This collection by Maureen F. McHugh tours the world, with stops in a variety of settings that have been subjected to or are in the middle of some of cataclysmic event of a supernatural, natural, or manmade kind. Six of the nine stories are reprints, the remaining three make their first appearance in this compendium published by Small Beer Press.
All the scenarios are near future, and Ms. McHugh uses references from pop culture, such as the tidbit that Elvis Presley died forty-five years ago today, to help orient the reader to the story’s world. Desperation, madness, confusion, and despair induced by the aftermath of disaster spurn the characters into action that might seem barbaric or drastic, but given the current state of the world, local or global, the author has succeeded in providing credible character motivation for most, but not all of the protagonists.
Though bleak, the stories are plausible, given current trends and events, and thus chilling portents of what might await us. The science from which Ms. McHugh extrapolates is sound and, though a little lumpy at times, never dominates the plots, which are more about the characters, their actions, and reactions.
In “The Naturalist,” Cahill was clearly a bigot before the zombies arrived, and things haven’t gotten better along the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland. He sees the survivors, as well as those who might have escaped, as enemies, rivals for the little food, shelter and resources that remain, and is willing to do anything to prevent himself from becoming zombie fodder. There is a surprise twist at the end of the story, which inculcates blame for mishandling the zombie invasion—clearly a metaphoric reference to some of the other mismanaged disaster, wartime, and human rights crises both in America and the rest of the world. Though disturbing, the story is far above the quality of most zombie fiction I’ve read.
“Special Economics” lands us in China in the wake of a deadly bird flu epidemic. Jieling, widowed by the flu, is struggling to find work and a clean, safe place to live. One of the strongest points of the story is verisimilitude, and Ms. McHugh utilizes key details about the cities, the culture, and even the nuances of dialect in such perfect detail, I felt like I was walking the streets with Jieling.
The description of a post-epidemic China evokes the feel of nonfiction. The science of creating bio batteries doesn’t seem all that farfetched to me, but the street vendor dropping a plastic sheet with molecular memory into boiling water and watching it bend and fold into cell phone shape was pretty innovative.
“Cells?’ Jieling asked.
‘Nerve cells from the electric ray. It’s a fish.’
They took swabs and Baiyue showed her how to put the cells on in a zigzag motion so that most of the gel was covered. They did six trays full of petri dishes. They didn’t smell fishy. Then they used pipettes to put in feeding solution. It was all pleasantly scientific without being difficult.
[…] Baiyue was from Fujian. ‘If you ruin a batch,’ she explained, ‘you have to pay out of your paycheck. I’m almost out of debt and when I get clear’—she glanced around and dropped her voice a little—I can quit.”
While the first half builds the tension nicely, just past the midpoint the story becomes repetitive. Perhaps the post traumatic stress left the survivors burned out but, after “over a quarter of a billion people died in four years” of the bird flu, I would have expected more details of masks and hand washing paranoia.
The main conflict, the bioenergy company that entraps its workers, seems too easily and painlessly resolved. Despite the fact that one girl has been thrown in prison for trying to escape, and Jieling flaunts the rules, feeling she has nothing left to lose, the tension hissed out of second half the story like a leaky balloon.
The ending bordered on a Deus ex Machina, a bit too saccharine for a story that started out with the promise of such danger and intrigue. The floor auntie and Mr. Cao from “Human Resources” could have been a source of much more conflict, but they just disappear.
“Useless Things” is as delightfully eccentric as the feisty New Mexican woman who switches from making custom dolls to dildos. She also gets a gun to defend herself against local thugs and weird clients. There isn’t anything speculative about this literary fiction piece about the wisdom one acquires during life, and survival, which evoked the same feeling as stories by Annie Proulx but, once again, the ending only hints at what is to come. The first person, present tense narration, which Ms. McHugh uses in other stories in this collection, engaged me from the beginning.
“He offers me an iced tea and then gets the gun, checks to see that it isn’t loaded, and hands it to me. He explains to me that the first thing I should do is check to see if the gun is loaded.
‘You just did,’ I say.
‘Yeah,” he says, “but I might be an idiot. It’s a good thing to do.’
He shows me how to check the gun.
It is not nearly so heavy in my hand as I thought it would be. But truthfully, I have found that the thing you thought would be life changing so rarely is.
Later he takes me around to the side yard and shows me how to load and shoot it. I am not even remotely surprised that it is kind of fun.”
“The Lost Boy: Reporter at Large” details the travails of a kid trapped in the foster care system, set after a dirty bomb detonated in the mid-Atlantic state of Maryland. Simon has a bad case of dissociative fugue, characterized by amnesia, mental fog—prompting them to leave home for what can amount to months, often adopting another identity, common after combat or natural disaster. The former William was not seen by his family after disappearing from a class trip, which coincided with the explosion in downtown Baltimore, and never looked for them.
