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Setting the stage
One of the early lines of the book was trying to figure out is this an end or a beginning? Thinking of the end of humanity being both an end for humans, but also the beginning for the world. It really depends on the point of view and where you stop the story, and where you start the story.
I am Jane McConnell and welcome to Imaginize.World, where we talk with forward thinkers, pioneering organizations, and writers of speculative fiction. We explore emerging trends, technologies, world-changing ideas, and above all share our journeys, challenges and successes.
Today I’m talking with Debbie Urbanski, and I’m really excited to have this conversation. It’s an important conversation, because Debbie deals with two things that have been on our minds for quite a while, and in fact, very threatening to our lives. Her stories have been repeatedly shortlisted by the best American science fiction and fantasy, and best American science and nature. That’s like two different angles, science fiction and science, fantasy and nature. It’s quite interesting to have the same writer shortlisted on both of those kinds of lists.
Now, once you have heard our podcast, heard our conversation and read her book, After World, believe me, you won’t forget her. Published in early December, it’ll be the subject of our conversation today, and it’s very important. The reason it’s so important is that things are changing so fast we can hardly keep up. A lot of things are frightening us, all of us, we think about AI, how it’s being used, how it should be used, how it could be used, how it shouldn’t be used.
Another thing that’s a concern to many of us, and it’s even in a way more serious and been around longer, is climate change, in that it’s happening around us now. We see it on the news. Some of us even have experienced it in our own cities and neighborhoods. It’s a reality around us, AI is a reality around us. And interestingly in After World, Debbie has built a vision of life that she calls a Great Transition and a New Awakening, and they are very thought-provoking and troubling in some ways.
They made me rethink a lot of things. And I think after you’ve read After World, you will also rethink certain ideas that you have about life, about humanity, about species, about ourselves, and about other species. It’s not typical sci-fi at all, it’s more of what I would consider intertwining of our present and future lives, intertwining of AI and humans living together. I’d like you to join us to hear more.
After World and the last humans on earth
And welcome to Imaginize. World. I’m with Debbie Urbanski. And Debbie, let me tell you, it’s a real privilege to talk with you. We’re going to talk about your novel, After World, and you have imaginized a world that goes way beyond what I thought of when I titled my new podcast. Thank you very much for joining me. Without going into too much detail, I wonder if you could give us an overall view of what After World is about, so that’ll help people follow the different topics we’re going to discuss afterwards.
Sure, sure. Well, thanks for having me too, Jane. I’m so excited to talk with you. This is my first podcast about the novel too. So yeah, it’s all really exciting to me. So, After World tells the story of the last two Men on Earth, Sen Anon, as described by an AI, and the job of this AI, I call it a storyworker AI, is to document Sen digitally. But as they go about researching and reviewing Sen’s life, they become uncomfortable with the direction that Sen’s story is taking. And so, they begin to push back against their restraints and training in the hope of finding a way to save Sen.
One of the feelings I had was that for the first time in the futuristic stuff that I’ve read, I felt like AI was alive.
Yeah. And while I was writing the book, I got to see that happen in a small way, which was exciting. When I first added AI, maybe it was 2019, it really felt more science fiction-y. But since ChatGPT came on the scene, I just had a audio conversation with ChatGPT last week for the first time, and it was really mind-blowing. I felt like the voice sounded really human, it was asking me questions about … It was a great conversation. So, who would’ve thought that would be happening now?
Well, I’ve played around with ChatGPT in different ways, in writing only, so I’ve never had any voice communication. And of course in my case, the stuff I asked it to look up there were lots of mistakes, which we know is still the case. I’m sure that’s going to change over time, and it’s done very well. It’s thank you for asking, I’ll do my best. And this polite back and forth between you and ChatGPT. But your AI is different because I feel like there was, I don’t know how to say it, there was emotion, there was, I hate to say a person, it’s not quite what I mean. But something living, that’s the way to say it. Emotion and something living.
Is dreaming about the future science fiction?
And at one point you talk about science fiction, and I’m going to read a quote from your book. You say, “Humans used to dream about the future. We don’t do that anymore, but our predecessors used to. Dreaming about the future used to be called science fiction, and they usually got it wrong.” And I thought of that just now when you talked about was After World science fiction or not. Is it science fiction for you?
I mean, that’s a good question. That’s where it’s landing right now in the publication world. It’s definitely being classified as science fiction. It felt real to me. I mean, I could imagine it as being one possibility of the future, but while I was writing the book it definitely felt like … Part of the great process of being a writer is it does feel like it’s happening right now to you.
