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

REVIEW SUMMARY: A very good compendium of end-of-the-world stories.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Anthology of 22 post-apocalyptic stories.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: 19 stories good or better stories, 6 of them excellent.

CONS: The Gene Wolfe story escapes my meager brain.

BOTTOM LINE: More entertaining than the average “Best of” annual anthology.

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse offers a great selection of end-of-the-world stories proving that stories in a single setting (or a single subgenre of science fiction) need not be similar. While the prevailing theme, as would be expected, is one of hope, the stories are presented with unique focus and voice. But the mood is as dark as it should be with such serious subject matter. With rare exception (Neal Barrett, Jr.’s comical “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus”) these stories are gloomy indeed. But isn’t that the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction after all?

John Joseph Adams has culled a great selection of stories here dating back to 1973, with more than half of those written in the last seven years. He also offers a super-handy index of post-apocalyptic stories and books for further reading, just in case you start jonesin’ for more.

Only three stories from the book’s roster of twenty-two failed to impress me. Perhaps the most glaring of those is the Gene Wolfe story, “Mute”, because Wolfe’s reputation is one of greatness and this story left me cold. But there were plenty of other stories to suit my tastes; a huge majority in fact. This is impressive since the variety of styles and stories that populate an anthology means there are bound to be some misses. But three out of twenty-two is a relatively low ratio when comparing it against my anthology consumption of years past. In then end, Wastelands proved to be more entertaining than the average yearly “Best of”.

Standout stories in this cant-miss volume include “The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi, “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth” by Cory Doctorow, “Judgment Passed” by Jerry Oltion, “Inertia” by Nancy Kress, “Speech Sounds” by Octavia E. Butler and “The End of the World as We Know It” by Dale Bailey.

Reviews of the individual stories follow…


Stephen King’s quiet story, “The End of the Whole Mess”, involves this super-smart guy (Robert) who tries to rid the world of all its problems by creating an antidote for aggression. It’s seen through a quickly-written memoir of the last survivor, Robert’s brother Howard. King’s writing style is as engaging as ever, but in a story about the apocalypse – and especially a dying man’s last words – do we really need to spend so much time on pop culture references and (in the case) unnecessary characterizations? Bring on the destruction, please.

Orson Scott Card’s “Salvage” uses a post-apocalyptic Mormon community (a submerged Salt Lake City) as the backdrop for a story about Deaver, an outsider who survives by salvaging machines from the old days. Deaver is looking for treasure in an underwater temple, but what he finds is quite different. A nice contrast was Deaver’s seemingly endless optimism versus the sad recollections of Rain, a 50 year-old survivor of civilization’s end; but I must admit the story otherwise left something to be desired.

(“The People of Sand and Slag” by Paolo Bacigalupi was originally reviewed in Science Fiction: The Best of 2004 edited by Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan.) A group of miners, bio-enhanced to survive harsh environments through the wonders of “weeviltech”, find a biologically unaltered dog, a creature believed to have been extinct for decades. Interesting was the portrait of how humanity has “evolved” with the aid of technology. They eat sand, are impervious to acid and amputate body parts at the drop of the hat. (By morning, the arm or leg grows back.) In effect, mankind has achieved a form of immortality through science. When they find the unaltered dog, a “lesser” life form, they question their own heritage and what it means to be human. Ultimately they decide that the unaltered species of man was far too vulnerable to lead an enjoyable life. Good stuff.

It took a while for me to get into “Bread and Bombs” by M. Rickert, probably because I didn’t realize that the author was dropping tiny hints at an American society that wasn’t quite right. Then it became obvious that it was a culture resulting from a generation of terrorism fears. The story was written in response to 9/11 and deals with themes of liberty and prejudice, but it also does an excellent job of showing how society has changed (like the absence of commercial airplanes, for example) and how people are gripped by fear (like reaching for helmets when they do hear what must be a war plane). The contrasts between the elder generation’s reminiscences of everyday freedom and the next generation’s complete obliviousness to it were chilling.

The apocalyptic landscape serves as background to a virtual reality contest in Jonathan Lethem’s “How We Got In Town and Out Again”. The contest gives people a diversion from the scarcity of food. Lewis (the green narrator) and Gloria (his streetwise partner) turn to a town’s VR games for a few days worth of food. Although the story mainly focuses on the VR scenarios of Lewis, we get hints of the surrounding catastrophe, the despondency it’s created and the solace that the townsfolk find in the games. I’m somehow missing the “anti-VR” stance that Lethem is supposedly making in this story, but it makes no less entertaining to read.

