Customer Reviews: After the Apocalypse: Stories
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on December 22, 2011
This is the first book by McHugh that I've read. Recommended by a friend I trust. I expected a typical science fiction short story collection, what I found was an astonishing new voice comparable to George Saunders. This book is a treasure waiting to be found. It's a sin that someone like a Rufus T. Barleysheaf (Jesus, just look at the poor sod's alias), with no taste or talent for writing himself, could lower the Amazon rating of a great talent like Maureen McHugh. Don't believe that lonely teenager. Buy the book, you'll soon be recommending "After the Apocalypse" to everyone you know who loves good fiction. Personally, I'm buying another of her books right now and plan to read every one I can get my hands on. You'll be delighted, as I was, if you start with this one.
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on January 28, 2012
Collections of short stories are still the hardest thing for me to review, which invariably means the following review will be flawed both methodologically and stylistically. But perhaps I can move past this by way of the interconnected-ness of the stories in Maureen F. McHugh's After the Apocalypse. Unlike most collections, McHugh's stories revolve around the same premise in the same world: something has gone terribly wrong with our world; the nine stories in After the Apocalypse are about those who have survived, or are surviving.

That's essentially what this collection is about: how human beings respond to catastrophe. But, mostly, the collection about survival, without all the exotic images our post-apocalyptic movies show us. There are no grand heroes here, nor an assurance that "things are turning around." These are stories caught in the middle between the moment of catastrophe, the moment
immediately after, and the intermediate moments between "the world as it was" and "the better world to come." And it's that focus which makes After the Apocalypse one of the most beautiful literary feats of 2011.

Despite following a similar theme, each of McHugh's stories is distinct in vision and voice, from a young man imprisoned in a city compound infested with zombies in "The Naturalist" to a woman trying to make a living in the wastelands along the U.S. border with Mexico in "Useless Things"; from Chinese women trying to free themselves from indentured labor to Chinese corporations in "Special Economics" to a magazine-style article about a young man who survived a dirty bomb attack, but lost his identity in "The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large"; from two computer programmings debating whether their AI is trying to communicate in "The Kingdom of the Blind" to the sudden and strange shared desire for travel to France in "Going to France"; from a young woman's attempts to make something of her life after a failed marriage in "Honeymoon" to a family struggling through the after-effects of a time-dilated disease spread through food in "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" to, finally, a woman and her young daughter struggling their way north after America's economy and borders collapse, and also struggling with themselves in "After the Apocalypse." The variety of perspectives and content produces a palimpsest of narrative; in other words, each story seems to layer on top of the one that proceeded it, turning what in other collections would be a disparate set of worlds viewed through a particular gaze into a set of stories that feel inherently collaborative. What one story cannot do due to the limits of space, the next might.

Paul Kincaid has argued that "McHugh's approach to the apocalypse is oblique, a concern with the personal, the individual or family unit, rather than the devastation that surrounds them" (from Strange Horizons). He's right. The palimpsest that is McHugh's collection is perhaps driven by the intense personal nature of her narratives. No story in this collection is about the apocalypse-that-was. We never see the events that led McHugh's characters to a relatively solitary life along the border ("Useless Things") or to make a break for the city to make something of herself ("Special Economics"). We only learn about the catastrophes in retrospect, often through the eyes of characters who no more know what happened than any of us can say, with any certainty, what exactly happened on 9/11. Complex events are compressed into single-strain narratives. The effect is wondrous, if not because it's refreshing to see a different approach to catastrophe/apocalypse, then certainly because McHugh's stories, by and large, are beautiful.

That's not to suggest that every story in this collection succeeds in what I've interpreted as a narratory path. "Honeymoon" leaves something to be desired, though the only reason I can muster is that the story never felt like it belonged in the collection, and, perhaps, in comparison to stories like "Special Economics," "Useless Things," or "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces," it falls short of the mark, both on a personal and narrative level. Similarly, "The Kingdom of the Blind" and "Going to France," while interesting enough, don't quite approach the grim personal nature of the other stories in the collection. The personal, I think, is where McHugh shines, as demonstrated by "The Naturalist" (the criminal), "Special Economics" (the exploited), "Useless Things" (the struggling), "The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large" (the broken survivor), "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" (those who survive the dead or dying), and "After the Apocalypse" (the disconnected). These stories provide a kind of funhouse mirror in which to examine humanity, distorted through a world that just might be. The effect is chilling and humbling, because McHugh shows us how fragile, and yet beautiful and unique, human beings really.

After the Apocalypse is a thorough, if not unsettling, journey into the human psyche after catastrophe, at once thrilling, compelling, and disturbing. This collection alone proves that McHugh is a force to be reckoned with in the world of genre, for her simple-but-beautiful prose, evocative imagery, and raw human explorations make After the Apocalypse one of the best works of SF of this decade. You can expect to see this book appear in my WISB Awards in February.
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on July 4, 2012
Because this collection was fascinating. The last short story collection I read was Dave Eggers' "How To Be Hungry," which is fantastic, and this is just as good.

