After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh

Publisher: Small Beer Press - Pages: 264 - Buy: Book/eBook

I get e-mails from time to time offering me electronic copies of self-published or small press titles for review. I usually say yes, with the caveat that I may never actually read it or get past the first chapter. Most of them are not very good. This was my mindset when I received a copy of a short story collection by Maureen McHugh, called After the Apocalypse. At the time, I wasn’t aware of Small Beer Press and what they’re about. I went in to After the Apocalypse functionally blind. After reading it, I feel like I can see.

I’d never heard of McHugh prior to this book. It turns out she’s published four novels and over twenty short stories. Her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, was nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula Award. In 1996 she won a Hugo Award for her short story The Lincoln Train. After reading this collection, none of that surprises me. Many of the stories in this collection are “award worthy” – especially the three new ones that are published here for the first time.

As the title implies, all of the stories in this collection deal with what comes after the apocalypse. Notice that’s a lower case apocalypse. While some of the stories delve into the aftermath of the “big-one”, some are more about a personal cataclysm. All of them are told from a very tight point of view in a consistently haunting prose. McHugh’s characters are all real people, with real problems, who lived before she opened the window into their story and will continue to live after it’s closed. The collection was so good, I felt compelled to write something about each of the stories.

“The Naturalist”

 Subterranean Online, spring 2010
After the zombie plague is over the remaining walking stiffs are sealed into wild preserves. To cut costs, America has started sending their criminals into the preserves fend for themselves. This is a gruesome story of humanity’s ability to adapt and need to survive.Last of Us

“Special Economics”

 The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, May 2008
This is an odd story about a hip-hop dancing Chinese woman who’s come to ShenZhen to find a job. She ends up with New Life, a bio-engineering company that designs green technologies for America. New Life though is a “company town” and owns its employees. While not a classic apocalypse story the character arc is very much one of overcoming adversity and refusing to lie down when that’s the easiest thing to do.

“Useless Things”

 Eclipse Three: New Science Fiction and Fantasy, October 2009
Definitely a global warming gone wrong story, Useless Things follows an artist in New Mexico struggling to carve out an existence. All the comforts of today are still available, but resources are scarce. As a woman living alone the threats of the world at large are real, and not something she’s prepared to deal with.

“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large”

 Eclipse One, October 2007
The only story where the narrator isn’t the primary character, it tells the story of a young man and his family who survive a series of dirty bombs in Baltimore. He’s afflicted with a mental disorder that’s resulted in him becoming someone else. While this is the least evocative of all the stories in the collection, there’s a certain beauty to the way McHugh constructs it, reading something like an article in Time Magazine.

“The Kingdom of the Blind”

 Plugged In, May 2008
A standard setup for a science fiction story, McHugh dabbles in the birth of artificial intelligence. She takes a unique look at it though discussing the never used truth that a computer intelligence has no way to perceive the outside world and no concept of what it wants. Extremely intriguing story that reads more like a pre-apocalypse than a post.

“Going to France”

 Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet 22, June 2008
This one had a very interesting premise – people suddenly feel compelled to go to France. Some fly, gliding across the Atlantic (people can fly), others race to the closest airport. This one was a bit too esoteric for me. I admit I’m probably just not smart enough to get it.


 New to this collection
An overweight and broke young woman has her marriage fall apart seconds after it starts. Her apocalypse happens when her marriage ends, and she has to soldier on. Picking up the pieces she moves to Cleveland where to make extra money she puts herself into drug trials – one of which goes wrong. This is a fairly inspirational story about a girl taking charge of her life and finding her own place in the world – really connected to this story.

“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces”

 New to this collection
I don’t understand the title of this story really, again I’m not that bright, but the story itself is poignant. Irene is a teenage girl living with her mom, and her mom’s new partner, Alice. Her other mom, has a boyfriend now who’s always strung out. Irene’s mom has ADP (think Alzheimer’s meets MS) and she dying. Having lived through two family members die of slow diseases, the hurt and loneliness that Irene feels was particularly meaningful for me. Worth the price of admission on it’s own.

“After the Apocalypse”

After the Apocalypse is an achievement in short fiction.

 New to this collection
This story made me want to throw up from the first paragraph. I saw what was coming and knew it was inevitable. The parent in me rebelled to no avail. Haunting doesn’t begin to describe this story of mother and daughter trying to survive when society falls apart. I appreciate the stupendous execution, but I’m allowed to hate it too right? Almost a horror story to the right reader and done so well.

It’s rare that I enjoy the medium this much. It’s even more rare that I’d put a 200 page short story collection on par with anything I’ve read. After the Apocalypse is an achievement on short fiction.

Written by Justin Landon

Justin Landon

Justin Landon is the overlord of Staffer's Book Review, and co-editor of Speculative Fiction 2012, a 2014 Hugo Award nominee for "Best Related Work".     @jdiddyesquire

  • Tanya Patrice March 12, 2013 at 3:41 am

    I enjoyed this short story collection too – like you said, the only story that I really didn’t “get” was Going to France. The Naturalist was probably my favorite.

  • Daniel Abraham March 12, 2013 at 6:31 am

    I got to read an earlier version of the story “After the Apocalypse” in workshop a few years back. I remember getting to the end of it and thinking that the moral of the story was “Cormac McCarthy is too soft and sentimental.” Great story in a great collection by a great writer.

  • Stefan (Far Beyond Reality) March 12, 2013 at 7:01 am

    Small Beer Press is wonderful. It’s a good idea to look at everything they release very carefully, because there are some real gems to be found. I recently reviewed collections by Elizabeth Hand and Kij Johnson from them, as well as a wonderful new translation of Trafalgar by Angélica Gorodischer. And Sofia Samatar’s “A Stranger in Olondria” looks very good too…

  • John March 13, 2013 at 6:10 am


    I agree,Small Beer Press has put out some excellent titles in the past,their books are very different from the normal SFF genre stuff . Sofia Samatar’s “A Stranger in Olondria” is high up on my TBR list,really excited about it.

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