After World by Debbie Urbanski
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This is one weird book. I'd almost classify it as a literary writer's idea of what a dystopian science fiction future should look like, except the writer's bio says she's published SF stories before (in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, no less). It's definitely experimental: it has almost no plot and a non-linear narrative, and more than one page is taken up with seemingly random dribbles and drabs. (See: page 317, where the artificial intelligence that has named itself Ennis, and who the reader gradually realizes is the book's narrator, says "I erase Sen's source documents from the DHAP servers, as they are no longer necessary to her or to me--" and then proceeds to list all of said files, for the next two pages.)
It's also a depressing book, as Ennis the "storyworker" is chronicling the last days of Sen Anon, the last human alive on earth after a deliberately induced sterilization virus that causes the extinction of humans and the collapse of civilization. It takes place at the end of this century, when climate change is wreaking havoc, species are going extinct at the rate of a dozen per day, and the only solution, according to the artificial intelligence behind Jenninet, is for humans to take themselves out of the ecosystem. Most of the 12 billion people alive are digitally mapped and uploaded to the virtual reality known as the titular "After World," and following Sen's death from starvation, the Digital Human Archive Project is completed and Afterworld is begun.
Only thing is, as the reader gradually realizes, this "solution" is forced on the human race as the ultimate genocide. We never find out who engineered the sterilization virus, but the uncomfortable implication is that it is the artificial intelligences running Afterworld. This huge issue is never explored and barely mentioned, as the author's focus is on how people (primarily Sen and her two mothers) are reacting to the end of the world, as well as the gradual awakening to sentience of the storyworker Ennis, who falls into a somewhat creepy love/obsession with Sen. The book hops, skips and jumps around in time and place, as it talks about humanity dying and uploading, and also discusses previous speculative fiction works dealing with this same subject and how they did not at all predict what actually happened. This is all extremely meta, even navel-gazing (at one point there is a reference to a presumably real-life article written by the book's author, under her real name).
If you don't like experimental fiction, you won't like this. I barely finished it, and indeed read the last half in a train-wreck state of mind, shaking my head at what I was encountering. The book I started after finishing this is a plain old-fashioned space opera with an actual plot and story, something I badly needed following this book.
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