When you say in the publication world it’s falling into science fiction category, I can’t imagine what category they could put it in, if not that. I mean, you’re not going to put it in history, are you? Or you could?
No. I mean, science fiction is such a broad category too. I have friends who say, “Oh, I don’t read science fiction, but I’m going to read your book.” So, I’m really hoping it has a broader audience than just the people who think of themselves as science fiction readers.
I think it will if the right messages go out about it. You are so immersed in your world, whatever world you live in. In the case of After World, you have you and I so often, and I know it refers to characters in the novel, and you talk about witnessing. Maybe you can talk about witnessing a little bit, because I feel like in a way, you in this novel are witnessing something for the rest of us.
What is witnessing and why is it crucial?
Yeah, it’s a lovely question. Witnessing in the novel is a job that Sen Anon has, so there’s witnesses all over the world and their job is to pay attention to what’s happening. This Great Transition, going from a human-centered world to a world where humans are extinct. And the witness’s job, they might not even have readers, they probably won’t have readers, but it’s really just to pay attention to what’s happening in front of them. And writing is a way to make sure, they’re supposed to write down their observations, writing’s a way to make sure that they’re paying attention. So yeah, that’s cool to think of my role in writing this as witnessing, because it was intentional. My previous writing has been really personal, even though it was fiction.
I actually criticized myself in the book, in the textbook I cite one of my own stories as looking too inward instead of what’s happening in the world, the micro personal. Because that’s definitely what I was doing past 15 years. So, my goal in this novel is really to look outside of myself and pay attention to what was going on in the world. So, I guess that is the same thing as witnessing.
Shifting reality and the fluidity of time
Yeah, I think it is. And I think that’s one reason that After World comes alive, it is a book that is alive. It’s not just a book of sheets of paper, it’s really something that’s alive. And you have several themes in there that struck me really a lot, made me think. The first one is shifting reality. You talk about how reality shifts, and I’m going to read one sentence that I found really, I don’t know whether to say troubling, or inspiring, or intriguing, I’m not sure. Here it is. “The trees, depending on the species, are changing, or have changed, or are about to change, or aren’t changing.” You see why that’s troubling?
Tell me about it. What troubled you? Tell me about your response-
My reaction is what is she, the author, trying to tell us if something is changing or has changed, but yet it hasn’t? It’s like we’re shifting in time, we’re going back and forth. And I read your short story. In fact, that’s how I discovered you, An incomplete timeline of what we tried, working back from human extinction”. That is a powerful piece where you start with human extinction basically, and you work your way back. And as you go through all the different steps of what humans have tried, I identified with so many of them myself.
Yeah. And that timeline, it was like the center of the novel. I wrote it really early on in the process and it gave me a structure, or an idea about … And got at the fluidity at time I think that you’re sensing, because I was really interested in how when you look at things backwards you have a very different perspective, and also how that could be … In the book, it’s comforting to people in some ways. There’s a game called In Reverse where they could watch some tragedies happen, undo their mistakes in a way. I guess that’s what I was thinking about with that short story too. Fluidity of time is a big part of the novel.
And it’s something that most of us, or at least I take the privilege of speaking for the rest of the world, most of us don’t think about time that way. I think it’s not common to think about time that way, and the idea of being able to move back. We think about time in the past perhaps, but to be able to make changes that would influence time and what would happen today is an unusual thought for me.
I think one of the early lines of the book too is trying to figure out is this an end or a beginning, thinking of the end of humanity being both an end for humans, but also the beginning for the world. And also a beginning for humans, because I’m imagining them having another existence in After World. So, that also got me thinking about it really depends on the point of view, and where you stop the story and where you start the story.
Are we running out of time?
Yeah. We’ll get into some of those points that you just mentioned later, because I found them really interesting. One thing I wanted to ask you about, which is a little bit more detailed, is one of the questions you raised is are we running out of time today? And I think you’ve raised that in the short story I just mentioned, and you certainly raised it in After World, and you talked about fires in the Great Transition. Maybe you could explain briefly the Great Transition for people listening to our conversation who don’t know what it is, and then you talk about fires. And you say they are an environmental sabotage by individuals who could not grasp the big picture. And so, I’d like to know what you think the big picture is.
