Wastelands – Stories of the Apocalypse ed John Joseph Adams. Night Shade Books, 2008.

The book in hand is Wastelands : Stories of Life After Apocalypse, and it is a) and excellent book about life after the apocalypse and b) an advanced proof copy, accounting for the different title to the final version. I only make mention of this as the book a) is about life after the apocalypse, as opposed to the apocalypse (apocalypsi?) itself (themselves) and b) I’m a pedantic anally retentive librarian.

First up, my recommendation is to follow the links to the left and buy yourself a copy. Or else feel free to read the review and then buy the book. I must warn you that I’ve god a very heaby code and you may be at risk of contamination (hey, after reading the various means of viral nastiness in this book, I’m believing anything can be transmitted). My main concern with the streaming cold is the worry that my wife will pop into the Best SF office (the spare bedroom) and find me on the Internet with a waste paper tray full of used Kleenex…..

Adams starts the volume with an entertaining introduction outlining his personal interest in this sub-genre. He cites in the opening sentence the four horsemen : famine, death, war and pestilence. Funny that, but famine appears to have ousted Conquest (Wikipedia) – I’d have thought particularly in this day and age that Conquest would have been top of the list.

The collection starts strongly – almost too strongly – with Stephen King’s ‘The End of the Whole Mess’, originally published in Omni in 1986. My only beef with the story, as with some of King’s other work, is that you feel that you’re in the hands of someone who knows back to front and sideways how to write a good short story. You can feel yourself nodding at certain points as he kicks it up a gear and adds subtle little touches that mark it out as a story above the average. It’s a narrative from someone closely involved in the devastating unintended consequences of a good deed. The narrator describes how his extremely gifted brother came across clear evidence of something that takes the edge of people’s hostility and aggression : surely infecting the population of the world with this can only be good? King describes the back history of the sibling relationship (something many other authors would simply not do, which works well, but also perversely highlights the author’s techniques), and how after the initial euphoria that the desired effect was taking place, the longer term effects : extremely rapid dementia, occurs. And the narrative is a rapid one, as the writer is himself now on that journey to dementia, and we see the impact (as with Flowers for Algernon) in the telling.

I read Orson Scott Card’s ‘Salvage’ recently, in the Nebula Awards #22 volume from 1988. I noted then : ‘The background is an interesting one, perhaps more so than the actual story itself, featuring one young man’s attempts to explore a now-submerged Mormon temple for treasure. He doesn’t find the treasure, but finds out about himself and his society.’ I didn’t read through again this time around, so shall suffice with that short summation.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s ‘The People of Sand and Slag’. was picked up by both Dozois and Haber/Strahan in their annual anthologies for the year, when it appeared in F&SF, Feb 2004, I wrote:

    (Bacigalupi) postulates a not-too-distant future in which the Earth is a seething, war-reduced, inhospitable environment – or rather, an environment which would be inhospitable to us as we are now. In his future humanity has embraced nano-tech and genmod to the extent that even the sand and slag of the title can sustain us. The nature of their humanity (are they really human?) is investigated through their finding (somewhat unbelievably) an honest-to-goodness dog. Searching their computer archives to find out how to look after such a beast, there are initial glimmers of humanity from them, but sadly not enough for the dog to survive.

M. Rickert’s ‘Bread and Bombs’ was also from F&SF, April 2003, whence I wrote :

    Recollections of a childhood summer against a backdrop of war, in which a refugee family impact on the highly strung local community, and what has been lost becomes painfully real.

Jonathan Lethem’s ‘How We Got Into Town and Out Again’ was collected in Dozois’ 14th annual collection back in 1996, when I was even more succint in my summaries than I can be now : ‘Post Apocalyptic scenario with public VR show coming into town’. It’s one from the sub-sub genre – slightly Mad Maxy, and punky (and fine for that, IMHO).

As Adams points out, George R. R. Martin’s ‘Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels’ is from the days when he wrote SF as opposed to fat fantasy – our loss is their gain (!) He looks at a subterranean existence eked out by humans deep under the metro tube lines, where it is very, very dark, and a Smeagolisation takes place of those humans. One such is braving the higher levels, and has the misfortune to come across humans who have avoided the radioactive death above ground, and the meeting of the two races has disastrous consequences for both.

