The Mammoth Book of Apocalyptic SF. (ed Mike Ashley, Robinson 2010)

Robinson have been publishing Gardner Dozois’ annual collection over here in the UK for two decades now, and Mike Ashley has been editing a lengthy list of ‘Mammoth’ SF anthologies of his own. This title is nice complement/counterpoint to Jetse de Vries’ near-future, optimistic anthology ‘Shine’, which I reviewed some months ago.

Ashley’s book is mostly reprints, but with half a dozen new stories by some big names, and it’s a must have collection.

The stories are presented in three sections – The Nature of the Catastrophe, Beyond Armageddon, The End of All Things.

Robert Silverberg’s ‘When We Went to See the End of the World’ opens, a Hugo nominee, and a Year’s Best selection after appearing in Universe 2 way back in 1972. My notes from reading it some years ago : “Against a backdrop of a society crumbling into crime and anarchy, the dinner party set swop notes of the latest de rigeur holiday destination : the end of the the world.”

Sushma Joshi’s ‘The End of the World’ was published in 2002 and is still online, and provides an alternative to a Western world-view.

Dominic Green’s ‘The Clockwork Atom Bomb’ appered in Interzone’s May/June 2005, but didn’t really work for me :

    “An interesting setting – a relatively near-future Africa, with that continent ravaged by civil war and hi-tech weaponry and ordinance. Mativi is a Weapon’s Inspector, and he is v-e-r-y disturbed at what he finds in the Congo – the locals have been disposing of increasing volumes of materials into ranked masses of machines, each of which contain a black hole at their centre. The setting, and the set-up are fine, but the denouement doesn’t quite reach the heights it could have. We hear of the potential damage that could be done should one of the black holes escape (memorably covered by Paul J McAuley in ‘How We Lost The Moon, A True Story by Frank W. Allen’). The rather blase treatment of a suicide of a Congolese official at the end jars, as does the use of the adjective ‘blacks’ at the beginning (“..made social parriahs (sic) of blacks all over Europe..”). Oh, and the illustrations… ”

but it was collected in Dozois’s Year’s Best, so what do I know!

Kate Wilhelm’s ‘Bloodletting’ first appeared in Omni, June 1994 and I read it here, noting

    “This is in fact a pre-apocalypse story – we find out exactly how a fatal virus gets out of the lab. Nothing too technical, the story is narrated by a wife and mother who is directly affected by the virus. She sits in her car by the coast, Wilhelm describing effectively the wind, rain and surf nearby as the woman reflects on recent events, her husband, children, and her husband’s work colleagues. The story is beautifully handled, with a couple of crime writer’s touches in it – a lovely female touch in referring to mundane events (shaving legs in the bath) becomes a form of Chekov’s gun. Understated throughout, and classy.”

Cory Doctorow’s ‘When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth’ was from Baen’s Universe, and a Year’s Best collectee, and a 2007 Locus Winner, and still online. When I read it at the time I wrote :

    “Deep in the basement of a computer network facility, fixing major network problems, an odd bunch of techies hovering at the edge of autistic spectrum disorders watch the world outside their air-conditioned, filtered building fall rapidly to its knees. Hi-tech and lo-tech terrors are unleashed, with the majority of the population falling to a fatal virus in a matter of hours. The ‘net may appear to be one route to salvation, but in the end any kind of future appears to be down to human strength and determination and collaboration. ”

Dale Bailey’s ‘The Rain at the End of the World’ first appeared in Fantasy & Science Fiction, July 2009. Linda Nagata’s ‘The Flood’ appeared in ‘More Amazing Stories’ in 1998. Frederik Pohl’s ‘Fermi and Frost’ first appeared in Asimovs in January 1985, and was collected in a couple of the Year’s Best volumes, and a Hugo winner. It’s a story with impact and I noted

    “Nuclear folly finally leaves the world a shattered place, thus solving Fermi’s Paradox. A young boy finds himself in Iceland, sufficiently far away from the fallout to provide a glimmer of hope through the nuclear winter. And perhaps to seeing the bigger future that Fermi pondered.”

Alastair Reynolds’ ‘Sleepover’ is new to this volume. I wrote:

    “Reynold’s ‘Sleepover’ starts closer to home than most of his stories. But don’t worry, horizons are expanded in due course. There’s a mystery to be uncovered at the start (Reynolds’ does like his mysteries) as Marcus Gaunt wakes up from a period of technologically-induced hibernation. He was one of the super-rich who took the opportunity to go into hibernation and wait for medicine to get to the point to offer immortality.