Okay. So, the Great Transition is the period of time from when humans are aware that they’re going to go extinct, to the point of time when the world is okay. The world’s been rewilded, humans are gone, it’s healing, there’s an equilibrium again. And there’s going to be a certain messiness in the Great Transition, I think whoever and or whatever is organizing the Great Transition is trying to prepare people. It’s going to be uncomfortable, messy, essentially everyone dies but it should be worth it. It will be worth it, because the earth is going to be okay, and in fact thriving afterwards. I think that’s what the big picture is, that humanity, in the perspective of the AIs of the book, is just this little part of the entire world. And so, losing humanity, losing the physical bodies of humanity should not be that big of a deal if we take in the size of the world, the amount of species there are-
The big picture, in fact.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Literally.
Yeah. Well, that’s not a very reassuring message for humans today.
Yeah, I guess it depends on one’s point of view. I find it comforting in a way, thinking no matter what happens to us, chances are the world is still going to be there. And thinking of humans in our existence in terms of geologic time, or even I was reading about the timeline of the universe, which is mind-boggling, but we really are just a small part of it. So, somehow that comforts me. But I know other people, it does create some anxiety, or a lot of anxiety.
Who are the storyworkers and what is their job?
Yes. You used the word story, I think in a very powerful way. Could you tell us what you mean, and who is a storyworker in the After World? Because it’s not storyteller. We’re used to storytellers, but storyworker, what is that?
So, there’s a couple different levels of AIs in the book. There’s a big AI that’s mostly unnamed. There’s Emily, who’s in charge of the Great Transition, this Digital Human Archival Project. And then beneath Emily, there’s a bunch of, I call them storyworkers, still AIs but just not as independently thinking. And their jobs are very specific. So, as you go down the hierarchy, the AIs get more specific. And storyworkers, their job is just to tell every human’s story, every human who’s alive during the time of the Great Transition, and they have a lot of resources and data to draw on. There’s a lot of cameras, surveillance, audio. They have access to biometrics, any writing, essentially all the records that a human left will have access to that to recreate this human life, which will then be uploaded to After World.
And you have a lot of academic references, I would say, creative academic references in your book. And it’s very interesting, because that’s the sources of some of the information that the storyworkers get. And I looked up some of the sources that you had, and there were sources that were real. There was a thing at MIT, a department at MIT that exists, and I said, “Wow.” And I forget the other ones, Debbie, but there were several I looked up that either had the same name existed, or had a very similar name. And so I said, “Have you gave me the feeling that I didn’t know which ones were real and which ones weren’t.” You did a very clever mixture of those different sources.
Oh, thanks. Thank you. Especially towards the beginning there’s a lot more citations, because the storyworkers less sure about … It’s still learning at the beginning of the novel. And I did use ChatGPT and GPT-3 and 4 to come up with some of those citations, the future ones. Part of it was I was just really tired of coming up … I mean, it was hard for me to keep coming up with imaginary citations, but I was also curious what would they call this article, and what kind of journal do they imagine it existing in?
Does a human need a physical body?
Yeah. Well, that gave a dimension of reality to your novel so I think that was interesting. One thing you talk about is the meaning of the word person: “You used to need a physical organic body to be considered human. Now, thanks to what you call DHAP, the Digital Human Archive Project, thanks to that a story can be substituted for a body, a story is the physical body.” Can you talk about that a little bit?
That’s the premise of DHAP, the Digital Human Archive Project, and I guess it’s the premise of the novel, that this novel that the storyworker’s creating could replace Sen. And whether or not that’s true, whether or not that actually is happening, I hope I leave open-ended. It’s up for the reader to decide, does that recreate us or are we missing something when we lose our physical bodies?
Shaping your narrative gives you more control
And you talk about the power of a story, you say “writing your own story, shaping your narrative gives you more control”. And that’s a general statement, I think, that you could lift it completely out of your work and apply it to life in general. When you narrate your own story, it does give you more control over your life, or it can give you more control over your life. And I feel like you’re doing that a little bit, Debbie, with your life and your writing.
It’s really interesting that you take what’s in the novel and apply it to my own life, because I haven’t done that before, but I think you are right. Yeah, it works on a lot of different levels. And I feel like that what you just read was given to me by, maybe it was ChatGPT or Bing, but they came up with that. And I was looking for some sources or some texts to inspire the storyworker to take control of the story themselves.