Tobias S. Buckell’s ‘Waiting for the Zephyr’ maps out a non-Mad Max setting : one in which the lack of fuel leads to a society where wind-power is what drives transport. A young girl is eagerly waiting for the Zephyr, and Buckell paints a vivid picture of a large land-going vessel under sail making its way through the dusty roads. She is looking to it as a means of getting out of her claustrophobic community, but has her family’s wishes to overcome in this aim. It’s a neat little story. In

Collected by David Hartwell in his Year’s Best SF #12, Cory Doctorow’s ‘When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth’ was from Baen’s Universe, andit is still online.. Of it 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.

James van Pelt’s ‘The Last of the O-Forms’ appeared in Asimovs in 2002 and was a Nebula shortlisted story. When it appeared I wrote:

    A chilling and macabre tale. A mutagen has been causing gross birth-defects, with ‘original’ species of animals a rarity. Trying to make an honest buck from this is Trevin, who has a travelling freak show/circus/zoo. Sadly the population is becoming increasingly inured against seeing such creatures, and the future for the show is bleak. Will Trevin stoop to exploiting his similarly deformed daughter? The story gets across the Mississippi heat and the similarly stifling future for humanity fairly well, but I found the names of the mutated animals (crocomouse, tigerzelle) jarred slightly.

Richard Kadrey’s ‘Still Life With Apocalypse’ is by far the shortest story in the collection – not even two full pages – and rather suffers by consequence. In a collection of stories on other subjects, it would stand out well as a vignette of a near future not nice situation, but surrounded by lengthier stories on the same theme, it doesn’t really do much.

Catherine Well’s ‘Artie’s Angels’ first appeared in Realms of Fantasy but is very much the kind of story you would expect in Asimovs. It tells of a group of young people struggling in a domed community, with all kinds of nastiness outside trying to get in, and with a route out of the dome, and offplanet, available only to the select few. The story follows one young girl and her friend as they struggle to make a success, and finally when he gets a chance to get offplanet, loyalty to his friends makes him stay.

There’s a different kind of apocalypse Jerry Oltion’s ‘Judgment Passed’ in which one man’s Rapture is another man’s Apocalypse. The crew of a several year mission away from Earth return to find, bizarrely, that all of humanity has been welcomed to heaven by the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. (It’s clearly a broad church, as everyone – people of all faiths, and even those without faith, have gone.) It’s a struggle for the crew to accept this – those who have faith and want to know why they have been left behind, and those without faith who can’t come to terms with what has happened.

Gene Wolfe’s ‘Mute’ is a strong piece – and clearly Wolfe : we see two young children trying to make sense of what is around them. And what is around them is confusing, and sometimes changes – but they are left alone and have to get along and make sense of it.

Nancy Kress’ ‘Inertia’ was collected in Dozois’ 8th Annual Collection, way back in 1991, and I clearly read it at the time, as I have a summation of the story on Best SF : ‘Inside a disease colony’. Well, that’s pretty accurate, if somewhat succint. In my defence I reckon I read the story and wrote the summary with Son #2 very much on the way, still knee-deep in nappies(diapers) on Son #1. And we were so short of money we couldn’t afford disposable nappies, so had the towelling ones you had to soak in a bucket full of chemicals before washing.

Anyway, you don’t need to know that. In the story Kress has communities of people, segregated from the rest of the world due to their leprosy-like disease. At first this enclosed life would appear to be very much second-best, but it transpires that life outside the colonies is far from milk and honey, with society gradually falling apart. It appears that in fact there may be a side-effect of the disease which caused a degree of intertia, and makes people able to get on a whole lot better. Perhaps the meek should inherit the Earth?

Elizabeth Bear’s ‘And the Deep Blue Sea’ appeared on the sadly missed SCI FICTION, and I wrote:

    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.

Octavia E. Butler’s ‘Speech Sounds’ dates back to 1983, and it won, deservedly, a Hugo for Best Short Story. I wrote previously :

    A very classy short story. Humanity has been ravaged by a virus? which has taken away the power of speech and produced stroke-like symptoms in many. An ex-school teacher falls in with a bearded man who helps her escape an unpleasant bus journey. But having evidently found someone upon whom she can rely, a sudden burst of violence shatters that future. But the two young children whom she almost deserts can speak, as she can.

