After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh

The cover of After the Apocalypse looks crinkled and dog-eared, as if the calamities within its pages have begun to seep out into the world beyond. The clock on the book’s cover is set to a few minutes after midnight, a reminder that after the worst has happened, things go on for at least some people. These nine tales are their stories.

After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh

Maureen F. McHugh does not do cozy catastrophes, and some of these stories are hard ones indeed. They’re not splattery, in-your-face, can-you-take-it hard stories; they’re hard like talking to a cheerful Russian grandfather some time after glasnost, when he could speak freely. He mentions how all 100 boys in his school class went off to the war, and three of them came back with serious injuries, they were never quite the same again, but he got lucky and got married and sure they had to scrimp but there was a thaw under Khrushchev and even in the Brezhnev years you knew where you stood, plus there was booze and you didn’t have to work too hard. He dotes on his grandchildren and he’s such good company that it’s only much later you realize the reason he never mentioned any of the other 96 boys from his class is that not a single one of them came back from the war. McHugh’s apocalypses are like that. They’ve happened before the stories start, and she shows people getting on with their lives afterward; sometimes making the best of things, and sometimes even getting ahead, but more often broken by events, even if they pretend to competence.

Every one of the stories is riveting. They share McHugh’s gift for creating workaday, lived-in worlds, and for sketching what feel like real lives within those worlds. “Special Economics” (published in 2008) follows several young Chinese women who have received permission to move from some of the country’s poorer regions to the Shenzhen Economic Zone to take factory jobs and get a shot at prosperity. A few years before the story’s beginning, a devastating pandemic killed someone in almost every family. That’s background to Jieling, and her discovery that the job in biotechnology with New Life is a set-up, where deductions for company-provided lodging and company-provided food, to say nothing of mandatory uniforms, add up to more than each month’s earnings, and all the women in her dorm are similarly in debt. That doesn’t stop them from hustling, snagging biotech batteries that have been marked as defective, trying to make some money with hip-hop dance busking, or seeing what the city has to offer.

Out the window, they could see him in the glow of the streetlight, waving as the bus pulled away.
“He was so nice,” Baiyue sighed. “Poor man.”
“Didn’t you think he was a little strange?” Jieling asked.
“Everybody is strange nowadays,” Baiyue said. “After the plague. Not like when we were growing up.”
It was true. Her mother was strange. Lots of people were strange from so many people dying.
Jieling held up the leftover dumplings. “Well, anyway. I am not feeding this to my battery,” she said. They both tried to smile.
“Our whole generation is crazy,” Baiyue said.
“We know everybody dies,” Jieling said. Outside the bus window the streets were full of young people, out trying to live while they could. (p. 52)

“Special Economics” has something of a happy ending, and plenty of funny bits along the way, as capitalism and Chinese characteristics collide in the wake of a plague.

“Going to France” could be a stray from Marcel Aymé’s The Man Who Walked Through Walls. The unnamed first-person narrator has three passengers in a little skiff, who are going to France.

I asked them why they needed to go out to sea, and the crisp woman said they needed a head start on their crossing. They didn’t hide that they could fly. I thought they were tired of hiding and traveling to get to the ocean and now that it was so near, they were just shedding things, becoming their own essential selves and their compulsion. They showed me how they flew, the woman leaning her head back and spreading her arms a little away from her sides and then just rising. She went up about five feet and then dropped back down to land on the sidewalk… (pp. 122–23)

The three aren’t the only ones. When they get about a mile out to sea, they encounter other boats. “It turned out that there were about eighteen of the flyers, all drawn to the Atlantic and needing to fly to France.” (p. 125) And why not?

“Useless Things” feels like a world when the economic crisis of 2008 just kept getting worse. Some people continue to live what most readers would think of as normal lives. But others inhabit a world of wondering if the water is going to give out, if the guy who turns up at the back door offering to do garden work might have robbery on his mind, if the new wrinkle in her sculpture business is going to keep money coming in. “Kingdom of the Blind” explores what the end might mean for a non-human intelligence. “The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” posits a disease so frightening I checked to make sure it was fictional, but puts that into the background of splintering families, adolescent turmoil, and the kind of bad decisions that people make every day of the week. It’s one of the book’s stories with after-effects like realizing what happened to the other ninety-six schoolboys. The title story holds out hope for the survivors, as it was a sort of limited apocalypse, but it’s also got choices that I realize people often make, especially in times of great stress, but I prefer not to think about because they cause additional unnecessary catastrophes, and sometimes the smallest scales hit the hardest.

After the Apocalypse is not full of feel-good tales, or people heroically overcoming the odds. Some of them make it through; some of them don’t. The stories, though, are brilliant.

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