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.

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November Reading Roundup

Pretty productive reading month here. The highlight was discovering the work of Peter Watts: Blindsight, as I mentioned before, is fantastic, and anyone with any interest in the cutting edge of SF should hop to it. I also read his short story “The Island” (pdf available here) — like Blindsight it’s just paragraph after paragraph of ideas skillfully, thrillingly dramatized. Watts is sometimes called a pessimist because things generally don’t end all that well for his characters, but both Blindsight and “The Island” earn their downbeat endings.

mouthriverbeesI read about half of both Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others and Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees, both from the heroic Small Beer Press. The writing styles are very different. Chiang has an almost naive “non-style,” eschewing any sort of ornament, while Johnson’s style feels like it’s squarely in the mainstream literary world — many of her characters have the ennui and aimless passivity of most everyone in the typical New Yorker story. Both of them are excellent writers, though; especially strong are Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and “Understand,” and Johnson’s title story and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.” Her alien sex story “Spar” is disturbing and batshit crazy in the best way.

No fault of theirs I didn’t read all the stories in either book, incidentally — I usually like to come back to a book of short stories later, so that each story gets its full due and doesn’t start to blend in with the others.

kvanttivarasThe most disappointing read this month was definitely Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. I was interested in this one for the Finnish angle, and I do like SF that limits its setting to our solar system — Rajaniemi’s friend and blurber Charles Stross does a great job of this in Saturn’s Children. And the first few chapters of The Quantum Thief (the ones that secured Rajaniemi a nice three-book deal) have a great, desperate feel with chunky hard SF details: strangelet bombs and induced combat autism and utility fogs and proteomic computers and antimatter engines. You can see why Tor would be excited by those chapters. But the story very quickly devolves into unthrilling reversals of fortune and other painfully recognizable narrative turns — Rajaniemi has obviously internalized Hollywood story beats to a fault. The characters are ultra-thin, tending to fall into various categories of wish fulfillment: they’re pretty much all suave and/or badass and/or fuckable. There’s also a lot — I mean a lot — of this sort of dialogue:

‘I have been thinking.’
‘Really?’
He gives her a reproachful look.
‘I’m allowed to tease you,’ she says. ‘That’s how these things work.’

Pretty meager stuff. The gevulot concept is great, I will say, a sort of ubiquitous, immediately accessible privacy utility used on Mars. It’s quite well portrayed. Also, there’s a certain reveal near the end, regarding the nature of the Oubliette, that is skillfully done. Overall, Rajaniemi has some interesting ideas but the actual form and feel of the novel are just not there yet.

atmomI re-read H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. I say ‘re-read’ but the last time was in my teens when I went on a major Lovecraft kick, tearing through Bantam’s 80’s reissues with the lovely, creepy Michael Whelan covers. I have fond memories of reading these and I still don’t mind Lovecraft’s florid style, though it’s hard to argue with anyone who can’t stand it — it’s there, everywhere, all the time. And boy howdy the guy sure liked his fetid ichor; you can tell because of all the fetor and ichor. Incidentally I also read some short stories by Walter de la Mare this month — “Crewe” and “Missing,” both semi-horror stories where the taleteller tells the narrator more than he intends to — and came upon the following passage in “Missing”:

It was a foul outburst, due in part, I hope, to the heat; in part to the suffocating dehumanizing fœtor which spreads over London when the sun has been pouring down on its bricks and mortar as fiercely as on the bones and sands of some Eastern mud village.

So there was a fair amount of fetor/fœtor sloshing around this month.

Less fetid, but more squalid, was George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I really enjoy Orwell’s second-tier works, but I prefer Coming Up for Air to this one, mostly because the narrator of Coming Up for Air is such a cheerful boob. However if you’re a fan of pre-decimal British money, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is chock full of calculations of how many bob and quid of your bookseller’s assistant wages you can spare on cigarettes and still not die of starvation.

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPAnn Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was a pretty interesting, if uneven, debut SF novel. There’s a strong LeGuin influence, as confirmed by Leckie, particularly the icy setting and gender slippage from The Left Hand of Darkness. Leckie zigs where LeGuin zagged, so to speak, using feminine pronouns as the default where LeGuin used the masculine — though unlike The Left Hand of Darkness where gender is physiologically changeable month to month for the natives of Gethen, the Radch language in Ancillary Justice simply doesn’t differentiate between he and she. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when this one’s translated into Finnish, which also doesn’t differentiate pronoun gender; the slight tension in not knowing a character’s gender off the bat is quite effective, and whenever we find one out later it’s a bit of a thrill. For all I know, though, that thrill died out for Finnish readers long ago.

The first two thirds of Ancillary Justice are well done, with surprisingly assured pace and tone. Particularly strong were the scenes where the sentient ship and its ancillaries (human bodies all with the same consciousness as the ship) are having different conversations with different humans during moments of crisis. Leckie doesn’t line-break in these scenes to indicate the different conversations; she just plows through, and it’s a testament to her skill that just a little extra attention is needed to follow what’s happening, and that the extra effort feels rewarding to the reader.

The last third of the book is still enjoyable, but it’s definitely more careless than what went before, frantic rather than measured. This was somewhat the case with Blindsight as well — it feels like Leckie and Watts each didn’t quite trust their story enough, and so felt that the ending needed to be a drawn-out slew of action-packedness so that the reader would feel like their time spent reading had been worthwhile. Maybe Hollywood has infected us all; someday every film, even romantic comedies and E.M. Forster adaptations, will end with a massive alien attack on New York.

crace-jim-harvest-cover-022613-margI thought at first that Jim Crace’s Harvest, nominated this year for the Man Booker prize, had a trick up its sleeve. One of Crace’s previous novels was set in post-apocalyptic America; and Harvest seemed a bit cagey about its setting, as if it might be only ostensibly set in medieval England and gradually reveal itself to be taking place in the run-down post-oil agrarian future. But, no, my clogs were too clever — even though the year is never mentioned, we’re just in medieval England. In any case, it’s a short, fascinating study of how quickly even the sturdiest community can be corrupted and destroyed, either through commercial interests or sexual jealousy. The narrator, Walter Thirsk, watches as his farming village comes apart due to the influence of several visitors: a surveyor, a dislocated family from another village, the absentee landowner. It’s an earthy read — Crace, through Thirsk, dwells lovingly on the details and routines of farming life.

Like some of the other books I read this month, Harvest goes a little wobbly at the end, with fires and scatterings and rushings to and fro. The threads we’d most like to see tied up are left strewn about; some situations or conflicts needed and deserved more exploration. In this case, it could be seen as a structural choice — things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc., for the story just as for the village. But it almost feels more like absentmindedness, or a not-quite-solid sense of what the story itself demanded. Thankfully no alien invasion, though.

Finally, I finished Introducing Quantum Theory last night. It would be a stretch to say I understood it — actually it would be an outright lie to say I understood it. Who are we kidding? But at this point I’m just trying to get a fuzzy sense of the vocabulary and concepts there in order to lay the base, hopefully, for greater understanding in the future. I’m really in no hurry, right? It’s not like I have to teach a class on it next month or something.