cover image After World

After World

Debbie Urbanski. Simon & Schuster, $27.99 (368p) ISBN 978-1-66802-345-7

Angle of approach is everything in assessing Urbanski’s complex, experimental, and ambitious debut, which is presented as an electronic dossier compiled by a computer. In the first scene, Sen, the adolescent protagonist, is discovered dead and rotting on the floor of her cabin in an apocalyptic future. While it’s apparent that someone or something else must therefore be involved in compiling her story—and, in the process, slowly revealing how she died—their appearance in the narrative and eventual romance with Sen are a long time developing. The resulting mystery is not a page-turner, but regarded as a style-first character exploration, Urbanski’s experiments in point of view are technically fascinating, creating thought-provoking and often poetic juxtapositions. Viewed through a genre SF lens, however, the apocalyptic setting fails the most basic test of initial plausibility and thus never gains imaginative traction. Is it worth perusing a recipe for layered vegetable torte, multiple data charts (including “Sen’s screams per 100 days”), and a four-page enumeration of deleted internet directories to glimpse how computer and girl shape one another in humanity’s final days? The answer will depend on what readers are looking for—straightforward sci-fi or challenging technological tone poem—but there’s no denying that they’ll find plenty to chew on. Agent: Kate Garrick, Salky Literary. (Dec.)