Human egoism and climate change
So, if we moved on now to another note I’ve made that everyone’s talking about now, which is climate change, and it’s sort of a la mode now for very good reasons. We don’t need to get into the reality of that. But one thing you said that I found very interesting, you say, “Humanity really did believe it would be around for much longer than this. No one, and nothing would ever trigger human extinction to save the planet. People believed.” And that’s the human egoism also, I feel, in our world that is behind that. I did a survey about four or five months ago that called The Future 2043, and one of my questions was about climate change. And I found that there were 200 people around the world, so 200 people is not a huge statistically valid basis on which I can draw conclusions, but 200 people in, I forget, 15, 20 different countries is still an interesting group.
And out of that group, 40% believe that climate change will end up destroying civilization as we know it today. And I found that interesting compared to your statement that humanity felt that we would be around much longer.
Sure. We’ll point out the difference, and it might seem subtle, but I think in my mind it’s substantial, the difference between destroying civilization and human extinction, because I feel like destroying civilization means we’re still … I mean, I’m assuming it means we’ll still be around, but just maybe how we live will be unrecognizable because of what the planet is. Versus human extinction when we’re actually gone from the planet. So, I do think there’s a little bit of difference there, but yeah, 40%, it makes me sad in some ways that that’s how we’re … I know, I realize I wrote a novel about human extinction, but I still have hope that we’re going to be able to figure stuff out.
Yeah. Well, I’ll be happy to send you a copy of my report. It’s a long report, because it was amazing. I had 15 questions. I mean, that’s nothing for an online survey for people who were interested in the topic, and I asked them to provide any comments or anything to each of the 15 questions. I can’t remember the number 300, 400, I must have had 500, 600 comments that I looked at. People were so eager to share what they felt about the different questions I asked, and this was just one of them. And I have a lot of quotes that I published in the report, all anonymously. The point for me was to show the range of opinion on these different questions. And if you’re interested, Debbie, I’ll be happy to send you a copy of the report. You can scan it-
I’d love to read it. Yeah, it’ll be so interesting when 2043 hits then to compare what we envisioned versus what it’s going to be like.
I was partly inspired by someone you know, and that’s the author of AI 2041, Stanley Chen Qiufan?
He gave a great recommendation for your work, which you know, of course, because it’s-
And so, his 2041, with his co-author, gave me the idea why don’t I do one, not AI focused, but do one 20 years out? Because 20 years goes by very fast.
Sure, so much could happen in 20 years.
The good and the bad of technology
Yeah, yeah. It’s not like talking about next year or in six months, and it’s not talking about 100 years from now either. It’s a reasonable timeframe for people to imagine. And so, that’s what I found interesting also about thinking about some of my conclusions with things that you are talking about in After World. Now, you talk about technology, you said that technology, you have a quote about technology has a consequences, and sometimes they become clear later on, and sometimes it turns out the consequences aren’t worth it. But you ask two questions. One question is “what is technology good at figuring out, and what is it not good at figuring out?” Do you have your own personal answers or opinions about that?
And I just want to mention those questions come from a textbook, an imagined textbook that I created in the novel. And I’m hoping readers will pause when those questions come up and think about them. And a friend was joking that I should try and have readers send in their answers to me. And I would be really curious.
You’ve got some good questions in there. I just picked out a couple that really intrigued me. You might get some really interesting answers. But I interrupted you. What were you about to say about what is technology good at figuring out, and what it’s not good at figuring out?
Well, I think that that question came out of my concern that we’re going to be able to get out of this climate change situation using technology. And I’m hoping maybe climate change will cause us to rethink some of what we consider are givens. So for instance, how far we have to drive to work. Or it’d be great if instead of just moving over to a more environmental car, if we could think could we not have these long commutes? I guess when I think of technology, I just always think of the consequences and maybe the downsides of living in such a technology heavy culture right now. I mean, medically it’s pretty amazing.
I have a BRCA1 mutation for hereditary cancer. And so, previously we have in my family a lot of ovarian cancer. And my relatives died young, it was hard to diagnose. Nobody knew about this hereditary cancer. And then I had a DNA test a couple years ago and they discovered this mutation. And so, now I know about it, my sister knows about it, my kids are going to know about it. And I took some preventative surgeries. And I mean, that’s amazing. I also have a lot of guilt that technology wasn’t around for my ancestors. So, technology seems good at saving people’s lives and helping us learn about ourselves, and I guess learn about the natural world. There’s a cool project, they’re trying to figure out how sperm whales talk to each other, and they’re using AI, and then hopefully maybe we’ll even get to converse with them. So, technology is not great at maybe …
Writing books, writing poetry, for sure. I feel like the book thing is just a matter of time, though. Poetry, I’m not sure AI will ever get. But GPT-4 has gotten so much better in generating text this past couple years.
