Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

Read: 1 September, 2018

I’d be really interested to find out how Pratchett and Gaiman collaborated on this book, because the narrative is a perfect meshing of their two styles. I recognised so much that was distinctively Pratchett or distinctively Gaiman, but all blended together to make a fantastic amalgam style with both footnote humour and mythic humour.

Some of the jokes haven’t aged too well, particularly where gender is concerned. The book also has a very ’90s/Fern Gully sort of environmental message that dates it rather unmistakably.

Other than that, though, this was wonderful.

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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The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells

Read: 8 April, 2013

The Martians came suddenly. Before the British had a chance to learn that they were in danger, many had already been killed and even more had become refugees.

I really enjoyed this book!

In particular, I loved the juxtaposition between the “proper English gentleman” and the gritty realness of the events (the blood, the murder, the feral dogs eating corpses..). There was also a good bit of social commentary, a discussion of evolution, and more.

The writing style is very accessible. Really, it could have been written yesterday if heat rays were replaced with lasers.

I really can’t recommend this enough. It’s definitely been one of the most enjoyable “classic sci-fi” books I’ve read!

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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Read: 14 February, 2013

A father and son travel across an apocalyptic wasteland, struggling to find a reason for survival.

This was a hard book to read. It’s a journey of suffering with no possibility of an end. Any time the boy tries to find some hope, his father just shuts him down – even when that hope is just to die and see an end to the relentless cold and starvation.

The child, though born after the world was destroyed, never seems to adapt. I found that strange, particularly when we look at actual children who have grown up in real world combat zones (whether political  or familial), and the ways that they learn to tune out or join in. Yet the boy seems to function as more of a conscience for the man than as a character in his own right. This story is about the man, about his forgetting the past world, yet his refusal to adopt the current one. The child is a device, he’s “the fire,” and I found that somewhat disconcerting.

In this way, the child and the man seem to be polar opposites of Rick and Carl Grimes from the Walking Dead graphic novels. Rick tries so hard to keep to the values of the old world while watching in horror as Carl adapts to the brutality of the new, whereas the man finds himself adapting to the needs of survival in the new world while the child retains a sense of pure horror every time he is faced with the new realities.

I had a hard time finding the story compelling. Because there was no hope, absolutely no possibility of a happy ending in a world that is literally dead, the characters had no where to go. They just kept shuffling along, driven by purposeless instinct like zombies. All I kept thinking was “good god, just let that poor kid die already.”

I felt like even McCarthy couldn’t come up with a plausible reason for why his characters would continue fighting. We get vague references to “The Fire” and to some unformed hope that things might be different in the south (though, even then, the man is very careful about that hope and seems to understand on all levels that it’s wrong, so it doesn’t even get the status of false hope).

The world was so bleak, so depressing that I didn’t even get that “I’m so glad my life isn’t like that!” feeling. It just made me feel down. Even the “happy” scenes when they find some big cache of food just made me feel more depressed because it only meant that they’d have to start the starvation process back from zero, further extending their suffering.

There were some odd stylistic tricks, such as the lack of quotation marks, which I would imagine would make the dialogue difficult to follow. But I listened to the audiobook, so I had help from the reader. Thinking about the writing, I think it works to stylistically reflect the theme of the novel, but I could see it ticking people off.

I didn’t enjoy the book too much, but a lot of people apparently do. In fact, I only picked it up (having seen the movie and contented myself with that) because so many people were telling me that it’s a wonderful book. If you enjoyed it, could you tell me what I’m missing?

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Best New Zombie Tales, vol. 1 edited by James Roy Daley

Read: 24 November, 2012

Introductions are supposed to either hook the reader or provide additional insight into the work(s) to follow. This one, however, was just an absurd, juvenile fantasy in which Daley defends his choice to put out yet another zombie book to H.P. Lovecraft, while Lovecraft holds his hand in a blender. It adds nothing to the book save for a really poor first impression.

As for the collection itself, the goal is, as Daley puts it, “To put together the best zombie tales ever written. Don’t care what year the story was written. Don’t care who wrote it. Don’t care if the story follows Romero’s un-written rules of what a zombie is supposed to do. Don’t care if it’s offensive, or filled with naughty language. All I care about is High Quality Fiction. Simple.”

