Debbie Urbanski, author of the novel “After World,” has harnessed the power of artificial intelligence (AI) to narrate a dystopian story of humanity’s final days. In an exclusive interview with Esquire, Urbanski reveals how ChatGPT, a language model AI, played a pivotal role in shaping her novel and how it has altered her perspective on AI technology.
Inspiration from nature and extinction
Urbanski’s journey into the world of “After World” began in 2015 when she immersed herself in literature about extinction and climate change. Works like Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction” struck a chord with her, sparking a deep emotional reaction to the loss of species and the impending environmental crisis.
The idea of human extinction, as explored in Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us,” prompted Urbanski to delve into the concept of humanity’s eventual demise. She sought to challenge genre conventions in post-apocalyptic storytelling, driven by her love for such narratives.
AI integration in “After World”
Urbanski introduced AI into her novel in 2019 as she sought a narrator capable of recounting the end of humanity. She was intrigued by the circular nature of AIs, creations of humans themselves. ChatGPT, which she later gained access to, brought an exciting and mind-blowing dimension to her writing process.
Early interactions with GPT-3 were marked by its non-human responses and quirks, often veering off into unrelated topics. However, its evolving capabilities proved invaluable for copy-editing, grammar inquiries, and even brainstorming.
In “After World,” the story is narrated by an advanced AI, far beyond today’s technology. This AI chronicles the final days of the last human, Sen Anon, tasked with observing and documenting Earth’s rewilding.
The AI narrator grapples with the question: If the last human dies, but an AI continues to tell their story, are they truly gone? It evolves throughout the novel, developing a sense of care and attachment to Sen Anon.
AI’s role in shaping the novel
Urbanski’s use of AI in the creative process was not limited to mere inspiration. She incorporated AI-generated content into the book, experimenting with its capabilities. ChatGPT’s influence on the narrative allowed her to challenge editorial feedback and push boundaries in storytelling.
One unique aspect of “After World” is the narrator’s introspection on the writing process itself. The AI comments on post-apocalyptic and sci-fi novels, acknowledging common writing patterns and occasionally poking fun at its own clichés.
The novel navigates a complex landscape of environmentalism and humanism. Urbanski, an avid hiker, grappled with the contrasting realities of nature’s indifference to human suffering and the novel’s deep affection for humanity, even in its twilight.
She questions whether the Earth would be better off without humans, acknowledging the loss of unique experiences but also the potential for a happier existence for many species.
Motherhood as a central theme
“After World” delves into the theme of motherhood, portraying Sen Anon’s mothers as complex characters who grapple with difficult choices. Urbanski uses the narrative to explore the tension between maternal love and the need to leave, questioning the concept of abandonment.
Debbie Urbanski, who has pondered the future and our coexistence with the environment, holds a nuanced perspective. She draws inspiration from Andrew Boyd’s “I Want a Better Catastrophe,” which suggests that while catastrophes may be inevitable, our actions can influence their outcome.
Urbanski expresses hope in the next generation, particularly teenagers who are growing up with a heightened awareness of environmental issues. She believes they may hold the key to making better decisions and reimagining our coexistence with the Earth.
Coping with environmental responsibility
In the face of climate grief and anxiety, Urbanski shares her personal coping mechanisms. She has embraced a micro-level approach, identifying plant and insect species through apps like Seek and iNaturalist, leading to a newfound appreciation for the diversity of life around us.
Her close encounters with nature have shifted her perspective, fostering coexistence with the environment even at a small scale. Urbanski emphasizes the role of artists in shaping the narrative about our relationship with the natural world.
Debbie Urbanski’s “After World” stands as a thought-provoking exploration of human extinction and environmentalism, with AI playing a significant role in its creation. The novel challenges traditional storytelling norms and engages readers in a profound reflection on our responsibility as stewards of the environment.
As the world grapples with climate change, Urbanski’s insights and hope for the future offer a glimmer of optimism amid the challenges of our time. “After World” not only pushes the boundaries of literature but also urges us to reconsider our place in the natural world.