The structure of this story is that of an investigative reporter describing the events from the point of view of William/Simon, his mother, his foster parents, his classmates, and the therapist who eventually diagnoses and treats him. Clever, compelling, and all too realistic, this is the kind of near-future science fiction that doesn’t seem fictional at all.
“Kingdom of the Blind” is about artificial intelligence, introducing the concept that non-sentient programs develop awareness, and exploring the uneasy peace humans have with the hardware and software they create and administrate.
“What do you think DMS wants?’ she asked.
He looked puzzled. Or maybe he was really not paying attention. […]
‘If it’s aware,’ she said, ‘what does it want?’
‘Why does it have to want anything?’ he asked.
“Everything wants something,’ Sydney said.
[…] ‘Why did you think it’s conscious?’ Damien said.
‘Why do I think you’re conscious?’ Sydney said. […] ‘But if it’s aware, then it has consciousness.”
So they plan to shut it down and restore from back up. But will that kill DMS? This is a fascinating exploration, but the dialogue is stilted and repetitive, and it takes far too long for the programmers to finish their debate and make their decisions.
“Going to France” is breezy and lyrical, like the disordered actions and thoughts of someone with mental illness or Alzheimer’s, but a kindly one so happy in the dream world there is no reason to face reality. A slipstream treat to read, the style, tone and characterization is reminiscent of those in Ursula K. LeGuin’s collection “Changing Planes.”
‘It was that they all had this thing in common, that they could fly. They had come East across the U.S., flying by day, like hitchhikers or something only not needing rides. The were going to fly to France. Since they couldn’t actually fly when they were sleeping, this was dangerous and yet they felt they had to. They didn’t talk about it. But the Englishman was the most worried. He had been brushed by mortality, and the crisp woman seemed caught up in dealing with logistics and the autistic one was just pure compulsion.”
The only hint of apocalypse comes at the end, and it seems to be those of bystanders rather than a the narrator, who calmly accepts whatever comes her way even while knowing her turn will come.
“Honeymoon” is the first person story of a young woman who ditched her husband even before taking off her wedding gown, after finding he gambled away the money she saved for their trip to Cancun. Kayla moves on and earns extra money to pay for her Not-A-Honeymoon-Trip with a few girlfriends by participating in clinical trials of investigational drugs and medical treatments.
The result is a bit of a medical thriller as well as a abstract portrait of recovery from a relationship broken before it even had a chance. Again, the ending doesn’t play out into a full-fledged apocalypse, but it’s certainly a personal one, which I found to be a satisfying read.
“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” is more about the effects of “Avian Prion Disease” than forces of energy, but Ms. McHugh’s technique of blending literary forms such as first person journal entries and musings, with the third person day-to-day details of a person dying from APD, similar to Mad Cow Disease though spread by consuming chicken nuggets, her partner, her former partner and new boyfriend, and her daughter.
Though the details about APD are info dumped into the story early, it ceases to be the main source of conflict, which is, as daughter Irene describes, the fact “that HER family couldn’t get it right because they were a fucking freak show.” The writing style makes this one of my favorites of the collection, and my heart hurt for the characters by the end.
“After the Apocalypse” is my least favorite of the collection, due mainly to the very unsympathetic characters. After “the big Disney World attack where a kazillion people died because of a dirty bomb and then the economy tanked,” the borders of the U.S. are infiltrated by Mexican drug cartels and there is mayhem in the Southwest.
Jane packs her thirteen-year-old daughter Francisca, Franny for short, into the car and they head for Canada. When they run out of gas, they start walking. I lost any glimmer of sympathy for Jane when she doesn’t even think to be concerned about her police officer boyfriend she left behind, probably dead. Nate, the guy she hooks up with along the route, isn’t much more inspiring. It doesn’t get better, the ending lacks closure, and any of the possible scenarios are sickening. But the writing is descriptive and compelling, in the true spirit of literary fiction, with the style of Joyce Carol Oates.
I am impressed with the breadth of Ms. McHugh’s writing, and the depth of emotion and world building detail she captures in this collection. Post apocalyptic fiction is, by necessity, bleak as are some of these stories are, but her well-drawn characters and believable settings raise the standard for even the most well worn tropes such as zombies. There is an undercurrent of ironic humor in the writing that softens the impact, perhaps a bit too much in some cases.
Perhaps Ms. McHugh wanted to show that human beings are resilient and will survive even in the face of misfortune, even outright destruction of the world as we know it. People in crisis do unpleasant, unpalatable things. While these characters might not be ones I’d like to hang out when in crisis—global or individual— they seem real as fiction can get.