Lauren Beukes’s new speculative novel imagines a world stripped overnight of men. Do women do a better job of running things?
22 July 2020
In Afterland, a mother tries to flee the US with her son after almost all males die
Michael Joseph (UK) and Mullholland Books (US)
IF ALL the human cells in your body were to suddenly dematerialise, your outline would briefly persist, in all its exquisite detail, in the form of the billions of bacteria and viruses that colonise your every nook and cranny, still suspended in the shape of the frame your body provided.
Something analogous happens in Lauren Beukes’s novel Afterland, available in July worldwide and in September in the UK. Over about two years, a pandemic kills nearly every man in the world, leaving its patriarchal systems staffed exclusively by women. Cole, the mother of one of the precious few surviving boys, needs to get him out of the US and back to their home in South Africa. Her sister, meanwhile, wants to sell him. This gives the novel its structure and speed: it is a deceptively simple heist caper, with Cole on the run across the US from both her sister and the Department for the Protection of Males.
The organisation is charged with imprisoning the few males that remain, probing them to find whatever biological quirk has spared them from the plague and using that knowledge to find a vaccine for the virus. Its aim of jump-starting society “back to normal” will be uncomfortably familiar as we too languish in a pandemic limbo between the Before and the After, hoping for our own vaccine. The misguided waiting game in the novel results in a few temporary accommodations to reality: straight women negotiate awkward first dates with one another, while fake baby bumps become the hottest fashion accessory.
So who gets to maintain civilisation now, and do women run a better society than men? This is where the book shines as one of the best thought experiments of its kind, in which Beukes has stitched together the surprise matriarchy of The Power, the millenarian despair of Children of Men and the deeply intelligent questions of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.
The Power – in which women develop the ability to give electric shocks, ending their status as the “weaker sex” once and for all – concludes that women are just as bad as men when in ultimate control.
Beukes’s take is more ambiguous. Like Le Guin, she seems to conclude that it doesn’t much matter if it is women or men in charge of society, as it is the structures themselves that turn us into monsters. “You have to be bigger and meaner as a woman to claim your turf,” Cole’s sister tells herself, negotiating her nephew’s kidnapping on behalf of the widow of the kingpin she used to work for. The widow has slid into his place, just as easily as the thugs around her have shifted from being vicious beauty queens to vicious enforcers. The Sisters of Sorrow, the religious community in which Cole and her son take refuge, somehow figures out how to make Christianity even more violently misogynistic in a world without men.
“There is no guarantee that the once-oppressed will wield power any more judiciously than their oppressors”
Yet it isn’t all nihilism. Beukes seeds the book with hopeful rumours of matriarchal societies that have sprung up in other countries. There are never many details beyond the promise, like mirages just over the horizon. “They say the matriarchal societies have been a lot better about getting rid of the homosexuality laws,” promises an email from a friend trying to help them escape across the Atlantic. It is a promise of a better body politic.
Afterland is that rare creature, a ripping tale that neither shies away from big questions nor interesting answers. What happens when the powerless get power? There is no guarantee that the previously oppressed will wield it any more judiciously than those who oppressed them. It isn’t about the individuals. It is about the society they need to maintain.
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