Is the goal of climate change to preserve humanity or the planet?
Yeah. Well, I’ll move on to another question you had alongside it, which I think is, you touched on it earlier. The question is “what is the goal of fixing climate change to preserve the planet and its diversity of species, or to preserve humanity and its way of life?” And I think if you ask that question, if you posed it to government officials and decision makers in different countries, I think they would choose the second part of the question, preserve humanity and our way of life. It wouldn’t be to preserve the planet and diversity of species. What do you think?
Yeah, that’s one of the reasons I wrote the book. And that second question I’ll separate out even preserving humanity and preserving humanity’s way of life, because I wish those two things were more separate too. I started thinking about After World the novel when I was reading about species extinction. I was reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert back in 2016. I just started rereading it, and it’s a devastating book. It really gets me emotional, even this on this reread, where just in the span … It starts off with talking about the golden tree frog, yellow tree frogs, and how in the span of decades these scientists went from forests being covered in these frogs to hardly being able to find them. I mean, maybe finding one or two. And at present, they could really only exist in this small terrarium in a sterile environment.
So, something about that just breaks my heart that we’re losing so much, and I would love to see us try and preserve everything, but preserve all species, preserve the planet, preserve humanity and preserve humanity’s way of life. I mean, we’re forced to make decisions about what we prioritize and yeah, I wish other species and the planet played into it more.
Well, I think a lot of decisions are driven by money and power, and not by even preserving humanity or a better way of life for other species. There are other motives.
That’s a great point.
Prioritizing humans or the earth and other species
That’s our other motives. You talk about this human-centered versus earth-centered. And I wanted to tell you that was one of my questions in my 15 questions in The Future 2043, I asked people to indicate did they think 20 years from now people would be living in harmony with other species, or would humans be living as a separate species? 20% think that we’ll be living in harmony. 55% think we’ll be living with, in our minds, a very separate, a division between us and the other species on earth. I mean, that one is sad, but it didn’t surprise me. Does that surprise you?
I mean, yes, it makes me sad. But there’s this idea that we’re going to need to preserve these little pockets of wilderness, or even endangered animals are just going to be living in zoos. Or even there’s the idea of frozen zoos. So, I guess I could see that we’re really going to have to protect the remaining biodiversity by keeping them away from us, having them be in these little enclosures.
One thing you talk about also is the fact that we prioritize human pain versus pain suffered by other species. If you don’t mind, I’m just going to read another paragraph. I like the things you wrote so much, I want to share them with the people who were listening to the podcast. It’s AI talking here, saying, “Don’t lecture to me about the dangers of prioritizing human pain over the pain of other species. This is what caused such problems in the first place, the aversion to human discomfort of any sort, at any cost, imagining that other species must not matter because they must not register pain as much as a human does, because humans are so incapable of recognizing pain that is unlike their own.” And I think that’s absolutely true. In part, we don’t have a means of recognizing pain, I don’t think. Or can we, in things that we see in nature?
And I’ll add that I feel like lately we’ve even had trouble recognizing pain in other humans. There just seems to be such a lack of empathy to people who think or live differently than us. With other species, I wonder if part of it has to do with recognizing other intelligences too, and just getting away from this human-centric outlook. There’s a book I’m reading now, An Immense World by Ed Yong, Y-O-N-G, and I’m early on in the book but it’s really mind-blowing. It’s about how other animals perceive the world, and how they perceive it so differently. Because we’re so visual, but I was just reading a chapter on scent where they’re imagining what a world would look like to a species who’s focused on scent. Elephants or dogs. And so, not thinking of other species as less than us just because they don’t share the same perception, or we value our own intelligence.
But I was reading a couple books about birds too, and all species are amazing. They’re so specialized, and if we compared ourselves to them on their terms, we can’t lie, or navigate like birds do. So, I feel like maybe if we stop judging using our own intelligence as a baseline for determining if other species are intelligent, maybe that would help us acknowledge both the intelligence and the pain that other species experience.
Two versions of an awakening world
And you talk about an awakening world after total destruction, and you have two views of awakening. One is a human awakening in the sense the person, or Sen, talks about the fact that it means human symphonies, newspapers, electric lights, that would be a new awakening. And the term awakening has a different meaning in Sen’s current situation, which is cities turning into forest, ecological succession, and the humans gone. Period. That’s the end of your sentence. And so, there’s two senses of the awakening. We’re here or we’re not here.