I think it's a shame that some of the reviews give so many details about each story, because one of the fun things is not knowing where the story is going until you get into it. The stories are definitely all tied in to modern, end-times fantasies, and explore them using techniques from Sunday Time Magazine feature writing to magical realism. McHugh is more effective in some writing styles than others, but all the stories are definitely worth reading.

The thing I liked best was the vivid characterizations in each story. Unlike some other reviewers, I felt the voices and perspectives in each story were extremely individual and effective.

My particular favorites were "Useless Things," which I found an extremely moving portrayal of someone living on the edge of personal apocalypse, and gradually losing the things that she valued most about herself; "The Effects of Centrifugal Forces," which is shatteringly sad; and the eponymous final story, which basically tells us what I suspect is true: even after the apocalypse, people will be exactly the same as they were before.

All in all, a very worthwhile collection. I plan to read McHugh's other work.
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on August 27, 2012
Most stories about disaster have heroic battles of one sort or another. These nine short stories are instead about dealing with the individual and idiosyncratic difficulties of everyday life after some sort of calamity--including dirty bombs in Baltimore that separate a family, a bird flu epidemic in China that kills millions making getting a job tricky, an economic crash that throws people off the grid and impoverishes all but the most wealthy, and a zombie outbreak in the American Midwest that repurposes affected cities so that Cleveland is now a prison camp. Each story is about how some very ordinary person is affected, and it's the small scale, personal level of the stories that make this collection so captivating and thought provoking.
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on October 29, 2014
Very boring. Most of the stories just end in the middle. Do not expect any type of closure from most of the stories. Its a shame too because I enjoyed her writing but the stories almost seemed like ideas she had for novels that she never finished.
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on August 22, 2012
What a terrific read, both as individual stories and as a set of stories outlining the perimeters of the sort of soft apocalypse that we so often seem to be slumping toward. Several of the middle stories concluded too flatly for my taste, but all were enjoyable, evocative reads in the moment, and the first and final stories in this collection are damn near perfect. Heartily recommended, without reservation (esp. for those who kinda-sorta dug China Mountain Zhang, but couldn't get into it enough to finish).
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VINE VOICEon January 18, 2012
Maureen F. McHugh has written a series of short stories set in the believably bad future. The involve a prisoner condemned to a zombie-infested area; a woman who fortunately gets a placebo in a drug experiment gone horribly wrong; a computer program monitoring hospitals gets an idea; a mother and daughter surviving after the breakdown of the United States (see Super Sad True Love Story); a woman trying to be an artist, making expensive baby dolls in a fuel-starved Arizona desert; and other tales. These stories pick up on the generally depressing memes of contemporary near-future SF, and McHugh can create some excitement and pathos as things get progressively worse (not all stories, but most, follow this trajectory). Certainly a diverting series of tales.
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on December 22, 2011
First, a disclaimer: I'm in the middle of the second story of this collection and plan to update my review after I've completed the entire thing.

Okay, with that out of the way let me say that I decided to write a review mid-read due to the negative criticism I found on Amazon. Allow me to address two of the points made:

1) Misleading Title - Not to sound immature, but I rolled my eyes when I read this criticism. The recent cultural obsession with apocalypse has put the idea into everyone's head of some cliche wasteland filled with the monster of the week, but I see this collection's take on apocalypse less about the big Hollywood cataclysms and more about local stories and subtle triggers which herald darker times ahead. Whether that classifies as "Before the Apocalypse" rather than "After" is a matter of opinion and viewpoint.

2) Uneven Writing - So far I'd say the writing is rather spartan, but it's a breath of fresh air from the perfumed nonsense overstuffed with gaudy metaphors that typically gets praised. I disagree with the "Tell, Don't Show" criticism, specifically when it comes to the characters performing sequences of actions. McHugh does a nice job with those sequences, writing them so that they appear researched and well-thought out. I will say though that McHugh (along with MANY other writers) need to learn the proper usage of evacuate, unless she was suggesting that several of her characters received enemas throughout the book.

I'll leave the door to me coming back after I've finished the collection and countering my own points, but for now I sense that I'm in something special.

EDIT (12-27-2011): I've just completed this collection and would like to add some additional thoughts to my review.

Initially, I discredited the criticism that this collection received based on my experience with the first two stories. However, after reading all nine stories I need to reign in my enthusiasm and give any potential readers a warning: McHugh has some very interesting ideas but her story execution often left me wanting more and, in some cases, made me feel that the story itself was incomplete. I will stand by my counter argument that the title of this collection is not necessarily misleading, however her stories would've benefited from deeper exploration into each of the tragedies that has befallen the main characters.

Unfortunately, I must agree that the writing is subpar, for the most part. As mentioned previously, McHugh does a good job with processes but I often found the narrative flow cluttered and confusing. In a few of the stories I had to reread passages a few times before I realized McHugh had simply written events out in a strange or unclear order. I'm actually surprised that these stories made it through a workshop and that six of them had been previously published. A skilled editor could have a field day tightening these up.

