Series: Wastelands #1
Published by Simon and Schuster on January 1st 2008
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Collections & Anthologies
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Famine, Death, War, and Pestilence: The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the harbingers of Armageddon — these are our guides through the Wastelands... From the Book of Revelations to The Road Warrior; from A Canticle for Leibowitz to The Road, storytellers have long imagined the end of the world, weaving tales of catastrophe, chaos, and calamity. Gathering together the best post-apocalyptic literature of the last two decades from many of today's most renowned authors of speculative fiction, including George R.R. Martin, Gene Wolfe, Orson Scott Card, Carol Emshwiller, Jonathan Lethem, Octavia E. Butler, and Stephen King, Wastelands explores the scientific, psychological, and philosophical questions of what it means to remain human in the wake of Armageddon.
Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams is quite the anthology. It provides a decent sampling of genre sci-fi and fantasy writers, so if you’ve been curious about a writer, this is the book to try. I will say that I did feel like this apocalyptic anthology was a bit uneven. There were some stories that I really loved, however, most of the stories left me feeling nothing. I would recommend this anthology with hesitation. I think if you’re a patient reader and your spare reading trends more toward adult fiction, you’ll love this book. As my personal reading trends more toward young adult, I felt like a lot of this book was excruciatingly slow.
The End Of The Whole Mess by Stephen King
Stephen King kicks off Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams with his story The End Of The Whole Mess. I think if you’re looking for an author to draw people into reading your anthology, you 100% can’t go wrong with Stephen King. This story is narrated by a man named Howard Fornoy. Howard has a brother, Bobby, who is a genius. Bobby with his best of intentions unleashes something upon the world that causes everyone to lose their intelligence in exchange for being calm and peaceful.
The story unfolds as Howard uses his last moments of clarity to explain what happened and how. I felt like this story had impact and made me think about how sometimes the road to hell truly is paved with good intentions. It made me think about how we need to think not just of the short term, but also of the long term. Also? It’s written in a realistic way, especially how it ends. It’s very in keeping with the story King is telling us.
Salvage by Orson Scott Card
Salvage by Orson Scott Card is about this guy named Deaver who works in salvage, bringing back electronics and appliances to Salt Lake City to be fixed. One day, Deaver gets the idea to dive and try and salvage some gold and treasures from a Mormon church that is underwater. He doesn’t quite get what he expects. In all, an okay story. Not exactly the best I’ve read. I will say after reading this story, it had been 8 days until I got back into this anthology. Eh, it made me lose my motivation to read short stories pretty quickly.
The People of Sand and Slag by Paolo Bacigalupi
I have read a lot of Paolo Bacigalupi’s fiction for young adults but not so much for actual adults. In fact, The People Of Sand And Slag is my first interaction with Bacigalupi’s fiction for adults. This addition to Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse is about a group of three soldiers who find a dog. Normally, that isn’t really anything super amazing. However, in the world Bacigalupi builds there are no natural animals left, all are genetically modified. In fact, all people are modified as well. People don’t even eat real food anymore, but dirt. It’s a strange new world and this story questions the bond between man and dog. It’s different for sure. I will say the ending is super sad and you might hate it if you’re a dog person.
Bread and Bombs by M. Rickert
M. Rickert’s Blood And Bombs is actually kind of a timely story given current events and the political climate surrounding refugees. So, this story was inspired by the 9/11 food drops in the Middle East where I think it was the US would drop food but it would be in the same color as the bombs that were dropped, and thus there’s mistrust and confusion surrounding the food. Anyways, in this world no one really flies places anymore because of how dangerous and scary it is. There’s a main character who lives down the street from two refugee sisters and one who cries all the time. The main character’s mother tells the main character not to accept any food from the refugees because it might be poisoned. There’s even a town hall meeting about it. Ultimately, this story is about bigotry and kind of overcoming the bigotry.
