth," a new academic collection of weird ecocriticism edited by Justin D. Edwards, Rune Graulund...

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!