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Michael Dirda reviews Maureen F. McHugh’s ‘After the Apocalypse: Stories’

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In the way of readers everywhere, I simply picked up “After the Apocalypse” and idly turned to the first page, without any particular expectations. Mainly, I just wondered what these stories were about, what Maureen F. McHugh’s voice sounded like. I did know that she had written “China Mountain Zhang,” a novel that had won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and that Small Beer Press specialized in literary fantasy and science fiction. This is how the first story, “The Naturalist,” begins:

“Cahill lived in the Flats with about twenty other guys in a place that used to be an Irish bar called Fado. At the back of the bar was the Cuyahoga River, good for protection since zombies didn’t cross the river.”

Zombies? In Cleveland?

At some point in the future, something happens — McHugh doesn’t quite say what — and cities suddenly begin to be plagued by zombies, so much so that it “seemed like the end of the world,” until the government got them “under control.” Cleveland, however, has been left a “zombie preserve” — and a dumping ground for hard-core inmates from prisons around the country. Inside the city, Cahill and various felons survive as well as they can, scavenging from deserted buildings, dodging the flesh-eaters, checking each other for telltale scratches after any encounter.

Still, “life in the zombie preserve really wasn’t as bad as Cahill had expected. He’d been dumped off the bus and then spent a day skulking around expecting zombies to come boiling out of the floor like rats and eat him alive. He’d heard that the life expectancy of a guy in a preserve was something like two and a half days.”

Luckily, Cahill joins a group that has fortified part of the Flats, once home to neon-lit bars and restaurants, with a perimeter of junked cars and rubbish, creating the kind of urban compound one associates with “Escape from New York” or “The Road Warrior.” Now zombies are mainly encountered only during scavenging forays into downtown. McHugh’s story really kicks in when a foraging party chances upon a zombie:

“She was black and her hair had once been in cornrows, though now half of it was loose and tangled. They all stopped and stood stock still. No one knew how zombies ‘saw’ people. Maybe infrared, like pit vipers. Maybe smell. Cahill could not tell from this far if she was sniffing. Or listening. Or maybe even tasting the air. Taste was one of the most primitive senses. Primitive as smell. Smelling with the tongue.

“She went from standing there to loping towards them. That was one of the things about zombies. They didn’t lean. They didn’t anticipate. One minute they were standing there, the next minute they were running towards you. They didn’t lead with their eyes or their chins. They were never surprised. They just were. As inexorable as rain. She didn’t look as she ran, even though she was running through debris and rubble, placing her feet and sometimes barely leaping.”

And then she is on them, and the men start to swing their heavy metal pipes.

McHugh’s narrative pace never lets up, though “The Naturalist” soon morphs into something far more than just a zombie horror story. Cahill wants to understand the creatures, and he’s willing to go to inhuman lengths to do so.

I read “The Naturalist” straight through and then, ignoring the usual advice to wait a while before starting the next story in a collection, kept right on going to “Special Economics.” It focuses on a young girl making a little money by performing hip-hop in a Chinese market, one that overflows with second-hand stuff: “When over a quarter of a billion people died in four years, there was a lot of second-hand stuff.” The cause, it turns out, was a massive bird flu epidemic. However, Jieling eventually finds a job working in a biotech factory, helping to make “bacterial computers,” largely for the American market. Before long, “Special Economics” segues into a study of friendship and survival.

Well, after that I couldn’t stop reading. In “Useless Things” an unnamed woman fabricates “reborns,” dolls that look like newborn infants. “The point is to make them look almost, but not quite, real. People prefer them a little cuter, a little more perfect than the real thing.” Living alone, the narrator depends on her dogs for protection and on a well that is going dry. Global warming has escalated dramatically, and people regularly head north, toward the Great Lakes. There are hints that the Southwest is reverting to tribalism.

Every story in “After the Apocalypse” takes place in the near future, and usually in the aftermath of some global disaster. In “The Kingdom of the Blind,” two programmers for a medical facility realize that their giant software system has achieved “awareness.” In “The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large,” a pair of dirty bombs explode in Baltimore, one at the Inner Harbor, the other near BWI. In “Going to France,” certain people gain the ability to fly. And in the last story, “After the Apocalypse,” a young mother and her junior-high-school-age daughter join the refugees heading toward Canada. In the wake of “the big Disney World attack where a kazillion people died,” the United States’s economy simply falls apart, and not even the natural bonds of family survive it.

McHugh possesses a wonderfully easygoing narrative voice, one that sucks you right into her stories, whether she’s focusing on convicts, computer nerds, Chinese teenagers, fat girls desperate for love or an amnesiac young man suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Think of “After the Apocalypse” as a series of Phildickian futures, as seen through the eyes of working-class characters out of Jayne Anne Phillips. The nightmarish surroundings quicken each story’s sense of threat and danger, but the real interest remains in depicting ordinary people trying to get on with their ordinary lives as best they can, despite diminished expectations or radically altered circumstances.

One last thing: If, for some reason, you are one of those people who still regard all science fiction as cowboy adventures in space, just try any of the stories in “After the Apocalypse.” I’m willing to bet that you won’t be able to read just one.

Dirda reviews each Thursday in Style and conducts a book discussion for The Post at wapo.st/reading-room. His latest book, “On Conan Doyle,” has just been published.

“After the Apocalypse” Stories By Maureen F. McHugh Small Beer. 264 pp. $16

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