Lauren Beukes' new Afterland takes place in a world that exists not long after our own — a very near future in which a terrible virus has wiped out almost all the men in the world, leaving a scant few million, mostly held in government research facilities.
As the book opens, we meet Cole, who's on the run after breaking her preteen son out of one of those facilities with the help of her sister, Billie (who has her own motives). Their journey will take them across a drastically different — but still recognizable — country, bouncing from utopian communes to religious sects to Miami sex clubs.
"I wanted to interrogate the preconceptions that a world of women would be a kinder or gentler place," Beukes tells me over email, "especially if it was only a couple of years out from our current reality and the existing power structures, inequality and social ills. Because of course, women are full human beings and just as capable of being power hungry, selfish, violent, corrupt as much as we are of being kind, compassionate and nurturing as men are of all those things too.
"It allowed me to explore a landscape where women are the heroes and the villains, the enforcers and the greedy corporate bosses, the pilots and the plumbers and truck drivers and satellite technicians and gang lords and violent criminals and human traffickers and communal gardeners and anarchists trying to build a better world.
"The Handmaid's Tale and The Road are lurking in the primordial subconscious goop of where this book came from, although I specifically avoided reading Naomi Alderman's brilliant The Power until after I'd finished writing Afterland, because we're in similar territory of flipping the power.
"I also wanted to flip the narrative on the usual teen-girl-in-peril story, where 12-year-old Miles is being pursued by a government that wants to control his reproductive rights and by human traffickers who want to exploit him, and his mom is fighting to get him to a place where he can be just a kid.
"I didn't want to do a Children of Men, where Miles is the last boy on Earth or the one to save us all. He's one of the 1% of survivors thanks to a genetic fluke, which means I could tell a personal story set against this backdrop of a world that's radically changed and also very familiar."
Why do you think the idea of wiping out all the men is so compelling? This isn't the first no-men post-apocalyptic story I've read, but I don't think I've seen any where women get wiped out.
I'll be the first to cop to a world without men hardly being an original idea, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman's 1915 somewhat-prim women's utopia, Herland, on up through Joanna Russ' The Female Man in 1975 and, more recently, the hugely popular comics series Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, which gets a subtle nod in Afterland.
It's an appealing idea because it allows us to explore how women could be without the centuries of oppression and misogyny (including the internalized kind), without the constant threat of violence and rape. It's the joy of imagining a world where we could be safe walking at night (without having to be a man-killing vampire, as in the wonderful Iranian film A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.)
The reverse has been explored in a much more limited away, including in a recent movie about a woman-killing plague with a father and his sole surviving daughter, and in Stephen and Owen King's Sleeping Beauties, which puts all the women in the world into a coma.
I don't think it's as popular a conceit, because of the power structures. We live under patriarchy. And the horrific reality is that women are "wiped out" every day, usually by intimate partner violence. In South Africa, we have a devastatingly high rate of gender-based violence, including against gay and trans men and women. According to my friend Dr. Nechama Brodie, who wrote the recent Femicide in South Africa, four women a day are killed here by their partners or ex-partners. The most recent international stats I could find were from the Global Study on Homicide, which found that one-third of women killed in 2017 were victims of domestic violence.
This isn't just a post-apoc story, though — a lot of the plot is driven by the relationship between sisters Cole and Billie. Tell me about them.
True! At its heart it's a chase novel across America. It's the story of a mother and son on the run, doing the best they can, and also a Cain and Abel story between two sisters.
Billie and Cole's relationship was really fun to write, especially the scenes from Billie's perspective. She's charming but an unapologetic narcissist, which makes her absolutely certain that she has been wronged a great foil for Cole's constant doubt in trying to do the right thing by her kid.
They've had a fraught relationship their whole lives, with Billie's selfishness and thoughtlessness causing rifts between them, like the day she accidentally left cocaine in Cole's bathroom during a dinner party that 5-year-old Miles stumbled on. Cole loves her and wants to believe the best of her and keeps giving her another chance, especially when it seems like she's the only person Cole has left in the world and they're reunited in this government facility where Cole and Miles are being kept prisoner.
But Billie hasn't changed, and she can only see her side — that she's the one who is suffering, she's the one who has been hurt, ignored and actively thwarted, and Cole is a prudish, close-minded idiot for being so horrified at her plan (minor spoilers) to sell a 12-year-old kid's genetically immune and very valuable sperm to traffickers.
You live in South Africa. Why set this story in America?
I've set my last two novels in America. It's a canvas that allows me to explore big issues that are globally relevant and instantly recognizable, whereas South African stories can be very culturally specific. Which is not to say I don't want to tell South African stories — most of my recent short fiction is set here.
America is the land of the road trip, and I'm fascinated with sunshine noir and dark Americana. Setting it there, with a South African character, was a great way of isolating Cole from her friends and family — there's no one to help her. I know if I had to go on the run, I would have so many friends and loved ones who would help shelter and hide us and set us on our way, and I needed her to be alone. She's also trapped in a foreign country that wants to claim her son as a resource. That's a terrifying thought for any parent.
I loved the sorrowful sisters! They're at once just like the most misogynistic of today's hard-line religious conservatives and far more accepting, loving and tolerant. I had to hold a lot of contradictions in my mind when they were on the page. How did they come to you? (Also, I notice specifically they never mention Jesus — they're not really Christian, it seems, despite borrowing a lot of evangelical Christian trappings?)
Thank you. You're not the first person to say they struggled to hold the contradictions of these evangelicals who believe it was women's sins that provoked God to kill all the men, who try to live up to their idea of feminine values, but some of whom are also kind and funny and compassionate. I try to make all my characters as real and complicated as possible, and I'm thrilled the sisters came out that way.
Of course an almost apocalypse is going to have its cults and true believers, from the all-women terrorists, the New Revelationists who are trying to bring about the actual end of the world, to the Church of All Sorrows, who believe it was women's sin that brought about the end of the men and if we can only repent hard enough and loudly enough, God will forgive us and bring them back.
They happen to be the perfect cover for Miles (disguised as a girl) and Cole to hide out with for a while, because the neon nuns are just so annoying to ordinary nonbelievers, with their bright garbs printed with the word "sorry" and their very invasive "Repentnals" and a Mother Inferior who is a bit of a self-help-cult queen.
I hadn't even realized I hadn't explicitly mentioned Jesus. I do think they're Christian, but with their own mangled and literal reading of the Bible and women's roles as mothers and obedient wives.
And though it's set in the future, there are definite nods to today's politics — I'm thinking of Cole's worries about having a Black son in America. You must have started writing this before the latest round of protests. Did you know how prescient you were being?
I've had friends involved and covering the protests since the first Black Lives Matter marches, so it felt obvious to include and also obvious that racist violence has not gone away. I had long conversations with American friends with biracial kids to try to get the representation of this white mom and Black son right and talked about their fears and anxieties and the complexities of raising a Black child in the U.S.
My Black friend Kate, who grew up in South Africa, told me about taking her 6-year-old daughter to one of the first Black Lives Matter protests and how she felt it was important, but also disturbing, for her daughter to see people lying in the streets chanting, "I can't breathe" and "Don't shoot." Frightening too because she didn't know how the police were going to respond. She's described the recent police reaction at protests in her city as "apartheid levels" of brutality.
It wasn't prescient; it was a way of trying to acknowledge and understand the ongoing horror for Black people and Black families in America. It's something I'm hyperaware of, having grown up under apartheid, under a racist state that privileged me because of my skin color and the violence done to uphold that.
My background has made me very aware of social injustice, and that I hope that plays out in my books. In my work, I try to tell a compelling story that also has something to say about who we are in the world.