Book Review: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

Finally, back to the SFF!

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

I don’t usually buy short story collections, I’m not sure why.  Maybe I’m just the kind of person who feels more comfortable with having an entire novel to flesh out characters and plot, and I’ve always had the impression that short stories to some extent, don’t do that as well (that’s not to say that there isn’t characterization or plot, but I want to follow characters through an extended journey with them).

This book doesn’t contain stories about how the apocalypse happened; there are hundreds of books out there that do it. This focuses on the what-happens-next; the remnants of mankind trying to survive in 22 different versions of the end of the world; most of them do it spectacularly, though some didn’t carry my attention as well as others (but that’s just probably personal preference, not because they’re not good.) A lot of big names contributed stories: George R R Martin, Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Gene Wolfe, among many others.

The book opens with a Stephen King story which seems to set the mood for the rest of the book, featuring the cure for all the violence in the world, the anger that man is capable of showing each other, with disastrous results that no one could foresee until it’s too late. It’s poignant, and I was maybe a little teary-eyed at the conclusion of it.

Other favorites:

Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels, by George R R Martin. I think I’ve read a story about this before, though perhaps it was this same one (given that it was first published in 1973, it’s highly possible). What if mankind were forced underground after some apocalypse, and what if one day men who had escaped came back to find out what was left of them, or what was left of the world.

When Sysadmins Ruled the World, by Cory Doctorow. This one focuses a little more on the apocalypse than the others, but it looks at the question of what would happen if the internet was all that was left after the end of the world, and whether or not man could use it to unite after a global catastrophe. Some of it was a little too computer-tech-y for me, but I think it presents an interesting perspective on the state of technology today.

Artie’s Angels, by Catherine Wells. This one doesn’t focus on rebuilding the world, on saving mankind, or any such grand, world-sweeping goals. No, this is the story of a bunch of kids in the worst of the domes which are the only places to escape the radiation outside. They’re led by one smart kid, who helps to give them a legend to live around – the legend of King Arthur, and gives those kids something to be proud of, to live with. I can’t imagine many people who would still be dry-eyed by the end of it.

Speech Sounds, by Octavia E Butler. What if the world lost the power of speech, almost universally? How would society not descend into anarchy? Grunting vocalizations and an ever-expanding, mostly obscene sets of hand gestures. It follows the journey of one woman as she meets a stranger who she thinks maybe she can settle down with while harboring her deadly secret.

But I think my absolute favorite was The End of the World, by Dale Bailey. This one outright mocks the proliferation of end of the world scenarios with lines like, “Here’s one of my favorite end of the world scenarios, by the way: Carnivorous plants” (p. 289) or “You, like Wyndham, may be curious about the catastrophe…[E]nd of the word tales typically make a big deal about such things…[S]hit happens. It’s the end of the world, after all” (p. 290). The sly insertions of breaking the fourth wall mixed in with the story of a man who just has no idea what’s happened or what the hell to do with himself makes me smile every time I read it.

If you’re a fan of the post-apocalyptic, and haven’t read this book yet, I highly recommend you get your hands on a copy. They’ll make you smile, they’ll make you cry…they’ll make you think.

Rating: 5/5

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