George R. R. Martin takes us half a millennium past the apocalypse with “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels”. Two groups of humans survived global war: those that were living in underground cities and those on a lunar colony. A scout named Greel is exploring the upper reaches of The People and comes to an ancient subway tunnel, just as two explorers from the lunar colony arrive in an attempt to reestablish communication with any survivors. What was interesting here is mankind’s evolution underground; affected by radiation from the war and adapted to the total darkness of the underground. They have pale skin, huge eyes and are super-sensitive to light. They also have the ability to telepathically “mind-mingle” with rats. Needless to say, the visitors from above and the scout from below are destined for an ill-fated meeting.

In “Waiting for the Zephyr”, Tobias Buckell conjures up a small American town. Mara wants to leave because the town is in decline, but her boyfriend and family want her to stay. The arrival of the wind-driven ship, Zephyr, is her chance for a better life. The plot presents a decent conflict, but the story’s short length allows no time for showing exactly why Mara should decide one way or the other.

Post-apocalyptic stories need not be depressing all the time, as Jack McDevitt shows with “Never Despair”. Two weary travelers, looking for the Haven that promises them the knowledge long since forgotten, stop for a night’s rest. One of them, Chaka, is “visited” by a still-working hologram named Winston, who offers some timely encouragement and fills Chaka with hope. This is about as “feel-good” as these stories can get and McDevitt does a wonderful job balancing a wide mood range.

Cory Doctorow shows us a geeks-eye view of the apocalypse in When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth. In this story, we get to see the apocalypse as it happens, with our hero, Felix the systems administrator, holed up in a hermetically sealed “clean room”, communicating with other sysadmins locally and afar. The end of the world comes in several forms (nuclear, biological, and electrical) and these scenes are as harrowing as any of the best apocalyptic fiction has to offer. Minor puffs of steam are lost as the narrative dawdles with political jockeying of the survivors, but in the end this is a damn fine story.

James Van Pelt provides a decidedly uncommon post-apocalyptic setting in “The Last of the O-Forms”. In this future, the big calamity is a plague that has made genetic mutations the order of the day, in animals and humans. Rare are animals in their original form (“o-form”). Dr. Trevin’s Traveling Zoological Extravaganza is a business venture that attempts to capitalize on these freakish animals. Of course, since they are becoming more prevalent, the attraction falls on hard times. What’s different from most other post-apocalyptic stories is that takes place not so much after society has quickly broken down, but while it is slowly breaking down, making it oddly attractive in fashion similar to the depressing, Dystopian setting of The Children of Men. In a short space, the author manages to create a sense of family in Trevin and his partner, Caprice, a very intelligent mutant who looks like a child. He also manages to create a character worth rooting for.

The short-short story “Still Life with Apocalypse” by Richard Kadrey (an updated version of the story that appeared at Infinite Matrix) is more experiment than narrative. As the title advertises, this is a snapshot of life after the apocalypse – in this case, an implausible series of violent riots that spread across the globe. The view is through the eyes of those who are still around to clean up the mess; an interesting perspective but ultimately an untapped potential in an uneventful piece.

In “Artie’s Angels” by Catherine Wells, a nuclear apocalypse has forced the inevitably slow evacuation of Earth, leaving the soon-to-be-saved huddling under domes that protect from them from the radiation outside where the probably-won’t-be-saved people live. Dome life is slowly decaying as the “riff-raff” from outside slowly inhabit the dome. Lawlessness is increasingly becoming the way of life, but a group of youths, led by the charismatic Artie, find a ray of hope in the darkness. Morgan, whose real name is Faye, sees Artie as her “knight” (note the overt King Arthur references), and his tragedy makes for good reading, but I would have loved to see more of this deliciously ripe setting pulled into the foreground.

What would happen if space travelers came back to Earth only to find that they missed Judgment Day? That’s the question posed by Jerry Oltion’s “Judgment Passed” where the astronauts return to an empty planet to find that Jesus had returned and whisked away all of its inhabitants to God-knows-where. An interesting spin on the story is that the eight astronauts are agnostic and don’t know what to do. Should they try to contact Jesus? That depends on what happened to them, which they don’t know. Ultimately, enjoying the spacious privacy after so many years cramped in close quarters, the astronauts spread out across the globe, not entirely sure what else to do. One of them, though, is affected more than the others and goes to some extreme measures to contact God, and this forms the basis of some highly effective drama. A great premise, some thought-provoking questions about religion and the afterlife, and tight prose propel this story to greatness.

