Every once in a while I’ll read a collection that reminds me why I fell in love with short stories in the first place. Maureen F. McHugh’s After the Apocalypse (2011) is one of those collections. Often short fiction, particularly in the SF and fantasy genres, requires an entirely different set of reading eyes – a total change of mental gears. I often feel that I am reading for concept, for message, or for technique, rather than for the straight-ahead, unadulterated storytelling that novels more often provide. McHugh’s writing is so smooth and agreeable, it requires no adjustment. Even her shortest tales read with the flow of longer narrative. It looks so easy when it’s done this well.
Nicely produced by the eminent Small Beer Press, After the Apocalypse gathers nine McHugh stories, three previously unpublished. It’s aptly titled, for sure, with a running theme of coping with world-shattering disasters, both personal and global. Every story is worthwhile and interesting, but I’ll focus on my favorites. The opening tale, “The Naturalist,” makes for a powerful start, a grim but moving commentary on the human condition. It’s a dark and thoroughly engrossing novelette about one man’s survival in a “zombie penal reserve” in future Cleveland, and it pulls no punches. The follow-up is “Special Economics,” one of my favorite stories from Dozois’ 26th annual best-of collection. McHugh is in her best near-future mode as she follows the lives of young girls in China navigating corporate debt slavery in a world wracked by workforce depletion. My favorite in this volume is probably “Useless Things,” a beautifully melancholic near-future tale of a sculptor living alone in the water-starved southwest, understated and evocative environmental SF. For a more personal apocalypse, there’s “The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large.” Written in a journalistic style, this one tells the story of a teenaged boy who, in the wake of a terrorist dirty bomb attack, enters a diassociative fugue state. And “After the Apocalypse” bookends the volume nicely, presenting an eye-opening glimpse of a post-collapse world, with a particular focus on how women will be impacted by the breakdown of civilization.
McHugh’s tone is often dark and cautionary, but there’s a beauty and a fearlessness to her vision, and a pointed, thought-provoking focus on confronting the world’s major issues. A superb collection; this is science fiction that matters.