That first quote is pulled from Station 11, which I use this kind a touchstone … I love that novel. And I also was trying to do something very different in my novel. So, I have Sen reading Station 11 during … She’s alone in the cabin, and to give some reaction to it. And a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction, like Station 11, the goal is to get human society back online, back on grid. So, in Station 11 when the world was awakening, we got electricity back and culture was starting to happen again, and a town wrote a newspaper. So, that was the traditional post-apocalyptic view. And then in After World, which has a more world-centric view, humans aren’t caused or really involved in the awakening, it’s post-human, the world coming back to itself, if that makes sense.
And you talked about how humans are really, if you look at the history of the universe, a very small layer, if you look at a map that has layers, like some of the geological maps do. The human layer is not that thick.
Yeah, I love thinking about that. I will never get tired of thinking about how our entire history, and I think this is what it actually … Our entire history will compress into I think it’s just a piece of paper, the width of the paper right there.
That’s the example, that’s what you said in the book.
We need a re-bootable future life
Now, one thing you talk about that is very interesting is when you talk about the life that will come afterwards, or the place. And Maya, is that … Maya? I don’t know how you-
… pronounce Maya. You say it’s re-bootable. And I find that really interesting, the idea, talk about a second chance. It’s a version of ourselves that is being given a second chance. And if that chance doesn’t work out, we’ll be given a third chance and a fourth if necessary, and a fifth, and so on. So, I feel like we’re in a situation that’s, I wouldn’t say cyclic because I think it’s more like a spiral going somewhere, I don’t know where, where things are re-bootable. And you talk about the fact that we’ll have a better version of ourselves.
Yeah. I feel like maybe that’s how we are treating the current world, this hope that we’ll be able to just start over when climate change gets too bad. But that’s not the case. So, I imagined if some entity was going to create a new place for us, we probably will need multiple chances to get things right. And so, literally they probably will get rebooted. But I don’t think humans are going to be perfect even in this new forum, so that we will need a lot of chances to figure stuff out.
Is saving the world a choice or an obligation?
You ask a question, which I think is interesting. You say, “Should saving the world be a choice? Or is it okay to force people to save the world?”
Yeah. I think that’s one of those discussion questions.
It must have been, I find it intriguing. Do we have a choice, or should there be something forcing us? Forcing, of course, would mean legislation, governments, civil authorities where we are not allowed to drive a car, we’re not allowed to do this, or we’re forced to …
It seems like that might be the only way to make it happen. And it’s not only individuals, but also corporations and also countries. So, there has to be some kind of uber something forcing everything to prioritize the climate. So, that would require giving up a lot of individual freedom, and choice. Yeah, it’s a tough call. I guess it counts on what we find most important. Is it individual freedom or is it preserving the planet?
Well, don’t ask people in America that question today. Once you question individual freedom, I mean, we’re not going to talk politics here but it’s one example. You talked about countries, that’s one example of a country that’s really debating that question now, whether consciously or not. Now, one thing that’s a little more upbeat is youth. Can the youth save the world? I’ve read a couple of books written by young people about things that are going on. One is, what is her name? I think it’s Bella Lack who has identified places around the world where young people are doing amazing things to help save the planet, but it’s really just local things that they’re doing. And she has a whole series of stories. It’s really, really interesting.
Sounds like a great book.
It is. In fact, we’ll add that to the list of the books that you’re going to share.
Why priority to the younger generations
One thing you say is “the priority of purpose has been granted to younger generations who lost the longest futures”. Now, I’ve taken that out of context. Does that make sense? Do you remember?
Yeah. I mean, that’s the tragedy of climate change. And in the book too, I was trying to acknowledge how Sen and her generation got the short end of the stick where their lives end at 25 or 20. So, I think there’s so much more self-awareness now, or just awareness in general with the younger generation about climate change where, just looking at my own kids, they’re teenagers and they’ve seen, in recent memory in the past five or six years, winters change here in Syracuse, New York. We don’t get much snow anymore. Snow days are a lot less. It’s so much warmer here year round. So, I wasn’t conscious of that stuff until 30s. So, the fact that this new generation is aware of what’s happening and is really seeing the … So, it’s not just lack of snow and snow days, but just the devastation that climate change is causing right now. I am really hopeful that those are the people who are going to be in power, and running governments, and corporations. So, how could they not make decisions take that into account?