“Mute” is the second short story by Gene Wolfe I’ve read this year (the other one being “The Hour of the Sheep“) in which I cannot find anything more than a superficial story. In this case, it’s a brother and sister who return to their abandoned home and catch glimpses of their dead father. I kept looking for the clues that would explain some deeper meaning – even resorting to a second reading as suggested in the intro by a Neil Gaiman quote – only to be left wondering why I bothered. Even Googling didn’t help; nor the author’s own description of the story. Is there anything more going on here? Perhaps I am just trying to read too much into it, preconditioned by the author’s reputation to expect symbolism in every passage. Maybe sometimes a story is just a story. If there’s anything more, it is completely lost on me.

“Inertia” by Nancy Kress, on the other hand, is everything short fiction could and should be: thought-provoking, based on a cool sf-nal idea and wholly entertaining. The near-future setting is a quarantined colony that confines those infected with a disfiguring disease. A stranger from Oustide arrives, upsetting the relative stability of one family. Those Inside have been long abandoned by society and government and while their society has defied all expectations of societal decay, it hasn’t exactly progressed either. In interesting contrast, as we learn from the visitor, the Outside has been experiencing a regression, as evidenced through increased violence and government repression. Does the disfiguring disease hold a solution to the world’s ills? It’s interesting to see how Kress crafts a story that ventures through cool post-apocalyptic premise (contagious disease and forced segregation), tenuous family relationships (uneasy calm with obvious tension just under the surface), futility (the complacency of the residents Inside), hope (potential cures and solutions), extrapolation (global social unrest), and thought-provoking issues (characters’ real motives and the harsh reality of public reaction) – and wraps them up in something that is simultaneously grim and deep and wonderful. A job well done.

A motorcycle-riding courier is tasked with transporting fetal stem cell cultures to Sacremento in Elizabeth Bear’s And the Deep Blue Sea. Riding across a radiation-drenched America is hard enough for her, but there is another obstacle in the way. The title offers a hint: it’s the Devil, who, appearing as a man named Nick, otherwise wants to cash in on a previous debt and collect the courier’s soul. The setting here is pretty bleak, replete with dead towns, decaying roadways, radiation, oppressive heat, and the requisite post-apocalyptic desolation. The tough, female lead does not lack perseverance in the trying environment. She makes some hard decisions even when Nick (whose true identity and nature is symbolized throughout the story) throws his worst at her. Alas, the open-ended finish leaves the reader to decide whether the courier beats the Devil, taking some of the import away from the fight between them.

Octavia E. Butler shows us how communication can be a peaceful alternative to violence by using science fiction to show the opposite. In “Speech Sounds”, the people of the world have been rendered speechless, only able to communicate by hand gestures and body language. Society has thus been slowly conditioned to withdraw from one another, resorting to fisticuffs to resolve issues, and continues to devolve further. In this deteriorating setting, one woman meets a man whom she connects with. Butler’s seemingly simple premise holds some contemplative moments, making the tragedy and hope of the story all the more dramatic. The Hugo and Nebula awards that it won are well-deserved.

Carol Emshwiller’s story “Killers” reads like an intimate portrait. It takes place in an American town that’s been relocated and cut off from the rest of civilization because of a war with terrorists on American soil. Most of the men have been gone for fourteen years, including the brother of our female narrator. The war is thought to be over, but that could just be the result of misplaced hope. What is known is that soldiers from both sides live nearby. When our narrator notices one in her town, she takes him in, cleans him up and nurses him back to health – despite the knowledge that he is the foreign terrorist who has recently been killing the townspeople. The idea here is that the woman is so lonely that she looks past all this; even to the point where she replaces the fading hope that her missing brother is still alive with some imagined, happy future existence with this terrorist whose true identity she plans to keep hidden from the rest of the town. It’s an interesting level of desperation, but I’m not sure I’m buying it…especially when a subsequent petty jealously turns things even more desperate.

You might not think that a vast wasteland could be a successful backdrop for comedy, but Neal Barrett, Jr.’s “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” might make you think otherwise. Ginny’s small troupe includes the front man barker named Del and a trigger-happy marsupial named Possum Dark. They travel the desolate lands selling their wares (sex, tacos, and dangerous drugs) to small groups of survivors in exchange for gasoline and other hard-to-find items. Have Ginny and Co. met their match in a renegade group of insurance salesmen? I’m not saying… I don’t want to give up any surprises. Suffice it to say that this was a fun read that shows that not all post-apocalyptic settings need be dire.

Dale Bailey successfully mixes fiction and meta-fiction in his wonderful story “The End of the World as We Know It”. The fiction part follows the last man on Earth, a sudden widower named Wyndham. (A nod to Cozy-Catastrophe-Meister John Wyndham perhaps?) Wyndham wakes to find everyone else in the world dead, but instead of the positive message of hope that frequently pervades post-apocalyptic stories (as the slightly jarring meta-fiction interludes tell us), Wydham eventually embraces hopelessness, emphasizing the fact that personal loss is just as devastating as a global one. Well done.

After 9/11, I remember how normal television programming stopped in lieu of round-the-clock news coverage. When a postponed awards show returned to a newsed-out audience, some comment was made about how arts and culture serves a need in society, if only for a release from the harsh realities of life. This is the issue addressed by David Grigg in A Song Before Sunset, in which a concert pianist grasps his musical skills as a conduit of hope. He lives one day at a time, scavenging and trading for sustenance and tools. He is finally able to breach the exterior of a concert hall, only to suffer a tragic realization at the hands of those who give survival a much higher priority than art. Grigg’s story, though predictable, serves its purpose: it’s a thoughtful and emotional story whose effect lingers.

The central premise of John Langan’s “Episode Seven…” is simple enough: a young couple (comic book fan Wayne and his pregnant friend Jackie) manage to avoid 2 points of a three-pronged apocalypse (the virus and the strange, purple plants), but must fight toot-and-nail with the third…a pack of man-eating creatures. This story, says the introduction, is a flip-side answer to the hopelessness of Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World as We Know It”. This is true; proactive Wayne assumes the comic book hero role and deals directly with the situation, devising clever traps for the beasts chasing close behind. (Like I suspect in the Bailey story, this character’s name is homage – in this case, to Batman’s Bruce Wayne.) But the structure of Langan’s story fumbles a bit. The passages are extremely long, run-on, stream-of-consciousness sentences, except where the main story outline boldly announces itself, snapping the reader back to the present. This interesting choice of narrative style, while I concede did lend some feeling of urgency, took away from the overall reading experience a bit, keeping this story from greatness, though not dropping it below the level of very good.

10 thoughts on “REVIEW: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams”

  1. Ah, come on. It’s easier than falling off a log. Heck, if Nature magazine does another issue of those one page short stories, that’ll be half your battle in one fell swoop.

  2. John, I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of Wolfe’s “Mute.” Like you, I read the story twice and then Googled it. It simply makes no sense to me. I understand that the boy is adventurous, while the girl is insightful. But who is the bus driver? Why can’t the girl remember her mom? What is the place they remember? What is the point of the father-ghost? Who cares that the father decorated the house? Why are all the TVs on Mute? And what the hell does that have to do with the story? Other reviews suggest that the end is “shocking.” I wasn’t shocked at all. As with everything else in the story, it all came out of left field without rhyme or reason.

  3. The story “Mute” probably doesn’t belong in this anthology, but it’s a great horror story. There’s a vital clue people are missing. If you try to map the house and the wall, and where the children go when they’re outside, you can find out where they really are…

  4. Dave, sounds like you found the decoder ring that I couldn’t find — I’ll need to keep this in mind if I ever give this another go round. Thanks!

  5. You’re welcome, John. If you want to take a shortcut and see what I figured out about “Mute”, take a look at this link. (Though I think it’s more fun to figure it out by yourself.)

  6. To be honest, I thought only “The People of Sand and Slag” and “Mute” were good. “Mute” doesn’t exactly fit the anthology, though; I think either “To the Dark Tower Came” or “Forlesen” would have been a better choice.

  7. “The Last of the O-Forms” deserves its good review — the story brings the reader face-to-face both with the uncomfortable idea that human beings can get used to just about anything and with our compulsion to gawk at anything that we find aberrant.  And we are most likely to gawk if that aberration is human.  The suggestion that mutants, although apparently not tolerated, are the norm in this world, undermines our extra-textual complacency about what the norm is.  The story reminded me a little bit of “I Am Legend” (the book, NOT the movie), that vapiric-post-Apocalyptic novel that questions the nature of the genre itself.  As for “Mute,” well, I’m not sure the story is worth the work that goes into reading it.  As has been noted in these postings, the piece is heavily dependent on Alice Through the Looking Glass (and Alice in Wonderland) and I wouldn’t be surprised to find other allusions.  But do I want to do the work?  No.  Clearly, the world of the brother and sister is getting smaller and smaller (and darker) until they can only turn to each other in an incestuous union…but then what?

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