Maureen McHugh's latest short story collection, After the Apocalypse (Small Beer Press), is a dark look at what the next century might hold for ordinary people. Known for intense, character-driven work in novels like China Mountain Zhang and Nekropolis, McHugh makes even the most extraordinary circumstances feel as real as blood. These nine stories take place in a world that has been ravaged by prion diseases and economic collapse, even as it enters a new age of artificial intelligence and green biotech. You won't be able to forget the people you meet there.
From the opening story "The Naturalist," about a prisoner released into a "zombie preserve" in Ohio, After the Apocalypse is riveting. Like all the stories here, "The Naturalist" surprises you. Like the zombies of Walking Dead, McHugh's monsters are biters and wanderers. Prisoners are released into the preserve with them for reasons we never quite understand, but perhaps it's a bit like volunteering for an experiment to get out of jail early. Our protagonist starts watching the zombies closely, figuring out their behavior, and slowly coming to sympathize with them because they seem to be simple creatures of instinct. Eventually, we're not sure who we want to survive in this story: The zombies seem like the only innocents left on Earth.
It's McHugh's ability to turn all your preconceptions on their head that makes her stories so memorable. In "The Kingdom of the Blind," artificial intelligence finally emerges - but it's as dumb as a shark. And in "Special Economics," the world is benefiting from the development of green batteries that run on biological material - except that the Chinese workers who make them are forced into what amounts to indentured servitude. Even the idea of the oppressive Chinese factory isn't allowed to fall into cliché. The young women protagonists, who love hip hop and are bored by Communism, mange to use entrepreneurialism against itself to plot an escape from the green energy plant.
Perhaps the most affecting story in the collection is "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces," about a teenager watching her mother die of mad bird disease (a prion disease from poultry instead of cows). Complicating her situation is the fact that her mother's ex (her other mother) is a speed freak now hooked up with a loser guy; plus, her dying mother's current girlfriend is a hoarder who has filled the house with piles of crap. Trapped between diseases both novel and traditional, she's in a world almost unrecognizable to us. And yet the horror of watching a parent die anchors the story so strongly in realism that the rest of the futuristic world comes into crisp focus around the characters.
Though there are perverse rays of hope in this collection, McHugh doesn't let anybody off the hook. Even the most sympathetic characters have a hard glint of ugliness in them.
One of McHugh's great strengths as a writer is her ability to evoke the ways that people can never quite understand each other's motivations - and yet behave as if they can. In "Useless Things," a sculptor living in an economically ravaged America makes her living by selling lifelike replicas of infants on the internet. Mostly, she deals with parents who want replicas of their babies; but one customer keeps ordering the same baby modeled on the same infant picture year after year. She constructs a whole narrative in her head about what the customer is like: A grieving parent, unable to let go of a dead child, ordering replica after replica. At the same time, the artist has become known on the internet for something she feels ambivalently about. A message board for people escaping into the US from Mexico has listed her as a person who is friendly to strangers, and will offer a meal to people in need. After a robbery, however, she grows suspicious of the people who come to her house seeking shelter. Though she's not sure whether any of them were responsible for the robbery, she now sees danger in all their faces. The story leaves us stewing in ambiguities, especially after we find out who the artist's mysterious customer really was for all those years.
The future, McHugh reminds us, is full of apocalyptic events that are both vast and intimate. They feed on each other, creating lives we can barely imagine — and which nevertheless feel like our own.
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