Carol Emshwiller’s ‘Killers’ appeared in F&SF in 2006 and I reviewed it thus :

    The preceding stories are fine as far as they go, but they don’t go that far. This is a shorter story, and much more impactful. A relatively near-future setting, post-war and post-climactic change, with a few women ekeing out a living barely above the subsistence farming level. A young woman is hopeful of seeing her brother again, and when there are signs of someone visiting her cottage at night, her hopes rise. It turns out that a man, who is weak, and battle-weary, but still a man (and very much a rare commodity), she turns a blind eye to his likely misdeeds in the recent past. We follow her as she helps him back to health, and introduces him to the community. However, something as simply as having a roving eye is enough for her to realise that he is like all the other men, and in a ghastly final paragraph we find out just what his fate is to be. (clue: alfalfa beans)

Neal Barrett Jr’s ‘Ginny Sweethips Flying Circus’ was a nominee for both Hugos and Nebulas, and I wrote a while back :

    In a post-apocalyptic USA, an unlikely trio drive across the wilderness, offering ‘sex – tacos – dangerous drugs’. As you might guess, Ginny Sweethips is the ‘sex’, although exactly what she offers (is she human or android?) is deliciously unclear at the start.

I read it again, and it remains a cracking read.

Dale Bailey’s ‘The End of the World As We Know It’ is another F&SF story, and when it appared I wrote :

    One of the stronger stories of the year. Bailey takes on the post-apocalypse challenge, and comes up trumps. We see a near-future American survivor, and his early attempts at coping with events, interspersed with snapshots of historical apocalypses. The stories rises above the average through the main character, Wyndham, who, as we see with heartbreaking clarity, is more bereft at the loss of his wife than at the bigger picture. Unnervingly, as I read this story mid-Jan 2005, some couple of weeks after the Dec 26th 2004 Tsunami, Bailey wraps up the story with a reference to Krakatoa, and the ensuing 30,000 tsunami related deaths back in 1883. Wyndham/Bailey muses the nature of the Supreme Being who allows such things to happen.

I took the time to re-read, and was again impressed. For my money, the perfect story on which to end the collection.

David Grigg’s ‘A Song Before Sunset’ suffers slightly in following some very strong stories. It ponders the role of culture in a post-apocalyptic world through an ex-concernt pianist ekeing out a very basic form of existence, who comes across a concert piano in the City Hall. In tuning it up, and tickling the ivories, he is transported back, but the brutal reality of the present catches up with him.

John Langan’s ‘Episode Seven’ appeared in F&SF last year, and I wrote :

    Langan has provided a couple of more than good stories with a horror bent in F&SF – ‘On Skua Island’ Aug 01, and ‘Mr Gaunt’ Sept 2002, and ‘Tutorial’ in August 2003 (excuse me, 2003?? : if asked, I’d have guessed 2006. Where are the freaking years going?) Here he provides a post-apocalyptic near future with a couple fleeing a marauding pack of .. creatures .. which have appeared as part of said apocalypse.

    It’s an intense, breathless narrative, getting into the minds of both the protagonists as they flee for their lives, looking over back and more distant events, with barely a break for punctuation. It’s a stream of consciousness rollercoaster, which works well – good to see an author trying something that bit different, stylewise.

Conclusion.

Phew! About 90 minutes of writing to get this review down on disk, and I’m wiped out. I feel such a wuss, having revisited tales of bravery in the face of apocalyptic horrors! A hot bath beckons…

This is a very strong collection. Adams has trawled 25 years worth of high quality SF to put together the volume, and there’s an awful lot of good reading to be had. Having said that, there are a couple of minor quibbles. Minor Quibble #1 is that a lot of the stories are ones which regular readers of mainstream SF mags, and the annual anthologies, will be familar – perhaps a wider net could have been spread. Minor Quibble #2 is that the stories are very much US-centric and contemporary, which is partly as a result of Minor Quibble #1 I spose – Adams mentions in his introduction John Christopher’s ‘No Blades of Grass’, and off the top of a congested head another Brit, J G Ballard, springs to mind as having portrayed futures in which nature has very much returned to the cities. So, no British fiction, and no stories featuring Gaia, in her role in either creating an apocalypse, or responding to one, are omissions for my money. But don’t let these Minor Quibbles outweight the quality of the stories in the anthology.

US pbk (amazon.com)
UK pbk (amazon.co.uk)

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One Response to Wastelands – Stories of the Apocalypse ed John Joseph Adams. Night Shade Books, 2008.

  1. Jim Van Pelt February 16, 2010 at 6:08 pm #

    Thanks for the review and kind words. I thought this was a really interesting collection, if I do say so myself.

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