Lauren Beukes on what comes after catastrophe

The South African writer’s timely new novel, Afterland, is not the story of a global pandemic. It’s about what happens afterwards.

In Lauren Beukes’ novel Afterland, Miles, one of the rare male survivors of a global pandemic in 2023 that has killed almost “3.2 billion men, boys and peoples with prostates”, finds himself at the cliff-side ruins left by the Anasazi, a vanished North American indigenous civilisation. The teenager complains, “If I wanted to see a dead civilisation, I would look out the window.”

His South African mother Cole has a more contemplative response. For her, the site is “the reminder that other people before them dreamed and suffered, created strange architecture and disappeared for reasons incomprehensible to those coming after. Ruins are haunted by history, but so are people.” 

As death looms over every individual life, the threat of social collapse haunts human societies facing the threat of the end of the world, or the world as we know it. These same fears are with us today, amid the Covid-19 global pandemic and the increasingly severe environmental crisis. The Anasazi society is said to have disintegrated because of drought, a major threat to humanity in the 21st century.

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Beukes is not as focused on the question of how things end as on how ordinary people live among ruins. “The pandemic was never the story, the story was what happens afterwards.” 

Persistent injustice

The novel shows how social injustice persists, even in the face of a global “manapocalypse”. The death of all the men doesn’t lead to universal peace, but complex power struggles. While we see some characters trying to build a better world, others take over the roles of abusive policing or human trafficking: “The systemic violence and problems we have are still there. The patriarchy is still around unfortunately, because it’s a very comfortable pair of shoes. Capitalism is still around, gangsterism is still around. Those deep systemic things don’t magically go away.”

Despite being set in such an intense fictional world, albeit one that feels far closer after the collective shocks of 2020, Afterland is not a depressing read. As with all Beukes’ novels and comic books, the story is also witty, thrilling, humane and full of powerful observations on issues of gender, family and the media-dominated daily culture of the early 21st century.  

Fracture points of the city 

Born in Johannesburg in the epoch-shaking year of 1976, Beukes has spent the past decade becoming one of the country’s most formidable international literary figures. After working extensively as a journalist and documentary maker, she established herself as a novelist with Moxyland (2008), set in a hyper-capitalist future Cape Town, and Zoo City (2010), a dark urban crime-fantasy and “love letter” to her home city. 

Growing up in apartheid Joburg, in a “politically aware” family, the young Beukes was inspired by pop culture like the “punk, anti-authoritarian” United Kingdom comic book 2000AD, which showed the police as brutal fascists and oppressed mutants as swashbuckling anti-heroes. Sci-fi also highlighted the perverse unreality of white South Africa. “I grew up in a utopia designed for me, at a terrible cost to other people.”

As the labyrinthine detective narrative that weaves through Zoo City shows, she is a master at writing noir, the edgy style of crime fiction that trades in moral ambiguity and harsh social reality.

5 April 2014: South African writer Lauren Beukes photographed at home in Cape Town. Afterland, her new book about a global pandemic that nearly wipes out the male population, feels timely given what has happened in 2020. (Photograph by Nazreen Essack)

“Class is inseparable from the issues that we deal with, and I think that’s something that noir in particular is interested in. You see this in a lot of my books, where it’s kind of the fracture points of the city. And that’s often where rich and poor meet, and where the rich suppress the poor.”

With her next novels, The Shining Girls (2013) and Broken Monsters (2014), she explored these fractures in Chicago and Detroit in the United States. “My work is always fundamentally focused on people. And what I like to do is put them in the worst possible what-if situation that there could be. It’s about feeling something through character and things happening to that character, and that character changing and evolving and having to deal with their own personal dramas, tragedies and conflicts.”

Apple is adapting The Shining Girls into a series starring The Handmaid’s Tale actress Elizabeth Moss, who is closely involved in the scriptwriting. Beukes is looking forward to seeing how showrunner Silkia Luisa brings her novel to the screen. “I love what she’s done with it. It does differ from the book, but I’m totally down with that. I’m excited by the prospect of this new strange thing it could be.”

Fantasy life of the apocalypse

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, shooting for the series and Beukes’ book tour for Afterland have to wait until sometime next year. Over the five-year process of researching and imagining a post-plague world, she worked her personal fears and anxieties into the epic backdrop of social collapse. “The idea of an airport being closed and separated from your kid. My kid has a different surname to me, so I think what if I’m going through a country and we get separated, and I can’t prove I’m her mom.”

In 2020, Beukes’ what-ifs became a collective reality for much of the world. “I hadn’t anticipated that the airports would be closed, that was scary to see in real life … I hadn’t anticipated how many people would want to be throwing themselves to the zombies, you know, by going out without masks. And also, my heroine, Cole, is isolated and alone. I specifically wrote her as a South African in America, so that she wouldn’t have her resources and family and friends to fall back on. But I didn’t realise how isolating and dehumanising a real-life pandemic would be – not being too able to see friends, not being able to hug people.”

Covid-19 has exposed the tensions between the hyper-individualist culture of late capitalism and the need for collective responses to global crises. “In America,” Beukes says, “there is this fantasy life of the apocalypse, with everyone arming up and the doomsday preppers getting into the bunkers. But as soon as you are asked to do something as simple as just wear a mask, that is an outrage. Because that’s not the apocalypse everyone wanted.” 

“They wanted the Living Dead or The Road and gun battles in the street, and to live off the land. It’s a ridiculous fantasy, because the latest science is that survival of the fittest really means survival of the most socially evolved – people who can work with other people. And that is how humans have survived by working together. And if it was just the strong and the fit, and the assholes, humanity never would have come as far as it has. But unfortunately, I think that what’s going to sink us is those assholes.”

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In the book, these toxic values are embodied in Cole’s villainous sister Billie, a ruthless narcissist who sees the apocalypse as a chance to make a quick payday. Billie is a compelling villain, as the character regards herself as the story’s hero.

“She has this totally moral certainty, even though she is completely wrong… she is just on the open road, sixth gear, just charging ahead. And that certainty can seem refreshing. I think what’s killing us now is that uncertainty we are living with. When will the borders open? When will we have a vaccine? What’s going to happen with the economy?”

Reshaping global politics

As US President Donald Trump shows, this kind of narcissist self-righteousness has a dangerous appeal to a lot of people in times of crisis. Asked about how she thinks the events of 2020 will reshape global politics and society, Beukes said candidly, “My fear, and I’m generally a pragmatic optimist, is that we are going to tip harder into authoritarianism and fascism. People are afraid … And it doesn’t bode well for our ability to deal with climate change, which is going to be a billion times worse than what happened this year.” 

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Although fearful, and even pessimistic, about the chances of transformative social change, she does hope that we can see that “democracy and capitalism are fundamentally opposed states. Capitalism will always buy out a democracy, and corrupt it.

“What I hope in the future is that we can realise how scary this was and how close to the brink we came, and lean more socialist and find ways to prevent corporations and Elon bloody Musk from tampering with politics.”

Simultaneously, however, Beukes finds inspiration in initiatives such as the community action groups many of her young women friends have become involved in during the Covid-10 lockdown. 

“That has been a phenomenal thing to see happen, neighbourhoods reaching out to each other, which is something that should have been happening all along … And use this as an opportunity to say, “Holy shit, that was very scary, let’s do much better. And here are all the ways we can figure it out.’”

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