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Monday, October 3, 2011

After the Apocalypse - Maureen McHugh

I get e-mails from time to time offering me electronic copies of self-published or small press titles for review.  I usually say yes, with the caveat that I may never actually read it or get past the first chapter.  Most of them are not very good.  Once in a while though there's a real home run.  After the Apocalypse, a collection of short stories by Maureen F. McHugh, is a home run.

I'd never heard of McHugh prior to receiving an e-mail about her collection.  It turns out she's published four novels and over twenty short stories. Her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award.  In 1996 she won a Hugo Award for her short story The Lincoln Train.  After reading this collection, none of that surprises me.  Many of the stories in this collection are "award worthy" - especially the three new ones that are published here for the first time.

As the title implies, all of the stories in this collection deal with what comes after the apocalypse.  Notice that's a lower case apocalypse.  While some of the stories delve into the aftermath of the "big-one", some are more about a personal cataclysm.  All of them are told from a very tight point of view in a consistently haunting prose.  McHugh's characters are all real people, with real problems, who lived before she opened the window into their story and will continue to live after it's closed.  It's rare that I enjoy short fiction this much.  It's even more rare when I'd put a 200 page short story collection against any novel I've read this year.


Below are a quick taste of each of the stories:

The Naturalist (Subterranean Online, spring 2010)

After the zombie plague is over the remaining walking stiffs are sealed into wild preserves.  To cut costs, America has started sending their criminals into the preserves fend for themselves.  This is a gruesome story of humanity's ability to adapt and need to survive.

Special Economics (The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, May 2008)

This is an odd story about a hip-hop dancing Chinese woman who's come to ShenZhen to find a job.  She ends up with New Life, a bio-engineering company that designs green technologies for America.  New Life though is a "company town" and owns its employees.  While not a classic apocalypse story the character arc is very much one of overcoming adversity and refusing to lie down when that's the easiest thing to do.

Useless Things (Eclipse Three: New Science Fiction and Fantasy, October 2009)

Definitely a global warming gone wrong story, Useless Things follows an artist in New Mexico struggling to carve out an existence.  All the comforts of today are still available, but resources are scarce.  As a woman living alone the threats of the world at large are real, and not something she's prepared to deal with.

The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large (Eclipse One, October 2007)

The only story where the narrator isn't the primary character, it tells the story of a young man and his family who survive a series of dirty bombs in Baltimore.  He's afflicted with a mental disorder that's resulted in him becoming someone else.  While this is the least evocative of all the stories in the collection, there's a certain beauty to the way McHugh constructs it, reading something like an article in Time Magazine.

The Kingdom of the Blind (Plugged In, May 2008)

A standard setup for a science fiction story, McHugh dabbles in the birth of artificial intelligence.  She takes a unique look at it though discussing the never used truth that a computer intelligence has no way to perceive the outside world and no concept of what it wants.  Extremely intriguing story that reads more like a pre-apocalypse than a post.

Going to France (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 22, June 2008)

This one had a very interesting premise - people suddenly feel compelled to go to France.  Some fly, gliding across the Atlantic (people can fly), others race to the closest airport.  This one was a bit too esoteric for me.  I admit I'm probably just not smart enough to get it.

Honeymoon (new to this collection)

An overweight and broke young woman has her marriage fall apart seconds after it starts.  Her apocalypse happens when her marriage ends, and she has to soldier on.  Picking up the pieces she moves to Cleveland where to make extra money she puts herself into drug trials - one of which goes wrong.  This is a fairly inspirational story about a girl taking charge of her life and finding her own place in the world - really connected to this story.

The Effect of Centrifugal Forces (new to this collection)

I don't understand the title of this story really, again I'm not that bright, but the story itself is poignant.  Irene is a teenage girl living with her mom, and her mom's new partner, Alice.  Her other mom, has a boyfriend now who's always strung out.  Irene's mom has ADP (think Alzheimer's meets MS) and she dying.  Having lived through two family members die of slow diseases, the hurt and loneliness that Irene feels was particularly meaningful for me.  Worth the price of admission on it's own.

After the Apocalypse (new to this collection)

This story made me want to throw up from the first paragraph.  I saw what was coming and knew it was inevitable.  The parent in me rebelled to no avail.  Haunting doesn't begin to describe this story of mother and daughter trying to survive when society falls apart.  I appreciate the stupendous execution, but I'm allowed to hate it too right?  Almost a horror story to the right reader and done so well.


After the Apocalypse is due out October 26, 2011 on Amazon and in early November from the publisher, Small Beer Press.

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At October 31, 2011 at 11:49 AM , Anonymous James said...

If you have the time, I suggest reading China Mountain Zhang. The book is worthy of the awards it was nominated for.

Replying to a post nearly a month old... smooth. I really should get your blog loaded into my RSS reader.

At October 31, 2011 at 11:52 AM , Blogger Justin said...

It's on the list. And subscribe via GFC and be a pal, kthx ;)


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