John Joseph Adams (ed.), Wastelands: Stories of the apocalypse. Night Shade Books, 2008. Pp. 333. ISBN 9781597801058. $15.95.Reviewed by Djibril al-Ayad
This volume, by prolific anthology editor Adams, collects 22 short stories on the rather vague theme of the end of the world (or of civilization, if there's any difference). Fall-of-civilization stories make great political parables, but there is much more post-apocalyptic fiction being published than there is good post-apocalyptic fiction, so a selection vetted by a respectable and talented editor ought to be a great idea. The lack of coherence or consistency in this volume make it a bit of a missed opportunity therefore (although there is some great stuff in here).
In a rather brief introduction that doesn't quite run to two pages, Adams talks a little about the history and some themes of post-apocalyptic stories, both in science fiction and in mainstream literature (in which it has been more prevalent than most speculative topics). Post-apocalyptic fiction has been largely a Cold War phenomenon--not surprisingly, since this coincided with the first time modern humanity was faced with both the possibility of total annihilation at its own hand, and political leaders who were patently ready to wield that hand. But disaster fiction is also fantasy-fulfillment; its protagonists are (as Adams quotes John Varley) "wandering, scrounging, defending", but above all surviving.
On the one hand, the typical post-apocalyptic story is a dystopia, a political parable of the worst of our world. Civilization has fallen, and with it all the trappings of our world: the protection of the weak, the rule of law, recourse to justice without spiraling taleonic revenge. The post-apocalyptic world is lawless and violent; people steal and rape with impunity. The worst of our bestial human natures takes over. There is suffering, famine, disease, poverty; no technology or cooperation to help overcome these ills that we have not had to deal with (at least in the West) for the last several generations. It is the worst of worlds.
But it can also be the best of worlds, and some post-apocalyptic stories contain elements of the political utopia (that "avenge themselves on this life with the phantasmagoria of another, a better life"). It is the opportunity to start over, to build a new civilization from the stones upward, to create a life and a culture learning from and avoiding the mistakes of the past. The world without cities, and banks, and politicians, and corruption, and bureaucracy. In other words, it's a libertarian's wet dream. (But idyllic cooperation can also be an anarchist parable; it all depends on your opinions about human nature.)
The stories in this volume touch on all of these issues, but also on banal themes such as the nature of heroism; of good and evil; of resilience and fortitude shown in the face of adversity; the journey to self-fulfillment that comes from the hero's suffering; the quest for lost wisdom; for the glory of the (nostalgic) past.
And so finally onto the stories. Adams introduces each offering with a half page of biography and interpretation (just occasionally bordering on the spoiler). The first story, 'The End of the Whole Mess', is billed as "a high-profile contributor ... uncommonly good ... [and] set[s] the tone for the rest of the book". In fact only the first of these three claims is true: this is in fact a rather unexciting and unoriginal story by a very famous but typically uneven novelist who is usually much more entertaining than this. I'm sure the theme of the mad genius who tragically destroys civilization with an engineered disease (done so much better by Margaret Atwood in Oryx and Crake) was not dazzling and new even in 1988 when this piece was first published. Thankfully this does not set the tone for the rest of the book, since many of the following stories are much better (and very few are much worse).
For this reader there were three stand-out stories in this anthology that warrant highlighting.
'Bread and Bombs' is probably the most powerful piece in the volume, a daring and controversial blend of terrorism, atrocity, prejudice, and the terrible cost of the so-called "innocence" of childhood. While not exactly a twist-in-the-tale story as such, the focus of the plot does change and so is richer on second and subsequent readings. Narrated in retrospect by one of the characters who was a child at the time of the events described, the characterizations and foreshadowings are given in childish terms, echoing both the naïvety and the cruelty of the young. When a foreign family move into a narrow-minded, nervous, and fragile community, the uncomfortable friendship between the exotic and oddly-behaved daughters and the local children brings out the best and the worst in the adults of the town. The tragedy is foreshadowed from the opening words, but is nonetheless horrific when it occurs for all that. This is a clever and deeply moving story, the kind that gets you thinking without preaching to you, and—although perhaps not strictly post-apocalyptic in the normal sense—is everything that great science fiction should be.