    Waking up he finds that it isn’t all a land of milk and honey. The only real issue with the story is that you have to accept that the protagonist is willing/able to wait several days for the truth to be gradually revealed to him – he doesn’t put his foot down and demand to know exactly what the fuck is going on and refusing to budge an inch until told.

    There’s some dramatic imagery effectively conjured up – a sea packed with what look like oil platforms. Except they aren’t mining oil, they’re looking after untold millions of humans in hibernation. No longer the prerogative of the privileged minority, pretty much all of humanity in now asleep.

    Just why is revealed, and without giving the game away, it’s way more complicated than rising sea levels. Ashley mentions in the opening notes that the story was dusted off from notes and work done on a projected novel that has yet to see the light of day. For my money, being a short story reader rather than a novel reader, Reynolds should produce further installments in short story form, eking the story out over several of our years as he works on his big novel contract! He’s left himself a whole world(s) of opportunity for broadening the story (as is also his wont).”

Geoffrey A. Landis’ ‘The Last Sunset’ first appeared in Asimovs in 1996, and William Barton’s ‘Moments of Inertia’ appeared in the April/May issue of Asimovs in 2004, and I wrote at the time:

    “Barton is one name I look out for in Asimovs, as his stories invariably stand out. This is a particularly interesting story as in the intro we learn that after starting the story Barton has an initial diagnosis of a fatal disease, which turned out to be incorrect. Subsequently finishing the story, we are told that it came out differently to that originally intended. The first half of the story is a jumble of recollections as humanity is about to be wiped out by an energy force making its way through the universe at near-light speed, destroying all in its wake.

    We are with the few remaining survivors on hand to watch the grand finale, staring skywards and trying to come to terms with everything simply ending. But, as Barton was in effect raised from the dead, so are our survivors, resurrected in a way not dissimilar to Philip Jose Farmer’s ‘Riverboat’ series. Those resurrecting do make an appearance, and those surviving are left to face an uncertain, if unlimited, future.

    The story doesn’t quite hit the heights for me, with Barton perhaps being a little too close to the topic to give it full justice. ”

Kage Baker’s ‘The Books’ is a new story, and indeed, her last story. I noted it was a fittingly good story to go out on:

    “A young boy is part of a travelling carnival show in a post-apocalyptic world. A lot of the interior of the US is arid desert, but life clings on by the coast, and indeed, the lights are just beginning to come back on. The joy of the story is the joy of the children who find themselves the time to explore a deserted city, and come across something called a … library.”

Robert Reed’s ‘The Pallbearer’ is another story new to the volume, and also strong :

    “It’s a cleverly constructed story, interweaving historical issues with his now-dead mother (whose religious objections to taking a plague jab perversely helped her family to survive), a wife who has been shunned by the extreme Christian community living in an Earth depopulated by plague, changes to that community that are happening, ecological change, and the key element of the story – a group who arrive in the township, passing through.

    But there’s more to the people passing through than meets the eye, and a lot is revealed, leaving the protagonist with a microcosmal issue of his own as to whether there is a price which is worth paying for a greater good. There’s a lot of issues handled in the story, all done through the impact of those issues on individuals, families and communities, done very cleverly, with strong characterisation.”

Elizabeth Bear’s ‘And the Deep Blue Sea’ appeared online on SCI FICTION in 2005, and I noted :

    “Post-apocalypse US, with war, geological and biological disasters having come hard upon each others heels. These modern day Horsemen of the Apocalypse are followed by Old Nick himself, or in Bear’s story, a new Nick, who has bargained with a young motorbike despatch rider. Harrie has been given an urgent job, to bike some stem-cell cultures from Phoenix to Sacramento. She revs up her big Kawasaki and takes to what is left of the roads. The grim radiation-blanketted desert is palably hot and stifling, but in meeting Nick halfway across the journey Hattie finds the pact she made some years ago has reached it alloted time. The grim, empty towns she drives through become locations from the past, where man made and natural disasters have fallen – Bhopal, Chernobyl. And finally she is trapped, with a burning, toxic river between her and safety. She has a choice to make, although, in truth there is only one course of action.

