Home > Books > After the Apocalypse by Maureen F McHugh

After the Apocalypse by Maureen F McHugh

After the Apocalypse by Maureen F McHugh (Small Beer Press, 2011) is a relatively slim collection of nine stories, three of them original to the book. As the title suggests, they are all, whether directly or indirectly, about the effects of apocalyptic events. As always, therefore, we have to establish the ground rules for discussing the content. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of the world going through a major disaster. In Biblical terms, we’re predisposed to anticipate the end of the world as we know it. Events like the flood and Noah’s survival are just God flexing his muscles and getting ready for the big day when the trumpets sound. Hence, The Drowned World by J G Ballard has an early version of global warming triggered by the arrival of solar flares that melt the ice-caps. The interesting feature of the three Ballard catastrophe novels is that, in a sense, the nature of the catastrophe is not really the issue. The focus is on what happens to the people after the event. Indeed, many of the early books like The Scarlet Plague by Jack London are set decades after the disaster. In other words, the better books and stories deliberately limit their scope to just a small group of survivors and describe how, if at all, the devastated world is healing itself. It’s largely left to Hollywood to show people living up to and then through the disasters. Film studios think we’ll pay to see the best in CGI as excessive levels of water, ice or seismic action bring down civilisation.

The second factor is the credibility of the disaster. One of the most common sources of population loss is a plague, whether of a natural variety as in Earth Abides by George R Stewart or a genetically modified version as in Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. It’s impossible to emerge from the education process without being aware of the Black Death. Some may even have heard of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Such events are an indelible part of out culture and, alongside the paranoia about nuclear war, fit into our concept of “end of the world” scenarios. I’m also not unhappy with technological disasters, e.g. the current series by John Barnes starts with Directive 51 in which terrorists release nano and bioswarms to eat the plastic essential to support current technology, but I get a bit twitchy when aliens invade and blast us into submission or, worse, zombies inexplicably emerge and start snacking on us. I prefer the survivors I read about to be in situations that might actually occur. As against this, I suppose in wars it makes no real difference whether the enemy is human, dead or extraterrestrial. Destruction is destruction no matter what the cause. But the more unnatural the source of the disaster, the less happy I am. The point of the story should be to hold up a metaphorical disaster mirror so we can see a part of ourselves reflected in it — a part we don’t often get the chance to see.

The first story in this collection, “The Naturalist” is a zombie plague and the point seems to be that, if you put a sociopathic killer in an area with a small number of zombies, he’s likely to experiment to quantify the risks he faces. While the application of the scientific method is not uninteresting, we get no greater insights than they act not unlike hunting animals. The fictional courts then decide the use of zombies to thin out the prison population is a cruel and unusual punishment, and our “hero” is almost literally pulled out of the area before he has a chance to reach any firm conclusions on what makes zombies tick. So, apart from the writing which is beautiful to read, this says little about zombies and even less about the human condition. “Special Economics” has us in China after bird flu has thinned the population. A girl with some education from the provinces gets a job in a factory only to discover it operates a company store system. By charging employees for accommodation and everything they eat and wear, the employer ensures they stay in debt. Fines for poor performance ensure no-one ever pays off the debt. Corrupt police track down anyone who runs away. It’s a trap for the unwary straight from Victorian times when the exploitation of labour was the norm. There’s little originality in the idea but the execution is highly readable as a form of capitalism unexpectedly raises its head.

Maureen McHugh looking brave in the face of disaster

“Useless Things” first appeared in Eclipse Three and has the world moving north to avoid the water shortages. The few who remain are either stubborn Libertarians who refuse to move as a matter of principle and those who can afford to buy the water. This produces cultural instability as the transients grow more desperate and threatening. Our heroine has carved a niche for herself making dolls. In the cities there are still people rich enough to pay top dollar for specialty products. To improve her chances of survival, she branches out into dildos, but sales are slow. As local society seems to be disintegrating around her, self-confidence ebbs away and, in the end, she acquires a gun for protection. Sadly, her two dogs are not enough of a deterrent to thieves. Perhaps she will have to give up her home and live in her car. It’s desperately sad as the physical and emotional infrastructure of her life falls to pieces. Equally sad is “The Lost Boy, A Reporter At Large”. This is written in the style of a long magazine article about a case of dissociative fugue. It affects a young man who wanders off after two dirty bombs explode in the Baltimore area. Not unnaturally, this is a chaotic event with long-term repercussions as the radioactivity causes different forms of cancer in those exposed. Although our boy is never in physical danger, he prefers the life he makes for himself in a new town. Even when his family find him and, with less than enthusiasm, he admits to remembering the life he used to have, there’s always the sense that his life is fractured. Like the now empty city of Baltimore, he can’t reconcile what he was with what he’s become. Thematically, this carries over into “The Kingdom of the Blind” where an increasingly complex computer system may be developing some degree of awareness. A programmer speculates the system is testing its ability to interact with its environment. Since this will cause chaos if it becomes more frequent, the IT team decide to reload from an old archive copy. If it is aware, this will be apocalyptic to the machine. The most interesting part of the story is the relationship between the female programmer and the men around her. This is very nicely observed and probably true more often than not.

“Going to France” is only faintly apocalyptic in the sense that, should the migration grow and persist, America would be left relatively empty and France would be overcrowded. But what makes it unusual is the fantasy element of people actually able to fly. This rather takes it out of our theme unless the first wave are angels with an obsession for things Gallic. Then we’re back to an apocalypse on a purely personal level. Just as a computer intelligence might be swept away in a reload, so “Honeymoon” sees the destruction of dreams on an epic level. Every girl knows how she wants her wedding to run and, if something derails her plans, this is devastating. Thereafter it becomes a slightly humdrum story of making money out of medical trials, not all of which are as safe as we would hope them to be. “The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” has society collapsing as a disease similar to Mad Cow spreads rather rapidly, people dying within five years. In the face of such uncertainty, it’s not easy to maintain relationships. Even families may not be able to take the strain of looking after parents as their mental faculties disintegrate. After all, it’s not as if relatives actually like each other. This is a powerful and affecting story. Finally, “After the Apocalypse” poses a slightly different question. The relationship between a mother and daughter may be protective out of habit and, if a man appears and is able to offer some support, then the mother will be properly grateful. But suppose she can escape to a better life. Would she abandon them? And, if she would, does this say something about the state of the family as an institution and perhaps partly explain why society might break down so quickly when some bombs explode?

All of these stories are written in a lean and muscular prose that’s a delight to read. The majority are as good as you will find in the post-apocalypse market and, when you put the two together, After the Apocalypse is terrific value for money.

After the Apocalypse has been nominated as Best Single-Author Collection in the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards and was shortlisted for the 2012 Locus Award for Best Collection.

  1. No comments yet.
  1. August 20, 2014 at 11:20 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: