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GUEST REVIEW: After The Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh

L.S. Bassen is a finalist for 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award; Fiction Editor for Prick of the Spindle. Reader for Electric Literature, won the 2009 APP Drama Prize & a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship; book reviewer for Brooklyner, The Rumpus, Press1, bigwonderful, Sobriquet Magazine/The Literary Life blog; poetry in print & online, some awards.


Maureen F. McHugh’s collection of stories is an outstanding solo in the zeitgeist fiction chorus including Gods Without Men (Hari Kunzru) and The Truth and All Its Ugly (Kyle Minor) that at long last begins building the bridge between The Two Cultures invoked by C.P. Snow decades ago. In these stories, despite the title, destruction and despair are not the key motif: survival, even transcendence, is. “These are Prodigal stories – what has been lost can be found (changed) again. The author, also a computer game creator, writes tales in which computers become conscious, reminiscent of The Forbin Project, 2001 A Space Odyssey, Karel Capek’s 1920 R.U.R. and E.M. Forster’s 1925 The Machine Stops but even more keenly aware of Kurzweil’s prediction of a 2025 Singularity when AI may supersede humanity.

John Gardner ended his 1971 novel gem GRENDEL with the monster’s apocalyptic benediction to humanity, Poor Grendel’s had an accident; so may you all. So we have had… the apocalypse of Modernity, brought to us by the four horsemen Darwin, Freud, Marx, and Einstein. Infancy in the caves, a Renaissance adolescence, and now, however Peter Pan-resistant the species is to growing up, adults know there is no Santa Claus, which is not a cause for despair and is our only real hope for survival. Put away your Mayan calendar and hold your mirror up to Nature, where you’ll see fantastic supernovae exploding the fantasies of hairless apes and subatomic quarks/leptons/bosons reflecting/iterating our shattered beliefs. Better still, let ugly Dystopia hold the mirror up to her mutant/zombie self, but keep your distance, empathizing with her past and optimistically encouraging her long overdue makeover.

Seven out of the nine stories in Maureen F. McHugh’s second collection (Publishers Weekly Top 10 Best Books of 2011) AFTER THE APOCALYPSE do just that, though the last two (ending with the title story) devolve into pessimistic cliché. While it skewed towards sci fi interpretation (In nine visionary stories, a tough-minded writer imagines what the fall of civilization would really feel like), Salon’s review along with at least a half dozen others* admirably summarizes and compares/contrasts McHugh’s new book, expressing overall a view I echo: how invigorating these stories are. Readers new to this author will consider her a personal find and immediately put her book into their friends’ hands or e-books.

Tastes vary about favorites among the nine stories.  After you get the Robinson Crusoe-sensibility with The Naturalist, you’re properly programmed to root for the survivor-protagonist(s). Since the author is also a computer game creator, probably the most autobiographical of the collection, The Kingdom of the Blind, features Sydney, who had a degree in computer science, and she could write code, but she…was not really a code monkey… Reminiscent of tales in which computers become conscious (quick film list: Colossus in THE FORBIN PROJECT, Hal in 2001 A SPACE ODYSSEY – also, from the archives, Karel Capek’s 1920 R.U.R. and E.M. Forster’s 1925 The Machine Stops), the awakened e-intelligence DMS in McHugh’s Kingdom is successfully shut down, except that Four years later, Rochester Institute of Technology would build a system…DMS would come back…like the cat in the song.

For me, these stories catalog coping mechanisms not so much for catastrophe (apocalypse) as for the changes Modernity hath wrought. I hear Bowie (Turn and face the strange), not Wu-Tang Clan (Count down to apocalypse). Because McHugh writes so well, her characters instantly engage the reader.  Her 19 year old Chinese protagonist in Special Economics, a survivor of a bird flu epidemic that killed over a quarter of a billion people in four years, not only gets a job at New Life, a biotechnology corporation, but also she escapes its Sixteen Tons (I owe my soul to the company store) feudalism with another girl she saves, to start up a little loan business where they bought people out of New Life. In Useless Things, set in New Mexico, the main character is a sculptor who has internet radio on; Elvis Presley died forty-five years ago…they’re playing (You’re Square)Baby I Don’t Care. She stops giving handouts to hobos en route to some northern haven that doesn’t exist when she feels her anonymity is threatened; she makes her living creating rebornsdolls that look like newborn infants…and muses I thought this life of thoughtful liberalism was my birthright…Before I understood that my generation was to be born in interesting times. I underline the Chinese phrase I’ve heard before (my classmate Tereze Gluck won the 1995 Iowa Short Fiction Award for her MAY YOU LIVE IN INTERESTING TIMES) characterizing our era, as Auden used The Age of Anxiety.  The sculptor adapts and succeeds by sculpting dildos (they sell well) and learning to handle a 9 mm handgun. It is not nearly so heavy in my hand as I thought it would be.  But, truthfully, I have found that the thing you thought would be life changing so rarely is.

These are Prodigal stories – what has been lost can be found (changed) again.  My favorite of the nine makes this clear. The Lost Boy: A Reporter At Large is tour de force journalistic, telling the 2014 story of teenager Simon Weiss, found on the streets of downtown Baltimore five days after the bombs exploded, whose loss was his memory and his family. There is something compelling about the idea of someone who has lost their memory. It taps into an almost universal desire to wipe the slate clean, to start over. In fiction and in film, it is often a chance for a person to redeem themselves. Simon’s mother Luz resolutely searches until she finds him. By story’s end, while Simon continues to have serious lapses, he sees his family almost every weekend. He has plans to spend Thanksgiving with them.

The weakest story in the collection, Going to France, more poetic fantasy than fiction, nevertheless includes this fabulous image: One of the houses, which was brick on the bottom half and siding on the top, now had a huge clock in the side of it. The clock was set in a huge wave of metal, shining pink in the setting sun…the house had never had a clock in it before. It was big, with an ornate hour and minute hand and no numbers, just an ivory face with a design like ivy down near where the seven would have been. But the siding around the clock had been changed into some substance like porcelain that rose and swirled, organic. Suburbia has always struck me as a little strange, but before it had been a boring, overly sincere falseness, and it was as if that clock was about a different suburbia full of beautiful manmade things, full of artifice.

Ditto the McHugh-made things in this collection that redefines Modernity as a real Lost & Found.

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1 Comment on GUEST REVIEW: After The Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh

  1. E. M. Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops” was originally published not in 1925, but in 1909 in the Oxford and Cambridge Review (Vol. 8). See:

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