BOOK REVIEW: After The End: Recent Apocalypses Edited by Paula Guran
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: An anthology that collects twenty apocalyptic stories from the past ten years (with one exception).
PROS: Exciting action and intriguing protagonists. High level of differentiation in type and setting of stories. The anthology shows well how the tenor and composition of apocalyptic fiction has changed in recent years.
CONS: Mostly pessimistic stories with only glimmers of hope in them. Introductions that give away too much of the story.
BOTTOM LINE: After the End: Recent Apocalypses highlights how our perception of mankind’s role in this world has shifted toward a more pessimistic outlook post 9/11.
Stoker award winner, Prime Books’ senior editor and longtime anthologist Paula Guran collects twenty apocalyptic stories of the past ten years (2007-2012, save one) for a mostly depressing but occasionally hopeful anthology. Unlike many prior anthologies, which mixed various decades of writing output, Guran’s focus on the last ten years (post-9/11), shows how the tenor and composition of apocalyptic fiction has changed in our day. The double meaning of “recent” in the book’s subtitle refers not only to the timing of the apocalypses in this book, but also of their publication. As might be expected of the age of terrorism, war, political and ideological stratification, and the downplay of science, the stories are much darker, the glimmer’s of hope much dimmer. But hope is there among the wreckage, at least for some of our protagonists.
After Guran’s introduction and explanation of methodology (no zombie apocalypses in this anthology), we shift into the first story by Kage Baker. In “The Books” three young people are part of a travelling show of RenFaire enthusiasts. Their show and their enthusiasm for lost skills like weaving and blacksmithing have helped the troop survive the ruggedness of post-apocalypse America. The protagonists, two young boys and a girl, are part of a new generation that has never known any other life. The treasures of this new age are books. When exploring a crumbling California city, they come upon a hoard of knowledge with disastrous effects. Baker’s story recognizes how priorities shift and how both story and information are just as much commodities after the apocalypse as they are before. In the eyes of the youthful narrator, books, especially those of nostos (homecoming), are the best. Achilles and Odysseus are in conflict in Baker’s sad story that finds comfort in tales.
In “Tumaki” Nnedi Okorafor examines a Niger that may not be all that different from today. When a posthuman falls in love with a Muslim woman, all his prejudices about her faith are overturned by her personhood. But his exploited and despised nature, her imam father’s support for posthumans in the face of hatred, and forbidden love raises the ire of the village. Okorafor has a talent for putting the realities of modern African life into an accessible context. Like all good SF, the story has a sense of the “otherness” that unsettles the reader, but at the same time is grounded in concrete details that make the reader part of the story even when the culture is unknown. Though the anthology and some of the detail indicate the story is post-apocalyptic, it could just as well be story of Niger today.
In Mary Rosenblum’s “The Egg Man,” Mexico is now a political force and the United States has retreated from the Southwest. Humanitarian aid is sent to the Southwest by Mexico. The Egg Man is one of their distributors. Zipakna brings chickens that lay eggs packed with medicines to those eking out a living in the desert. But he has a reason for coming that is more personal than human altruism. Then he meets a young boy who reminds him of someone he used to know. Rosenblum’s story is notable for its inversion of current political structures. Rosenblum finds hope in charity, and her story is less pessimistic than many of the others in this collection.
Simon Thomas St. Martinborough finds a calling in Lauren Beukes “Chislehurst Messiah.” In Beukes’ apocalypse, only the young have survived. That is, except for Simon Thomas St. Martinborough. The pampered kept man of a cougar, his life of privilege ended when the disease killed the middle-aged and elderly. But he was content to keep himself to himself until a gang of young hooligans destroys his home. Then, he knows just what he needs to do. Beukes story is a tragi-comedy of extended adolescence. Told from Simon’s perspective the unreliable narrator leaves the reader on edge about just what will happen to him. In this world of looting and chaos, we want to believe that Simon will succeed, but his dissolute past and teenage habits leave you to wonder what the end will be. Beukes’ story is comic in its irony, in the unsettled feeling of mixed possibility and fear until it all falls apart.
Written in epic verse, Paul Park’s “Ragnarok” is the tale of Eirik the African and the kidnapping of his ladylove. Written in the form of verse Edda in Anglo-Saxon style, the story is notable for its unique construction, though I ultimately found it more distracting from the story than a complement to it. And I like reading Beowulf in verse. I found it difficult to track characters and to know the sequence of events. Park is certainly skilled in that he can tell any story in such a difficult style and to be commended for it. However, the story ends unfinished and is difficult to follow with its mixing of modern and ancient. “Ragnarok” is worth reading for its unique style, not for its story.