How We Got In Town and Out Again by Jonathan Lethem
How We Got In Town and Out Again by Jonathan Lethem is apparently inspired by Lethem’s mistrust of technology or rather technology dependence. However, I got more of a mistrust of reality TV vibe. So, anyways, this story is about two people. There is Lewis who is a sixteen year old boy and Gloria who is like twenty years old. The two aren’t related, however, they travel together and seem to have formed non romantic bonds. Anyways, they end up running into these con people who are going to get into a town by running a sort of virtual reality marathon competition. Lewis and Gloria end up as competitors. This story is kind of weird and I am not entirely sure I got the desired message from it, but it was quite well written. So, it does have that going for it.
Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George RR Martin
So, in a surprise that comes to absolutely no one, George RR Martin can write about more than Westeros — yes, I am aware that he has other books and short fiction that do not take place in Westeros. However, I have not read any of them. Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels is my first non-Game Of Thrones themed piece of writing by Martin. At least I have Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse to thank for that.
Anyways, this story has got some interesting world building and questions what exactly defines mankind after evolution. The story is set on Earth about 500 years after some major disaster. There’s a character named Greel who is an Earthling who is a scout and living in the tunnels. Then there’s two men who are our current idea of men who come from the moon and are exploring to find any sort of survivors. The main one is Cliffonetto. Of course, the two sorts of men – Greel and Cliffonetto interact and it goes about how you would expect it. In all, a superb story.
Waiting for the Zephyr by Tobias S. Buckell
Tobias S. Buckell’s Waiting for the Zephyr is probably one of the shortest stories in Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse. It’s a very brief story about a world in which people are using renewable energy mostly — or well, at least are rebuilding using renewable energy. Mara’s parents live out in the rural countryside and are waiting for the zephyr which is basically a future version of a travelling tinker. Mara desperately wants to leave her rural life behind for the adventure of the zephyr, but her family wants to keep her, so they lock her up. Will she make it to Zephyr? Overall, this story was optimistic and a fun read. I wanted more after finishing it.
Never Despair by Jack McDevitt
Jack McDevitt’s Never Despair follows main character Chaka as she and one man bury a member of their exploration party and then make the decision of if they should continue on with exploration. One night, as the man is asleep, an apparition named Winston shows up to talk to Chaka and give her some advice about whether to go on or not. Of course, I think we can all guess exactly which Winston the apparition is. This story read really quickly and of course, being a total history nerd I was a fan of the cameo that Winston makes.
When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow
Cory Doctorow’s When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth is a story about techies basically being the last to live when basically Earth is destroyed by nuclear weapons and bioweapons. Felix is called into work unexpectedly. This ultimately proves to save him. Along with his co-worker Van, Felix and the other sysadmins must decide whether to keep the internet up and running or to pull the plug. It’s debated over several pages. Meanwhile, Felix is also coming to grips with losing his wife and son. In all, a dark but interesting story about keeping the internet going during the apocalypse.
The Last Of The O-Forms by James Van Pelt
The Last Of The O-Forms by James Van Pelt takes place in a world where life and biology as we know it is dying out, to be replaced by mutations. Those who are o-form or original forms like you and me are set to die out in fifty years or so. No one is having normal babies anymore, not humans, not animals. Trevin, the main character of the story, is profiting off of this as he is traveling from town to town with a zoo of mutated animals.
Only, he is finding that is take isn’t what it used to be. Less and less people are spending money at his traveling zoo. He sets up shop in a town he had previously did well in. There’s a softball tournament in town. Only, as his twelve year old daughter with the body of a two year old and mind of a tax attorney says, it isn’t going to be enough to keep them in business. And so, Trevin must find a solution to his money issues. This story has some interesting imagery, however, I was not a fan of Trevin.
Still Life with Apocalypse by Richard Kadrey
Richard Kadrey’s contribution to Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse is the very short Still Life With Apocalypse. This story is only three pages in length. It basically examines what life looks like in the end times. There’s still a bureaucracy that is grasping to categorize all the things. The unnamed narrator is a worker who is pulling dead animals from the tar pits among scavenging other things and categorizing them for the government. I thought this was an interesting glimpse at how sometimes even the end of the world does not stop bureaucracy.