'Judgment Passed' is the most literally post-apocalyptic piece in the collection; a story with a religious theme but an ostensibly rationalist viewpoint. Eight astronauts return to Earth from an inter-stellar journey to find that the Biblical apocalypse has occurred and all humans on the planet have disappeared, apparently taken away by God. The protagonists find their faith (or their agnosticism, respectively) sorely tested by these events, but nothing they can do or say (or believe) seems capable of changing anything—least of all the fact that they have been left behind. This story does excellent work in analyzing the nature of belief, the limits of rationalism, and the dangers of fundamentalist faith. I was a little uncomfortable with the implication that a "noble lie" (an untruth designed to make the believer behave better) is any more acceptable in the cause of rationalism than it is in the cause of a religious faith. Certainly a story to provoke debates and soul-searching, which can only be a good thing.
'Inertia' is another piece that is not typical post-apocalyptic fare, but set in what is effectively a quarantine containment camp in which a community has grown up over generations of detention. Again, this piece is not so much high-octane science fiction as it is very thought-provoking parable, with its evocation of idyllic politics, conflict-free self-organization, and the morality of deliberately interfering with the mental (and ethical) health of humanity. It is the same incurable, disfiguring disease that has the internees locked away by a fearful and ever more barbaric general population, that allows them to live unburdened by the desperate, ambitious, and competitive instincts that are in danger of bringing down civilization as we know it in a violent cataclysm. Narrated by an old, arthritic woman, the protagonists are her innocent, idealistic granddaughter; her bitter, self-obsessed daughter; and the charming and mysterious doctor from outside who claims to have a cure for the world's ills. Another story that will get you arguing with its clever, intense, controversial, but complex politics.
There are several other good and notable stories in this volume. 'The People of Sand and Slag' is not typically post-apocalyptic so much as post-human, but the protagonists are humans living in a world so blasted and polluted that we would find it uninhabitable. Culturally as well as physically adapted, the heroes find a dog living in the slag and poison of a toxic waste site, and the companionship of this fragile and obsolete animal cause them to consider in a new light their humanity, their technology, and their intelligence. 'Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels' is another post-human story set in a devastated world centuries-abandoned by humanity, that shows how a highly specialized, rapidly adapted race would seem less than human to returning exiles exploring with a view to re-colonizing the recovering planet. Sensitive and inventive, the weirdness in this story is so extreme as to read like fantasy until the first "normal" humans appear.
A more traditional story is 'Artie's Angels', about a group of bicycle couriers carving a niche for themselves and protection for their young gang in a desperate, lawless ghetto of a dome-city on a doomed Earth. Appealing to Arthurian legend, this is nevertheless an optimistic story, showing how with resourcefulness and cooperation we can make a better world for ourselves however desperate the situation. 'Speech Sounds' is another story about people trying to get by in a post-civilized world, but the very curse that has destroyed the world—the loss of speech and language—prevents people from working together and thus rising above their animal instincts. A very intelligent and thought-provoking story.
Finally I note two pieces that begin as very typical post-apocalyptics, with shattered cities and populations mysteriously decimated, but bring something new and fresh to the genre. 'The End of the World as We Know It' follows one man, unextraordinary and unheroic, who finds himself the only survivor of an instantaneous and inexplicable extinction event. The story tries a little too hard to be a self-conscious commentary on the post-apocalyptic genre as a whole, but where it succeeds is in the simplicity of the current story—the greatest tragedy for the protagonist is the loss of what made his own life special: his home and his wife. No new adventures and fresh start can make up for this; the world has ended for him. A similarly hopeless situation arises in 'A Song Before Sunset', in which an old musician has spent several years eking out an existence hunting rats and trading with other desperate survivors while avoiding the gangs of marauding Vandals who are intent on bringing down the last remnants of old civilization. Without hope of actually improving life or developing a constructive community, the protagonist's one ambition is to play a concert piano one last time before the last of mankind's cultural institutions is burned to the ground. A sober, understated, and thoughtful piece.
There are other good stories in here, and only a handful of predictable or incomprehensible pieces. As an exercise in collecting together stories that are worth reading, Adams has done a successful job (although most of these pieces are from very mainstream publications: half of the titles were originally published in Asimov's or Fantasy & Science Fiction magazines); as far as achieving that sought-after coherence that every anthologist strives for, this was perhaps less impressive. Still a volume well worth purchasing for fans of the post apocalyptic genre.
Buy this item from Amazon.com
Buy this item from Amazon.co.uk