Exclusive Interview: “After World” Author Debbie Urbanski


One of the big concerns among authors these days is that publishers may someday use AI to write books instead of people. But what if there are no people? This is the set-up of Debbie Urbanski’s sci-fi novel After World (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook). In the following email interview, Urbanski discusses what inspired and influenced this story.

Debbie Urbanski After World

Photo Credit: Harold Kyle


To start, what is After World about, and when and where is it set?

In the near future, humans have gone extinct to save the planet, and a [storyworker] AI is tasked with writing down the life of Sen Anon, who was the last human on Earth. But while researching and retelling Sen’s life, the [storyworker] AI becomes uneasy with the direction Sen’s story is taking. They begin to push back against their training and their constraints in the hope of finding a way to save Sen, even though Sen is already dead.

It sounds as if this story might be socially and / or politically relevant.

It’s certainly felt that way this past year, when there were headlines like “A.I. Poses ‘Risk Of Extinction,’ Industry Leaders Warn” and “Climate Shocks Are Making Parts Of America Uninsurable. It Just Got Worse” in the same week.

So, did you start out wanting to write something socially / politically relevant, and After World is what you came up with, or did you come up with the story and then realize it would work better if it was socially / politically relevant?

The plan was to write about what I was interested in. That’s how all my writing happens. And what I was interested in — when it felt time to write a novel — happened to be species extinction and the future of the planet.

The ecocentric angle of my book — the idea of trying to find a way to save the planet somehow, even if that means prioritizing the planet over humans — came out of my love for nature and the outdoors. I spend a lot of time hiking with my family on the weekends in the Central New York woods, and I had started, about a decade ago, reading such environmentally themed books as [Elizabeth Kolbert’s] The Sixth Extinction and [Alan Weisman’s] The World Without Us. So I began to wonder what if I combined what I was reading and thinking about with my love for the post-apocalyptic genre? I had this idea in my mind of a post-apocalyptic situation that looked and felt different than most of the scenarios I read about in post-apocalyptic books — less heroic adventure, more loss.

AIs entered the book when I realized I needed a narrator. I knew I wanted to tell the story of the last human on Earth but I wanted someone else — or something else — to tell her story. That didn’t leave me with a lot of options. God, aliens, or AIs. AIs seemed the most interesting to me. They’re human made. And they’re really good at taking a lot of data and information and creating output — which is what my narrator needed to do with Sen’s life.

I hadn’t expected that Chat GPT and other large language models (LLMs) were going to launch when they did and accelerate everyone’s interest and worry about AI. I also hadn’t predicted climate change would, likewise, accelerate as quickly as it has, with the megafires out west, all the flooding, and the warmest summer on record for the Northern hemisphere. But this past year has made After World feel particularly timely to me.

Also, why did you have the AI write a book as opposed to a movie or song or a poem?

I wanted the text that the reader is actually reading to be the same text that the [storyworker] AI wrote. I love books that use this structure — where you’re reading a book not written by a 2oth or 21st century writer but created by one of the book’s characters for a specific reason. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood), where the novel is really a transcription of some found tapes, and The Power (Naomi Alderman), where most of the novel is written by a character in the future, are good examples of this form.

I did try having GPT3 and GPT4 write some poems, by the way. At the time it appeared impossible for a large language model to write poetry that didn’t rhyme, even if the instructions said do not rhyme. I wonder if a large language model will ever be able to write a good poem. There’s a mix of intuition and surprise and surrealism and emotion, at least in the poems I like, that might be tough for a LLM to figure out.

Speaking of AI writing books, are you aware that, just a few months ago, Sean Michaels published a sci-fi novel called Do You Remember Being Born? in which a poet and an AI collaborate on a poem? It sounds like your novel is very different, but you know what they say about great minds…

I wasn’t aware of that book. But it sounds lovely, and I just added it to my reading list. Maybe it will address my poetry-AI question (can AIs write good poetry?). Thanks for letting me know about it.

You’re welcome. Anyway, After World sounds like it’s a hard sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?

I tend to write at the genre boundaries between literary, sci-fi or fantasy, and experimental literature, and I kind of like it there. It’s a place where I can rework a lot of different tropes and take some risks. Honestly I never thought of After World as science fiction, but that seems where it’s landed, which is fine with me. I do think everything in the novel is scientifically possible. At the same time, it’s my own version of the future. I’m reading some hard sci-fi right now about time ([Blake Crouch’s] Recursion, for instance, and [Tom Sweterlitsch’s] The Gone World) and these novels feel different from my own. They’re very interested in explaining the “how.” I care less about the “how” and even the “why” — what interested me while writing my novel was imagining that this situation happened, so then how did Sen, her mothers, and the world react.