I'd like to go through each story individually and give specific feedback for each:

"The Naturalist" - My second favorite story, but not because of the zombies. McHugh produced a nice progression of events, with the realistic-feeling scavenging techniques. The ending was a bit out of left field and I don't think I completely bought the main character's sympathy for the zombies but I appreciated what she was trying to do.

"Special Economics" - My favorite story, hands down. The idea of being in debt to a mega-corporation was fresh and salient, and the characters involved were believable. Another ending out of nowhere. I really think McHugh should've kept going with this one.

"Useless Things" - There was something interesting going on here between the reborns and the other items the sculptor was creating, but the story just never got off the ground for me. Like many of the stories to follow, this felt more like an episode of some larger arc that the reader was not privy to.

"The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large" - This is where things began to go downhill for me in this collection. Either the journalistic voice used did not fit or it was simply written poorly, or maybe both. It constantly took me out of a generally underwhelming story that I had to fight to finish, only to find that once again there was a non-ending.

"The Kingdom of the Blind" - I can't tell if the Gibson coincidences here were an intentional homage or an unconscious ripoff, but McHugh fell into very dangerous territory by reminding the reader of Gibson's "The Sprawl Trilogy". Her use of language simply doesn't compare to the difficult albeit rewardingly complex Gibson. In general, I didn't find that McHugh did anything new with the old "the computer is alive!" trope, save for a little snippet about women not being taken as seriously as men in a tech environment.

Also, while I get the sense that McHugh either has medical experience or is close with people who do (based on her frequent use of medical terminology and situations), I would be shocked to find out she has much Computer Science or Mathematics experience. In particular, she made a Probability 101 mistake of suggesting that a fair coin tossed 1000 times that always comes up heads is somehow inherently special. It's only special to humans, who ascribe meaning to the patterns they encounter. Mathematically speaking it is no more special (or likely/unlikely) than any other sequence of heads and tails.

"Going to France" - McHugh really missed the boat on this story by not exploring or explaining any of the triggers for the mass desire to go to France. I had tossed around ideas such as parasite/fungal infection (e.g. Ophiocordyceps), or maybe some collective memory romp but McHugh simply gave us a cop-out "It was only the beginning" conclusion, as if to suggest it was up to the reader to fill in the blanks. Sometimes such a gambit works but generally not with such a short, skimpy story.

"Honeymoon" - I had trouble with this story because of the irritating narrator and the appearance of the entire "overweight girls have it tough" trope. I'm not sure if McHugh has had personal experience with this herself, but deciding to have it surface in so many of the stories of this collection, particularly towards its latter half, did not add to the overall collection. As for the story itself, we once again had a fill-in-the-blanks non-ending as opposed to McHugh taking any risks with her characters and the situations they're placed in.

"The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" - This story left me feeling divided. On the one hand, the situation was so mired in the family minutiae and so full of parental issues that I felt tricked into reading a family drama story instead of an apocalypse story. On the other hand, there are some great ideas here, particularly in regards to the effects of dementia and memory loss. I would've preferred McHugh to cut away the multiple POVs and instead give us more of a time series of the changing mental state of our affected (and ill) character.

"After the Apocalypse" - I haven't read Cormac McCarthy's "The Road" but this is always what I imagined it to be like. However, I felt that the choices and opinions of the mother in this story were written more to shock the reader than to be believable. And as such, I was distanced from the story, constantly thinking that McHugh was winking at her audience as if to say: "Isn't that bad? Aren't you shocked?".

In general, there are some fascinating ideas explored in these stories. But I'm not sure that's enough. Ideas are only a small part of the writing equation and one of the easier elements to unearth. The far more difficult part is executing these ideas in an engaging, interesting manner. This is where McHugh falls short. There's most definitely a problem with an author's writing if one of your prevalent thoughts while reading their work is: "I could do better."

EDIT (01-02-2012): It appears someone commented (I can't seem to see it so I'm not sure if it's just a time delay before it gets approved) regarding judging the book at a $20 price point when it could be purchased for $1. For clarity's sake, I purchased the book in store for $16 but regardless I'm not of the belief that the quality of a work of art is -- nor should necessarily be -- proportional to its cost. A low (or free) price point does not excuse areas of improvement.

It's also worth saying that I believe the ideal outcome from criticism such as mine is to ultimately *improve* the quality of writing. The value of correctly assessing a work's needed areas of improvement is nowhere near the value of having such criticism result in later, richer, more fulfilling works. Should McHugh come back with another collection or even a longer narrative that is improved from her previous efforts, I'd be very interested in reading it.
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on December 25, 2011
This collection of short stories is a great read. Stories have unexpected twists but have realistic human traits and foilbles.

I hope this author continues to write. Her work is terrific.
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on April 5, 2013
The stories are very interesting and unique but only a few of them were truly post apocalyptical, liked I hoped.
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