After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran

After the End edited by Paula GuranTitle: After the End: Recent Apocalypses
Paula Guran
Prime Books
 2 July 2013
short stories, science fiction, fantasy, horror
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

In May I reviewed Pandemonium: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by Jared Shurin and  Anne C. Perry. Now I’ve got After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran, an unrelated but thematically similar collection. As you can tell from the titles, Pandemonium‘s stories were based on the event itself while After the End deals with the aftermath. The collection is a ‘best of’, bringing together stories that were published from 2007 through 2012, with one exception published in 2002.

These stories don’t show much variety in the apocalypse itself – in almost all cases, humanity is entirely responsible for ruining the world through climate change, war, the destruction of natural resources, etc. There are no alien invasions, divine wars, Raptures, or zombies. Guran actually mentions the latter in her introduction – having edited three zombie anthologies already, she’s got them covered and decided to leave them out this time around.

There are different imaginings of post-apocalyptic futures however. Nnedi Okorofor’s “Tumaki” envisions a world where the laws of physics no longer apply and humans born with strange new powers have to hide from the violent prejudice of others. “The Cecelia Paradox” by John Mantooth may not actually be a post-apocalyptic story, but none of the characters know for sure: they’ve all been told that they cannot leave their building because the world outside is a diseased ruin that will kill them. A self-professed ‘god’ and his son rule over them, but are they all just part of a reality TV show? In “Isolation Point, California” by John Shirley, the remains of humanity are forced into isolation by a disease that turns anyone into a murdering psychopath the moment they step too close to another human.

In “Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi, humans live alongside troglodytes, peaceful but moronic creatures who do nothing but hang around eating or having sex. Humans look down on them, but they’re going the same way – they’re interested only in instant gratification and are too stupid to repair their disintegrating infrastructure. I quite liked Bacigalupi’s depressing but ultimately hopeful tale of apocalypse by idiocy.

“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn is good too; one of the more heartwarming stories. It’s dystopic at first glance – society is highly regulated, and people need permission from the authorities to have children. But it’s not nightmarish; more like a means of nurturing life in a damaged world. After all, how could we expect to live like we’ve always lived? The story Vaughn tells doesn’t rage against social institutions like most dystopias – it focuses on the people living in these new conditions and what they have made of their lives.

Incidentally, character-based narratives like this are the defining feature of After the End:

What the stories all have in common, other than the theme, is that they are about people: their actions, reactions, interactions, and relationships: their hopes, dreams and strategies, and failures. More than one someone has survived. The world may have ended, but there is still life.

And the survivors are what you’re most likely to remember from these stories. While the one I mentioned above offer more imaginative post-apocalyptic worlds, many go for the standard broken-down societies, with a few people eking out a meagre existence or travelling a dangerous dusty road to where they hope to find sanctuary. But that doesn’t make the collection boring – the characters who stand out and define the tale, and the authors use the post-apocalyptic landscape as a means of exploring character.

The protagonist of “We Will Never Live in the Castle” by Paul Tremblay, for example, is an alienated, geeky boy of the type who might have committed a Columbine-style massacre if the apocalypse hadn’t come along. Now he prides himself on having the knowledge and fortitude to survive alone. His anger and violent tendencies have not disappeared however, which does not bode well now that he lives in a world without rules.

One of my favourites was After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh, about Jane and her daughter Franny, who are trekking through post-apocalyptic America. Jane ran away from home at 14 and has always been strong, rebellious and independent. Franny, however, was a “mistake” and Jane cannot stand how clingy, childish and whiny she is, especially in such difficult circumstances. One of the most memorable scenes in the story is when Jane leaves Franny outside while she goes into a house to scavenge for supplies. When Jane comes out, she sees a strange man talking to Franny. Her first thought is not that Franny might be in danger – instead she thinks of running away and abandoning her daughter to the care of a total stranger. Jane is not a particularly likeable character, but I loved the way McHugh used the post-apocalyptic setting to bring out the more heartless aspects of her character – in a world gone to ruin, is Jane still bound by the social conventions she’s frequently defied?

