This collection of stories is labeled After the Apocalypse. It is really not what most would expect; for the most part it deals with individual disaster. There are 9 stories.
One does deal with zombies, but they seem to be under control, another about a young girl in China trying to get a job after a bird flu plague, a lady living out west during economic hard times, a young boy with amnesia after a dirty bomb goes off, computer problems, people flying to France(literally), a medical test gone wrong, one with a mother who has contracted disease and the last what most would expect - a mother and her child trying to get to Canada after the breakdown of society.
The reoccurring theme seems to be a scarcity of power. People are existing, living and getting by no matter what. For most it is a mundane tale of an aftermath of an event that had the power to change lives. For many one can see no moral to the story and sometime no hope - just existence.
If you are hoping for huge catastrophic worldwide descriptions of an apocalypse this is not the book for you. It is more of a literary style of stories of existence.
on December 19, 2011
Maureen McHugh is well known in science fiction circles, mainly in the circles that admire high quality, character centered scifi. Back in the 90s, she debuted with a hugely awesome novel-in-stories (before that term was conceived of) called China Mountain Zhang (read that book, too!). She went on to write a number of other novels, and one other collection (Mothers and Other Monsters, also recommended), and has been spending time writing Alternate Reality Games and is now writing film scripts. So the scifi short story world is always very eager to read when a story of hers appears. This collections revolves thematically around the idea of apocalypses, endings, both literal and metaphorical, both in the epic scifi sort of way, and in the ordinary individual's self-implosion sort of way. The stories range from zombie apocalypses to the loss of water or energy sort of apocalypses. And the last story--the title story--absolutely destroyed me. McHugh's characters are more real than any I've encountered in science fiction, and her plots are too real for comfort.
Cover comment: Fantastic design that makes the book look old and battered, but isn't in fact. Very cool.
on November 9, 2011
I get e-mails from time to time offering me electronic copies of 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 aren't my cup of tea. 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 (which is my fault). 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.
on February 12, 2012
I bought this Kindle edition after reading a rave review by Michael Dirda of the Washington Post. Maureen F. McHugh really knows how to set up a story and hook the reader. Tremendous turns of phrase as well. I did miss solid endings in most of the stories though. In many of them, the action just...stopped. I understand why she does that, I think. It's as if she's saying, "There are no neat endings. Life, especially after the apocalypse, is not linear with a beginning, middle, and ending. I'll set up the story for you, create some interesting characters, but you, dear reader, must do the rest. Like you yourself would have to do if *you* found yourself alive After the Apocalypse." And that's legitimate. But not for every story. If some of these stories had a solid conclusion, even one you didn't like, this collection would easily gain my fifth star.
Fans of modern science fiction and elegant writing will like this book a lot. This Kindle edition is definitely worth the price. A couple of typos but nothing serious. The stories, and the book, are short. But they all grab you and stick with you. It's where and how they leave you off that I think needs improvement.
on December 15, 2014
I found this book to be neither wonderful, definitely not deserving of the accolades listed on the product page, nor terrible. It's just ok. I would certainly never go so far as to say it has "Gorgeously crafted stories," or that it is "Hauntingly beautiful." It's just a collection of inoffensive short stories that all deal, in some way or another, with the decline of humanity.
I usually enjoy short story collections; I enjoy allowing my imagination to complete the story. However, McHugh failed, in my opinion, to really provide much to fuel the reader's imagination. With the exception of the titular story, the last in the collection, I finished each story and said to myself, "OK, well no one can ever say that I didn't read that story." Even now, a few days after finishing the collection, I can only remember 2 of the stories; the rest are just forgettable little vignettes. The characters didn't make any kind of impression on me, nor did the stories ever really make me stop and ask myself any challenging questions.
