What If a Pandemic Killed All the Men?

Lauren Beukes on systemic racism, COVID stupidity, and her dystopian novel "Afterland"

Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

Imagine a world where reproductive rights are heavily restricted, hand sanitizer is sold out everywhere, and a pandemic has disrupted people’s lives in unforeseen ways. Sound familiar? In Afterland, Lauren Beukes brings to life a reality eerily similar to the one we are living––but in her newest novel, 99% of men are dead. 

After a fictitious human culgoa virus, a flu that morphs into an aggressive form of prostate cancer, sweeps across the globe, few men remain. One of them is twelve-year-old Miles, who escapes with his mother, Cole, from a facility that monitors his reproductive capability. The pair are being pursued by the Department of Men and Cole’s sister, Billie, who has insidious intentions for Miles. They make their way across an America that is both recognizable to readers and new all at once. As the landscape––one dotted with bombed-out cities, a group of traveling nuns named after the feminine virtue they most wish to emulate, moms who dress their teenage daughters as babies––grows increasingly bleak, Miles and Cole struggle to stay connected to one another, which threatens their chances of survival. 

Lauren Beukes, prize-winning author of The Shining Girls, Moxyland, and Broken Monsters, is no stranger to imagining surreal futures. While the prose in Afterland is playful (think puns and pop culture references), Beukes utilizes the characters’ milieu to explore climate change, police brutality, and violations of bodily integrity. Born and raised in South Africa, Beukes, a witness to the evils of apartheid, is concerned with intersections of race and gender, as well as the ways in which our current social structure perpetuates systemic violence. 

Over Zoom, I spoke with Lauren Beukes about the ways that dystopian fiction can illuminate truths about reality.

Jacqueline Alnes: I’ve been strangely drawn to pandemic novels during this time. I’ve read Severance by Ling Ma, which I was obsessed with, and Station Eleven by Emily Mandel. What has it been like releasing this book right now?

Lauren Beukes: I spent five years engaged in this fictional pandemic and now I’ve kind of emerged, blinking into the light, into a real one. It’s pretty awful. But does mean that I took it much more seriously than people around me when we first heard about the outbreak.  I bought the masks before other people did and social distanced. At the time I looked paranoid, but now? Now, unfortunately, I’m justified.

JA: Fiction can reflect our current reality as well as help us imagine different future possibilities, both good and bad. Have you seen elements of your novel represented in our current reality? Or ways we’ve veered away from what you envisioned?

LB: I think there are a lot of things that I didn’t anticipate. I didn’t predict people hoarding toilet paper. All these people demanding not to wear masks is baffling. I didn’t anticipate the level of stupidity, not listening to scientists. That’s been frustrating and weird. I have an eleven-year-old, just as sassy as Miles, queen of the sick burn, and I didn’t anticipate how hard homeschooling would be. It has been difficult managing the anxiety of all that without realizing how important other people would become. 

What’s been important about the pandemic is realizing how much we need each other and how social we are as animals.

That’s part of the reason the novel was set in America with a South African heroine: I needed her to be isolated. I needed her not to have friends and family that she could turn to. While I was writing it, I was imagining that if I were on the run, my friends would help me, my editor would shelter me and hide me under her compost heap, I would have endless opportunities and a lot of people would have my back. 

I think what’s been important about the pandemic is realizing how much we need each other and how social we are as animals. I am reminded of that very South African concept, ubuntu, which gets dragged out as a cliché, but it essentially means that people are people because of other people. I think I really felt that when I wasn’t able to see my people, my friends, not being able to have that connection. Zoom doesn’t cut it.

JA: When I was reading, I found myself amazed by the world building––you so thoroughly imagine the virus, the way the geography of the land has been altered through checkpoints, and the ways in which an array of people react to their new reality. What was the research process like?

LB: I’m laughing because doing all that research and doing all those interviews is a great way to avoid the actual writing.

JA: I’m laughing too –– I’m currently in a YouTube spiral of my own right now.

LB: Imagining the manpocalypse and how it would unfold in various sectors, came out of a lot of interviews with economists and programmers and genetic scientist Dr. Janine Scholfield, for example, who helped me design a more plausible virus. And the fluke of genetic immunity is x-linked, in case you were wondering why it’s so rare and there has to be a global reproductive prohibition.   

