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Apocalypse Now: John Joseph Adams on Post-Apocalyptic Stories and WASTELANDS 2

JJAdamsJohn Joseph Adams is the series editor of Best American Science Fiction & Fantasy. He is also the bestselling editor of many other anthologies, such as The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, Armored, Brave New Worlds, Wastelands, and The Living Dead. Recent books include The Apocalypse Triptych (consisting of The End is Nigh, The End is Now, and The End Has Come), Robot Uprisings, and Dead Man’s Hand. Called “the reigning king of the anthology world” by Barnes & Noble, John is a winner of the Hugo Award (for which he has been nominated eight times) and is a six-time World Fantasy Award finalist. John is also the editor and publisher of the digital magazines Lightspeed and Nightmare, and is a producer for WIRED’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. His latest books are Operation Arcana and Wastelands 2.


Rachel Cordasco: What distinguishes this second collection of post-apocalyptic stories, Wastelands 2, from the first? Does this second book coalesce around writers interested in particular aspects of post-apocalyptic Earth?

John Joseph Adams: The primary difference between the two volumes is time. Five of the stories included here are from the 20th century, but the remaining twenty-five were all published from the year 2000 onward, and eighteen of those were originally published in the years since Wastelands (Volume One) came out. So most of these stories didn’t even exist when I published the first Wastelands. Some were stories that did exist already I hadn’t yet encountered when I put together the first volume, and some are additional/different stories by authors who did appear in the first volume. One–“The Postman” by David Brin–I would have included in volume one, except, being my first anthology, I had a pretty strict word limit, and “The Postman” is a very long novella.

I wouldn’t say there’s any particular apocalyptic focus that results in any kind of sub-thematic throughline or anything like that; I think the stories run the gamut across the apocalyptic spectrum, from the quiet apocalypses to the super-dark, nasty ones.

RC: Might there be a Wastelands 3 on the horizon?

JJA: Anything’s possible! Apocalypse fiction isn’t showing much sign of waning in popularity. I certainly still love it as much now as I ever have. I’d say, though, that if I were to do another Wastelands book, it would probably not be for another five years or so, at least.

However, meanwhile, I have done some other apocalypse anthologies. One of my current projects is called The Apocalypse Triptych, which is a series of three original anthologies, each focusing on a different phase of the apocalypse: The End is Nigh (before the apocalypse), The End is Now (during the apocalypse), and The End Has Come (after the apocalypse). The first two volumes of the Triptych are available now, and the third volume comes out in May. I co-edited (and co-published) those with Hugh Howey, the author of the remarkable bestseller, Wool, and we were lucky enough to be able to include some really amazing stories in the books so far, including new stories by Paolo Bacigalupi, Seanan McGuire, Scott Sigler, Charlie Jane Anders, Tananarive Due, Ken Liu, Jamie Ford, and many others.

So anyone hankering for more after Wastelands 2, that should be enough to satiate your appetite for the apocalypse for a while!

RC: You mention on your website your love of Star Trek:TNG, the works of Michael Crichton, and The Stars My Destination, and how they shaped your love of and approach to science fiction (all of these shaped my love of sci-fi too!). What kinds of concerns, questions, moral issues, or stylistic choices jumped out at you from these works? How do they shape your interests today?

JJA: One of the interesting realizations I had about Michael Crichton’s SFnal work is that although in many ways it is science fiction, in other ways it is antithetical to science fiction. Science is almost always the antagonist in Crichton’s novels, and it kind of bummed me out to realize that. Especially when you consider that Crichton was never sold or marketed as science fiction and that he probably outsold the bestselling science fiction writer by a significant margin—so making science the bad guy in a novel = $$$, whereas making science the thing that solves our problems in a novel = ???. So that started to sour me on Crichton, and then he seemed to go off the deep end (climate change skepticism etc.) with his later books and so I quit reading him. I’ll always love Sphere, though.