Artie’s Angels by Catherine Wells
Artie’s Angels by Catherine Wells is probably going to end up being one of my favorite and most memorable stories of this anthology. It feels a bit like a YA story, only darker. It’s narrated by this girl named Faye but who now goes by Morgan. She used to live outside the radiation shield with her family but then she made it inside. There, her family lives in one of the B sectors. One night, a boy named Artie taps on her window and changes her life. He’s like the reincarnation of King Arthur.
I mean, he lives by this strong moral code and inspires the other children who are in their friend group to live by what they call the Code. Anyways, Artie manages to get some bikes and then to custom make bikes. Eventually starting a courier business with the children who live in the poorer section of the radiation shield. Ultimately, this story is about a senseless act of violence but also about our better and worse natures. I really loved how well written it was.
Judgment Passed by Jerry Oltion
Jerry Oltion’s Judgement Passed is narrated by this guy named Gregor. He was part of a group sent out on a space colonizing mission. His group of eight comes back to Earth after seven years to find it depopulated of humans. It turns out that while they were gone, Jesus returned in the Grand Tetons and everyone on Earth was raptured and faced their judgement.
So, the only people alive are the eight who were on the mission. And so, they must all decide what to do next. The group is comprised of agnostics who aren’t sure if they should try to get God’s attention by praying or if they should just try to repopulate the world. One man, Dave, takes it all a little far and is a little bit extra about getting God’s attention. Overall, as an agnostic person, I enjoyed this story and it’s take on the Rapture.
Mute by Gene Wolfe
Mute by Gene Wolfe is a sort of weird story. It definitely went over my head and I wanted to understand and really like it, especially as the story has been blurbed by Neil Gaiman. So, this story is about a boy and a girl who are brother and sister. They are dropped off by a bus driver to an empty house – the home of their father. They keep expecting to see their dad and see things that indicate that he is around. However, he never really shows up.
So, they go into this one room of the house where the TV is on, but it is on mute and they can’t figure out how to turn the volume on. The girl attempts to read the lips and the boy is intent on exploring more of the house. They end up outside – also in an empty world and their exploring basically takes them back to the house – where they fall asleep and doing unsavory things with each other. Yeah, I just don’t get this story. I even did some googling to better understand it — and it did clarify the symbolism, but I am not sure I should have to google to understand a short story.
Inertia by Nancy Kress
Nancy Kress’s Inertia is one of the longer stories – but it’s actually got such an interesting premise. So, there’s this disease that is very communicable and basically causes people’s skin to get all ropey. Thus, the government deals with it by putting people in leper colonies. This story is narrated by an elderly woman who has been in the colonies since the very beginning. She’s seen the evolution of the disease and change over time.
And well, for a long time there were no visitors to the colony from the Outside. However, that’s all about to change with a man named McCabe who is a doctor visiting from the Outside and also able to travel back, instead of being stuck Inside. So, I won’t give anything away but this story is so well written and just interesting. It leaves me wanting to know what happens next although the resolution is fairly logical.
And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear
And The Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear is a pretty neat story. It’s about this woman named Harrie who is a courier. Harrie has an assignment to transport a product from Phoenix to Sacramento in eight hours. The product must not get too hot or too cold. So, Harrie accepts the assignment and sets out with her motorcycle through the desert, where she meets a man who is about to call in her contract or kill her. Harrie, however, is determined. Will she make it to her destination? As I said, this is a neat story that reads rather quickly and has quite a satisfying amount of world building and action.
Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler
I really need to read more Octavia E. Butler. The amount of speculative fiction I read by authors of color is criminally low. Speech Sounds by Octavia E. Butler serves as a non-intimidating introduction to her work. So, this short story begins with a fight on the bus. It turns out that in this world everyone has lost the capacity for speech due to a disease. People have also lost the ability to read and write and thus communicate with gestures, sort of. The main character, Rye, has managed to catch a bus. There, a fight breaks out. She gets off and meets a man called Obsidian. She contemplates not killing herself and eventually finds a reason to live in the cruel, brutal world. This story is fantastic. I am definitely going to read more by Butler for sure.
Killers by Carol Emshwiller
Killers by Carol Emshwiller takes place in a post apocalyptic world where basically all the able bodied men have gone off to war. Those that do come back have something seriously wrong with them. The women who were left behind all live together basically in this town. The nameless main character lives in this pretty nice house and she’s waiting for her brother to get home – waiting for years and years. Anyways, this one man ends up hiding in her house and she shaves him and gives him her brother’s clothes. She finds herself attracted to him, only, when he goes to a meeting, he finds himself attracted to another woman. And so, this is where the title of the short story comes into play. Emshwiller’s story is about attraction and jealousy and our darker natures.
Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus by Neal Barrett, Jr.
Neal Barrett, Jr’s contribution to Wastelands is Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus. It’s about a group of three people – Ginny, Dale, and Possum – who travel around via rig and sell sex, tacos, and drugs. Ginny is able to transform into any man’s fantasy. Possum is gifted with weapons. Dale is an excellent barker. They trade these favors for things like gasoline. Anyways, one day they drive on to the South and run into a bit of trouble with men who used to be insurance agents. Overall, this story has interesting imagery however I did want to know why there was only one female character. What happened to all the women besides Ginny? So – while this is well written, it isn’t exactly my favorite.
The End of the World as We Know It by Dale Bailey
The End Of The World As We Know It by Dale Bailey is about a man named Wyndham who wakes up on what he believes to be a normal morning and discovers he is the last man alive. He goes to wake his wife up for their normal routine and she does not react normally. In fact, he realizes she is dead. Then he goes to see his daughter and also realizes that she is dead. Wyndham then heads next year for more of the same. Wyndham never finds out what happens. Nor do we the reader.
Instead, he gets to work at UPS, sees everyone is dead but goes out on his route hoping to maintain a semblance of society. Eventually, he ends up in a whole new home and begins life anew as the only man in the world. Overall, I liked how this story flowed. I liked how it talked about mass tragedies of the past between Wyndham’s narration. I also liked that we never really got a hint of what happened.
A Song Before Sunset by David Grigg
David Grigg’s A Song Before Sunset is a brief story about a man named Parnell who was once a famous concert pianist. He is now 65 and the time for piano concertos is long gone. Now Parnell kills rats and other small animals and sells their hides. We learn about a group of men called Vandalmen who are pretty much destroying all facets of culture – they burn a library and an art gallery. Not that this post apocalyptic world has much use for either, but Parnell can remember a time before. Anyways, he finds an old piano and begins to tune it, a skill that has no real use in this world. The story is pretty dark and sad. It definitely reinforces that I do not want to be living in a post apocalyptic world.
Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers by John Langan
The final story in Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams is Episode Seven: Last Stand Against The Pack In The Kingdom of the Purple Flowers by John Langan. Basically, the title sums up the short story. Langan’s story stars two young adults – Jackie and Wayne. Jackie is pregnant and on the run. Wayne is one of Jackie’s best friends and a surprising hero/leader. Anyways, there was this sickness that caused everyone’s flesh to pretty much melt. All that seems to be left of humanity is Jackie and Wayne. The two are now on the run from the Pack. Jackie is hoping that Wayne’s traps will work and that they will pull through and survive. Ultimately, this story runs a little long but by the end, I felt like I would have liked an expansion of this world.
Other reviews of Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams:
- The Short Review – “There’s nothing dreary in this book“
- SF Signal – “a great selection of end-of-the-world stories“
- Alive On The Shelves – “Each story looks at the end of the world as a brand new beginning.“