“Horses” by Livia Llewellyn also deals with unwanted post-apocalyptic parenthood. It’s also the bleakest story in this collection, if not one of the bleakest I’ve ever read. Kingston is a soldier who learns she’s pregnant the morning before she and her fellow soldiers are ordered to launch the bomb that will essentially bring their world to an end. She finds her way to a bomb shelter, and tries to use her pregnancy as a sympathy card to gain entrance, then offers to have an abortion when her request is denied. She eventually gets in an has the baby, but the shelter is it’s own kind of hell. The ending is utter horror, and I thought the story critiqued the failure to take responsibility for life and the folly of bringing new life into a world defined by death.

Luckily not all the stories are so dismal. “The Books” by Kage Baker is a book lover’s delight. Told in the style of someone reciting a story to a group, it tells the tale of three children who discover a huge library in an abandoned city. It’s not only about the appreciation of books (especially in a world where no one writes or prints them anymore) but about storytelling itself. One of the characters is a boy who frames their experiences as fantastical adventures, and it’s because of him that they go out to explore the city on their own.

“Never, Never, Three Times Never” by Simon Morden has a dreadful ‘villain’ and an ambiguous ending, but also features two of the most steadfast characters in the collection: a blind man and a woman in a wheelchair who have forged a loyal friendship that defies their odds in a ruined world. “True North” by M.J. Locke is the post-apocalyptic adventure story where a band of survivors journeys toward the promise of sanctuary. A man who wants to die after losing his wife finds fresh passion for life when he is ‘adopted’ by a band of children and the teenaged girl who leads and educates them. In another context, I might have found this story a bit sentimental, but good people and heartwarming stories become much more valuable after the world ends.

One of my favourite strong characters was in “Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)” by Cory Doctorow, featuring a band who uses the rhythm of automated planes flying overhead as part of their music. After biowarfare destroyed America, a group of survivors lives by scavenging the canned food and other supplies they dig out of  the rubble. A newcomer arrives and encourages them to try gardening instead – a far more sustainable food option. But to grow food, she has to fight against those who think it’s stupid to waste time on a garden when there’s food just lying around in the rubble. When it’s pointed out that the cans will eventually run out, the reply is that “There’s plenty of rubble to go around” or “We’ll defend [this place] until the food runs out, then we’ll move on” and “Someone will take care of that”. The antagonistic characters in the story are interested only in having the martial strength to keep outsiders off the land they’ve claimed and, presumably, to take over a new area once the food runs out.

Doctorow’s story made me think of the contemporary addiction to fossil fuels and the insufficient attention devoted to finding sustainable energy sources. The way the story switches the focus from fuel to gardening really emphasises how insane this attitude is. When the antagonists scoff at the idea of gardening in favour of scavenging and fighting, you want to strangle them for their short-sightedness. But that’s exactly what people are doing now, threatening to make these stories realities.

There were a couple of stories that I just didn’t get or like at all. “The Disappeared” by Blake Butler describes an apocalypse that is gory and surreal, and apparently features ghosts. Or something. I wasn’t quite sure what went on there. “Ragnarok” by Paul Park is written in the “form of an ancient verse Edda in Anglo-Saxon style”, which I found really boring. Margo Lanagan’s disturbing story of sexual abuse, “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross”, was less confusing but felt unfinished – more like the idea of a post-apocalyptic world with only the beginnings of the story it spawned. “Goddess of Mercy” by Bruce Sterling had the kind of complex socio-political plot that usually leaves me bored and unfocused, although it was notable for being one of the only stories not set in the USA or England (Okorafor’s story was set in Nigeria, some stories move briefly to other locations and I think one or two have unnamed locations, but one of the shortcomings to this collection is that it’s culturally biased).

I liked enough of the stories to enjoy the anthology overall though, and when I didn’t like a story it wasn’t because I thought it was bad but because it just didn’t work for me. I also appreciated the fact that every story comes with a few introductory comments. Given that short stories have limited space for world building, it really helped to have one or two key pieces of information about the world, especially with the more complex ones. It also makes it easier to focus on the amazing characters that populate these stories. It’s a strong collection and I recommend it, not just for those who like post-apocalyptic stories, but for any sff fan who appreciates good writing.

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