Review: After the End: Recent Apocalypses

After the End: Recent Apocalypses
After the End: Recent Apocalypses by Paula Guran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am not normally an anthology reader, but I really liked this collection. The range of the scenarios and the perspectives represented was truly remarkable considering that the collection was compiled in America and comprised mostly of American authors. Stories took place in Iceland, England, Japan, Niger, gritty urban environs and barren wooded, coastal or desert landscapes. Some of the stories were true science fiction; others were urban fantasies. For some, the promised land was south in Mexico or South America, for others it was in Canada or an ocean away in Australia. I also appreciated the inclusion of a queer element into a couple of the tales [“Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi and “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross” by Margo Lanagan].

I took the time to review and rate each story in the anthology, so I will not try to do so here in this post. My ratings across the 20 stories averaged 3.25. But, fully nine were 4 to 5 stars. My favorites were:
“Pump Six” by Paolo Bacigalupi [5 stars]
Amaryllis by Carrie Vaughn [5 stars]
“Isolation Point, California” by John Shirley [5 stars]
“The Books” by Kage Baker [4 stars]
“The Egg Man” by Mary Rosenblum [4 stars]
“Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar)” by Cory Doctorow [4 stars]
“After the Apocalypse” by Maureen F. McHugh [4 stars]
“Never, Never, Three Times Never” by Simon Morden [4 stars]
“The Cecilia Paradox” by John Mantooth [4 stars]

The rest of the included stories ordered by decreasing stars:
“Tumaki” by Nnedi Okorafor [3 stars]
Ragnarok by Paul Park [3 stars]
“The Disappeared” by Blake Butler [3 stars]
“True North” by M. J. Locke [3 stars]
“A Story, With Beans” by Steven Gould [3 stars]
“We Will Never Live in the Castle” by Paul Tremblay [2 stars]
“The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross” by Margo Lanagan [2 stars]
“Horses” by Livia Llewellyn [2 stars]
“The Adjudicator” by Brian Evenson [2 stars]
“Goddess of Mercy” by Bruce Sterling [2 stars]
“Chislehurst Messiah” by Lauren Beukes [1 star]

I was previously unfamiliar with all of the included authors, so this anthology rates a 4 in my book for such a range of talent and style.
 
 
 
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Review: “Isolation Point, California” by John Shirley

5 of 5 stars.

Appearing in After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran, this brief, yet brilliant story alternates between honest and insightful journal entries and third person narration close to the character of Gage, the man with the journal. The description is evocative and compelling in a world that now lends itself to loneliness and savagery. Two years prior, a malady of unknown origin [though conjectured to be viral or nano-technological] swept through North America south to the Panama Canal Quarantine Zone. Known as AggFac [Aggression Factor], the affliction causes all members of the populous to become myopically and murderously violent against all other humans if within less than twenty paces distance. Spouses kill spouses; siblings destroy each other; parents and children turn on each other. AggFac doe not subside until a person is the only living person left within close distance.

There is no semblance of society left since no two people can stand to be within proximity of each other. All aspects of civilization have gone by the wayside. Through Gage, we get to experience the loneliness and regret that is his life. We also get to see the AggFac consume him when the circumstances call for it, and the regret of his actions upon the AggFac’s subsidence.

There is a strong, sexual undertone that develops in the story as Gage becomes intrigued by a survivor, Brenda, that lives safely across the river from him. Together they push and test the bounds of desire and rage in their urge for friendship and civility.

This story is highly recommended. Highly compelling, it kept me guessing until the final sentences as to what would happen.
 
 
 
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Review: “Goddess of Mercy” by Bruce Sterling

2 of 5 stars.

This story appears in After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran. Written in 2012, “Goddess of Mercy” barely conceals its contemporary commentary on the current American international war effort of the past 13 years in the name of The War on Terror. Ostensibly, the setting is Tsushima Island between Japan and South Korea in a near future after Tokyo has been nuked into non-existence by the North Koreans who in turn are decimated by the Americans. Japan, without a new capital, has divided in to a North and South Japan. Tsushima has devolved into a lawless, multinational pirate stronghold.

Most of the plot involves the interactions between a Japanese, peace activist trying to win release for one of the many Japanese nationals held hostage by the main pirate syndicate on Tsushima and her guide-host, Yoshida, a younger journalist with little interests beyond his own journalistic efforts on the current situation on Tsushima. It’s an interesting set-up that does not go far in any direction.

What I found most interesting was the sometimes blatant and sometimes barely veneered commentary on current American policies and attitudes. Within the anthology, this proves to be the most overtly political of the included stories, especially when one considers the lack of a single American character:

. . . the Americans had already much seen the like in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, Colombia, Mexico, Pakistan, and Nigeria. “Boots on the ground” rarely triumphed against “global guerrillas.” The insurgents merely scattered, regrouped, and left their roadside bombs to kill soldiers. . . .the Americans did possess tremendous air power and precision satellite targeting. So the Americans pounded Tsushima. They pulverized the island’s harbors, bridges, power plants, and telecom towers.

–Yoshida scowled. “That’s the problem with you peacenik feminists: you have no ideological insight! Pirate, anti-pirate, that is just pure dialectic! A covert War on Terror is the same as the Terror itself. It all becomes the same in the long run! Once you abandon the quest for social justice, it just becomes a matter of market price.”

–[Yoshida] “If there was anyone in charge here, the Americans would kill him with a drone bomb. That’s what they always do.”

–[Yoshida] “Everybody thought the Americans were killing those pirates with drones. Just more Americans shooting more terrorists with their robot airplanes.”

This is not to say that all political commentary is directed at the Americans. The Koreas, Japan, Russia, Somalia, and Osama bin Laden all get mentions here. However, the commentary did not drive this particular story towards any sort of satisfactory end.
 
 
 
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Review: “A Story, With Beans” by Steven Gould

3 of 5 stars.

Appearing in After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran, this story is a work of fantastical science fiction in which robotic bugs devour metal along with anything in their way to the metal including humans. The infestation rages unevenly across the landscape with unaffected civilized areas and still-infested, devastated areas that house emerging micro-cultures.

The outer story is about some guides in the less comfortable, devastated areas escorting three anthropology graduate students to their field research. The students have lead sheltered lives within the infestation-free, civilized zones and do not have a working knowledge of the micro-cultures they have come to study. The inner tale is a love story showcasing one particular micro-culture in which religious zealots curtail the rights and learning opportunities for their female members.

I really like the set-up to this story. However, I found the students to be too caricatured to feel real. A longer story would likely suit the story well by giving time and space to developing the characters and the situation. As it was, the “twist” in the identity of the protagonist in the tale-within-the-story was obvious before the tale had even begun. It is also a distraction. The true story lies in the fate of the couple and the message to be taken from it.
 
 
 
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Review: “The Adjudicator” by Brian Evenson

2 of 5 stars.

Appearing in After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran, this short story takes place a few years after a nuclear-triggered apocalypse. The narrator, dubbed “The Adjudicator,” tells a non-linear story that quickly outlines the rapid collapse of society. The nuclear weapons instantly killed most people. Then, most of the survivors quickly succumbed to fallout. After the second wave of death, most of those survivors descended into a brain-mushed, murderous madness that cleared out most of the rest of the populous. That does not leave many people a couple years out from the initial trigger. Ones that that are left survived in bunkers and strong houses, mostly, but not the Adjudicator. Society is set on rebuilding.

Somehow, the narrator survived all of these waves of death without a bunker. He also appears to heal quickly now and his body is hairless. All told, this makes him a feared person, rumored to be un-killable. He may not be the only one in this new state, however.

Much is left unclear in this story, such as what this character did before the war, what he did during the first couple years after the war, and what’s truly going on even during the timeline of the story. The unreliable narrator no longer thinks linearly, logically, or morally.
 
 
 
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Review: “The Cecilia Paradox” by John Mantooth

4 of 5 stars.

Included in After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran, this very brief story firmly establishes its ground rules and psychologically warped tone. Our narrator Adam has been in an underground bunker for over six months with five other unrelated, “regular” individuals [Frank the leader, Cecilia the sex addict, Marjorie the bitch, Theo and Theresa] and three administrators of the bunker [Dominic the custodian/muscle, Henry the crazy, self-proclaimed God ala Wizard-of-Oz, and Ralph the son of Henry-God and bully/miracle-worker]. The prevalent story is that everyone above ground has succumbed to an airborne disease and that this is the last bastion of humanity.

That is not the prevalent theory, however. The contemporary gang of doubters and conspiracy theorists follows Frank’s belief that they are subjects of a reality TV show and are merely being prodded and manipulated by the game-masters, Henry and his henchmen, under the guise of the apocalypse story. One “contestant,” Freddie, already bolted from the bunker months ago to find out the truth. He has never returned.

Adam does not believe that this is a television show. But he must decide to what degree he is willing to hedge his bets and yet break free from Henry’s maniacal machinations.
 
 
 
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Review: “Horses” by Livia Llewellyn

2 of 5 stars.

Appearing in After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran, this short story takes us on a psychological roller coaster. Angela Kingston, who has only recently discovered that she is pregnant, is part of a small team tasked with deploying one of many nuclear missiles getting launched in a world-wide war. Mutual destruction is ensured and a radiation apocalypse begins.

Written as a psychological mind trip, Kingston struggles very quickly with whether to abort the pregnancy or not, take her own life also or not, or strive to survive in a rumored underground bunker possibly keeping the child, too. Much of what happens on the day of the nuclear apocalypse is a disturbing pleasure to read. The accounts largely feel realistic, though at times confusing and of confused motivation. Then, a very large period of time elapses without explanation. That jump effectively severed my connection to the story that I was enjoying.

There had been other drawbacks: the inexplicable sub-headings, the heavy-handed metaphors linking the pregnancy to the nuclear weapon. [“[The missile] powers up, gathering every single bit of energy into herself, readying for birth.” “Above, the great doors are sliding open, spreading apart like a woman’s willing legs.”] The time jump was too much for me as I no longer believed the main character nor anything written after that point.
 
 
 
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Review: “True North” by M. J. Locke

3 of 5 stars.

This story appears in After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran. After a global, environmental meltdown in the mid-2080s, the middle swaths of the globe have become uninhabitable. The US has devolved into a patchwork of warlords north of the 40th parallel and become largely unpopulated south of it. The Canadian Arctic Ocean and its melted tundras is the new promised land for North American civilization.

It is now Spring of 2099. The heart of the story is “Bear” (Lewis Behrend) Jessen, a giant of a rural, survivalist in Montana about 6-months widowed from his beloved companion, Orla. His daily talks and grumbles to Orla keep him going begrudgingly. His house is off the beaten path and well-stocked with food and medical supplies to last him a few more years.

Two forces converge on his sanctuary within days. The first is Patricia [“Patty”] de le Montana Vargas from Mexico City en route to the Arctic Circle. The second is wild fires threatening to blow in from the west. The two forces combine to reshape Bear’s view of the world and his role in it.

The first half of this story is worth more than the 3 stars I’m giving it. Bear’s way of seeing the world and telling his history is fascinating and beautiful. From there, the story starts to pick up action which holds some excitement, but I also found some of the character connections a bit too convenient to be believable. There are also a couple abrupt jumps in plot that I wanted to know more about. I liked it when Bear set the pace. His story is a pleasure.
 
 
 
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Review: Alpha Gene

Alpha Gene
Alpha Gene by Angel M. Huerta
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This children’s novel, almost appropriate for pre-teens and early teens (more on that later), is two stories woven into one. The better story that should have been the focus of the book, is about a club of pre-teens in which each has a superpower that s/he is trying to come to grips with. These kids are also learning to navigate the more complicated landscape of early-dating, puberty, school, fears and bullying. This is a well established fantasy trope with the superpowers making a wonderful metaphor for the physical and social changes that occur at this point in the kids’ lives. The ultimate theme for the book would have been learning to accept one’s individuality and strengths. It also delivers a decent message about the importance of over-coming bullying, not just for oneself but for everyone.

Unfortunately, this is treated as the lesser of the two stories. Also, the novel thinks that it is a work of science fiction and not fantasy, but the science is so very misguided and yet authoritative that I would NOT recommend this for kids because of the disinformation that it is spreading. The ultimate problem is in the choice of narrator, Dr. Lucas McKenna. I liked the character for the first chapter in which he proves himself to be a folksy doddering, old fool of a scientist and businessman. He sees himself as a beyond-brilliant scientist on the verge of a Nobel Prize. The book also wants him to be regarded as the latter . . . oops. This “brilliant scientist” authoritatively mis-identifies a frog as a reptile [which is no small mistake] and believes in and espouses spontaneous evolution across an entire species rather than the actual, accepted notion of natural selection. The narrator also misuses the term “theory” to mean “hypothesis;” this is a gaffe made by non-scientists, not credible Nobel Laureates. The biggest skewing is in the explanation of “brain science.”

