Category Archives: 2012 Speculative Fiction Challenge

After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh

After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh

Small Beer Press, East Hampton, 2011

From my TBR pile.

Throughout high school, college and into my young adulthood I read science fiction.  Ray Bradbury, Ursula LeGuin, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, Anne McCaffery,  Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Harlen Ellison and many other authors held my attention for a decade or more.  I carried beat-up copies of Dune and A Canticle for Leibowitz as I hitch-hiked around New England.  I named my cats Ylla,  Gandalf and Genly (there was, of course, fantasy mixed in).

Then somehow I drifted away.  Once in a while I’d pick up a sci fi book, some I liked, most just didn’t grab me.  Was I growing away from the genre?  Did I feel too “grown-up” to read science fiction?  I don’t really know.

Luckily, in the late eighties, I discovered a bookstore in my neighborhood that was entirely devoted to science fiction and fantasy.  There I found William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Gene Wolfe, Jane Yolen, Emma Bull, Neal Stephenson and many others, including Maureen McHugh.  I have never looked back.

After the Apocalypse is a collection of short stories about, well, life after the apocalypse.   But these stories feel real, they ask what such a world would really feel like.  Disasters have happened somewhere else, a dirty bomb in Philly or a massacre at DisneyWorld.  A mad-cow like disease entering the food system through something as innocuous as chicken nuggets.    These stories are about how American people cope, or fail to cope.  Simple, spare and devastating, sometimes even funny, they are filled with the unexpected and completely mundane.  These things could really happen, maybe even have happened.

McHugh is smart, her stories are smart, and the possibilities they hold are utterly frightening.  If you’re paranoid, you might want to skip this one.

Because I don’t read science fiction magazines this is my first time with McHugh’s shorter works.  I love her novels and have now added her first story collection, Mothers & Other Monsters to my wish list.

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Seed by Rob Ziegler

Seed by Rob Zielger

Night Shade Books, San Francisco, 2011

From my library TBR list.  With a recommendation from Paolo Bacigalupi, author of The Windup Girl, I wanted to read this one when I first saw it on the Night Shade Books website.

At the beginning of the 22nd century most of the United States has become a dust bowl, ravaged by violent waves of unpredictable weather.  Migrants, ragged and hungry, travel from place to place, on foot or in rigged-up vehicles,gathering Seed from government depots and hoping to find a place to grow and harvest a crop, enough food to last until the next harvest, never knowing when that will be.  They are swayed by prairie saints and harassed by La Chupacabra, a gang of violent thieves.

Seed is bio-engineered and precious, marked by a tiny barcode.   Made by Satori, a living,  growing animal of a city, controlled by the Designers, and genetically coded to be sterile,  it is the only source of food available, and the Government struggles to control  it.  Satori’s Designers, bio-engineered themselves, have minds of their own and have created modified humans as laborers and security forces.  And there is Tet, a deadly virus slowly spreading through the population.

Ziegler has written a dystopian western, filled with shoot-outs and clipped dialogue.  His use of imminent climate change and terminator technology turns this first novel towards speculative fiction.  It is messy, violent and I found it a quick, disturbing read.

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Anathem by Neal Stephenson

Anathem By Neal Stephenson

William Morrow, New York, 2008

From my library hold list.

I have been a Stephenson fan since reading Snow Crash in the early ’90s.  It is one of those books that I return to again and again and it always seems to be several steps ahead of  modern techno-culture.

Anathem is 900+ pages.  Reading it felt taking a step back in time and ending up thousands of years in the future.

On the planet called Ambre,  Fraa Erasmas, a young Avout living in a monastery-like community called a Concent, is happy to take part in rituals he and his cohorts do not really understand.  He spends most of his time in deep dialog with his teachers.  Avouts are intellectuals, removed from society and all technology,  like monks or nuns.  Concents are walled compounds and members are grouped into Maths, based on the study of certain disciplines and on lengths of time.  Members of Maths are allowed to enter society during a yearly 10 day event called an Apert.   Depending on their Math, Avouts take part in this celebration every year,  every ten years,  or every hundred years. Then there are the Millenniums.  The rest of the time Avouts are sequestered in their Concert unless called upon to help the outside world is a matter that requires scientific or theoretical problem solving.

Erasmas’ teacher, Orolo, has discovered a strange ship circling the planet and manages to take pictures of it. This sets off a series of events that has Orolo expelled from his community and the secular and political society calling on members of Concents from all over Ambre to help determine what the ship is and where it comes from.

Simple, huh?  The thing about Stephenson is things are never simple.  I spent the first couple hundred pages flipping back to the glossary, learning what all the terms meant.  Ambre itself seems earth-like but  reversed and regressed.  Concents are intellectual and time is spent discussing mathematics, physics and philosophy.  Thinking is their avocation and the spiritual is intellectual.

Outside, in the Sæcular world, there is commerce, technology and religion, very like our own. We learn that thousands of years of war and peace have developed this divided society.  I am fascinated by Stephensen’s ability to create a world that is so like our own and yet so different.  He states that his inspiration for Anathem comes from the Long Now Foundation and their 10,000 year clock.  Long Now is an organization I have following for several years.

I devoured Anathem over a period of four days and only found a few bits that didn’t quite work for me.   The end feels rushed and left some questions unanswered.  There is no way I can write about Anathem in any way that does it justice.  If you are fascinated by the history of human thought, by philosophy and science, and are a fan of science fiction you will enjoy this book.

Now I think I am ready for Stephenson’s newest novel,  Reamde.   It is over 1,000 pages long.

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Filed under 2012 Speculative Fiction Challenge, Review, Sci-Fi Experience, SciFi