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Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse
edited by John Joseph Adams
Night Shade Books, 352 pages

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse
John Joseph Adams
John Joseph Adams is the editor of the anthologies Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse (Night Shade Books, January 2008), Seeds of Change (Prime Books, Summer 2008), and The Living Dead (Night Shade Books, Fall 2008). He is also the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in English from The University of Central Florida in December 2000. He currently lives in New Jersey.

John Joseph Adams Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Wastelands

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

One of the things that science fiction does is look at how it might be, if our dreams or nightmares came true. And one of the most persistent nightmares is the contemplation of loss, of all that we love, all that we know, all that makes us feel comfortable, being taken away from us. It is no surprise, therefore, that variations on the end of the world are as old as science fiction. Though the nature of the apocalypse, and our response to it, have changed depending largely on the cultural context from which the particular end of the world has emerged. Those who wrote about the coming millennium in the 17th century did so with relish, for example, while the reverence for landscape in the romantic period resulted in stories of nature reclaiming the world (The Last Man by Mary Shelley, After London by Richard Jeffries) that found a curious attractiveness in the apocalypse. This sense, that a depopulated world might not be a bad thing, has persisted in much of the post-apocalyptic literature that has followed. After the despoliation of the First World War we got stories in which the land itself was torn apart and deep-seated violence emerged (Deluge by S. Fowler Wright), and after the Second World War conventional political and social certainties were disrupted (The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham).

But the Second World War brought something new into post-apocalyptic fiction. To this point the apocalypse had been the result of outside agency, usually god or nature, and there was something surprisingly gentle in its effects. But now, with the advent of the nuclear bomb, the apocalypse becomes self-inflicted and far from gentle. If the end of the world tale to this point had been largely British (and would continue to be a characteristically British trope), stories of nuclear dread were largely, though not exclusively, American. Their heyday stretched from the late 40s to the late 70s (Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, "A Boy and His Dog" by Harlan Ellison); the tide receded as the Cold War thawed, but it hasn't gone completely, as witness The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The H-Bomb Girl by Stephen Baxter. Nevertheless, new terrors began to take the place of the bomb. The cyberpunk of the 80s was largely a fiction of America's economic decline, seen in the impoverishment of William Gibson's Sprawl (Neuromancer) or in Bruce Sterling's Distraction. More recently, global warming has reared its ugly head, though this is still so new that most SF writers seem uncertain about how to tackle it.

Wastelands is a collection of end of the world stories from the last 35 years (the earliest is "Dark, Dark Were The Tunnels" by George R.R. Martin from 1973), though the majority (13 out of 22) are from 2000 or later, which rather suggests a renewed sense of doom in American sf. And this is a very American view of the apocalypse. There is one Australian contributor, David Grigg with "A Song Before Sunset," but despite the degree to which the catastrophe is integral to British science fiction there are no British writers represented here. Though this does at least allow us to look at some of the distinctive American characteristics of the type. American writers seem to be both more pessimistic and more optimistic than their British counterparts: more ready to wipe humanity out completely, but, if there are survivors, more ready to assume that they will adapt quickly and efficiently to their new circumstances. Also there is none of that vaguely misogynistic British attitude that wiping out huge swathes of the population may not be all that unpleasant for those who live on. The closest to this is the only story original to this collection, "Judgment Passed" by Jerry Oltion. An updating of the 17th century story of the millennium, Oltion imagines that the Rapture has happened and all human life has been translated to heaven except for a handful of astronauts who were in transit back to the planet at the time. While one of their number insanely tries to attract God's attention, the others realise that a clean and empty Earth isn't that bad a place to live.

