Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse
John Joseph Adams (editor)
Night Shade Books: 2007
What is in a name? A title? Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse suggests that the anthology will cover stories directly dealing with various versions of the apocalypse, the end of the world. That is not quite what this Wastelands anthology is about, though. The original title Wastelands: Stories of Life After Apocalypse was a bit more apt in describing the content of this anthology. The stories collected here by editor John Joseph Adams are not about the apocalypse, but rather about life after apocalypse. The wastelands made of our world is not the primary point of any individual story, but rather the survival of the species told in small human stories. In that sense the majority of the stories here are filled with beauty and not just the desolation of the landscape.
What is most remarkable about Wastelands is just how varied stories about living after the destruction of civilization is. Take Octavia E. Butler's Hugo Award winning "Speech Sounds", a story where humanity has lost the power of speech and must find other ways to communicate and society has broken down. Telling the story from the perspective of a woman named Rye, Octavia Butler is able to really give the reader a sense of the terror a woman may feel in such a situation and the emptiness of that life, of the snap anger and body language required to get by, and the barest hint of hope. "Speech Sounds" has been anthologized before, but is a truly outstanding story.
The range of stories collected in Wastelands runs the gamut from "Bread and Bombs" by M. Rickert, a post 9/11 story with kids feeling the fear of their parents, to the future history of "Dark, Dark Are the Tunnels" by George R. R. Martin, a post nuclear holocaust story with the remants of humanity living deep under ground, or Paolo Bacigalupi's "The People of Sand and Slag" where humanity is barely recognizable and a dog reminds the survivors of what life must have been like before, and filled with sadness of the setting and situation. Bacigalupi's story is especially surprising to me because of how negatively I reacted to his story "Yellow Card Man", but "The People of Sand and Slag" is a heartbreaking, beautiful, and painful story.
Other standout stories in Wastelands include Cory Doctorow's "When Sysadmins Ruled the World", "Artie's Angels" by Catherine Wells, and most surprisingly, the anti-Rapture and anti-religion "Judgment Passed" by Jerry Oltion. A spacecrew who were away from Earth return to find that Christ had returned and the Rapture occurred. I had expected that Oltion's anti-Rapture theme would overwhelm the story, but Oltion was very thoughtful and the way he had the characters respond seemed reasonable and plausible.
There are stories in the Wastelands anthology which did not quite work. Gene Wolfe's "Mute" is about as inscrutable as one would expect and despite Neil Gaiman's insistence on Wolfe improving with re-reading, "Mute" fails to connect. "Still Life With Apocalypse" and "Episode Seven" both did not seem to tell a coherent story.
"Episode Seven" is notable because John Langan was inspired to write the story in response, partly, by Dave Bailey's "The End of the World As We Know It", a very different story of "post-apocalyptic" fiction. In this story the survivor has a passive response to the end of the world, drowning it in alcohol rather than fighting actively for survival. Outstanding story, one of the best in the anthology.
Also notable are Elizabeth Bear's driven "And the Deep Blue Sea" and Neal Barrett Jr's "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus".
The bottom line is that collectively the stories John Joseph Adams has put together here in Wastelands shows off the range of the post-apocalyptic sub-genre of fiction. Wastelands is an excellent anthology of short fiction and one that would easily fit on any collector's shelves. There are far more standout stories than there are misses, and even that is subjective.
Post-Apocalyptic fiction is a favorite sub-genre of mine, and getting the chance to see just how wide ranging the genre can be is a treat. As a bonus, Adams includes a bibliography at the end of the anthology of other prominent post-apocalyptic novels and short stories.
Reading copy provided courtesy of Night Shade Books.