Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams

Read: 21 October, 2014

The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King

Howard Fornoy sets out to tell the story of what happened to the world – and the Messiah – in the little time he has left. I’ve only read a few of King’s works, but his voice is unmissable in this story. He sets it up early, complaining that the story deserves “thousands of pages,” but will get only a handful. As a result, much of the story is only hinted at. It was interesting and tantalizing, but I don’t think that it would have held my attention for much longer. I’m sure he would have done something interesting with more pages, but I quite appreciated that so much was left for me to fill in for myself.

Salvage by Orson Scott Card

Following a rumour of gold in the old Mormon temple, Deaver ropes his friends into helping him explore the flooded ruins. I have rather serious reservations about Card as a person, and was pretty wary of story of his putting Mormonism so front and centre. Despite this, I found it a pleasant read, and surprisingly non-preachy. Sure, Deaver is exposed to a lesson in respecting the beliefs of others (whether he learns it or not is another matter), but it worked, and it could easily have been the written from the perspective of any other faith system.

The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi

A somewhat surreal story in which humanity has been so changed by technology that they’re no longer recognizably people any more. The world is a much changed place, inhospitable to life, yet humanity has survived by changing itself. I found the story a little difficult to get into, perhaps because the people were so alien in many ways that it took me a while to figure out what was going on. Once I did, however, I really appreciated the snapshot of possible future humanity, and what it says about us.

Bread and Bombs by M. Rickert

An interesting little piece about some of the less savoury tactics used in war, and the guilt/fear reactions to refugees. It was a little more abstract than most of the other stories, and perhaps harder to see its place in the anthology, but it was well written and interesting.

How We Got In Town and Out Again by Jonathan Lethem

Two young people join a virtual reality stamina competition – the goal, as I gathered it, was to be the last person “standing.” For some reason, in this future world, it’s more entertaining for spectators to watch other people play games than to play games themselves. This seems rather odd, and especially fanciful when the author’s biography reads that this story is part of a larger series “railing against virtual reality technologies.” The characterization of the main character was quite interesting, and fairly complex for a short story, but it didn’t carry the story. Perhaps being a gamer coloured my reading, but the premise just seemed to absurd for me to take the story seriously.

Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin

A familiar enough story where off-world humans return to a destroyed earth to find a very different sort of human – in this case a subterranean one. Martin’s writing style gives this overdone plot a bit of new life, though the end twist should surprise no one familiar with his work. The story was entertaining, even if it wasn’t particularly thought-provoking.

Waiting for the Zephyr by Tobias S. Buckell

Mara waits for a land-ship to take her away from an abusive home life. The story was sad, but ended on a (not uncomplicated) note of hope. I felt like there was so much more to tell, though, and it was frustrating to have the story end just as it should have begun. This felt like a kernel, perhaps an experimental hashing out of ideas meant to be used in earnest later on.

Never Despair by Jack McDevit

Chaka searches through the ruins of earth for an explanation of what was. Like Waiting for the Zephyr, the story felt like a brainstorm for a bigger piece, but, also like Zephyr, the ideas it presents carry it. It was significantly less polished than Buckell’s piece, though, as there were many questions that begged answers – how is the holograph (?) still running? Why doesn’t Chaka mine it for information when information is what she’s after?

When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow

Personally, I found this to be one of the most entertaining works in the anthology. Felix maintains the internet in Toronto, and it’s a late night emergency that saves him from dying along with his wife, child, and the rest of the city when the apocalypse hits. It’s a terribly sad story as Felix roots around for ways to process the loss of his family, set against the backdrop of a bunch of techies trying to decide if the apocalypse is a time for hope or for despair. On a more personal note, I particularly enjoyed the characterization of Felix, the way he processes the changing situation. Being something of an “android” myself, and having most of my social circle comprised of Aspie STEM people, it was a joy to see such familiar thought patterns in a fictional character.

The Last of the O-Forms by James Van Pelt

A somewhat interesting “behind the scenes at the travelling zoo” story with an entertaining (and appropriate) twist ending. While not spectacular, the story was a solid inclusion.

Still Life with Apocalypse by Richard Kadrey

I’ve mentioned that a few of these stories felt more like brainstorming notes than fully fleshed out stories, and it doesn’t get more true than for this one. Still Life isn’t even a story so much as a collection of thoughts about the apocalypse strung together without narrative coherence or internal logic. There’s an image of a horse being dragged out of a pit, a brief history of the main character’s post-apocalyptic career, and a description of his living situation. That’s it. At least at barely two pages, it didn’t take up too much of my time.