If you're looking for something that's easy to read in little snippets, on the toilet for example, you have my blessing. If you're looking for a collection of stories that really examine the human condition after the apocalypse, look elsewhere.
on June 5, 2012
This collection of short fiction explores several ways a world could end, from the Zombie Apocalypse to massive economic collapse. What sounds like a potential downer of a collection is -- surprisingly -- a real joy to read. McHugh's prose is clean and clear, and her characters are brave, sympathetic, and contradictory.
And the questions! What happens to liberal values when every day is a life or death struggle? When a computer program shows signs of conscious thought, is it murder to turn it off? How ethical is it, really, to ask people to volunteer for drug trials when there's a risk of terrible consequences?
This is quiet brilliance, dressed up in a shambling, stinking zombie's clothes. Recommended.
on February 2, 2013
Despairing about the proliferation of the generally repetitive short story collection? Fear and tremble not, for After the Apocalypse is here to save the day.
Maureen F. McHugh's collection continually conjured up the word "solid" and not in a patronizing way that one might use that word to politely describe an artistic effort that follows all the rules yet fails to captivate one's attention or stimulate any of the other nerves in want of stimulation from art--but in the sense that it was taken in as a dose of fresh air in comparison to cripplingly overworked prose and/or gimmickry-qua-formal-innovation that functions as a blanket to cover the hollowed out innards of "the story."
As much as I really do love innovative, acrobatic prose--replete with highly varied word choice and a striving for originality at the level of the sentence and the overall tonal vision--I also find myself able to see the value in the simple sentence (when put to good narrative use, of course). This calls to mind something I read recently as part of George Saunders' preface to the latest edition of his debut collection CivilWarLand In Bad Decline:
In grad school I had grown suspicious of conventional literary beauty, wary of what I thought of as, for example, the literary triple descriptor: "Todd sat at the black table, the ebony plane, the dark-hued bearer of various glasses and plates, whose white, disk-shaped, saucer-like presences mocking his futility, his impotence, his inability to act."
Christ, I had come to feel, just say it: "Todd sat at the table."
This book also functions as a shock-to-the-system antidote to the naval-gazing narcissistic focus upon the singular character (often a poorly veiled stand-in for the writer) that is abundant in fiction and not merely in coming-of-age novels et al, but also in "innovative" short story collections. I recently posted a thought about this on a highly trafficked social networking site, which hyperbolically sums up this long-simmering feeling about the need for less singularly focused art:
There is no protagonist in real life. It's an ensemble cast of an immensity beyond practical quantification. Scatter the illusion of the central "I" and open up the floodgates. I'd like art to reflect this more often. Films starring no one. Novels with more POVs than pages.
After the Apocalypse is a heaven-sent answer to this desire for artists to portray a wider spectrum of humanity.
--Violent sociopathic criminals struggle against the elements and each other in a cliché-free and grittily realistic zombie narrative.
--Chinese biotech factory workers dance on street corners to Sri Lankan hip hop and battle their corporate master's cycle of tyrannical debt.
--A woman's internet business branches out from making infant dolls for bereaved parents into more lucrative adult-only goods, while dealing with the struggle between being kind to strangers down on their luck and having to be more suspicious and reserved towards said strangers out of rational self-preservation.
--A journalist seeks answers about a boy who's undergone a radical identity shift after a terrorist act has torn his community and family asunder.
--Computer programmers delve into the possibilities of Artificial Intelligence (and the nature of consciousness) while prodding a virtual medical database during their routine graveyard shifts.
--People contemplate abandoning America...
--A McDonald's employee asserts herself, undergoes the risks of being a guinea pig for medical research, and takes herself on a honeymoon.
--Mad Cow Disease unfolds within an unconventional family unit.
--Society collapses and people react in a multitude of ways--gratitude returns but also morphs into base selfishness. Silver linings are birthed and snuffed out unevenly.
