I can hardly believe I’m saying this, but I think I prefer apocalypse stories with zombies. I’ve enjoyed Joseph Adams’ edited collections before (the The End is Nigh series has some great arcs), but Wastelands largely feels bleak and depressing. Apparently contributions were curated or written with either physical or emotional desolation in mind.
Deliberately excluding apocalypses resulting from aliens or zombies, Adams attempts to answer the question of what would the world be like after the apocalypse. He contextualized the sub genre in general, suggesting that the genre starts in 1826 with Shelley’s The Last Man. He references a number of iconoclastic works and suggests the genre lost some popularity post-Berlin wall fall but has been enjoying a resurgence since the turn of the century. This collection literally spans decades, from 1973 (R.R. Martin) to 2008 (Oltion). Most of them hold up extremely well. All were generally well-written and a couple were enjoyable enough that I’ll make a point of looking for the authors. Adams also provides an extensive bibliography of apocalypse books at the end which may be interesting to genre fans (like me!), including ones that are sort of sub-sub genre, such as Octavia Butler’s Dawn and Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.
After pushing to the half-way point, I set it down for a month, lacking the motivation to continue, even in the middle of summer when depressing should be more tolerable. I should have recognized trouble when Adams described a story where a girl’s family traps her in the cellar as “the most optimistic story in this volume.” However, after a couple month hiatus, I was able to pick it up and finish, discovering that somehow I might have turned an emotional corner. The last half felt more optimistic. Interestingly, I think I confirmed that while some of the historically big names in sci-fi certainly are competent writers (Wolfe, R.R. Martin, Doctorow, McDevitt), something about their writing usually doesn’t connect with me. Reviewing the stories, I also discovered that I generally preferred the ones written by women. Hmm. Overall, I’d call the collection three to three-and-a-half-stars with a couple of five-star standouts.
In the interests of both my own limited memory and in case anyone would like to know exactly what stories it contains, notes follow. All of the stories except “Judgement Passed” were published elsewhere and are used with authorial or estate permission.
“The End of The Whole Mess” by Stephen King. Solid. Good characterization, nice sibling dynamic between two brothers. Genius brother does research into bees and has an idea how to make people less aggressive. Feels unremarkable, however, and the “Flowers for Algernon” trajectory uninspired.
“Salvage” by Orson Scott Card. In a far off future, Deaver convinces his friends to go on a salvage run to an underwater Mormon city rumored to be full of riches. Strange tale that likely contains references that went above my head. Maybe about alienation and values.
“The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi. Read it before in Paolo’s anthology. Good story, but I hate it. Paolo’s writing makes me lose hope for humanity.
“Bread and Bombs” by M. Rickert. Children of a small village react to differences in other children, but learn the biggest difference is between them and their parents who destroyed the world by dropping bombs and food packets overseas. Creepy Children of the Corn feel.
“How We Got in Town and Out Again” by Jonathan Lethem. A boy and an older girl join forces with a traveling virtual reality competition team as a way of getting into town and getting access to food. The boy is drawn into participating and ends up subverting the system. Love, companionship and reality.
“Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R.R. Martin. Greel is exploring the Oldest Tunnels when he runs into something he’s never seen–a fire. Ciffonetto and Von der Stadt are exploring the tunnels looking for an ancient treasurehouse. Mistakes are made. Depressing, as always. I feel like I’ve read pretty close to this exact tale before. Hugh Howey did something similar as well.
“Waiting for the Zephyr” by Tobias S. Buckell. A young woman wants to run away to the Zephyr, a giant traveling caravan that periodically comes through her dying, one-horse town. Her family traps her, literally, but her boyfriend loves something and sets it free.
“Never Despair” by Jack McDevitt. Two archeologists are searching for the secrets of the concrete Roadmakers when they find a holograph of one of the ancients. Surprise! The reader is supposed to recognize who he is through increasingly obvious clues. Has a A Canticle for Leibowitz feel but feels like an incomplete story.