Fantasy does not need the “science” to make sense even when a story includes a scientist as they so often do: The Fantastic Four, Spiderman, Superman, the X-Men, The Hulk, Captain America etc. All of these heroes with special abilities have back-stories that involve a transformation or emergence with a very loose science-y explanation. However, they do not get so caught up in their false-science that they take on an authoritative tone. One would not walk away from one of these stories thinking that they had just learned something scientific in the process. It is not speculative-science that they rely on, but rather magic-science, ie fantasy-science, ie NOT science. Alpha Gene thinks it is espousing science as it simultaneously mangles it beyond recognition.

I would have thought better of this book without the Dr. McKenna character. His story which is supposed to take the front seat could have been included without his mentor-teacher character. As a secondary story-line beneath the pre-teens learning about their bodies and dealing with bullies themes, there could have been a thread following “evil” scientists wanting to “study” these good, wholesome kids-come-superheroes. There are many reasons to not trust this narrator [not that trusting a narrator is required, but this book wants you to trust him and his judgment]. 1) He’s established as a doddering fool in the first chapter. 2) He is present in less than 10% of the scenes. Yet, he even tells back-stories about kids that take place elsewhere. I cannot imagine for a second that these kids or their parents would have told him this much. 3) His folksy generalizations about all people did not ring true. [“The boy didn’t have any fond memories of the place–of course, no one does when it comes to cemeteries.” Well, I’m someone, and I have good cemetery memories.]

I was excited to read this book based on the advertising blurb. And I was doubly excited to receive a free, autographed copy through Goodreads’ First Reads. That’s where the excitement ended. I do not recommend this book.
 
 
 
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Review: “The Fifth Star in the Southern Cross” by Margo Lanagan

2 of 5 stars.

Appearing in After the End: Recent Apocalypses edited by Paula Guran, this very short story [no more than ten pages] embraces the grotesque. This move takes it a few notches beyond dystopian, unfortunately I also feel that the story should have lengthened up to tell more and to develop more fully. What we are given is worth a deeper investment than its brevity allows in that this story is so far removed from others I’ve seen.

Earth has succumbed to an alien apocalypse. The aliens have made themselves at home, but to what extent and for how long now we don’t know. The only aliens we see are a prostitute, Malka, and “her” baby being birthed. Our narrator Jonah, who paid for the prostitute, is a cad to the umpteenth degree and the only male human in the story. It is tempting, based on our view of him, to label the story as man-hating as this character is so detestable. However, every type of person is given the same treatment. Jonah spouts homophobic vitriol and yet assures us that the fudgepackers have been wiped out. Both our narrator and the story manage to treat women with equal disdain. The only female we see, Fenella, is a former one-night-stand of Jonah’s. The grotesque is quite physical in descriptions of her: EurOwsian beggar-girl was . . . a bundle like someone’s dumped house-rubbish. She crinkled and rustled . . . . shaven-headed and scabby-lipped. . . . She beamed and licked away another drop of blood.

Jonah’s world is immersive and bleak. The author treats everyone with disdain. This is where I was left wanting more. How could society and the human species have socially devolved to this degree? I don’t doubt it–I want to understand it. It is made clear the humans don’t have real relationships anymore; those are things of social myth at this point. Human genetics has been faltering with most people unable to viably reproduce. The why remains unanswered. The human infants that are “created”, surrogated and raised [all by different females] seem to emerge from a system worth exploring. [Also hinted at are power-shortages and other failures of modern urbanity, yet no consequences or causes are offered here either.] My curiosity is worthy of two stars, but my lack of satisfaction holds my rating there. Possibly, this story needs the full novel treatment. The question then is if the reader could suffer hundreds of pages with a narrator as detestable as Jonah.

I should offer a quick side note as to why I have tagged this review as “queer” with its dearth of queer characters and its insufferable treatment of the exterminated queer populous. In short, queer does not equate to queer-positive nor does it imply that there is a major queer character though one of these scenarios is usually the case. Queer means inclusive of something beyond the hetero-normative society. In the case of this story, hetero-normative society is no-more. It has imploded [albeit taking the homos out with it]. Nothing could be further disrupting of the hetero-normative society than destroying it. The narrator even replaces interactions with human females opting to fornicate with aliens of indeterminate gender. Also, the entire reproductive element of society is redefined. I, personally, get tired of “alien” societies that are overly human down to the racial tropes and bi-gender, hetero-normative social construction of modern Earth.
 
 
 
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