Artie’s Angels by Catherine Wells

In this story, Arthurian legend is tied into a post-apocalyptic scene. The main character, Faye, is finally admitted to what appears to be a city in a biosphere, sheltered from the radiation of the world outside. There, she meets Artie, a charismatic boy who forms a sort of courier service bicycle cult around a moral code. I thought the story itself was interesting, and weaving it together with the story of King Arthur made it even more so. Even better, there was a commentary there on the role of stories in the creation of social movements that really made this story stand out.

Judgement Passed by Jerry Oltion

Astronauts return to earth to find it empty, completely empty of people, after Christ’s return. Having been left behind, the astronauts must figure out what to do in a post-Judgement Day world, all without Nicolas Cage to guide them.The story was interesting, though the repetition of the word “agnostic” got a little grating (not to mention that the characters never define the term and don’t use it in a sense I’m familiar with).

Mute by Gene Wolfe

Jill and Jimmy are on a bus that takes them home, but no one is there for them when they arrive. This story threw me off a bit because of its inclusion in this collection. I kept expecting to understand what the apocalypse was and trying to beat off the rather obvious hints that the children are dead and in the afterlife (I mean, come on, they try to leave the house only go pass through the gate and end up back on the inside – if that’s not “endless fog,” I don’t know my horror tropes!). I enjoyed the story – it had a lovely creepy tone – but I’m not sure why it was included in this anthology, except perhaps because of its “empty world” aspect. But I did find that my expectations of what the story was going to be about lessened my enjoyment of what it actually was.

Inertia by Nancy Kress

A disfiguring plague leads to modern leper colonies – largely abandoned and forced into self-sufficiency. But one doctor believes that the disease may have another symptom, a beneficial one. I really enjoyed this story about minds and how our behaviour can be shaped by factors like disease. The cutesy twist gave me a chuckle.

And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear

A courier must travel through a wasteland to deliver her package. On the way, she meets Nick at a crossroads. The post-apocalyptic setting seemed rather tangential to what was really a story about dealing with the devil and redemption. The story didn’t wow me, but it was decent filler.

Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler

A disease that induces stroke-like symptoms has overrun the world, leaving many “impaired.” Rye can still speak, but she’s lost the ability to read and write. And when jealousy over lost abilities leads people to kill, she cannot even speak for fear of her life. I found this to be an interesting story about the importance of communication, the choice many people make not to communicate even when they can, and the need for human contact.

Killers by Carol Emshwiller

A community of women has survived the war that ended civilization alone, their men all gone to fight. Some men return, but they are different, savage. Then, one night, one man comes home. Killers is a short, brutal story with a rather bludegeony political message. Though it was interesting and the ending certainly fit, I felt that the twist came too fast, as though the author had gotten bored and just wanted to finish it already.

Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus by Near Barrett, Jr.

This story didn’t wow me. I felt like a bunch of concepts were being thrown at me (androids! virtual sex! insurance sales! animal hybrids! tacos!), but the short story format didn’t allow any of it to go anywhere. It all just happened and then it was over and I never felt like I had been made to care about any of it. Perhaps because the characters were so neglected in the effort to pack the setting.

The End of the World as We Know It by Dale Bailey

An interesting piece about the powerlessness of losing a loved one. This was a different approach to the other stories in the collection, and a little more meta. It also worked well as an allegory for loss in a general sense.

A Song Before Sunset by David Grigg

A musician just wants to play the piano. This was an interesting piece, though perhaps not particularly memorable. I think the author was trying to tackle the civilization/culture relationship, and the ending fit well into that discussion. It was certainly solid filler material, just not one of the stories that will stay with me in the long term.

Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers by John Langan

Jackie is eight months pregnant and running for her life with Wayne, a comic book enthusiast who seems almost to revel in the apocalypse. There was a lot going on here that was never explained – where did the flowers come from? What is Wayne’s shadow? But it was an extremely compelling story. I was on the edge of my seat, and I found Jackie’s internal struggle very interesting. The only flaw with the story was the awkward format – particularly the use of mega, multi-page paragraphs that made reading extremely difficult (especially with a child, where I’m frequently being interrupted – finding my place again in a wall of text is an exercise in futility). The weird use of bolded lines and dashes took a while to get used to, but I found that they worked well with the pace of the writing.

Overall, I found this to be a very solid anthology. There were stories that I slogged through, and there were some that were clearly filler material (though at least solid filler), and plenty of gems. I had to keep stopping as I read because I was inspired to write another short story of my own, or I needed to stop and mull over a theme.

I’m not a terribly huge fan of the short story form, mostly because it takes me some time to ease into a world. As a result, reading short stories often feels like I’m just forced to go through that awkward, confused, unpleasant stage over and over again and, as soon as I’m comfortably settled in and ready to enjoy the ride, it ends. Despite this, I really enjoyed this anthology, and I think the selections were well chosen.

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