“When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” by Cory Doctorow. Winner of Locus for 2007, and one of the more enjoyable stories. Focused on a computer operation center when everything starts to go down, the Sysadmins try and figure out what is happening. An interesting take on an active apocalypse, as banks of computers are likely highly protected, at least until the power runs out.
“The Last of the O-Forms” by James Van Pelt. Finalist for a Nebula. Everyone is a mutant, even animals. A traveling circus runs into financial disaster but ends up capitalizing on their manager’s mutation. Creepy small-town mutant feel.
“Still Life With Apocalypse” by Richard Kadrey. Life post-apocalypse is just trying to keep busy, whether it’s recovering records or getting rid of all the dead bodies. Quick little 4-5 page piece that feels like there is potential but is underwhelming due to brevity.
“Artie’s Angels” by Catherine Wells. A pair of young kids inadvertently start building a myth in the Kansas Habitat. A genius boy befriends a homely girl and starts a bicycle club for area kids. I thought this one sweet and poignant. Easy four stars.
“Judgement Passed” Jerry Oltion. A fascinating tale of what happened when a spaceship colony crew returns to Earth and discovers everyone has been taken by Jesus, apparently literally. One of the more unique apocalypse scenarios I’ve read, and one of the only ones in the volume that clearly takes place in the future. Character building was exceptional.
“Mute” by Gene Wolfe. Two kids on a bus ride to their father’s house are almost sure he’s there. Strangely, the tv is always on ‘mute.’ A strange little story with quirky-horror overtones. Was the bus driver real? Is the tv communicating? Where is their dad? No idea on the end of the world.
“Inertia” by Nancy Kress. Another interesting take on the dystopian setting. People who have survived a disfiguring epidemic are living peaceably in compounds walled-off from the rest of America that suffers increasing levels of violence. A doctor sneaks in to research why. Very interesting psychological study, as well as an exploration of depression and biology.
“And the Deep Blue Sea” by Elizabeth Bear. A thrill-seeking female bike courier takes a job getting a package to Sacramento, only to be interrupted by Nick trying to re-negotiate another deal. He’s having a hard time accepting her refusal. I enjoyed this one, which reminds me I need to seek out more by Bear.
Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler. One I haven’t heard of. In a post-apocalypse setting, people are mute, dumb, or cognitively challenged after exposure. A woman trying to get from L.A. to Pasadena runs into a Lone Ranger and discovers more than she expected. Might be one of my favorites by Butler, if only because she doesn’t push me anywhere I’m not willing to go.
“Killers” by Carol Emshwiller. After a war, mostly older women are left, getting by on subsistence living level. The men who come back are damaged and tend to be hermits, although someone has been killing them off. A man appears in the narrator’s house and appears quite attractive after he’s cleaned up. Creepy, speaks to the dark, jealous sides of human nature.
“Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neal Barrett, Jr. A story that was a Nebula/Hugo finalist. Great done. Ginny, barker Del and Possum the Gun expert are traveling through a post-apocalypse landscape selling sex, tacos and drugs. What makes this one fabulous is the narrative tone and the unapologetic, easy nature of the characters. Really enjoyed it. Will have to check out more from him.
“The End of the World as We Know It” by Dale Bailey draws the parallel that the world is always ending on a personal level, and we might never know the whys or hows. Makes interesting parallels between a man named Wyndham who wakes up one day only to discover everyone around him is head, and various disasters responsible for killing thousands to millions of people. It takes an interesting narrative approach with a somewhat casual tone. Feels rather Zen.
“A Song Before Sunset” by David Grigg is about a man who has survived the apocalypse and now has one last dream before he sleeps: to play on a concert piano. He wheels and deals to get the instrument ready, even as marauders approach the city.
“Episode Seven” by John Langan is a strange piece that is more superhero than Lovecraftian, where a young pregnant woman is saved by her longtime close male friend. He seems to be getting in touch with a latent part of himself, almost Dark Knight-like. The end of the world sounds like nature run amok. Well-written, interestingly told, but a little lacking in the character department into why the woman is troubled.