Given that I also enjoy apocalypse and dystopian fiction, one might think that I, like Crichton seemed to, think that science is the devil or something, but nothing could be further from the truth, and I actually love science fiction that portrays science in a positive light and/or is optimistic about humanity’s future. Which kind of leads us to Star Trek, and specifically to my personal Trek, The Next Generation. TNG is what first taught me about sense of wonder, before I even heard of the term. TNG, despite it’s technobabble, presented a lot of great science fictional ideas in a context that seems if not strictly plausible, at least plausible enough—especially for a teenager hungry to have his mind blown. To be fair, Star Wars has to get some of the credit too, but I think even as a kid I realized that Star Wars was basically fantasy in space, whereas Star Trek has always felt like actual science fiction (even if it did play fast and loose with the laws of physics on occasion).

The combination of Michael Crichton and TNG are what actually lead me to the science fiction of the bookstore in the first place. I first got heavily into reading SF when I was in my late teens, 18 or so, when I was working at a Waldenbooks bookstore. Although I was heavily into Star Wars and Star Trek at the time, I basically avoided the SF section because I foolishly thought that I wouldn’t be able to understand the science, or that SF novels would contain so much jargon it would be like reading a technical manual for technology that doesn’t exist. Thankfully my (former) brother-in-law advised me that if I could handle the science in Jurassic Park, I could handle pretty much any science fiction novel…which turned out to be very true!

Which, eventually lead me to The Stars My Destination. What struck me most about it was what a stylist Bester was. Looking back, knowing what I know about the field now, it must have been quite a revelation to read something like that in the ’50s. But Stars blew my mind and basically rewrote my neural pathways; from that point on, I was always on the lookout for more stuff like that, and since that stuff lived in the SF section, that’s where I stayed. Sometimes I like to quote to people the first paragraph of the prologue and the first chapter from The Stars My Destination and then watch them scurry off to find themselves a copy. You just can’t help but read a book with openings like that.

Why don’t I do it right now? Here’s the first paragraph of the prologue:

This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying… but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice… but nobody admitted it. This was an age of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks… but nobody loved it.

And here’s the first paragraph of chapter one:

He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a trap. He was delirious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity. Then he lifted his mute face to Eternity and muttered: “What’s a matter, me? Help, you goddamn gods! Help, is all.”

And then here’s the end of the first section of chapter one:

He had reached a dead end. He had been content to drift from moment to moment of existence for thirty years like some heavily armored creature, sluggish and indifferent—Gully Foyle, the stereotype Common Man— but now he was adrift in space for one hundred and seventy days, and the key to his awakening was in the lock. Presently it would turn and open the door to holocaust.

For those of you who haven’t read it before…you’re welcome!

RC: What do you especially enjoy about editing anthologies, and what kinds of special problems do anthologies present (i.e. choosing stories, contacting authors, winnowing, etc.)?

JJA: When I’m doing a reprint anthology like Wastelands 2, I enjoy being a curator, and it’s a responsibility I take very seriously. When you read one of my anthologies, I want it to be clear that much more went into it than just slapping the first X number of stories I found between two covers; when I do a reprint volume, I really try to search far and wide, and cast as wide a net as possible to ensure that I included all of the best material on the given topic that is available. I read everything you so you don’t have to; “Trust me,” I say, “I’ve conducted an extensive survey of the field, and these are all the stories on this particular theme that you need to read.”

Doing an original anthology is a bit of a different beast. There, the anthologist plays a much more integral role in the development of the stories, as it’s from the anthologist’s prompt that the stories are written in the first place. Whereas a reprint anthology can entail tons of reading if you scour the field for material as I describe above, an original anthology typically requires much less reading—unless you accept unsolicited submissions—but it presents other challenges, such as: authors dropping out at the last minute, or authors delivering stories that don’t quite fit the theme (or aren’t very good). Original anthologies also can be problematic because traditional publishers often require the anthologist to deliver a certain number of “big name” authors (to help drive sales of the anthology), and usually the anthology is sold largely on the basis of promises from authors given to the anthologist; things can get tricky when one of them needs to drop out, as that can leave the anthologist scrambling to fill that slot with someone of comparable “bigness”—and with probably only a fraction of time left before the deadline.

But because of all of those challenges—and because of the greater creative role an editor plays—I find original anthologies immensely rewarding. There’s something really great about seeing a story get talked about and knowing that it wouldn’t exist if not for your anthology prompt.

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