“Beat Me Daddy (Eight to a Bar)” by Cory Doctorow is one of the stories that finish on a hopeful note. The last band in the world, a jazz band, plays while automated bombers fly overhead long after there are no bombs or governments to command them. People survive by looking for canned goods in the rubble and listening to jazz music at night. Brad the bugler is not pleased when a stranger rolls in and she wants to change their way of life by planting seeds, helping the survivors do more than subsist. But his displeasure is nothing compared to the antagonism of the local gang of thugs. Their conflict sets off a chain reaction that ends well but which has a few harrowing moments. Doctorow explores the opposition of optimism and pessimism. Yet the stranger is ever hopeful and it is the music that makes her think she has found a like-minded community. But any community has its pessimists, and jazz music is not usually the product of a hopeful community. This changes, but in the face of optimism, pessimism digs in its heels. Which will triumph?
Jane and her pre-teen daughter Franny are headed across destroyed America towards a camp outside Toronto in Maureen F. McHugh’s “After the Apocalypse.” Jane was a runaway before the apocalypse came. She is a survivor. But she resents her daughter who, in the face of fear, has become more childlike. What turned Jane hard has turned Franny weak. Through Jane’s eyes, we wonder if the mother-daughter bond will strengthen or break in the face of disaster. The answer may surprise you. I liked this story first because the ending was unexpected and second because the story has a protagonist that is not a noble survivor, merely a good one. Jane is more like you and me than the average apocalyptic survivor. She is no hero. She does what she must to live, even the distasteful.
Paul Tremblay’s “We Will Never Live in the Castle” echoes McHugh’s story. A former amusement park employee has turned one of the rides into a fortress. Todd will do anything to defend his territory though he is not adverse to alliances. When a young woman moves in to a nearby ride, he tries to make friends, but like everyone he has met, she only has one goal – to take the castle at the south end of the amusement park. Todd knows better than to try, but he helps anyway. Isolation is cruel to a mind, especially a teenage one, as we find in this unsettling story of Todd’s growing up alone.
“Never, Never, Three Times Never” by Simon Morden is a nasty tale of evil in the wasteland of destroyed England. A woman in a wheelchair and blind man are trying to get to London when they encounter Fox. Fox is evil made flesh. Why becomes the crux of the story. Morden’s open-ended conclusion is an effective way to leave the reader in suspense. It is a good suspense story that acknowledges that there are always those that are “insiders” and those that aren’t — even after the end.
Trav works the pumps at the sewage treatment plant in post-apocalyptic New York in Paolo Bacigalupi’s “Pump Six.” When the pump’s fail, Trav’s lack of technical expertise leads him to seek some out only to discover more than he bargained for. Bacigalupi’s apocalypse is surprisingly normal and concerned with the practicalities of life. But what the reader will find here is an extended allegory on the importance of knowledge, particularly scientific and technical expertise and a poke in the eye towards the institutions and people that focus on pleasure instead of the pursuit of knowledge.
Blake Butler’s “The Disappeared” is a completely surreal story that defies summary. It brings back memories of reading Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions, whose stories I didn’t always understand either. But then, why would an apocalypse make sense?
Carrie Vaughn’s “Amaryllis” is about a structured society in which sacrifices are made for the good of all. Resources are scarce and so children are heavily regulated. However, ship captains can petition for their “families” to have a pregnancy if they can prove they can bring in more resources. But the Amaryllis crew is prevented from this by one man’s prejudice towards its captain. Vaughn’s story is partly about population control and ecological awareness but is really more about how family is more than biology and how prejudice exists in even the most well-ordered society. The details change, but people are the same.
Even when you find out you are special, does that really change you life? “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross” by Margo Langan explores this question in a world where the apocalypse was not humanity’s fault, but the fallout rested on us. The story is rather graphic, intended to shock, and the dismal pessimistic outlook of its protagonist, even in the face of good news, is full of angst. In the face of the end, what’s the point?
M. J. Locke’s lengthy story of Bear Jessen, “True North” is a hopeful story with sad elements that reminds me of David Brin’s The Postman. Though Bear does not rebuild society, the giant older man does come out of isolation and depression when faced with a flock of kids that needs saving. He goes up against an evil warlord and tries to get the gaggle of kids to safety in the Arctic Circle. This is an adventure story that follows the expected apocalyptic story arc. It’s great. Bear is a subtle character, a man of sadness who fulfills his wife’s dying wish in a way he had not expected. My only dislike in the story was the odd religion angle that added little to the story. It only served to allow Locke to insert a nasty, self-righteous pastor into the plotline. The pastor could just as well have been anyone. I don’t think his role as pastor adds depth to Bear’s story. In fact, it only makes his final rejection of faith trite and preachy rather than true and deep.
“Horses” by Livia Llewllyn takes place right at the end, when nuclear war destroys the earth. A few survive in the underground. Missile Facilities Technician Angela Kingston is one of these. However, Kingston is not a likable character. Forced into situations not of her choosing (like the birth of the child she wanted to abort) perhaps the reader would like to apologize for her selfishness and hatred for her daughter, but we can’t. Kingston is not someone we would want trapped underground with us. Kingston loves only herself, and it is that self-love that is her undoing. Llewllyn’s story is sad, outrageous, and unusual. Llewellyn takes the unreliable narrator to the extreme, even provoking intense dislike, if not hatred for Kingston. It is an unusual way to approach a story in a post-apocalyptic setting, and while I dislike Kingston and horrified at the events described, I enjoyed the superb story craft of Llewllyn.
“The Cecilia Paradox” by John Mantooth is another unusual story. In this one, the reader and the protagonists don’t even know if the apocalypse is real. Trapped underground together, six people survive together in what they were told was government experiment but which they now believe is real. They think themselves they only survivors, and Ralph is their god. Mantooth applies the potentiality of Schrödinger’s cat to an apocalyptic scenario. The tension is drawn from the will they, won’t they of opening the door to the outside. It is a superb story.
In Brian Evenson’s bleak future of “The Adjudicator,” some people are nearly immortal. Our narrator is one of these. When his local community sends him another like him they want him to kill the stranger. But can he? Will he want to? Is it even possible? And what does that mean for him if he can? Evenson’s story is a haunting exploration of a special man in relationship to his community.
I feel Steven Gould’s “A Story, with Beans” is incomplete. Sitting around a campfire, the local peddler tells a legend. In the big reveal, we find that legend was about himself and that he is a noble peddler trying to spread knowledge in the devastated regions where metal is eaten by nanobugs. The story begins interestingly, but the apocalyptic setting merely allows Gould to create a religious community called the People of the Book (i.e. Islam, Judaism, Christianity) that he can use to bash religion as antithetical to love and knowledge. It is only the outsiders who break the rules of the community who really love and really seek truth. Religion and its human leaders are nothing but anti-knowledge and dictatorial. “A Story, with Beans” is nothing more than unsubtle religion-phobia. As the storyteller concludes “The People of the Book don’t do well if they can’t isolate their members—if they can’t control what information they get. They’re not the People of the Books, after all.” Gould comes across as a preachy atheist in this story. He may not be, but the story is a pedantic bludgeon.
“Goddess of Mercy” by Bruce Sterling is a crazy tale of pirates, kidnap, and negotiation set on an island off the coast of Japan. After a nuclear bomb blasted Tokyo, Japan split itself in half. The protagonist, Miss Sato, has come from one side to the island of Tsushima to negotiate the release of a political prisoner. What she finds instead is a nightmare of death, destruction and anarchy. It is difficult to define what Sterling is exploring with his story, except perhaps new politics, where negotiation is not between two sane nations but between the sane and insane. There is no logic to it, and Miss Sato’s roundabout exploration of the island and its people reflects this.
The anthology concludes with John Shirley’s “Isolation Point, California.” In Shirley’s story anyone people who come within nineteen paces of each other turn into psychotic killers. The result is that everyone lives in isolation and physical touch is impossible. But Gage and Brenda think they have found a way around their isolation. Can they overcome the psychotic rage enough to be intimate with one another? Shirley’s story is fascinating in the way it looks at the need for community, even physical touch, that is wired into human nature, by removing its possibility entirely. It is an excellent way to end an anthology about human reaction to disaster.
Guran has done a good job pulling together these stories. Though most tend toward the pessimistic, perhaps a sign of the times, there is a glimmer of hope in some of them. I did not like her short introductions, which I felt gave away too much of the story I was about to read, but the two or three sentences Guran composed are easily skippable by readers if they, like me, prefer to enter a story unadulterated by another’s viewpoint. After the End: Recent Apocalypses is an excellent buy for readers who like apocalyptic fiction but are tired of zombies and a good read for anyone who likes stories with depth. It’s a great anthology with lots of stories I had not read and authors I was unfamiliar with. Save for the Gould story, I liked them all immensely and I think you will too.
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