I knew that Maureen F. McHugh was going to be a Guest of Honor at the 2013 Readercon, but I hadn’t read any of her work. Luckily I was given a copy of her short story collection, After the Apocalypse, and I found time to open it over the holidays. Well, there were some stone steps involved, and a patch of ice, and a day spent lying in bed trying to not move anything that was sore, but it was during the holiday break so that’s close enough.
I had no idea what I was going to get into when I opened the book. The first page of the first story opens on a zombie preserve. A guy, a prisoner, dropped off there to survive, and oh yeah it used to a be a real city, this place full of walking dead. It used to be Cleveland.
Yeah, that’s when I fell in love with the book.
I wasn’t wrong, either. McHugh’s prose is easy, flows well from one sentence to the next, without too many sharp edges or dictionary words, but the stories aren’t simple. They’re full of smart ideas. “The Naturalist”, the first in the collection, skips past the zombie apocalypse to a point where we could get rid of the last stragglers if we wanted to … but what we had another use for them? From that concept comes another simple idea – what if the guy sent to get eaten by zombies started studying them instead?
It’s not too much of a stretch, and in fact, none of McHugh’s stories are. There a few steps beyond what we have now, in some cases just a little hop into tomorrow, but you can trace them all back to something recognizable. “Special Economics” takes the idea of biotech advances in China and reduces it down to a young factory girl working off her debt. “Useless Things” shows us an American Southwest after an economic crash but doesn’t use the setting to explore large-scale effects of poverty. McHugh focuses tightly onto one older woman, living in the desert, making ends meet with a skill she learned before the jobs disappeared.
It’s that focus that makes McHugh’s work personal and accessible. “Lost Boy” investigates the unusual amnesia affecting a boy lost during a dirty bomb attack in Baltimore. Not the aftermath of the bomb in the conventional sense, not the terrorists, not the long camera pan across a pile of bodies lying in the street outside of the bomb site. Just one teenage boy, misplaced in the chaos.
“The Kingdom of the Blind” includes a tech girl who loved Mycroft from Heinlein’s Moon is a Harsh Mistress - one of my favorite books – so there may have been a little fangirl squee on my part at that moment. The story itself wasn’t one of my favorites; it felt a little forced in places, though not much. It’s followed by “Going to France”, which is the only piece in the book that I didn’t like. I’m not sure if it’s the rambling tone of the story, or the fact that it included a mute autistic character who only served to be a part of the scenery. She’s got a superpower – flight – like some of the other characters, but while McHugh describes one flyer as being nervous after a brush with mortality, and another who “seemed caught up in dealing with logistics”, she then says “the autistic one was just pure compulsion”.
Not a fair description of most autistic people I know.
“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” had an odd narrative flow and while the story mentioned an Avian Flu it’s really about a teen girl torn between a dying parent and an irresponsible one. It’s a story about a personal apocalypse, the end of life as she knew it. “After the Apocalypse” ends the book on a strong, dark, note, making up for the minor missteps of “Kingdom” and “France”. It blends the personal trauma with loss on a larger scale and puts into perspective a woman’s choice to save herself instead of anyone else. Doesn’t make light of it or, I think, approve of it, but the explanation is there. McHugh also plays with a present tense voice that isn’t as distracting as it could have been.
In the end, I loved this book. These stories are wonderful. McHugh writes in a evocative yet minimal way that I like to shoot for my own writing. She rarely tries to make it complicated, because she doesn’t have to. The stories are strong, they’re good, without making them fussy or overtly decorative. It’s a small book of short stories but it’s also a fine example of what writing can be: smart, clean, powerful.
I’m very glad I read it.