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After the Apocalypse cover

There was a time when the picture of the future you got from American science fiction was unfailingly optimistic. We were in the middle of the American century, and it was going to stay that way forever, a consumer idyll reaching out to the stars. Nowadays, no one is quite so confident about the future, and this new collection presents different ways of looking at how our future has failed us.

When American SF of the '50s and '60s did present a depressed future it was usually through the apocalyptic intervention of an enemy: after the bomb, pockets of survivors struggle to preserve something of the American way. Only one of Maureen McHugh's futures even approaches such a scenario. In "The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large" someone has exploded a dirty bomb in Baltimore. We never find out who or why, and it really doesn’t matter; it is just one of those things that might go wrong in a world that no longer dances to an American tune. The story is written in the style of one of the portrait essays you find in magazines like The New Yorker (there’s a lovely recursiveness in this, since such essays generally, in turn, model themselves upon fiction), and it isn't about the apocalypse. It isn't even about the changes wrought in the world at large. Rather, the story is a portrait of one of the accidental victims of the aftermath of the bomb. The subject of the portrait was on a school trip to Baltimore when the bomb exploded, in the following confusion he got separated from his fellows and somehow lost his memory. Now, some years later, he has forged a new identity for himself when his mother finally locates him. The fact that there has been a mini-apocalypse in Baltimore is hardly central to the story. By the time we visit the scene society has, more or less, healed itself. And though the confusion brought about by the bomb serves as a trigger, other less apocalyptic events might equally well have caused the protagonist's memory loss. What we focus on is the determination of a working class mother, a single parent, to hold her family together through a time of confusion, and to seek out her lost son. We also see how an individual and a family might heal themselves at such a time, and we recognize that they serve as a metaphor for the society around them. There are no easy solutions, the ending remains contingent (which is one of the most convincing and satisfying things about this story). McHugh is not in the business of saying that everything will work out in the end, in fact generally it doesn't.

Even with its final hesitations, there is a sense of carrying on in "The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large" that needs to be offset by the title story, one of three pieces in this collection that appear here for the first time, and which feels, in many ways, like a companion piece to "The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large." Again the apocalypse is in the past and we learn little about it; again the focus is on a single mother, working class (there is definitely a class consciousness at work in these stories), desperately trying to hold her family together. The situation is familiar from other post-apocalyptic stories: people wandering, not quite at random, through a depopulated United States. Jane and her thirteen-year-old daughter Franny are following the pattern of other survivors who have gone before, scavenging from the empty houses they pass, conscious that they need the help of other people but aware that everyone they encounter is a potential enemy. In such stories society is always a frail thing, altruism the first human trait we expect to be abandoned when things go wrong. The problem then, as this story so ably demonstrates, is that we cannot trust those who do help. When Jane and Franny meet a man who might help them, Jane uses sex to buy something that might have been freely given. More chillingly still, when you do not trust it becomes easier to betray. If the mother holding her family together in "The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large" becomes a metaphor for a society that seems to be healing itself; then Jane's ultimate and devastating betrayal at the end of "After the Apocalypse" acts as a metaphor for what broke society in the first place.

These two stories suggest that Maureen McHugh's approach to the apocalypse is oblique, a concern with the personal, the individual or family unit, rather than the devastation that surrounds them. That is a perception more than borne out by the other stories in this collection. Easily the best piece here, for instance, is "Useless Things," set in the American southwest in a near future when global warming has brought about severe water shortages. The only people still living in this arid wilderness are those rich enough to buy water and those too poor to move on. Our narrator has been forced out of her comfortable middle class existence and now makes a living constructing realistic dolls for sale on the Internet. Somewhere there is a society still rich enough to buy these dolls for their own incomprehensible purposes, but in her day to day existence our narrator feels increasingly vulnerable, increasingly threatened. Modern day hobos, passing through on their way to richer climes, rob her and scare away her dogs. There are no great events, no cataclysms, the inhospitality of the landscape is a slow and ongoing change. What is really of interest here, and in most of the other stories, is the sense of dis-ease, the loss of confidence, the undermining of our sense of self that comes with the disintegration of society. All of McHugh's characters have so much of their own identity tied up in the society of which they are a part, that when society itself is torn apart they inevitably lose not only their security but their identity.

This idea that one's self and one’s society are inextricably interlinked is highlighted in one of the few stories that does not take place in the United States. "Special Economics" is not even what we might conventionally recognize as an apocalypse. Set in China that is going through our modern economic miracle, the clear implication is that capitalism is as damaging to society, as apocalyptic in effect upon the traditional family unit as the climate change or bomb attacks of the other stories. Our heroine is a young girl who has left village and family to seek her fortune in the modern city, but the job she secures in a big corporation proves to be a form of slavery: everything is provided, but at a cost that her wages can never cover. The mendacity of her employers is matched by the falseness in all she sees around her, including the young man who may be a government agent, but who certainly isn't what he pretends to be. Eventually, Jieling escapes the trap of Western capitalism only by turning the lies to her own advantage, but it is a devastating transformation from the sort of life she and her family might ever have conceived, and things will never be the same again.

Not all of the stories rework familiar apocalyptic scenarios. There is, for instance, a zombie apocalypse in "The Naturalist," one of the less satisfying stories in this collection if only because I cannot believe in the idea of a zombie apocalypse. And not all of the stories present what we might readily recognize as an apocalypse. "The Kingdom of the Blind," for instance, is the story of a lowly member of an IT department who begins to suspect that the strange behavior of the computer system that controls resources across a chain of hospitals may be an attempt to communicate. What follows may be apocalyptic for a nascent intelligence, but we don't actually know that as we have nothing to go on beyond the suspicions of one programmer. Similarly, "Going to France," in which large numbers of people in the US suddenly experience the urge to go to France, doesn’t suggest any sort of devastation; and the whole thing is too slight to carry any effective metaphorical implications.

Stronger, but still not adding up to as much as you might feel it should, is "Honeymoon," another story in which the apocalypse is entirely personal. In this instance, a woman who makes money by volunteering for drug tests witnesses one that goes drastically wrong. But the horror doesn’t feel as if it comes close enough to our viewpoint character, and indeed part of the point seems to be the lack of effect of another person’s apocalypse. To really make the point, "Honeymoon" would need to be as powerful as the remaining story in this collection, "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces," in which disease and family break-up swirl together (the style of the story is almost hallucinatory in places) into a very personal apocalypse which is made devastating by the simple fact that some people just don't get on, no matter how well meaning they might be towards each other.

There are, then, three stories here ("The Naturalist," "Going to France," and "Honeymoon") that are slight, but against this there are perhaps half a dozen stories that are as powerful as anything you are likely to read this year. Maureen McHugh has not been as prominent in the genre as novels such as China Mountain Zhang (1992) might have led us to expect, but that doesn't alter the fact that she is still one of the best writers in the genre. Hopefully, this collection will restore some of that much-merited prestige.

Paul Kincaid is a recipient of both the BSFA Non-Fiction Award and the Thomas D. Clareson Award. His most recent book is What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction.

Paul Kincaid has received the Thomas Clareson Award and has twice won the BSFA Non-Fiction Award, most recently for his book-length study, Iain M. Banks (2017). He is also the author of What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction (2008) and Call and Response (2014).
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29 May 2023

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