Monday, October 12, 2015

Review of After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh

Apocalypse has become one of the primary motifs of science fiction.  Starting as early as H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds’ alien invasion, it moves through the psychological examinations of humanity involved in environmental catastrophe by J.G. Ballard in the 60s and 70s.  It is in the 21st century, however, that one sees the motif really take hold.  Post-ap texts a sub-genre of their own these days, the stories the past decade utilizing end of the world scenarios are many, many.  It’s precisely in this context Maureen McHugh’s 2011 collection After the Apocalypse becomes (ironically) so unique. 

Hinted at in the title (the eschewing of the standard term ‘post-apocalypse’ to relate the same idea with different words), After the Apocalypse is what Paul Kincaid mildly calls in his review “different ways of looking at how our future has failed us.”  The stories so personal as to almost defy the social implications of the term ‘apocalypse,’ McHugh focuses all of her attention on the human aspect of disaster, nearly, but not quite, rendering the term immaterial.  Containing nine stories, two of which are original to the collection, McHugh’s unvaryingly understated usages of disaster are far more relevant to emotion and human interest than the overwhelming majority of post-ap fiction, i.e. that trying to capitalize on the zeitgeist or pure sensationalism.

The collection opens with “The Naturalist”.  A classic zombie setup schewed toward humanism, it is the cynical story of a prisoner turned loose in the wastelands of Cleveland populated by the living dead.  Taking a sharp twist about halfway through, the theme is fully developed via the prisoner’s evolution, even if the setting begs for expansion.  The apocalypse more likely to appear in economic or resource form, “Useless Things” is a hauntingly beautiful and incredibly realistic vision of near-future America set in rural New Mexico.  The story of a real-doll sculptor, McHugh imbues the woman’s day to day life with a sense of quiet desperation as she scrapes by with what talents and materials she has.  Subtly tragic, it is a story that seeps into the mind and fixes itself in empathy for the woman and the dread of just how close the economic state of America portrayed actually is.

A major usage of ‘apocalypse’ in the collection is the blanket fashion in which the system is capable of taking advantage of people.  Catch-22 set in a near-future China where companies are more than just a place you come and go from everyday to work, “Special Economics” examines a scenario wherein a young Chinese woman signs on for factory work and gets more than she bargained for.  Not only her place of employment, it’s also her dormitory, clothing shop, restaurant, and social hour rolled into one, and getting out of debt to the system may just be impossible.  In “Honeymoon,” a carpe diem type of woman realizes in the nick of time that her fiancé is just not the one for her, and has their marriage annulled when he fails to come through on honeymoon arrangements.  Starting afresh, she finds herself strapped for cash, and as a result involved with laboratory drug testing for quick money.  She does get her honeymoon—after a major spot of luck.

“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” is less a story and more a character study about a young mechanic who survived a dirty bomb attack on Baltimore, and as a result may be suffering from Dissociative Fugue (partial memory loss/personality disorder).  Raising awareness about the little known syndrome, McHugh utilizes a trope of science fiction to poignant, purposeful effect.  Defying the title, “Going to France” is in fact before the apocalypse—seconds before.  The shortest piece in the collection, it describes a couple of hours in the life of a young woman, and while those few seconds have impact given the story set up, they beg to be developed further—the proceedings more vignette than story.  With the environment deteriorating to the point rolling black outs are required year round to balance power supply, “The Kingdom of the Blind” is the story of a computer programmer who, working late nights with her classic geeky programmer workmate, begins to see strange quirks visible in their operating system.

Closing out the collection are the two previously unpublished stories.  “The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” is about a young woman trying to come to terms with many things about her mother. If it isn’t her impending death, then its her legacy of hoarding, and if it isn’t the immense collection of things, then its her sexual orientation—or lack of clarity regarding.   And the last tale, “After the Apocalypse,” closes matters as cynically as “The Naturalist” opened them.  The tale of a mother and daughter making their way north to Toronto from Texas after a resource shortage has crippled America to the point of bare survival, it is a tragedy brought about by some more unfortunately more understandable than fate. 

In the end, After the Apocalypse is sure to disappoint readers looking for the latest splash-bang in post-apocalyptic fiction.  By the same token, it is sure to be a pleasant surprise for readers looking for human-centric stories with light science fiction motifs—the wording of the title worth looking into deeper.  McHugh’s regular readers will not be surprised at all.  Possessing a more refined version of her minimalist prose and subtle, emotive stories, it’s a collection flying under the genre radar.

Published separately between 2007 and 2011, the following are the nine stories collected in After the Apocalypse:

The Naturalist
Special Economics
Useless Things
The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large
The Kingdom of the Blind
Going to France
The Effect of Centrifugal Forces
After the Apocalypse

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