It would often just come up in conversation. I was working on an interesting project with Cape Town’s Metro Police, doing a ride-along with two senior officers, a Black woman and a white man, through some very hectic areas of the Cape Flats, which are still part of the ongoing spatial apartheid of the city and are stricken with violence, gangsterism, drugs and poverty. I asked them, what would happen with gangsters and drug addicts if all the men disappeared tomorrow? They both laughed at me. They were like, are you kidding? When one of the local gangs, The Americans, had a woman take over, she was more ruthless than her predecessors because she had more to prove. 

Visiting a container ship, I raised the question with the captain and he said well, these ships basically autopilot themselves, but where you would be fucked is when you come into port. There are pilots, all men, many of them total cowboys, sometimes drunk on the job, but they’re the only ones who know how to get a ship safely into port. If those men died you’d have a real problem. It’s a very hypermasculine industry and they pass that down from father to son. 

It’s fun exploring other people’s minds, and it becomes collaborative play as soon as you bring other people into it.

JA: For some reason, and this is probably my own implicit bias, when I read that 99% of men perished, I just started to imagine a sort of utopia.

LB: We’d all be able to walk by ourselves at night!

JA: Right. The amount violence in this novel really stood out to me. I think there are a lot of books and TV shows and other forms of media that show men as being violent, but it was different to read a long series of events in which women were violent and comfortable being violent with one another in some ways. 

It seemed, in some ways, like the roles of soldier and police officer –– those systems, which we all are thinking a lot about right now –– perpetuate violence in the novel. 

Why can’t we [women] be the assholes, the jerks, the evil villains, the power-hungry despots?

LB: The reason I set it only three years from the present day is because I still wanted us to be dealing with the systemic issues that we have right now. Although it is a radically changed world, it is still recognizably our world. Those power systems are deep and powerful, and the patriarchy is a very comfortable pair of shoes. It’s very easy to slip into. Reading Zimbardo’s book, The Lucifer Effect, on the Stanford Prison Experiment, for example, shows how desperately people want to step into those roles and the book also digs into the women involved in the torture in Abu Ghraib or the female leaders who played a major role in the Rwandan genocide.  

I was at a FanCon in Cape Town a couple years ago, and there was a comics writer from America and he was talking about how his female characters are always the best people in the room. And I was like, why? It’s another kind of sexism. We have this idea that women would be more nurturing and kind and warm and lovely and motherly, but amazingly, we’re full, complicated people. We are capable of all the great evil in the world as well as the good; we are susceptible to all the same weaknesses. Why can’t we be the assholes, the jerks, the evil villains, the power-hungry despots? 

JA: It was interesting to have to engage with my own expectations as I read, and ask myself why I was resisting at times. 

This book does such a good job highlighting systemic racism, gender issues, reproductive rights, climate change—nothing goes unspared. While reading and thinking about these issues, I wondered: what do you think fiction can do for us?

LB: It’s a really difficult question that I find myself struggling with. Should I quit and get a medical degree and join Doctors Without Borders? Should I be on the ground making a difference? But I feel art is the fire we light against the darkness. It’s how we find meaning, it’s how we understand ourselves and the world. I don’t know if my book is going to change anyone’s mind about anything, but fiction allows us other ways of thinking, of being able to explore other people’s minds in a way that’s deeply intimate, a conversation between the book and the reader. Reading is this act of imagination, this act of empathy and compassion, and also escapism. It’s a way of speaking truth and maybe that’s all we have as humans, is to try and make meaning and to try and speak an array of subjective truths and figure out who we are and where we are. 

JA: Miles, one of the main characters, is a biracial teenager in America. While reading, I found myself thinking of Alexander Chee’s three questions he suggests writers ask themselves before writing the other: Why do you want to write from this character’s POV? Do you read writers from this community regularly? And why do you want to tell this story? 

As a white woman, how did you grapple with some of these questions when writing his character?

LB: That’s something that I’m really, really sensitive to. Zoo City, which won the Arthur C. Clarke award, is told from the first-person perspective of a Black woman. For that book, I paid a Black friend to be my cultural editor. After reading, she gave me a seven-page report. A lot of it was stuff about Joburg. I got to the end of the report and I phoned her and I was like, you haven’t really answered my big question. And she was like, what’s your big question? I was like shit, is Zinzi Black enough? She laughed. She said, what is “Black enough”? She asked me if I’d written the character as being fully informed by where she grew up, her skin color, her gender, her sexuality, and told me that I had nailed it. The character felt like a real person. 

