Review – “After the Apocalypse”

More great stuff from Small Beer Press. I ordered Maureen F. McHugh’s short story collection After the Apocalypse after reading the title story in a “Year’s Best SF” anthology. It’s one of those stories that uses its last lines to masterfully re-jigger the whole emotional structure of the story — not in any sort of trick-ending way, but just through solid, unflinching commitment to the portrayal of a certain kind of horrifying character.

With cover foxing baked right in!

With cover foxing baked right in!

McHugh’s stories are all set after hard times have fallen. There aren’t any actual apocalypses here, unless they’re the not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper kind. Entropy is an over-used — and usually misused — concept when applied to societies (you could probably blame Pynchon) and McHugh doesn’t use it herself. But the stories here are mostly about what happens to a closed system that’s accustomed to exporting its chaos when that chaos gets harder to export. We can’t offshore our waste heat forever — inevitably, it will find its way back to us in the form of bird flu or spongiform encephalopathy or economic collapse.

Even before the societal trauma, McHugh’s protagonists are pretty much all hard luck cases, victims of a bad economy or a relationship gone wrong or simple class divisions. But what differentiates these stories from the typical New Yorker-type story of lower middle-class ennui is that, for the most part, the protagonists try to claw some sense of agency from their lives — even if that impulse leads them to destructive, or self-destructive, acts.

The included stories are:

“The Naturalist” — A convict in a zombie-plagued Cleveland used as an Escape from New York-type penitentiary city finds himself conducting fieldwork on the undead. Clever twist on zombies, and a great use of physical detail. McHugh does a good job making a sympathetic character out of someone committing monstrous acts.

“Special Economics” — A pair of young women, working indentured jobs at a biotech firm in Shanghai, use their gumption to try and find a way out of their servitude. The view of modern China felt refreshingly unpatronizing.

Useless Things” — The best story in the collection, to my mind. A woman living alone in New Mexico after massive economic collapse scrambles to keep her life from deteriorating. Nothing terribly shocking happens here but it’s a haunting story. Like Kij Johnson’s story “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” this one skillfully uses pet dogs as a means of raising the emotional stakes in a subtle way. Every relationship here felt real.

“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” — Written as a feature story in a newspaper, this one investigates a teenager who disappeared after dirty bombs were set off in Baltimore.

“The Kingdom of the Blind” — A collection of programmers try to figure out if the health-care software system they run is developing into an AI. Some really good characterization in this one.

“Going to France” — A magical-realist story of a woman who gives aid to some folks flying to France, and the brief jolt they give to her life. Somewhat slight, but still interesting.

“Honeymoon” — A woman leaves behind an annulled marriage in Lancaster, PA for a hospital job in Cleveland, where she takes part in a disastrous medical study. This one’s very reminiscent of the stories in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s collection Greasy Lake.

“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” — A resentful teenage girl deals with the deteriorating mind and messy relationships of her mother. Solid story — even more harrowing than the portrayal of spongiform encephalopathy is the (truly sympathetic) portrayal of a hoarder.

“After the Apocalypse” — A mother and daughter make their way north to Canada as the US falls into anarchy, sort of a negative exposure of McCarthy’s The Road. I’ll be curious to see how bad the moms in McHugh’s previous short story collection, Mothers and Other Monsters, are in comparison to the one portrayed here.

There really isn’t a dud here, which is rare for a collection of short stories.