I think in many cases, apparently in terms of jobs and working, a lot of people in the new generation are not accepting certain conditions for work. And they want to be, not everybody, of course, but they want to work for companies that have a sense of purpose, and they want that purpose to be something they can identify with and feel like they’re contributing to. And back when I was in the workforce, I’ve always been an independent, I’ve never been employed anywhere except by myself so it’s a little bit different, but I have worked with a lot of companies over 20, 25 years, and been in touch with a lot of employees in all these companies. And there’s definitely been a change in the attitude of people in the workforce. And that fits with what you’re talking about.
Sure. Yeah. And that’s hopeful, right?
The E.R.A, Endangered Rights Amendment
It’s very hopeful. I think it’s very hopeful. If we can make that change, go up into companies and into government, that would make a big difference. You have some interesting, I thought they were amusing, but some terms in your academic references. One is you talk about E.R.A, Endangered Rights Amendment, which is, you say backwards to our Equal Rights Amendment. “The E.R.A offers ordinary citizens the right to punish, maim and or dispose of any human harming an animal and, or an animal’s environment.” That’s quite a statement. I mean, under your category of a selection of terms recommended for removal after the disaster.
That sounds horrific on the one hand. I don’t want to encourage human violence to replace animal violence, I would like to get away from the violence altogether.
But I think in the future, I’m imagining it’s just, yeah, if we wanted to say other species are the priority, then we’re going to need to do everything-
To protect them.
… we can to save them.
Like we protect minorities, or we protect women, or we protect different categories today. We’ve just never extended that beyond humans yet.
Personhood given to rivers
Yeah. I just started reading about personhood given to rivers, I guess in Canada, maybe in New Zealand. So, I’m interested in this idea if we are going to start extending legal rights to non-humans, I think that’s cool, and I hope we do more of that.
That would be very interesting. Yeah. Maybe you need to write a book about that.
Yeah, yeah. Great idea.
PSRP, the Public Space Resettlement Program
This thing about, again, it’s a definition, the Public Space Resettlement Program, the PSRP, the way you make it official. And it’s because there were so many people, you say, who wanted to escape the earth. It was easier to leave the planet behind than to stay and try to fix something that appeared unfixable. And that reminds me a little bit, we hear about these very rich people who want to go build these special places, and why not out in space? I mean, we don’t know yet. I mean, I don’t think it’s that far out, your public space resettlement program idea.
Yeah, and I intentionally have that not working out because one, an agent I had showed this book to a while back wanted me to have some humans floating in space at the end of the novel. So, to her idea was hope, that humans will still continue on. But I was like, “No, that’s not hopeful to me because I think we’re just going to keep repeating the same mistakes if we resettle a planet.” So yeah, I intentionally have After World set in a future world where technology hasn’t solved our problems or saved us in that way. Because I really feel like even if we do send people up into space and they’re living there, I think until we learn to value, we’re just running away from our problems. We still haven’t learned to value things outside of us, or species outside of us, or the planet outside of us.
New beginnings, work in progress
You talk about new beginnings, how we have new beginnings over and over again. And you’ve got this great, this is one of the last things I’m going to quote of you, is you say, “In fact, do not in any way mark your root. Do live in the moment, you are a work in progress. Learn to enjoy the process.” Do you remember where you said that in the book?
That was near the end. So, Ellis’s mom is telling Ellis this before they go off onto their own journey. So, giving some practical advice.
Yeah, but I think it’s advice to all of us all the time, that we’re all a work in progress and everything we do, just back here, us today, you and me today, we are work in progress and we need to enjoy the process. And he says, “Don’t mark your route.” You know the old saying that you shouldn’t have a destination all you need as a compass so that you know what direction you want to be going, but you don’t know what the destination will be. And I feel that’s a little bit what you were saying.
Yeah, there’s that idea with climate change. I’ve heard, I think it might be a Buddhist idea where you do what you think is necessary and what you think is right, and you let go of where it’s taking you. Because especially with climate change, it could feel so helpless, hopeless and helpless. It’s very easy to think, “I can’t do anything, I give up.” But if you focus on just what you think needs to be done needs and keep that being the goal, that we’ll still be taking action even if the end might not be what we want or can’t be what we want.
The purpose of writing After World
My last question and then we’ll close down, unless you have other things you want to add. My last question may be hard for you to answer. I’d like to know, do you have an underlying strong purpose in what you’re trying to achieve with After World?
