After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia by editors Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling
When I saw the new Datlow and Windling anthology After: Nineteen Stories of Apocalypse and Dystopia, I was so excited. I love YA fiction, I love dyslit, I love short story anthologies and I love Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling as editors, so I figured it was a match made in heaven. Unfortunately, my reading experience didn’t live up to my expectations.
After is an anthology of short stories set after. After what? Alien invasion, plague, environmental collapse, asteroid strike, it doesn’t matter. Just after. This leaves a lot of room for the authors to be creative, as they all can choose different afters to explore, and it leaves the anthology feeling a bit disjointed as you hop from one disaster to another. Technically, most of these stories are post-apocalyptic rather than dystopian, and the editors discuss the difference between the two genres, but they decided to keep the theme broad to allow full creative license. Authors you’ll find in After include Genevieve Valentine, Carrie Ryan, N.K. Jemisin, Katherine Langrish, Carol Emshwiller, Beth Revis, Matthew Kressel, Susan Beth Pfeffer, Jeffrey Ford, Richard Bowes, Gregory Maguire, Steven Gould, Sarah Rees Brennan, Nalo Hopkinson, Jane Yolen, Carolyn Dunn, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Garth Nix and Cecil Castelluci.
I am not a writer, but as a reader it seems to me that short stories must be hard to write. As a professor, I put maximum word limits on student assignments because it’s not hard to blather on endlessly, but to concisely form a compelling supported argument is a skill that has to be practiced. I assume that the word limit of a short story presents the same challenge.
Maybe that’s why several of the stories in After read like first chapters of novels rather than actual short stories. Steven Gould’s “Rust with Wings” and Sarah Rees Brennan’s “Faint Heart” were both excellent first chapters. Interesting worlds, well developed characters, but both left me saying, “Now what?” at the end. Short stories don’t necessarily need to conclude every story line — even novels don’t do that — but these lacked any resolution. “The Other Elder” by Beth Revis is a good example of a story that managed to create a resolution, a meaningful pause and restart of the cycle, without actually having a conclusion per se. Revis’s story plays most strongly with the idea of the Platonic utopia, for which I have a soft place in my heart.
The other strongest stories in After include “After the Cure” by Carrie Ryan, an examination of how a society responds to and includes or discriminates against those who are cured of a disease that turned them into ravening beasts. Vail is a thoughtful, compassionate and flawed heroine and an evocative center to this thought-provoking story.
Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Fake Plastic Trees” (Radiohead shout out!) tells of a world where a nanoreplicator disaster has turned three quarters of the world into plastic. It’s a story of human nature, the power of hope, and the ability of people to ignore inconvenient truths when they are overwhelmed with daily reality.
Finally, “The Great Game at the End of the World” by Matthew Kressel, though showing a complete and reprehensible lack of understanding of the basic laws of physics, is going to be excused and I’m going to just count it as fantasy because of the haunting visuals of a little girl ordering ghosts to commit suicide by jumping off the edge of the fragment of the world she inhabits. “The Great Game” is a mesmerizing story that investigates the bonds of family, religious belief, and existence in the face of nihilistic entropy.
Anthologies are always tricky. Rarely do you get a volume where all the stories are excellent, so rating the book as a whole always seems to be a difficult endeavor. I liken it to panning for gold. Sometimes, you hit it lucky and get a huge nugget but, frequently, you have to sort out the smaller fragments from the river rock. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend buying After. There are too many stories that just lacked originality or emotional impact. I would recommend checking it out of the library and reading the stories I mentioned. They are all worth the investment of time. I also recommend the closing essay on dystopian literature which includes a discussion of the term and a recommended reading list for further enjoyment.