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.