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by Maureen F. McHugh

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-931520-29-4
Publisher: Small Beer Press

All our worst dystopian fears are realized in this grim collection.

McHugh’s stories (many previously published in SF and fantasy magazines) depict the many faces of social collapse. Worst-case scenarios abound: bird flu epidemics, dirty bombs, plagues spread by chicken nuggets, Mexican drug cartels and computer systems morphing into something sentient and malign. "The Naturalist" is set in the zombie preserve formerly known as Cleveland, where, during another Supreme Court retrenchment of constitutional protections for prison inmates, convicts are dumped to fend for themselves. The story’s protagonist, Cahill, finds he actually enjoys feeding his fellow prisoners to the zombies, like a bemused birder setting out suet. "Special Economics" takes the plight of Chinese factory workers to extreme lengths—they have to moonlight illegally to pay off their ever-mounting debt to their employer. The rather wan "Going to France" loses momentum after a few Francophiles take wing without benefit of aircraft. "The Kingdom of the Blind" is merely tedious, mimicking David Foster Wallace with none of his complexity or humor, and "After the Apocalypse" and "The Naturalist" cover George Saunders territory without his excoriating wit. The stories are more poignant when their premises are less speculative. In "Useless Things," a sculptor living hand to mouth in Albuquerque discovers that the hobo code is now online and that fashioning dildos is a more profitable e-business than creating life-like infant dolls—her life off the grid is dictated by the present-day economy rather than by disaster or pestilence. In "Honeymoon," a woman who narrowly misses settling for marriage to a loser confronts the vagaries of chance when she volunteers for a deadly drug trial. Although an imaginary (for now) food-borne disease is the catalyst for "The Effect of Centrifugal Forces," the real catharsis inheres in the conflicting intentions of Irene, the daughter of an estranged lesbian couple, and her mother’s new partner Alice, a hoarder.

An uneven collection whose flashes of profundity are too often doused by dispassion.