Asta, Emit, and Why I Fear the Near Future (Book Review)

Once a week, I write “Asta” and “emit” in the Washington Post’s daily crossword.1 Asta is the name of Nick and Nora’s dog from The Thin Man movie series. If you are completely ignorant of Nick, Nora, and Asta, then you have missed out on some of the best noir/comedy of the 1930s. These movies, their dialogue, and subject matter are borderline risqué and extremely funny. Intelligent script writing is good regardless of the day, or age. “Emit” is A) to throw or give off or out; B) to send out, eject. Both of these words are common answers to crossword puzzle questions. I am no long surprised when I see crossword questions asking for these two words. Either these two words are not common to most people (thus perfect for a crossword), or crossword puzzle designers are really lazy and keep repeating themselves. For the record, I do the crossword puzzle everyday and these are the only two words I see repeated almost weekly. I no longer fear questions about canine actors from the 1930s or verbs associated with the way light is projected from its source.

I do, however, have a fear of the near future. I don’t fear the future in general because I don’t think “future” really means anything when your time living is such a short time.2 There is no offspring from my loins, so as far as I am concerned all the ice caps can melt and flood every beach front condo. I don’t give a shit about what the world may be like in a 100 years. But the near future absolutely horrifies me. I am talking about the period of time that has yet to happen, but will if I continue to live and age. The future that may be my old age renders me into sloppy mess of shaking tears. When I am shitting myself, drooling, and unable to remember where I put the TV remote3 is not a time that I want the world to be going to Hell in a handbasket. It doesn’t help when I read books like After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh.4

ATA is a collection of short stories that imagine what the near future could be like. Yes there are zombies,5 but there is also stories about a mad bird disease, a harmless computer AI, climate change, and economic collapse. Maureen McHugh6 covers a lot of apocalypse bases, and each story seems to start and finish very quickly. The collection, itself, also seems to start and finish just as quickly.

Maureen McHugh is described as a literary Sci-Fi writer, and I have to take other reviewers’ opinions on this because I have not read anything else from her. However, the terms “literary” and “science fiction” may not be completely accurate based on my reading of ATA. “Literary” is meant to denote a piece of work that is more art-like and less vernacular or pop culture-like. McHugh’s writing is well-done, and her topics in these short stories are interesting, I don’t know if I would call them, or her, “literary.” “Science” and “fiction” are definitely appropriate considering these stories are fiction and there is a significant amount of science referenced and described in them. There isn’t an overabundance of science though, so it isn’t straight-up science nerd reading. Interestingly, literary is not a common word to associate with science fiction… and that may be why other reviewers have decided to describe her work as thus. This is not pulp reading, but it isn’t classical reading either.

Like music CD/records, the order in which the stories are arranged in a collection is as much a story as the individual pieces. Initially, I thought the stories couldn’t get much better after reading the first one (with zombies), but then the following pieces seem to flow from one apocalyptic theme to another. The ending to the final story truly disturbed me and made me realize that the collection’s arrangement was perfectly done. I finished this book disturbed and sorry it ended. Finishing the book also made me wonder if the transition from the first to last story was intentional. 

There wasn’t any true transition, and short story collections do not have to transition smoothly, yet there seemed to be a commonality to the stories. That commonality was how each story focused on how the main characters were everyday people,7 and how these apocalypses affect the lives of these people.

The title is a slight misnomer though. Not every story is actually after the apocalypse, some of them are a telling of imagined happenings during the apocalypse. In some cases the apocalypse doesn’t seem that important or world-changing. In the story about the discovery of a computer AI the reader is left sort of feeling “so what?”… but further reflection makes me think that was the author’s intent. The unanswered questions of “so what?” or “what’s next?” are reasonable considering the nature of predicting the future and the inexplicable fear some may have when pondering what’s next in their lives.8 Some of the apocalypse scenarios feel like slow burns. Slow burns can be far more scary that immediate flashes.

Popular apocalypse fiction likes to imagine a singular and profound event that drastically changes life quickly. ATA doesn’t offer quick disasters, nor do the scenarios feel like a quick end to life as we know it. Instead ATA provides more realistic apocalypse scenarios that show everyday people coping (or not) with a world that is slowly changing, or has changed but the characters are unable to comprehend that a change has occurred.

This, in the end, is the root of my personal fear of the near future… having to wonder which I would prefer: knowing a change has occurred and being bothered; or being unable to comprehend the significance of the change. Personally, death is a better option than having to live through either of these situations. But when I am old and sitting there in my adult diapers (while the world burns around me), I will know the four-letter word for “Cowardly dog owned by Nick and Nora?”

1. This may be an exaggeration, however, it happens enough for me to see a pattern.

2. However, I am pissed that flying cars are not common. I was promised flying cars, and damn it, I want flying cars. Blade Runner where are you?

3. I possibly do these sorts of things now, but I am not admitting it to you or myself.

4. Yep, another damn blog post that will include the word “apocalypse” numerous times. Like crossword puzzle designers, I too can be redundant.

5. Not enough zombies for my tastes. 

6. Maureen McHugh is the author of China Mountain Zhang and Nekropolis… I have read neither.

7. Primarily women, but of course that makes sense, the author is a woman.

8. One of my favorite “I-have-had-a-few-bourbons-so-let-me-ask-you-a-question” questions is “if the apocalypse happens, will refugees in Somali give a shit?”

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