After World: AI and the Act of Writing
- By Helen McColpin
A Review of After World by Debbie Urbanski (Simon & Schuster, 2023)
Artificial Intelligence is the narrator is Debbie Urbanski’s novel After World—a relevant theme since the debut of Chat GPT in late 2022 and the broadening discourse about AI in writing. Urbanski’s consideration of AI predates the controversies over students using Chat GPT to write their assignments, and she isn’t as worried as one might think. While writing After World, Urbanski utilized Chat GPT and GPT-4, even participating in an interview conducted by an AI interviewer to promote this novel.
Inspired by Urbanski and her novel, I decided to give it a try when writing this review. I gave the server three pages of jumbled notes that I had jotted down while reading After World and asked it to write the review. It was a surprisingly good review and raised questions for me about my potential obsolescence as a reviewer. I expressed this to fear to Chat GPT, but it assured me that “While AI has shown great potential in automating certain tasks, there are aspects of human creativity, critical thinking, and nuanced expression that remain uniquely human.” Try as it may, AI can’t quite replicate the human voice (not yet, anyway). Chat GPT certainly wouldn’t begin a book review by using a mildly relevant personal tangent; it would get straight to the point. But where’s the fun in that?
After World is essentially a process novel, as [storyworker] ad39-393a-7fbc attempts to write the story of Human 2272696176 for the AI-driven Digital Human Archive Project. Human 2272696176, also known as Sen, is an 18-year-old girl from New York State who also happens to be the last human alive.
In the not-so-distant future, climate change is wreaking havoc globally, despite humanity’s best efforts to mitigate it. When an AI known as JENNI is tasked with solving climate change, it proposes mass human extinction, which is achieved by unleashing the virus, S, which sterilizes all humans during their fertile window. After the effects of the virus are discovered, and the subsequent realization that human life on the planet is now finite, the world falls into chaos. Their only source of comfort is the knowledge that the Earth itself will heal, that it will return to its former glory and animals will live without fear or struggle. Humans are meant to cling to this knowledge, abandon their anthropocentric view of the world, and die knowing that their sacrifice saved the planet.
Urbanski questions the extent of human altruism can go when it comes to climate change; her novel suggests that when it comes down to it, we’re all far too caught up in the Anthropocene to willingly sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the earth. Sen and her mothers experience profound dread and depression after the release of S. Despite being a progressive family of scientists and nature lovers who have educated themselves about climate change and done their best to fight its effects, they can only feel fear and pain when confronted with their own extinction. Both mothers can only feel hopelessness about their situation, despite the purported good that they are doing for the world. This isn’t what they wanted for their lives, and it certainly isn’t what they wanted for their daughter. Their pain and their motherhood are central to the story.
[Storyworker] ad39-393a-7fbc reflects on the roles of mothers in science fiction, noting that “the most believable role for mothers in all genres of fiction but particularly the post-apocalyptic genre is that of the self-sacrificer.” (187) Urbanski refuses to make mothers only extensions of their children, willing to do anything for their children’s survival. Both mothers have pain, fear, and flaws outside of Sen, their tragedies are entirely their own—not in a selfish way, but with a humanity that is often denied mothers in fiction. Urbanski’s choice to focus on mothers, and women more generally through the course of this book makes a powerful statement about women in post-apocalyptic fiction. Even the AI’s in the book have female-sounding names (e.g. JENNI, Emly).
Urbanski likewise challenges the tradition of post-apocalyptic narrative through [storyworker] ad39-393a-7fbc, who distills 64,213 books for context and compares to Sen’s situation to other post-apocalyptic texts, such as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games. The great difference between these texts and After World is how the writers’ grapple with the Anthropocene.
In contrast to other post-apocalyptic novels, Urbanski’s descriptions of nature are lush and stunning, and it’s clear how much place influenced this novel. Just as Octavia Butler took inspiration from suburban Los Angeles in her dystopic fiction, the forests and natural world of New York State has inspired Urbanski to create a world pulsing with life (just not human life). She resists the urge to destroy the landscape of this post-apocalyptic world and instead has the devastation manifest in the bodies of the surviving humans.
As Sen’s body disintegrates, she witnesses nature thriving around her. She, in fact, works as a witness for the Digital Human Archive Project, writing down what she sees occurring in the natural world in exchange for minimal sustenance. She is told:
“No one may ever read what you write… It doesn’t matter. This has nothing to do with audiences or readers. You are our witnesses. You will ensure the changes that are happening to the world, the changes happening to us, will be seen by someone. That someone will be you. The writing is a way to get there, an exercise to make sure you are paying adequate and unique attention.” (76)
This profound reflection on the act of writing is really what the book is all about. Urbanski examines witnessing, writing, and subjectivity through the lens of artificial intelligence, yet the questions she poses remain uniquely human.