A common theme throughout all of this is a fear of economic and social upheaval. It's currently pretty apt for US fiction to be concerned with such menacing vibrations. McHugh displays a wide reach of knowledge about many subjects and shows a real talent for sculpting vivid characters out of the clay of the wide-angled view as well. The visions are often breathtakingly bleak but there's room to exhale and reflect in the space between fact and fiction, which is a truly vital service for fiction writers to provide.
on May 12, 2012
I've read Maureen McHugh's "Useless Things" at least three times now, and I admire it more with each rereading. It appears just a bit less than halfway through McHugh's thought-provoking short story collection, After the Apocalypse. The first-person narrator is a woman living well outside Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a time when the United States seems on the brink of collapse: the economy is terrible, and water is extremely scarce in the Southwest -- a time that doesn't feel very far away from today. The narrator lives hand-to-mouth making dolls, particularly dolls called "reborns" that look almost, but not quite, real. She's alone in her house but for her friendly dogs most days, which only makes her nervous when South American laborers crossing the border stop by her house looking for a meal in exchange for labor. She's apparently on some list shared by these illegal immigrants as a kind woman who always has a handout. She doesn't like it, but she can't bring herself to turn these men away. But when she returns from an errand one day to find that her hospitality has been abused, she makes a few decisions about how to go on. This is a quiet story, one that describes a couple of days during which something bad happens -- nonviolent, but certainly distressing - and the changes that follow. But it says much about what one will do when pushed just beyond the stretched yet tolerable limits by which one lives.
"Useless Things" is typical of McHugh's writing. Always quiet and matter-of-fact, her stories seem so real that you can hardly believe they aren't happening in the next county over. In "The Naturalist," for instance, we learn early on that the zombie problem has been pretty much handled by the government, with the remaining creatures -- the ultimate trash, worse than guys who cooked meth or fat women on WIC -- isolated in zombie preserves. These areas are isolated by water, which the zombies won't cross, and do double-duty as prisons for the hard-core bad guys the government just wants dead. The story follows Cahill as he scavenges, kills zombies, deals with other prisoners, and tries to puzzle out how the zombies work as hunters and killers. Again, McHugh writes in an understated style, just telling her audience what happened and how. There are no big moments, just an accumulation of small ones, so that even the denouement seems natural. It's a powerful style, and a powerful story.
The same understated style is at work in "The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large," the story of a boy who goes into a dissociative fugue following the detonation of two dirty bombs in Baltimore. He is separated from his family and raised in foster homes, never regaining his memory of his family until his mother shows up at his place of employment one day. The focus of the story, therefore, isn't on the dirty bombs; it's on the effect of those bombs on one family. The story is particularized, humanized, made into a character study instead of a thriller, and in this quiet way tells us much more about the societal effects of such an attack.
All nine of the stories in this slim but indispensable volume share this same restrained approach to storytelling, adjuring the larger story of how an apocalypse came about and its major effects on society for the personal, small stories the apocalypse created. The title story, "After the Apocalypse," doesn't even really have an apocalypse; as the story says, "Things didn't exactly all go at once. First there were rolling brownouts and lots of people unemployed.... Then the power started going out, more and more often. Pete's shifts got longer although he didn't always get paid.... Then the fires started on the east side of town. The power went out and stayed out." The world as we know it ends, not with a bang, but a whimper. There's no one who's going to fix things. McHugh writes about how a mother and her daughter survive, using the most primitive of instruments: the mother's body.
These stories are like individually polished and cut jewels. They're not fiery diamonds, but more like chalcedony, beautiful and unusual. Each story bears multiple readings. You'll want this collection on your shelf.
on March 20, 2014
So if you're looking to read something and start to get really interested then turn the page and try to start another story then this is for you. Just be aware every chapter is a new story in the same world. Each chapter is very interesting but I would love to read more about them. It seems like every chapter is actually like the 4th chapter of different book. Very little character development and not much of a conclusion. Yet each one was fairly interesting.
on October 30, 2013
I read great reviews about this book, but quite frankly, I was a bit bored. The book features different stories about different zombie encounters. Unfortunately, the stories don't go into a lot of detail and they're very short, and often quite boring. It wasn't an awful read, but I wouldn't necessarily recommend it either.