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LeVar Burton Gives a Powerful Voice to His Visionary 1997 Post-Apocalyptic Novel

Timothy Johnson

If you’re a child of the ’80s like me, LeVar Burton may have been an important part of your formative years. Whether you tuned into Star Trek: The Next Generation every week, kept up with Reading Rainbow, or both, Burton was a pillar of kindness and acceptance in storytelling. Also, if you’re anything like me, you maybe didn’t know until recently—when you were doing comp research for your post-apocalyptic novel-in-progress—that he published his own post-apocalyptic novel in 1997 titled Aftermath. This review begins with some specific conditions, but even if you don’t fit them, stick around.

Novelist and Professor Richard Bausch—a legend in the George Mason MFA program—told students to eschew politics, but I am of the mind that all fiction (that which is worthwhile anyway) is political. I think all stories are, inherently, arguments. Growing up with Burton as Geordi La Forge and the host of Reading Rainbow, I knew him as a figurehead for the imagination and the wonder of storytelling. However, before Star Trek, the other role that defines Burton’s acting career is that of Kunta Kinte in the 1977 TV series, Roots, which portrays the plight of enslaved African Americans. More recently, Burton has been outspoken on social media, commenting on politics and social issues—most notably modern systemic and conventional racism in America—as well as maintaining his support of literary art: his popular podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, has been influential in elevating the prose of diverse fiction writers.

This summer, Grand Central Publishing released an audiobook version of Aftermath, read by Burton himself. Given Burton’s resurgent popularity, I thought I’d check it out. What I found was a science-fiction novel that is perhaps more prescient today than it was in 1997, and its prescience is found in its willingness and courage to expose its politics instead of hiding them. Aftermath hammers its sociopolitical themes so much that it builds a house with them. Plainly, its conceit isn’t subtle, and the execution is even less so. Upon reflection, I don’t know why I’m surprised. Star Trek and Reading Rainbow were pretty transparent in their values, too, and those values are in large part why we loved them so much.

Aftermath is set in 2015 following a second American civil war that tore our society to shreds, and it follows four central characters as their paths converge due to the telepathic calls of someone in distress. Through the novel’s events, Burton explores classicism, poverty, economic disparity, and how capitalism is interwoven with systemic racism, or how the powerful (read: white) take from the oppressed (read: black). This isn’t an unconventional idea, but it’s one we don’t talk about enough, and Burton’s story explores it in interesting ways.

Whenever I read a piece of fiction, I look for the craft lessons I can learn from it. Burton’s Aftermath is a masterclass in world building. His vision is complete. Every element of its history and exposition, each character’s backstory and experiences, are rendered fully. None of this building is wasted or wasteful. Every word adds to the reader’s understanding, clarifies the story’s narrative, and contributes to the reader’s ability to indulge in its telling. I often talk about the necessity for immersion in fiction, the reader’s sense that they have fallen into the story, and Aftermath is absolutely a book that offers that.

On that note, there is little here that is alluring, that makes readers want to step into this world, and I think that is intentional. Post-apocalyptic and science-fiction stories often involve elements of fantasy. There is something in most post-apocalyptic and sci-fi stories that appeals to the reader’s desires, something that makes us think, despite the horror, that it might actually be cool if we were transported there. In the case of any post-apocalyptic story, this is a horrible truth to confront, but it’s almost something of a hallmark of the genre.

Burton resists this at every turn. The world of Aftermath is ugly and horrifying. While I was listening to Burton’s tale, there was no part of me that wanted it to be true. This unwillingness to celebrate the fall of society is something that, I think, sets Aftermath apart from other post-apocalyptic books. Burton takes his story so seriously that it seems even he is horrified by the necessity of its telling.

And, at the same time, Burton makes us confront the measure of its truth. The effect is less one of being transported to a fictional world and more one of a fictional mirror forcing the reader to examine reality.

Burton’s writing is not flawless, and some readers may find its vulnerabilities test the suspension of their disbelief, but Aftermath is often beautiful and engaging, focused on its prime directive: to tell a story. To that end, Burton’s sheer storytelling skill is on full display, especially in the audio format. His narration is, of course, enthralling and mesmerizing. From a lifetime of reading aloud and acting on the big screen, Burton’s narrative voice is unimpeachable and unmatched. Perhaps I’m revealing my own formation as a story lover, which Burton had a hand in, but there is a purity in the comfort of hearing Burton read fiction, and the fact that he’s reading his own writing here makes it that much more special. As someone known for his love of storytelling, it only makes sense he’d be a captivating tale spinner. Between its strong narrative integrity and rich audio format, this new release of Aftermath is well worth the listen. 

Aftermath is an important entry in sociopolitically-aware speculative fiction that stands with works of the legendary Octavia Butler as well as the genre’s current torchbearers, such as N.K. Jemisin and Colson Whitehead, and everyone in between. It’s a horrifyingly complete vision told with fundamentally natural storytelling prowess that is impossible to fake, and having the chance to hear it read by the living legend who wrote it? Well, we all, every one of us, should listen.

Timothy Johnson

is editor-in-chief for phoebe and an MFA candidate at George Mason University’s creative writing program. He lives and writes from outside Washington, D.C. Tweet at him @tim_the_writer. He will be delighted.

LeVar Burton

is an Emmy and Grammy Award-winning actor, director, narrator, educator, and cofounder of the award-winning Skybrary App; former host and executive producer of PBS’s Reading Rainbow; and a lifelong children’s literacy advocate. He hosts his own podcast, LeVar Burton Reads, and has a new YouTube Series This Is My Story, which highlights racism in America. He starred as Kunta Kinte in the acclaimed mini-series Roots and Lt. Commander Geordi LaForge in Star Trek: The Next Generation, among many other credits. Follow him on twitter @levarburton.

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