the Little Red Reviewer

After the Apocalypse, by Maureen F. McHugh

Posted on: September 1, 2012

After the Apocalypse, by Maureen F. McHugh

published in 2011

where I got it: library

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When we see the word “apocalypse”, everyone always thinks end of the world. And the world is a very big thing. But a small ending can also be an apocalypse. A marriage. A job. An expectation. An experiment. Because often it’s those things, those little, intimate things that many of us take for granted, that shatter our world when they end. Their endings become a person’s personal apocalypse, something to be survived.

Maureen McHugh’s slender volume of stories called After the Apocalpyse is stories of those little apocalypses. Some of the stories are true post apocalyptic tales, one even features zombies. But most? most are about those intimate endings, where the character’s world comes to an end, and they have to decide what they are going to do next: if they are going to give up and die, or if they are going to survive it.  Told in a very understated and matter of fact style, these stories have that bare bones feeling, with sentences that get to the point without the luxury of ornamentation.  McHugh doesn’t try to pretty up what her characters are going through, she just tells their stories.

Here are my thoughts on a few of the stories:

The Naturalist – probably the darkest and creepiest entry, this zombie story is truly post apocalyptic in more ways than one. In this future, zombie preserves also serve as prisons. Dump the prisoners into the preserve, and when the felons get tired of running and hiding, the zombies will eat them, problem solved. One incarcerated man decides to study the zombies, as if they were just another kind of animal.  He sets up a blind, but to attract the zombies for study, he’ll need some bait.

Lost Boy – A Reporter at Large – one of my favorites, this is told through the eyes of a reporter as she finds and interviews a young man suffering from amnesia. After surviving a dirty bomb, Simon wakes up with a completely different personality. Has he developed a multiple personality disorder or dissociative fugue  due to post traumatic stress? Was he just waiting for the right moment to escape a bad family situation and start his life over again? In between interviews and observations, the reporter talks about other similar famous cases where the person believed they were someone else, but had no memories of who they were before the day they woke up as their second personality.  From an interpersonal interaction standpoint, this story was fascinating.

Honeymoon – Kayla’s marriage was doomed from the start, when she learned her husband of just a few hours had gambled away their honeymoon funds. She gets the marriage annulled and moves in with her cousin in another city. But Kayla doesn’t want to be sleeping on her cousin’s sofa forever. The jobs she qualifies for with just her high school education will never make her enough money to get her own place. And then she learns about signing up for drug testing trials. Most of Kayla’s drug trial experiences are positive, and besides, she really needs the money. (in real life, I actually did this, once. I went to the first appointment, where they just drew a lot of blood. I was so creeped out by the whole experience that I never went back for the 2nd appointment, where you actually find out if you qualify for the trial. The company still sent me a check for $75)

Special Economics – All our cheap crap that we buy in Wal-Mart? this is the story of the factory it is made in. Of the young women who work there, who pay to live in the company dormitories, who pay to eat in the company cafeteria, who pay to wear the required uniforms. Some of the workers scrape to save enough money to get out of debt they’ve racked up to their employer, others laugh at the negative number on their paycheck every month.

I am making an effort to read more short stories, or rather, I should say, more science fiction and fantasy short stories. And in this little book, I was expecting more in the way of science fiction. Plenty of the stories take place in a resource-scarce near future, or after something terrible has happened, but other than The Naturalist and The Kingdom of the Blind, none of them screamed “science fiction” to me.  Not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I’m not sure if McHugh had set out to write scifi, or if she’d just set out to write a group of intimate, deeply personal and often haunting stories, and is pissed off that now people are classifying it as science fiction.

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4 Responses to "After the Apocalypse, by Maureen F. McHugh"

For me, the scifi that I like best is the stuff that doesn’t ‘scream’ at me. Diet scifi or something… I like more of the fiction than the science.

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I’ve always had problems with thinking about apocalypse-oriented sci-fi…I guess sometimes they feel like the same story over and over again. But what you said in your first paragraph helped me think about it again. Maybe trying to decide if it’s sci-fi or not doesn’t matter, especially because the genre can do so many different things (it seems like in this case it’s there to help the story, not to act as a playground…which can be a difficult balance to strike sometimes.) I don’t know. But, yeah, these stories sound great!

Also, as a postscript: another good apocalyptic sci-fi story is Catherynne M. Valente’s “The Days of Flaming Motorcycles”. It’s an interesting example of that balance, I think. (It’s here: http://io9.com/5543785/read-catherynne-m-valentes-sad-zombie-tale-the-days-of-flaming-motorcycles )

Long comment is long.

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long comment is long appreciated. ;)

and a Valente short story? I am THERE, i LOVE her!!

I think a lot of post apocalyptic fiction is marketed as SciFi, even though a lot of it is simply about people trying to survive. had this book not been marketed as SciFi I would never have noticed it.

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Heh, I’m glad.

Her short stories might actually be my favorite things of hers! She has a bunch more online that you can find through her website.

And yeah, that makes sense. I guess my discomfort isn’t really with the sci-fi part of it, then. I don’t know. (Also, this conversation made me think of this LeGuin bit that differentiates fantasy and science fiction in a way I really like: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/PlausibilityRevisited.html It sort of helped me think about this stuff.)

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