I held off on reading this collection, knowing that eventually it would undoubtedly be a selection for my post-apocalyptic book club. And it came up this month… now I’m back to having read all of McHugh’s published books.
"The Naturalist" – This was a second-read – it’s included in Strahan’s ‘Best SF&F of the year #5.’ As I said last time I read it: A good, nasty zombie story, with shades of 'Escape From New York.' You can read this for free, online: http://subterraneanpress.com/magazine/spring_2010/fiction_the_naturalist_by_maureen_mchugh
"Special Economics" – The most upbeat/hopeful of the stories in this collection, and our book club pretty much agreed: it might’ve been a more powerful/believable story if it wasn’t. The setting itself is not actually fantastical in any way – it portrays the situation that many young women (like the protagonists) are caught in right now – economic ‘slavery’ implemented by tricking young workers into taking a factory job where the setup ensures that they will always be in debt – and you’re not allowed to quit if you’re in debt. Eye-opening, without didacticism.
"Useless Things" – Another re-read; this appeared in “Eclipse 3,” also edited by Strahan, hmm. A sad story, set in a post-apocalyptic (but all too realistic) American West, about the erosion of trust. A dollmaker is robbed by people she tried to help. Meanwhile, her (creepy!) dolls are used to defraud… Beautifully written; very depressing.
"The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large" – Not the strongest in the collection, in my opinion, although it does strongly illustrate one of McHugh’s themes: an apocalyptic event may have occurred (in this case, a dirty bomb), but that’s not the main story. The story is about people: how they interact (or fail to), and carry on with life. Here though, I wasn’t captured by the journalistic style, or the story of a boy who disappears in the midst of a disaster, and late reappears, pleading amnesia.
"The Kingdom of the Blind" - This one almost reminded me a a Ted Chiang story, but from a woman’s perspective. (Not surprising, since McHugh, like Chiang, works in software.) It’s a tech-y, conceptual story about the possibility of artificial intelligence and the nature of sentience – meshed with a young woman’s journey to gain her own self-awareness in a hostile environment. Available online: http://www.lightspeedmagazine.com/fiction/the-kingdom-of-the-blind/
"Going to France" – My least favorite/least memorable selection in the book. It reads like a transcription of a dream – one of those dreams you wake up from, review to yourself, and go, “wow, that really doesn’t make any sense at all.”
"Honeymoon" – No sci-fi/post-apocalyptic elements here; unless you count a personal/emotional apocalypse. A young woman gets married, and promptly realizes that she’s been blinding herself to her new husband’s faults. She promptly ditches him, and saves up money for a girlfriends’ getaway to Cancun. Emotionally wrenching. The real strength of this story is in McHugh’s ability to make the reader feel real compassion and understanding for characters that one might be tempted to mock, or dismiss as ‘trailer trash.’
"The Effect of Centrifugal Forces" – The greater apocalypse is impending – a mad-cow-like disease, this time spread by chicken. But the emotional apocalypse is at hand, as a teenage girls tries to hang on and deal with the people in her life – her mother dying of this disease, her mother’s partner a hoarder, her father a hopeless junkie…
"After the Apocalypse" – In the classic format of the post-apocalyptic story, and mother and daughter on the road through the wasteland. Hard and nasty choices are made. It’s about strength, weakness, necessity, self-interest – the ties that bind; or fail to bind. As usual, McHugh looks unflinchingly at what people will do; discarding the pretty myths we might tell ourselves about ourselves along the way.