I don’t want to just write about white people. White people are boring. Race as a systemic issue is something I’m very interested in, especially growing up in South Africa, especially growing up under apartheid where I had all the benefits. I grew up in a utopia for white people, but it came at such a terrible cost. I see that every day, living here, and the ongoing shadow of that system, the entrenched poverty. I see the violence that you guys are enduring in the U.S.A. with police brutality, it’s just horrifying. On our side, we’ve got police brutality and terrible gender-based violence. 21 women have been murdered since the first of June, and in just the most horrifying ways. I’m aware of this intersectionality and I wanted to address some of that through the book and through Miles. 

There’s that line where Cole is talking to the immigration agent and she is so used to everyone asking her “How can you live in Johannesburg when it’s so violent there?” And she wants to throw back at them, how can you live here, where your Black son might get killed walking to buy skittles? South Africa’s not perfect, it’s really not, but it may be a safer place to raise a Black son.

JA: Belief systems can be such a form of comfort for people and they can also be harmful in the way that we see Miles being so impressionable that he can listen to a podcast from a religious leader on a bus and his whole worldview shifts. All of the nuns, too, suppress parts of themselves that are totally normal and human. Why did writing about a religious group interest you? 

LB: It was a play on gender and expectations about roles for women, which unbelievably is something we are still coming up against now, not just through religion but through society. It’s omnipresent, the weight of patriarchy. I wanted to be able to explore the idea of women being complicit in this. For example, female genital mutilation in Kenya by the Maasai. The mutilators, the people who wield the razor blades are older women. It’s another way that women uphold violent, systemic horrors that are meant to suppress women’s sexuality in particular. It’s this terrible fear of women’s sexuality. 

I don’t want to just write about white people. White people are boring.

I think something we’ve all experienced through COVID-19 is this terrible uncertainty and not knowing. The church, in the book, offers Miles certainty and rules and meaning. The nuns say to him, if you do these things, you will be loved and held and contained. Religion feels like a place of safety and control. He wants answers and the church has them.

JA: In that interlude section, you write about conspiracy theories related to the origin of the virus, and I felt like that resonated right now too (and not in a great way) because people are wanting to find their own meaning.

LB: Right. 5G? Bill Gates? What?

JA: Yes! Your satire of conspiracies would have been funny if not so close to reality.

LB: I did get one thing really wrong in the book, about pandemics, which is that the WHO doesn’t name them for their point of origin. It wouldn’t have been called human culgoa virus (named in the book for a town in Australia) because the WHO wants to avoid racism and xenophobia. I’m like damn it, I wish I’d known that before; that’s a point of inaccuracy.

JA: Throughout the book, the world is fairly bleak. There are regions that have been bombed and there are extreme disparities in wealth, but I felt throughout that you maintained some level of hope. We have Miles who escaped, for example, we have a mother who cares, and a friend halfway around the world who is going to great lengths to save someone she loves. In some ways, this novel is a commentary on patriarchy and all of the ills that plague us, but are there glints of hope in our world that you find yourself writing about?

LB: I think about myself as a pragmatic optimist humanist. I know the world is crap. Systemic violence is terrible. The things that we endure and the things that we do to each other are terrible. If you just look at the Facebook Moderators who have to delete all of this horrifying content like animal abuse and rape videos and the stuff that people post all the time through to funny Reddit threads about the worst thing to happen to you in your retail job, like somebody taking a shit in the changing room, you’re like what is wrong with us? Through to genocide and Trump and denying trans rights and all the rest.

It’s the human spirit that endures, and all the good that we are capable of as well. I think that’s what’s so interesting about us is that we have the capacity to be all the good in the world or all the evil, or any kind of very deeply confused and anxious mess in-between. I think that’s what makes the world interesting to me, and what makes writing fiction interesting to me, is trying to play with those textures of what it means to be human, and trying to be better humans. I’m also lucky to have a group of very warm and compassionate friends who really care about the world and are engaged with the world. I think my books are always going to be a bit dark, but it’s teasing the light through that.

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