For most of the rest of the characters in this collection, a post-apocalyptic Earth isn't exactly a good place to live. The scope of the anthology means that we cover everything from nuclear fears to global warming, but the consequences for the survivors seem to be oddly similar. The landscape of devastation in British post-apocalyptic fiction is one of floods and lush vegetation (The Road to Corlay by Richard Cowper, A Scientific Romance by Ronald Wright); in American SF the model is almost invariably the dustbowl. Time and again throughout this collection we are in an arid landscape as devoid of plant life as it is of human life. The landscape may be irradiated, as it is in "And The Deep Blue Sea" by Elizabeth Bear, an updating of Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley in which a messenger has to carry vital medical supplies across a bombed-out Nevada and into California, only to encounter the devil along the way. The presence of the devil seems like an over-emphatic personification of the devastation we witness along the way, but this is still a sharp and gripping story even if it does feel as if we have been here before. And it feels that way because indeed we have. A few pages earlier we crossed a very similar landscape in "Waiting for the Zephyr" by Tobias S. Buckell, no radiation this time but otherwise a very similar scene of sterile emptiness which stands also for the sterile emptiness of the lives of those who inhabit the wasteland. Mara, the young woman at the centre of Buckell's story, eventually manages to flee this desert, a rare instance of hope in these stories. And we'll encounter the same landscape a few pages later on in "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" by Neal Barrett, Jr., in which the eponymous circus, selling "sex, tacos, dangerous drugs" to the sparse communities of the wilderness, come up against a violence made more stark by the emptiness of the setting. The dustbowl inevitably brings to mind images of the Depression, which is precisely what Jonathan Lethem plays upon in his post-apocalyptic tale, "How We Got In Town And Out Again," which uses They Shoot Horses, Don't They? as its template, though the curious equation of the end of the world with the Depression seems to me to undervalue one or the other.

If the setting is not actually a desert, it is just as likely to be a city so ruined that it has become a desert. This is found, for instance, in two of the weaker stories in the collection. David Grigg's "A Song Before Sunset" shows someone trying to retain something of the old culture in the face of people brutalised by their circumstances. This is an interesting theme (it crops up, for instance, in subtly different ways in Orson Scott Card's "Salvage," James Van Pelt's "The Last of the O-Forms," Octavia Butler's "Speech Sounds," among several others), but alas Grigg's handling of it is far from subtle, relying only on the most obvious symbols. Still, it is a rather better story than Jack McDevitt's "Never Despair," in which a young woman hunting through the long-dead ruins of an American city is counselled by the technological ghost of Winston Churchill. Why Churchill is beyond me, since there is nothing Churchillian in his advice or indeed in his demeanour.

The thing to bear in mind about all of the stories I've mentioned so far is that they are essentially about survival, about keeping things going. There may be a cost to this survival, as several of the stories take care to show. Paolo Bacigalupi uses the death of the last organic dog to illustrate how much debased humanity has had to give up in "The People of Sand and Slag," while James Van Pelt employs a somewhat similar scenario in "The Last of the O-Forms" in which a showman who makes his living displaying the distorted life forms that result from a new plague has to change the nature of his show to display the last apparently untouched humanity because all his audience have themselves become deformed. Though the writer who most touchingly reveals the cost of survival is Cory Doctorow in "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth," in which sequestered geeks are the only ones who can keep humanity alive while all their family and friends die around them.

Yet for all the pain, for the harshness of the circumstances to which humanity is reduced, these are essentially optimistic stories. They say that whatever God or nature or, more likely, the evil in man can throw at us, some will survive. And if life is hard, if existence is bleak and tenuous, nevertheless we go on, and things may get better. Only a couple of stories take a more pessimistic view. "The End of the Whole Mess" by Stephen King is the last testament of the last man alive after a plague induced by his own brother, though this is a surprisingly light-hearted take on extinction. More bleak is "Dark, Dark Were The Tunnels" by George R.R. Martin in which two groups of survivors of nuclear war meet up. One has survived by burrowing deep under the earth, the other survived on Mars, but when they meet up they are unable to recognise each other's humanity and through incomprehension end up killing each other.

But there are yet deeper, more subtle truths to be explored in end of the world fiction. A couple of the stories here edge towards such truths. M. Rickert in "Bread and Bombs" offers a scenario in which refugees come to town and end up causing the local children to react not against the stranger but against the fear of the stranger expressed by their parents. There are children also at the core of Gene Wolfe's "Mute" in which a young girl and boy arrive home to find their parents dead, in fact everyone else is dead. It is a haunting tale that seems forever on the verge of some revelation that never quite comes.

Both of these stories hint at the notion that apocalypse is personal as well as universal. But only one story fully embraces this notion, and it is perhaps the best story in the book, "The End of the World as We Know It" by Dale Bailey. It is a deceptively simple tale of one man waking up one morning to find everyone else in the world has died, including his wife, though it is tricked out with references to the whole history of post-apocalyptic literature. What we learn in this story is that every time someone we love dies, each and every one of us experiences the end of the world. It is unique to us and universal, and it is happening at every moment of every day. Which is why the end of the world is such a potent image in literature.

Copyright © 2008 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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