Review: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

Wastelands by John Joseph Adams

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wastelands is not a door-stop of an anthology. The weight of the book did not numb my fingers or weary my arms. It is still a substantial collection, however, heavy with authors whose names are more than familiar and stories with ponderous themes. But, unlike my experiences with similar anthologies, I did not feel utterly hopeless by the end. This is a very modern collection, most published within the last twenty years, and while every tale does, indeed, explore the end of the world as we know it, there is a sense of complacency and despondency rather than outright horror. Most of the time. After some thought, I decided this theme is very appropriate to our more modern attitude toward apocalypse. There is less focus on the fiery explosion (if that’s how it happens), less a feeling of desperation (how will we stop it?) and more a sense of the inevitable. And, of course the question that produces such stories: What comes next?

With that in mind, some of the stories did acquire a sameness or blandness, but I enjoyed the majority of them and relished adding to my experience of some of my favourite authors. Rather than risk offending anyone by naming just a few of the authors as an example of what waits between the covers, though, I’ll append a full list to the bottom of my review and, here, will simply mention those I looked forward to reading: Jack McDevitt, George R. R. Martin (whose science fiction I enjoy), Tobias Buckell, Cory Doctorow and Elizabeth Bear.

The introduction by editor, John Joseph Adams, is entertaining. Adams is an editor I look for when perusing anthologies. He is always engaged by his subject and enthusiastic about the authors whose work he is presenting. Wastelands is no exception. Every story has a beginning blurb and there is a great appendix at the back of the book for further reading.

The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King clearly illustrates Adam’s point about finding the right story to lead an anthology. A big name catches the eye and Stephen King certainly has that, even for those who don’t normally read speculative fiction. The story should also encompass or embrace the theme of the collection, which this one does. It’s about two brothers. The younger is a genius, one of those scarily intuitive kids who want to do everything and does, obsessively, in a search to find what he’s best at. During this search, he discovers a statistically peaceful place, pulls the water from the aquifer there and distills it. After this palliative for the modern condition is distributed, he discovers why that small town in Texas was so peaceful. Clue: It’s not good. This is a typical Stephen King story, which means it is good. It’s thought provoking and quite chilling. I always find his short form fiction to be his best.

The third story in the collection is The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi. I hadn’t heard of the author, though I felt as if I should have—his story is great, shocking in places and written in a brutally candid style. The writing is clever; the narrator passes on the info you need to know about the world without slipping out of character. In the far off future, Weeviltech has given everyone bodies that can survive harsh environments—they can eat anything (sand) and survive most injuries (slag). They regenerate limbs lost to accident and in one of those leaps into the foreign that often characterize far future fiction, they sometimes cut them off as a pastime, simply to experience being limbless. Weird, right? But not beyond the realm of thought. Chen, Lisa and Jaak are three such beings. Their job appears to involve salvage and during a routine mission they find a dog—a real dog, not a bio-job—and, fascinated by its existence, they attempt to care for it. But the dog is delicate. It cannot eat anything and it cannot spontaneously heal itself. It requires special pellets and filtered water. The brief relationship between the Chen, Lisa, Jaak and the dog highlights the difference between their world and ours.

The next four entries are all good stories and great illustrations of the genre and why I like those authors. Jonathan Lethem’s How We Got In Town and Out Again is less post-apocalyptic and more a story about a society that exists in a different world to ours. Same goes for Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin (who should write more science fiction!) which is set so far in our future, those who were left behind have become unrecognizable. Waiting for the Zephyr by Tobias Buckell is a snippet of how life might be ‘after’.

Never Despair by Jack McDevitt follows a more familiar route. A glimpse set in the same world as his novel, Eternity Road, the story recounts a small incident along the road, an encounter between present and past. The Roadmakers might be gone, but they have left a lot behind and reminders of their (our) culture aren’t always in expected forms.

When the Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow was one of my favourite stories in the collection. It’s long, thoughtful, often humorous and bloody entertaining. Felix, a sysadmin, is called out in the middle of the night to resurrect a sick server (my understanding of the technical stuff that forms the backdrop to the story). The computers are in a sealed, ‘clean’ environment, so when the world ends, taking his wife and son with it, he is left with a handful of other computer nerds. These guys live their lives in data streams and seem ill equipped to handle life after the end. But they find a way to keep going. Central to the story is the argument of whether they should kill the internet or not. It’s an interesting debate and I’m sure it’s an allegory for larger ideas—ones I might get my head around after a couple philosophical ales.

There are so many stories in this collection. If you’ll bear with, I’ll mention just a couple more. The Last of the O-Forms by James Van Pelt is creepy-good in that weird side-show traveling circus way. Artie’s Angels by Catherine Wells is a wonderful story about the unflagging spirit of hope after our world and society fails us and she is another author I will add to my watch list. Mute by Gene Wolfe is…a story by Gene Wolfe. Reader beware. Inertia by Nancy Kress should be a novel. I want to read more. And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear is as entertaining as I would expect one of her stories to be.

Right, so that was more than a couple.

Finally, the last story I’d like to talk about is The End of the World as We Know It by Dale Bailey. The narrative style of this story drew me in. The sequence of events rolls out at a steady pace, the pauses for asides a welcome relief from the walk to the conclusion. The references to the genre peppered throughout the narrative were fun and also a small challenge: had I read that one? In all cases but one, I had. The end of the story was perfect and, really, the journey ended for me there. I think the editor missed the mark in not making this the last story in the collection.

All in all, Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is a great anthology and a book every fan of post-apocalyptic fiction should have on their shelf. With so many authors represented, it’s probably a book every fan of speculative fiction should have on their shelf. It does lack the impact of Bangs and Whimpers, whose collected stories span a longer period and are, on the whole, a lot more depressing. Not sure if that is a good thing or not. And, as I said, it’s a modern collection. Beyond Armageddon features more of the great classics (and I prefer it to Miller’s Canticle—yeah, I know, blasphemy). Still, it is comforting, in a way, to know our collective imagination can conjure so many viable aftermaths. We’re pretty indomitable beings.

Introduction by John Joseph Adams
The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King
Salvage by Orson Scott Card
The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi
Bread and Bombs by M. Rickert
How We Got In Town and Out Again by Jonathan Lethem
Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin
Waiting for the Zephyr by Tobias S. Buckell
Never Despair by Jack McDevitt
When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow
The Last of the O-Forms by James Van Pelt
Still Life With Apocalypse by Richard Kadrey
Artie’s Angels by Catherine Wells
Judgment Passed by Jerry Oltion
Mute by Gene Wolfe
Inertia by Nancy Kress
And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear
Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler
Killers by Carol Emshwiller
Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus by Neal Barrett, Jr.
The End of the World as We Know It by Dale Bailey
A Song Before Sunset by David Grigg
Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers by John Langan
Appendix: For Further Reading by John Joseph Adams

The anthology also has a website: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

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