The era of post-apocalyptic and dystopian novels for young adults may be winding down at last — but one of the best thing to come out of the trend has only just arrived. The anthology After, from editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, is one of the most dazzling collections of stories we've read in ages.
After is proof that post-apocalyptic stories can be imaginative, fun, clever, and memorable — as well as sad and bleak. And with a long break between episodes coming up, it's your best cure for Walking Dead withdrawal. Minor spoilers ahead...
After is ostensibly a young-adult anthology, but a lot of the authors in it are arguably known for their adult books — and part of what makes this book such a great read is that the stories don't stick to any particular formula for YA storytelling. Not every story features a romance, or even a "coming of age" scenario as such. Not every story takes place in a world where All Adults Are Evil. Some of the stories put ideas first, others seem more focused on character. But they all have heart, and a sense of what it's like to be a young person in a world that no longer makes sense.
And the other thing that jumps out at you, reading these stories, is how diverse their apocalyptic and dystopian scenarios are. (And yes, the book includes both types of story, which the editors helpfully explain in their intro tend to run together in young-adult fiction in any case.)
There are stories about bugs that eat anything metal, and a weird transformation that seems to happen to everyone who reaches a particular age. There are a couple of weird dystopias where America seems to have collapsed and people are forced to perform in reality-TV spectacles for money and survival. There are weird vampire apocalypses and cybernetic uprisings and just weird political disasters where the world is run by gun nuts or totalitarian freaks. There's gray goo. You are not going to come away from this book with a feel of same shit, different story. At all.
This book also benefits from having a large proportion of the best writers writing short fiction today, from Jeffrey Ford to Carol Emshwiller to Nalo Hopkinson to N.K. Jemisin. YA fiction are represented by standouts like Beth Revis and Cecil Castellucci. You can read the whole table of contents here, for the full list of mind-blowing authors.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the best stories in this book deal with alienation, or being a misfit, or insecurity — all great themes of teen literature throughout the ages. Jemisin's fantastic "Valedictorian" takes the experience many of us can relate to — being a smart kid at a dumb school — and flips it around, putting it in a world where dumb humans lost a war to something... smarter and stranger. Carrie Ryan's "After the Cure" deals with a girl who's apparently been cured of being a vampire/zombie... but now she's not sure if she belongs with ordinary humans.
Emshwiller's story is probably my favorite in the book — but her writing is usually my favorite part of anything she's in. In her "All I Know of Freedom," a girl is enslaved by a wealthy family as their housekeeper — but after she escapes, she's torn between leaving an apparently doomed Earth with a crazy Heaven's Gate cult (that has actually built a spaceship) or staying behind and subsisting somehow.
Susan Beth Pfeffer's "Reunion" is also incredibly stark and jarring — the story of a mom and daughter who've apparently been reunited with their lost girl, who was taken from them by the totalitarian regime of the Leader. Instead of showing us the fight for freedom against a dictatorship, we see the bleak aftermath, when some people are still indoctrinated and family members don't even recognize each other. Another slice of totalitarian indoctrination comes from Revis, who gives us a new brief story from the world of her Across the Universe novels in which a new Elder is being taught what it means to rule over a generation ship — and there's a nicely ambiguous ending that leaves you wondering just whose story you were reading.
And then there's also the requisite amount of sardonic humor, including Jeffrey Ford's weird story about a high school where every single senior carries a gun — and what could possibly go wrong with that? Probably the weirdest story in the book is Matthew Kressel's tale, where the Earth has apparently been torn apart and turned into a nightmarish realm of ghosts and "Creepies" — and two siblings decide to play a game of baseball. Because, why not?
These stories are often heartbreaking, and when there's a romance it feels tough and matter-of-fact and even more dear for that reason. These are stories, for the most part, about survivors, and we only just glimpse from time to time what you have to give up to survive, in some of these horrifying worlds.
An anthology of short fiction on a single theme can feel a bit draggy sometimes — over and over, you're getting reintroduced to the same idea, from a new angle — and reading a slew of short stories in a row often feels like a major challenge to your ability to keep connecting with new worlds and new characters. But the good news is, After is one of those anthologies with enough diversity, and writing that's more than strong enough, to keep you flipping to the next story, and the next. There's not a lot of "Oh, and then the world was destroyed by cars that came to life." These stories stretch the limits of the post-apocalyptic/dystopian concept, while still feeling like they're true to the core idea.
And over the course of all these weird stories, you start to get at the center of our fascination with the apocalypse — seeing the world we live in now by way of imagining what it would be like to lose it.