    The pact with the devil is the weaker part of the story, very much second fiddle to seeing through Harrie’s eyes the horrors which this future holds in store, and you can also feel yourself astride the Kawasaki, itself a stronger character than many humans in much SF. “

Damien Broderick’s ‘The Meek’ appeared in Synergy SF in 2004, and James Tiptree Jr.’s ‘The Man Who Walked Home’ appared in Amazing Science Fiction Stories in 1972, and has been a favourite of mine for many, many years.

    “A deceptive story about a time travel experiment which goes badly, badly wrong, with enormous implications for humanity. It spans several centuries of post-holocaust, bookended by John Delgano’s desperate attempt to get home. The contrast of the intense personal struggle of Delgano and that of the survivors of the holocaust gives the story a big impact. “

Fritz Leiber’s ‘A Pail of Air’ appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction way back in 1951, and Eric Brown’s ‘Guardians of the Phoenix’ is new to the volume, and when I reviewed it I wrote :

    “Brown effectively paints a bleak, desert and deserted Earth. Extremely hot, oceans dry, and with only a small number of humans remaining, ekeing out a life as best they can. Life is increasingly brutal, and short.

    There is some glimmer of hope for humanity, Project Phoenix, which has sent a crew of 500 on an interstellar journey – perhaps they are now on an alien planet, with a new hope. When two small groups of travellers come together, more about humanity, and Project Phoenix is revealed. And it ain’t all good.”

Paul Di Filippo’s ‘Life in the Anthropocene’ is also new to the volume, and a week or so ago I wrote :

    “As you would expect from Di Filippo, a somewhat lighter touch than most of the stories in the book, in his inimitable gonzo style.

    Climate change has had a big impact on Earth, anything between the 45th parallel north and south uninhabitable. But despite this, life goes on, just like today, only more so. Aurobindo Bandjalang is our erstwhile hero, moved out of his comfort zone by actually having to travel to investigate problems in a solar panel array some way distant.

    He has two colleagues forced on him, one a part-feline babe, the other an ultra-geek, in fact a ‘keek’, a ‘punctuated equilibriumist’. This latter phrase is a nicely erudite and nerdy touch – I remember the punctured equilibrium model from the mid-1990s used in the context of managing change : we have very much moved from a model of equilibrium only rarely punctuated by change, to one where change is the norm, and equilibrium the norm.

    One thing that doesn’t change though, is that the guy gets the girl/feline. But he also gets a whole heap of trouble with the ‘keek’. Nice to be reading a story by Di Filippo again – they’re getting way too rare!”

Jack Williamson’s ‘Transforming Terra’ appeared in Science Fiction Age in 1998, towards the end of the venerable writer’s l-o-n-g career. F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre’s ‘World Without End’ is new to this volume, written in a coarse vernacular to suit the narrator, not a nobel last man on Earth!

Stephen Baxter’s ‘The Children of Time’ appeared in Asimovs in 2005, whence I wrote :

    “A counterpoint to a number of Baxter’s stories which feature humanity spreading out throughout the Universe over the millenia and gradually changing to suit their environs, and others of his stories which have seen humanity make enforced changes to survive on a changing Earth. Here we see short episodes in the lives of several children, separated by aeons, as humanity barely changes, whilst Earth undergoes changes through fire, ice and tectonic changes. The omniscient narrator is present throughout, which doesn’t really work for me in this case (ie we don’t really need to know that a particular river used to be known as the Seine by previous generations), and to me the lack of change in humanity (the key point of the story) doesn’t quite ring true – I much preferred Baxter’s vision of humans taking on penguin-like characterists (‘Huddle’ F&SF May 1999). “

Last in the volume is Elizabeth Counihan’s ‘The Star Called Wormwood’,which appeared n Asimovs in 2004 and is clearly a story appropriately placed in the volume. When I read it previously in a festive issue of the magazine I noted

    “A return to the festive theme, as a comet which makes a visit to Earth only rarely, is a mute witness to humanity falling, and an inspiration for it rising again. “

Conclusion

An excellent collection, with some extremely strong new stories (some picked for the Year’s Best volumes to appear in 2011), and the remainder are classy and classic stories. But it from : amazon.com print | amazon.com kindle | amazon.co.uk print |
amazon.co.uk kindle

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