I wish to open this review of the most recent YA anthology from Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (lately out in paperback) by quoting from the introduction, as it sums up this book just as well as I could, and far more succinctly.
“We’ve chosen to take a broader road in the creation of this anthology, including both dystopian and post-disaster tales (as well as stories that fall on the spectrum between) in order to reflect the wide range of dyslit beloved by teen readers today...
“Our anthology sprang from a simple idea: to see out writers who share our love for dystopian and post-apocalyptic tales, and to ask them to please write stories for us about what happens after.”
In this case, the “after” stands for after any sort of disaster, be it war or plague, aliens or technological collapse. Nineteen authors answered the call to arms, and the results were…interesting, to say the least.
“The Segment,” by Genevieve Valentine, is the first story out of the starting gates, and it’s a strange, disturbing look at what happens when reality shows and the news collide, and actors are hired to stage the news, which becomes a worrying statement on fame, exposure, and the expendability of our stars.
Carrie Ryan enters a post-zombie world in “After the Cure.” Sure, they may have found a cure for the pandemic that turned ordinary people into raging monsters, but rehabilitation and reintegration turns out to be much harder than anyone expected. We rarely ask ourselves what happens if humans survive the zombie (or equivalent) apocalypse, and this is a dark look at one such possibility.
N.K. Jemisin’s “Valedictorian” examines the role of humanity in a world dominated by machines and AIs, and the cost of being too stupid…or too smart. The set-up is intriguing, the outcome is uncertain, and I desperately want to know what happens next.
In Carol Emshwiller’s “All I Know of Freedom,” a young woman escapes an untenable situation at home, before falling in with an apocalyptic cult building a spaceship with which to escape a doomed Earth. Faced with the chance to make her own choices, will our heroine stay or go?
Matthew Kressel’s “The Great Game at the End of the World” is bizarre, almost surreal. Framed around a nightmarish baseball game, a young man and his sister experience the before and after of an apocalypse which transforms the world and turns ordinary people into unthinking drones. It’s about acceptance and redemption…or maybe just about that last home run.
Susan Beth Pfeffer takes a different approach, with “Reunion,” in which a mother desperately attempts to find her long-lost daughter after the fall of a dictator and the collapse of his regime (which feels like a cross between North Korea and certain war-torn African nations). This one’s more of a psychological piece, dwelling on the horror of war, with plenty of give-and-take between the characters as they determine what’s real and what’s false.
Jeffrey Ford’s “Blood Drive” is a brutal, violent, even unsettling piece. In a society where everyone goes armed, even to school, and where getting your first gun is a rite of passage, violence becomes devalued, and human life is almost worthless. It’s almost like an assault on the senses, and painfully, perversely evocative of the school shootings which have become a plague in their own right.
“Reality Girl,” by Richard Bowes, is more of a straight-up science fiction thriller, as teens dive for treasure in a toxic, drowned, post-apocalyptic America, while tourists look on disdainfully. When a popular show comes to film and use them as a backdrop, and things go awry, it’s up to “Real” and her friends to save the day. A fun, fast-paced story.
Steven Gould’s “Rust With Wings” acts as a prologue to his post-apocalyptic novel, 7th Sigma. When a family is caught right in the middle of an outbreak of metal-eating bugs, they must use all of their wits and resources to survive.
In “Faint Heart,” by Sarah Rees Brennan, a post-apocalyptic society emulates the myths of old by constructing a labyrinth, into which young men are sent in order to win the hand of the loveliest woman ever created. The time has come for another generation to send their teenage boys into the labyrinth to fight and die…but what happens when the grand prize, the queen herself, balks at being something to be won? Brennan cleverly subverts a number of tropes, even as she invokes the spirit of the Hunger Games and its ilk. Again, this is a story where I desperately want to know what happens next, and what Queen Rosamund’s ultimate fate is.
Cecil Castellucci’s “The Marker” explores a world where genetics and religion are intertwined, where survival depends on possessing certain genetic markers in your code. All babies must be tested. Failure means certain death. But what happens when people get sick and die despite passing the test? Now it’s up to one young apprentice Pater to figure out what’s gone wrong.
Other stories by Katherine Langrish, Beth Revis, Gregory McGuire, Nalo Hopkinson, Carolyn Dunn, Caitlin Kiernan, and Garth Nix, round out the collection, as well as a poem by Jane Yolen. As usual, Datlow and Windling also add an informative and interesting afterward where talk about the history and evolution of the so-called dyslit.
So what’s my take on the anthology? Mixed. Some truly memorable and excellent stories, like those by Sarah Rees Brennan, Richard Bowes, Genevieve Valentine, and N.K. Jemisin. A few that I just couldn’t get into for one reason or another. A lot which were enjoyable if not spectacular. They definitely covered a wide range of themes, moods, and disasters—everything from monsters to aliens, science gone wild to the Rapture—and while some were mood-killers, others lifted the spirits. It’s an all-star cast of YA and science fiction authors, many of whom bring their A-game to the table. As with any collection, you take a gamble based on theme and contributors. But Datlow and Windling rarely stray far from excellence, and overall, this was a satisfying anthology. Worth checking out if you’re into YA, post-apocalyptic/dystopian fiction, or at least half the authors mentioned above.
After is available now from Disney-Hyperion.
Michael M. Jones is a writer, editor, and book reviewer. He lives in Southwest VA, with a pride of cats, way too many books, and a wife who translates Geek-to-Mundane for him. He is the self-proclaimed High Pornomancer of the Golden Horde, and the editor of Scheherazade’s Façade. For more information, visit him and an ever-growing archive of reviews at Schrodinger’s Bookshelf.