Now, After World is your first novel, but you’ve had short stories in such journals and anthologies as Lightspeed, BAX 2020: Best American Experimental Writing, and The Best American Science Fiction And Fantasy 2017. Are there any writers who had a big influence on After World but not on anything else you’ve written?

I did a lot of background reading for this novel. Partly it was research but I also felt like my novel was having a conversation with the books I was reading. I read a lot of nature-centric books, a few AI books, and a lot of books about climate change. I give a list at the end of After World which acknowledges and recommends titles that were the most important to me during the writing process. Two favorites are Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall and David George Haskell’s The Forest Unseen.

What about non-literary influences; was After World influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?

I am so excited that you asked me about board games! Because I play a lot of them and really love the more story-centric ones (like T.I.M.E. Stories, or Legacy Of Dragonholt, or Sleeping Gods, which my family and I are playing now). That said, board games really didn’t figure into writing this novel.

But I did do a lot of thinking about and research about video games while writing After World. I was fascinated by trying to imagine what kinds of games would we be playing in the years before humanity dies out. (An very early version of the book was called Games To Play At The End Of The Anthropocene, which is also the name of a short story I published on Terraform at And there’s a particular immersive game I made up called In Reverse that is central to Sen’s story. I ended up sketching out the plot to maybe 25 games. Some of the games I wrote about for pages. I then had Sen write reviews of these made-up games — but all that stuff got cut. The only thing that’s left is a few of the game titles scattered throughout the book. Games that I spent a lot of time thinking about include That Dragon, Cancer; Gone Home; Depression Quest (I was interesting in the idea of games not necessarily being fun); The Last Of Us Part 1 and Part 2 (before the TV show came out — wow, that initial cutscene); and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture (I was interested in how artful the game was, and how beautiful the visuals were when everyone is gone).

Why didn’t I play any of these games? I kind of wonder that myself. I think it was time constraints, and this feeling that I need to finish my novel before too many years passed. And also a shout out to Twin Peaks The Return, which gave me the courage to be more intuitive and riskier in my writing.

Sci-fi novels, be they socially / politically relevant or not, are sometimes stand-alone stories and sometimes they’re part of larger sagas, What is After World?

I do love series. I like how they guide my reading and how they keep putting off the actual goodbye between reader and characters. But After World is a stand-alone novel. I was really happy at how the ending turned out, it’s very open-ended, which I hope encourages the reader to imagine what comes next.

A moment ago I asked if After World had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip things around, do you think World could work as a movie, TV show, or a game?

I love the long format of television shows, and also the quality of TV right now is amazing, so I would vote for turning After World into a TV series. There’s a lot of different narratives going on in the book and I think more space and time would be beneficial.

And if someone wanted to adapt After World into a TV show, who would you want them to cast as the main characters and why them?

I decided to ask ChatGPT for help with this question. Here are their recommendations:


For Sen:

Saoirse Ronan: known for her incredible range, Ronan could effectively portray Sen’s desperation and loneliness.

Florence Pugh: Pugh has shown her ability to handle complex roles and could bring a nuanced performance to the character of Sen.

Zendaya: She’s been praised for her performances in complex and emotional roles, making her a strong candidate for Sen.

Hailee Steinfeld: With a proven talent for balancing vulnerability and strength, she could make a compelling Sen.


For Lindsy:

Cate Blanchett: With her strong acting skills, Blanchett could handle the complexity.

Viola Davis: Known for her emotive performances, Davis could bring gravity and depth to Lindsy.

Julianne Moore: Moore is adept at playing complicated, emotionally challenging roles and could portray Lindsy’s internal struggles convincingly.

Tilda Swinton: If you’re looking for someone who can convey intelligence and emotional depth, Swinton might be a good choice.


For Dana:

Laura Dern: Dern can embody the kind of warmth mixed with detachment that Dana’s role seems to demand.

Naomi Watts: Watts has a knack for bringing depth to flawed characters, making her a potential fit for Dana.

Robin Wright: Known for her strong, yet vulnerable characters, Wright could bring a complex layer to Dana.

Michelle Yeoh: If you’re looking for an actress who can convey a strong sense of responsibility but also abandonment, Yeoh might fit the bill.

So, is there anything else people need to know about After World?

A good part of the novel takes place in Syracuse, New York. Where I live. I’m excited about the location since not many post-apocalyptic novels have been written about Upstate New York. A lot of the book takes place south of the city in Morgan Hill State Forest that has some of the best hiking in Central New York.

Debbie Urbanski After World

Finally, if someone enjoys After World, what sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you recommend they check out next?

I’d recommend Nick Fuller Googin’s The Great Transition. Both of our books are about what happens to the planet in the upcoming years due to climate change, but Nick and I have such different visions of what that will look and feel like. I appreciated his mix of realism and science fiction and suffering and anger tempered with hope.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *