My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Full disclosure: Maureen F. McHugh was one of my teachers at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop in 1996. I still use the method she taught to critique stories. She showed us, among other things, how to use significant details to make settings feel realistic.
Beyond that, I heard her read aloud one of the stories in this collection, “The Kingdom of the Blind,” at a Wiscon science fiction convention, and I loved it. I enjoyed the chance to read that story again in this anthology. It tells how a program in a large computer system begins to play with the lights in the hospitals it controls, and how the programers working with it slowly understand that the program has become sentient. Their interaction skirts comedy, but they also feel terrified by what they witness.
“The Naturalist” is a truly creepy zombie story that suggests the zombies aren’t the biggest evil.
“Special Economics” has little speculative fiction to it; instead the story looks at how manufacturing practices in China affect factory workers, and how they fight back. The story creates a believable portrait of people we rarely think about.
“Useless Things” shows how the gig economy leads to poverty.
“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” examines the aftermath of dirty nuclear bomb attacks, and while most of the story is strong, I felt dissatisfied by its conclusion, which peters out more than it sums up.
“Going to France” is about people flying, and again I felt dissatisfied by its conclusion. The narrator abandons the problem rather than solves it.
“Honeymoon” is really about poverty and its horrible choices, although I thought its ending didn’t reflect the strength of its theme.
“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” looks at how horrible illness breaks up a family, and it ends with a believable, logical disaster.
“After the Apocalypse” is just that: a woman and her child trying to survive after an apocalypse and to stay ahead of nihilism. It’s a good, gritty story, and we can see that they’re doomed.
Despite my quibbles, all the stories are worth reading. Each one focuses on individuals and makes them and their problems real and relevant. I was glad to spend some time with Maureen again, and I observed a few more ways to write well, too.
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