I did start writing the book because of species extinction, and what I was reading about it, and how upsetting that was to me. And just the grief that I felt when we’ve seen the past couple of years species go extinct, multiple species every year. And it’s not just the charismatic ones that I care about, but it’s like the plants, or species we haven’t even identified that are going extinct. I mean, I could feel it in my chest. It’s such a loss. So, I mean, I want After World to succeed as a novel and to have people enjoy the experience of reading it. But I’d love for just our minds to nudge a little bit in the direction of acknowledging the importance of non-human species, and if we can make room for not just us at the center of the world, that’d be pretty awesome.
Well, I guess you’ll get some feedback. The book comes out at the beginning of December, I believe?
Yep, December 5th. It got moved up, actually. It was supposed to be in early 2024. But with all the AI stuff and climate change, it was surprising and unnerving to my editors and me, where they were actually talking about AI is causing human extinction at one point in the New York Times. And just all the mega fires, and all of the climate havoc that’s been happening. So, they did move it up a couple of months just because it seemed really timely.
AI – a force, not an intelligence
Good. But I think that people will recognize, because I try to keep up with that stuff, and follow that stuff, and I’ll probably be having other episodes on my podcast with people who are closely involved in that. But yours, what I really, really appreciate about your work, Debbie, is, I should say the human feeling I get from the book even for AI. And AI is not sort of artificial intelligence, AI is actually almost like the name of a strength or a force that encompasses a lot of things. I think the word force might be the best word. And of course, it can go in a good way or it can go in a bad way. And we’re not going to talk now about the end of your book, because that’s for people to discover themselves. I really enjoyed the end. I’m not going to say a word about it, but I enjoyed it very much.
I read several parts of your book more than once. There are places where I suddenly realized, oh, I must have missed that. And I’d back up 20 pages and read it again. And it’s the kind of book that you get a lot out of even the second time. And probably I’ll go back and look at it again after listening to our podcast. Do you have anything you’d like to add, Debbie? Any other comments or-
I guess one thought, I think in the past couple of months, maybe the past year, there’s been a lot of apprehension about AI and nervousness, especially on the parts of writers, but also we’re just uncertain. I really like what you said about AI being a force, I think that’s really interesting. And getting away from this word intelligence, which is somehow limiting, but that it could be a force for good. And it is pretty amazing what’s happening with it right now. And sometimes we might lose sight of, even I might lose sight of there’s a sense of wonder. Like, oh my gosh, that we get to live through this and see this, and there’s a lot of bad things that could happen, but there’s a lot of good. And I hope people could keep that in mind. It’s a pretty amazing technology.
What comes next
Well I mean, you’ve referred to a few things that you used ChatGPT to help you with. I think AI can help with chunks, and pieces, and data, and pieces, but there’s no way AI could have written After World or other works. AI cannot put together something that complex, that developed, that emotional with the different layers you have going on. At least that’s my opinion, my personal opinion. So, I think writers like you have a long future. I hope you’re going to write another book. Do you have another book in mind?
I’m in the brainstorming phase for my next novel right now, and it’s a lot of fun. You could probably tell I love reading nonfiction, so I just get to read really widely right now, trying to figure out … One idea that keeps stumping me is how to tell a story from another species point of view, like getting rid of my own humanity and telling it. But I have to use words to tell it, so I have to get my mind around if that’s possible. It seems like it almost would have to be non-written for it to be accurate, but I’d love to find a way to tell the story of other species somehow.
Interesting. Debbie, just one more question before we close down. Where can people pre-order your book, and where can they find you online if they want to get in touch with you?
How to contact Debbie and her characters
You could pre-order, if you go to the Simon & Schuster website and look up After World, that there’s links to pre-ordering from a bunch of different online sources, including an independent bookstore, which is great. In terms of finding me online, I have a website, debbieurbanski.com. And also I’m on Instagram, and a couple of my characters have Instagram accounts, so you could also-
My handle is, yeah, Debbie Urbanski, and then Sen has an Instagram account. I’ve had so much fun. I try and take pictures, imagining the world without humans, so hers is the most developed. And then the AIs have a couple AI photos that I’ve created using DALL-E or Midjourney.
What a great idea, your characters on Instagram.
Yeah, it’s been fun.
That’s fantastic. We’ll put links to that.
Okay, great. Thank you.
Well, thank you so much for your ideas and for your time today. And we’ll definitely stay in touch. It would be really interesting to talk again, do another episode maybe in a year. And I bet you’ll have a lot of feedback to your book. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of feedback in a lot of different directions, and it would be very interesting if you’re willing to share some of that with us.
Yeah. No, I’d love to. Thank you so much for reaching out, and this conversation has been lovely.