For those unaware of how popular post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories are with the demographic known as young adult (YA) readers, consider for a moment the audience that made Suzanne Collins’ THE HUNGER GAMES (and its movie adaptation) such a surprising and huge success.
Celebrated genre-fiction editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have known about the popularity of “dyslit” for a long time, and AFTER is their collection of 19 original short stories from noted authors — several already familiar to the YA readership — about the aftermath of the world we once knew.
Well, make that “18 short stories and one poem,” since Jane Yolen’s contribution, “Gray,” is actually a mid-length piece of verse mostly describing the colorless world following some unnamed disaster, and somehow managing to end on a faint note of hope.
High school is still a shared experience and right-of-passage to adulthood in many of these stories. Jeffrey Ford’s “Blood Drive” is a first-person account of a dystopian future where bringing guns to school is not only common but expected, and child labor laws have, by necessity, been repealed. The students’ dim expectations are relayed in a frighteningly ironic slice-of-life tone. In “Valedictorian” by N.K. Jemisin, a high-achieving student learns of the mandated fate that awaits her after graduation in a post-war world created in a previous Jemisin story.
In “How Th’Irth Wint Rong by Hapless Joey @ Homeskool.Guv,” Gregory Maguire, author of WICKED, presents a devastated world trying to understand itself in a chilling story presented through Hapless Joey’s essay, written in crippled English, and the accompanying commentary by his teachers. Similarly, the lead character in Caitlin R. Kiernan’s “Fake Plastic Trees” is pressured by her friend to convey in writing an event from her recent past and the secrets it taught her about her post-apocalyptic world.
The collection ends with an afterword, in which the editors not only speculate on the reasons for dyslit’s popularity with young readers, but also present a thorough history of the subgenre, which doubles as a reliable reading list. Biographies of each contributor are also included. It’s all packaged in an attractively designed and reasonably priced hardcover edition with reinforced binding — all the better to withstand repeated readings by the owner and numerous trusted friends.
If it’s been a while since your teen years, don’t let the targeted YA audience deter you from AFTER. The contributors are all first-rate authors, and the stories are as moving and thought-provoking for adults as they are for their intended younger readers.
In fact, AFTER might even be considered mandatory reading for adults. Considering the current headlines, any of the imagined scenarios included in this collection may very well be the future we bequeath to the next generations. —Alan Cranis