May 2nd, 2012

modern nazgul

All Reactionaries Are Paper Tigers! (47)

After the Apocalypse by Maureen F. McHugh.

Mushrooms in the sky.
Bright red hoods & wooden shoes.
Balm in Gilead.

One day America will fall. If you ask me, it will be as simple as the continuation of current trends. The hunger for oil, climate change, & corporate neofeudalism. I don't mean that in some sort of political action way either-- though yeah, it does inform my political opinions-- but just from a position of cultural & economic trends. Fossil fuels are limited. They are going to crap out. I'm not even talking about a "peak oil" crisis, but just increasing rarity. The American civilization is built in a fashion that takes oil for granted. We keep fighting wars to maintain the price of gas, but it isn't sustainable. Either America will adapt-- manufacturing shifts, changes in consumer patterns, an end to suburban sprawl & car culture, new energy sources-- or it will crumble. I'm not saying it is a doom, but it is a stress. Climate change is another one. Listen, if the ice caps melt & the weather goes berserk, the "planet" will be fine. "Nature" will figure it out, no matter how much carbon we dump into the atmosphere or chemical waste we dump into the water. Something will keep on ticking. The problem is, that "something" won't be Western Civilization. You know how America has all those coastal hubs, like, I dunno, New York? Disney World? California? Wash the shoreline away with rising ocean levels & hurricanes & you won't be too happy. & yeah, notice how deregulation & corporate in the last hundred years has brought the economy low in a series of crashes, while using the booms to drive inequality? Spooky, & more stress. At some point-- & I'm not even saying soon, though I know people who think that-- it'll just decline & vanish. It happened to the pharaohs, it happened to the Romans, it just happens. Look on my works, ye mighty, & despair.

& then we'll get the New Dark Age. I was a little disappointing not to get a Dark Age story in this collection, which was Amber's pick for Eleven-Books Club, since that is the thing the most interests me. If all the doomsaying of the paragraph above comes to be, that still leaves a vast middle swath of America, ripe for serfdom. Agriculturalism will win the day-- hey, thanks global warming!-- & the plutocrats will make happy landlords. Or maybe there will be a revolution first, heads in the sand, & there will be new aristocrats, maybe the military power of the South will hold together into a junta-- though that didn't work out for them in the Civil War-- but things will go along hunky dory for the species. Just not for civilization. Oh there will be refugees & die-offs, but Homo sapiens are hardy apes. For my money, it makes The Handmaid's Tale the most plausible science fiction novel about the post-apocalypse. I'm a good old fashioned utopian-- hey, it is better to live in America today than to be one of the aforementioned pharaohs-- but I have to admit the scary & entirely probably fact that some dang thing is going to tip the American Experiment into the garbage can. It is going to happen at some point. Heck, there is an asteroid out there with "Cenozoic Extinction Event" written all over it. The Industrial Period is living on borrowed time. Literally, borrowed from the dead bodies of previous epochs, the black oil of strange aeons. Maybe the Information Revolution will hatch into some new period, but in case of emergency, smash & pull the Agricultural handle.

Despite being called After the Apocalypse, a lot of these stories are really more about the event itself, or the cusp-- either just before or just after. "The Naturalist" is a really good Wasteland story-- if you grew up in Northeast Ohio this one is for you. It is the zombie story-- I think it was a mistake to put the undead first thing, since there is a bit of market fatigue, but so it goes-- & it all takes place in The Flats. Good of Cleveland, the Home of the End of the World. The world has mostly coped with the zombie uprising, but the last few "preserves" have been converted to penal colonies. Our protagonist makes his life there. "Special Economics" is one of my favorites in the collection; a scavenger China on the uptake in the near future, focusing on debt-based neofeudalism. A vibrant, plausible future. Heck, a plausible now, but then, isn't that the point of all these post-apocalyptic stories? "Useless Things" is the closest to what I wanted out of this book; a woman living her life in a collapsed American southwest. Water shortages, immigrants, & life as usual. Or life as unusual; McHugh paints a pretty believable picture of what it will be like when the center does not hold. Rationed water, break-ins, & the internet. The world doesn't go bonkers, it just falls apart. "The Lost Boy" is really more of a psychological story, sort of a stretch to include it here-- sure, there is a "dirty bomb," but a terror attack on Baltimore is hardly the end of the world, though it is the end of William's, & the beginnings of Simon's. ""The Kingdom of the Blind" is another small stretch; it is an AI story, & actually, it has a really interesting meta-narrative. That is; the ambiguity of the ending is rendered transparent by its inclusion in an After the Apocalypse anthology. I liked it a lot, but I think I liked the ending unresolved better than assuming things went all Skynet. "Going to France" is the oddest & most unique of the stories. It is about the end of the world, but not necessarily in a bad way.

"Honeymoon," "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" & the eponymous "After the Apocalypse" all sort of epitomize the problems I had with After the Apocalypse. I feel like frequently Maureen McHugh falls back on race & class to make things "gritty" in a way that feels false & immature. Yes, terrible people exist. Yes, the end of the world would be an excuse to let your awfulness hang out. I just find it artificial when it is cranked up to eleven & included in too many points of view. In "The Naturalist" all the talk about "regular black guys" & "Nation of Islam" seemed a little off, until the prison angle was made clear, & then it worked, but after a certain point the relentless focus on those things feels hollow. Yeah, there would be messy flare-ups of tribalism, & yeah I think you can write a short story about it, but when you pepper it too heavily in all the dishes, you sort of taint the meal. It works in "Special Economics" because the ethnic boundaries between Chinese groups is opaque to most of the Western world; Fujianese, Cantonese speakers versus Mandarin speakers, north versus south, communist versus corporate-- making sense of the lines of division is part of the story. I just think at some points it becomes overwhelming. The gender divide is a little clumsy in "The Kingdom of the Blind," but you can see the logic behind it-- when it shows instead of tells, it works, but there is too much "telling." The pitfalls of a self-aware protagonist I guess. "Honeymoon" & "After the Apocalypse" are those problems magnified. Yeah, one of the perks of civilization is increasing equality, & yes it is really imperfect & fragile...but I don't think it works in the story when it is hamfisted. I think my problem is despicable characters. I don't want to read about racists & junkies & hoarders & the sort of people who abandon their children. I just think the balance was off, for my taste. I didn't feel like it was "challenging," I felt like it was easy. Easy to write the worst kinds of people, & boring. Making you sympathize with bad people, that is challenging; making you roll your eyes in exasperation isn't.