In any anthology, there are usually one or two stories — occasionally more — that just do not speak to me. I read the first few pages, then … thump … my interest flags and I find myself flipping through the pages to find the end. And hoping that the next story will revive my excitement. This is not to suggest that the stories are not good or that the editor failed to select well; it merely means that some stories do not appeal to my particular (and sometimes peculiar) taste.
When I opened the package that was delivered two evenings ago, I had great expectations for Datlow and Windling’s After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia. The cover art was spectacular. I know that cover art is in some senses irrelevant to content, but in this case, the jacket design seemed perfectly apt for what I hoped to find between the covers. And beyond that, the cover simply felt perfect — slightly nubbly, almost as if it were beginning to decay after whatever cataclysm had destroyed the city and left the single man as witness.
Then I began reading. And read. And read.
And never slowed or stopped. Not one story in After was other than what I had hoped for … engaging, thought-provoking, imaginative. The authors — and the editors — did everything right.
1. The Apocalypse:
The wrong way:
For aficionados of the late, great 1950s SF/Horror films, the wrong way to begin a post-apocalyptic tale will sound familiar. A voice — deep, resonant, rather like the voice of God — speaks while the screen shows planet Earth. The voice says something like: “In the year 2050 the nations of Earth finally came close to annihilating themselves and destroyed all but our plucky band of survivors living in a tiny valley, protected from the fallout and the atomic mutants.” In other words, the setting is explained before the story actually begins. The disaster is described, its consequences enumerated, and then — finally — we meet our characters.
The right way:
At the core of each story in After is a cataclysm, a disaster, an apocalypse. The word goes back to a Greek root meaning ‘to uncover, to reveal.’ That is precisely what the nineteen authors — including some of the finest in contemporary horror — have done. Rather than taking the easy way (easy for writers and for readers) of setting the stage by describing in great detail what has just happened, they allow readers to ‘discover’ the nature of the catastrophes that have overtaken their characters and their characters’ worlds. In several instances, we never find out exactly what did happen, but the after-effects are so horrific that the causes begin to seem irrelevant. Whether by accident or design, something was unleashed or released, and all humanity, represented by the characters, have suffered and will suffer from it.
In one story, in fact — Matthew Kressel’s “The Great Game at the End of the World” — there is no reason given at all. Told in flashback during the world’s last baseball game, the story simply shows the main character in school … when something happens and the walls collapse and several of his friends are lying there dead and only he, apparently, has survived. He eventually finds his sister, a few others, and a number of Creepies, alien creatures that have for some reason attended the event. This story actually comes closest to the fundamental, theological definition of the word; the revelation of God. Sort of.
The wrong way:
In weakly thought-through apocalyptic fiction, at some point one character looks into another’s eyes and says something like, “Oh, don’t you wish things were like they used to be, before that rogue asteroid the scientists named Montieth-Cummings AG22141 veered for some unknown reason from its path past the earth, shattered the dark side of the moon, and caused that mysterious dust to fall over everything so that now everyone who has ever died has risen as either a zombie or a vampire. Oh, for the good old days.”
This is the least effective way to identify what has happened and its consequences for the characters, if for no other reason that humans — particularly humans under stress — don’t generally talk this way. They use short-cuts for long phrases, clipped forms for longer, unfamiliar words … and seldom rehearse the details of a cataclysm to someone else who already knows them, at least not in this blunt a format. The result is stilted, it is unconvincing, and — most deadening of all — it stops the action until the indigestible lump of exposition is finished. By then, of course, it is entirely possible that the reader has gone elsewhere for a stronger story.
The right way:
In After, the writers and their characters rarely discuss the catastrophes in any but terms of effects. One of the few that describes it directly is Gregory Maguire’s challenging “How Th’Irth Wint Rong by Hapless Joey@ homeskool.guv.” Most of the story is told — hand-written on paper — by an uneducated survivor struggling to put his memories into words … and to spell them correctly. There are a few interruptions by his tutor, whose literary expertise barely exceeds his. But Maguire reserves the key bit of data (“the SuperCollider collapsed”) for a character outside the limits of the story, punctuating the irony of Joey’s attempts to express something he will never understand. In another, “Rust with Wings” by Stephen Gould, there is no effort at all to explain how it came about that metallic-colored metal-devouring insects have destroyed great swaths of the Southwest. It is sufficient to know that they have … and that the characters know no more about their genesis that the readers do.
In effect, readers are encouraged to discover the ramifications of the disaster along with characters. In a world in which everyone fifteen and older transforms into a ravaging, flesh-eating beast — as in Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Easthound” — the key is not why? But rather what happens when characters realize that they are approaching that age and how the recognition alters their views of relationships, of kindred, of self.
The Aliens (if any):
The wrong way:
Once more I’m drawn to images from ’50s SF movies when considering the wrong way to deal with aliens. Again and again, at some point in those great old films, the creature from beyond steps into the camera frame … with ludicrous results. A disembodied puppet-head glowering menacingly from inside a clear sphere. Something resembling a giant carrot shuffling down the corridors of an arctic outpost. And — perhaps my favorite — gigantic eyeballs pulling themselves along with ridiculously frail tentacles. In each case, the intention was (presumably) to horrify, yet by giving too much detail, by showing the mechanical horrors too clearly, too crisply, the films achieved the opposite result (and I’m old enough to remember not being frightened by them when they first appeared).
The right way:
The aliens (in the several stories that depend upon them) are not shown landing and taking over the earth; that is not the point of the anthology. In several instances, as in Garth Nix’s “You Won’t Feel a Thing,” the invaders — in Nix’s story simply the “Overlords” — are not shown at all. Instead, the stories emphasize the effects of their presence on the survivors.
Lines between alien and human may blur as the consequences of apocalyptic change emerge. Genetics and genetic manipulation may transform humans into chimeras. Aliens may accompany the disruption of the earth, may comment on events, may even participate in the last baseball game on the planet — but the stories remain bound to the humans involved. Their sufferings, their discoveries, their lives and deaths give After its extraordinary power.
The wrong way:
The easiest way to suggest a post-apocalyptic world is to fiddle with the language. Unless the writer is as brilliant as Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange — in which he provides details about the overthrow of England by the Russians only through neologisms and portmanteau words — most attempts to do so come across as strained dialogue or narration filled with agglomerations of unpronounceable consonants that, for weaker writers, represent alien intelligences.
The right way:
Instead, in After, language is used almost as a character; the distance between today’s speech and the characters’ languages reflects the impact of the disaster. What has disappeared leaves behind few words to linger over despondently; instead, new words are generated to define new realities, or old words take on new meanings … and readers must intuit those meanings as part of the discovery. Hairies, counters, the Rosamund, the Rehabilitated, THE EVENT, THE BEFORE, THE AFTER, the sprouteds … these and many other words/phrases take on significance far beyond their usual meanings as they become opportunities for discovery.
The wrong way:
Many stories have an underlying message — a theme — that the writer wishes to illuminate. In the hands of someone unsure of the story’s ability to exist first as a story and secondarily as a message, there are occasional moments when the author emerges through the texture of the tale to state the moral outright. In the 19th century, it was acceptable to find sentences such as, “And thus, Dear Reader, we find that little children should always respect and obey their elders lest they, too, be eaten by the Great Golliwog hiding beneath the stairs!” In the 21st, even though such overtness is generally frowned upon, it nonetheless persists.
The right way:
Again, in After, only rarely does theme rise directly to the surface. Perhaps closest to an allegory, in which characters represent particular personality traits and hence become flat figures manipulated by a moral, is Sarah Rees Brennan’s tale of Fair Rosamond, the objectified prize to be handed over to the single survivor of the Trial … as a way of eliminating a generation of young men who might otherwise cause civil unrest. Set in the future, it carefully builds on fairy-tale/Arthurian motifs, even including characters’ names: Rosamond, Yvain, and the Order Knights. It does not, however, point to a specific moral until the final line, when Rosamond’s desires and the storyline merge in a single, statement that is at once both culmination and declaration. With her final words, we understand — without being told over and again — that the story has been about freeing women from shackles of male domination and expectation. It is carefully, effectively, and beautifully handled throughout.
Others stories touch upon theme. Some virtually challenge readers to sit back and think about how the story relates to Before, that is, to their own word. Through concerns about runaway technology, aggressiveness and mindless warfare, class struggles, unhampered belief systems (both theological and scientific), and Earth’s place in the universe itself, After offers imaginative, explorative, speculative visions of possibilities and consequences, without descending into indoctrination or propaganda. The stories are, and remain, essentially excellent stories.
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