To his credit, what Daley lacks as a writer of introductions, he’s made up for in story selection. A few fell flat (such as “Fishing”), but most were quite interesting. For the most part, the writing quality was decent (except for issues like in “Muddy Waters” where a boy rides a moose “like a demented cowboy” on one page, and then “like some demented junior range rider” on the next).

There were also quite a few issues with the editing/proof reading of the stories. Words would be omitted (“I didn’t kill my all [sic] of these people,” writes Gary McMahon, and “He knew him. I could that [sic] by the look on his face…,” writes John L. French). I found the editing sloppy enough to distract me, but only a little, and someone less anal may not even notice.

I did like that Daley didn’t just pick Romero zombies, so there’s quite a variety of imaginings of the animated dead.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this anthology, and it certainly served its purpose as entertainment. But it’s nothing particularly special. Good for a lazy afternoon, anyway.

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World War Z by Max Brooks

Read: 14 June, 2012

I’ve been reading a lot of zombie stuff recently, so I picked up World War Z after a YouTuber (I think it was Hank Green?) made a comment about being really freaked out by the book. So, knowing absolutely nothing else about the book, I decided to check it out from the library. The result was that I went on vacation with three books in my bag, two about zombies (Rise of the Governor and World War Z) and one about bunnies (Watership Down, which my dear gentleman friend has decided to read). Only slightly embarrassing.

All zombie stories that I’ve read/watched to date have followed the Rise of the Governor model: Small group of people are hit by the zombie apocalypse, and the story follows their efforts to survive. From the subtitle of WWZ (“An oral history of the zombie war”), I assumed that it would follow the same general format from the perspective of a character narrating her/his survival story from some point in the future.

That’s not what WWZ is about at all.

Rather, WWZ is presented as the “human stories” behind a report written by the United Nations Postwar Commission. These are presented in a collection of first person accounts, written by a wide variety of people from all over the world, offering a global perspective of the zombie apocalypse.

Because each POV character gets only a couple pages, the reader doesn’t have the chance to bond with them. This directs the focus more towards a sense of shared humanity that, in some ways, made the tales even more emotionally powerful.

I really can’t stop raving about WWZ. It was alien yet relatable, entertaining yet thought-provoking, horrifying yet uplifting. This isn’t just an excellent zombie book, it’s an excellent book, period. I ended up buying a copy as soon as I got back from vacation, and I highly recommend that you do the same!

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I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

Read: 12 August, 2011

Robert Neville is alone, completely alone in a world overrun by vampires.He is alive, but he can’t figure out why he bothers.

I enjoyed the recent movie with Will Smith – mostly because I read into it far more than any of its creators intended. When I talk about the movie with others, it’s like we saw entirely different movies. Mine was a subtle commentary on racism, or perhaps our relationship with the mentally ill. My movie featured a brilliantly executed unreliable narrator and one of the best ironic endings I’ve ever seen. What other people saw was yet another mindless monster flick.

I Am Legend the novel is everything I saw into the movie, only better.

Neville is a fantastic character. He’s going nuts, making stupid mistakes, and drinking himself silly. But it’s never frustrating, and I never felt that I just wanted him to shut up and get on with things. That’s because Matheson has perfect timing, he never allows Neville to wallow for too long.

The sense of isolation and loneliness is palpable. As I was reading, I could really feel Neville’s despair. This makes the story creepy and even terrifying without ever resorting to monster-in-the-closet gimmicks. Quite the opposite – the vampires’ inability to wake during the day give Neville the advantage. He can scavenge safely during the day and then simply wait out the night in his house-come-fortress. The vampires are never the source of terror, the loneliness is.

This was one of the best, most perfectly executed books that I’ve read in a very long time. I highly recommend it for any fans of science fiction, distopian fantasy, post-apocalyptic fiction, and horror fiction.

NOTE: The copy I was reading was a first printing and had a truly creepy portrait of a young Matheson emerging from the shadows on the back. Yikes!

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