20 January 2014

Book review: Wastelands

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

This anthology came out in 2008, so it isn't new. I can't remember how I got my copy (an e-book), but it was sitting there on my e-reader when I wanted to read something I could pick up in bits and pieces here and there. Almost every piece is a reprint, ranging from George RR Martin's 1973 "Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels" to a 2007 piece from John Langan. The sole new piece is Jerry Oltion's "Judgment Passed."

It opens with a Stephen King piece, "The End of the Whole Mess," which I liked. It's about a pair of brothers, one of whom is an evil genius who invents a serum that changes people. The Orson Scott Card piece that followed less so. I could have lived without reading Bacigalupi's "People of Sand and Slag," with the whole dog-killing thing.

M. Rickert's "Bread and Bombs" is fucking terrifying and brilliant, a look at a society so overwhelmed with hate that the children do something unthinkable.

"How We Got in Town and Out Again" by Jonathan Lethem had an interesting premise, but it didn't really do anything for me. A sleazy troupe brings a rigged endurance contest (for essentially VR video) to town, and a couple teenagers use it to sneak into a town.

Martin's piece is about a post-nuclear survivor, many generations hence, exploring the tunnels he lives in with his psychic rat companion. His people are growing ill and dying out. Explorers/archeologists from the moon come back to Earth to look for anything that can help prevent them from dying out. (Small populations, bottleneck.)

In "Waiting for the Zephyr" by Tobias Buckell, Mara lives in a future Kansas(?), where everything is barren and desolate, and people live in shelters and have ample wind energy. She wants to escape her current situation and board the Zephyr, a landship, when it comes. Her family is opposed.

"Never Despair" by Jack McDevitt is about a woman who's searching for the Roadmakers, and she ends up in a derelict history museum, conversing with an AI named Winston. I love stories about futures where modern technology is a lost ancient secret, and that's what this is.

Cory Doctorow's "When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" is exactly the kind of story I dislike. I know enough about Unix and sysadmins to have gotten some of the jokes, but a story built around in-jokes ... meh.

"The Last of the O-Forms" by James Van Pelt is about the world after a series of mutation plagues hit. Creepy and satisfying. I don't remember much about "Still Life With Apocalypse" by Richard Kadrey.

"Artie's Angels" by Catherine Wells is about survival in a slum and cooperation, and whether the person or the idea of the person is more important.

"Judgment Passed" by Jerry Oltion asks the question "What if there were a Rapture and we missed it?" A small band of people were on a spaceship when the Rapture happened, and they all deal with it a little differently.

Gene Wolfe's "Mute" is about two kids who find all the TVs on mute, and everyone watching them dead. Creepy.

"Inertia" by Nancy Kress is one of the pieces I read elsewhere, but I can't remember where. It's a tale of people with a disfiguring but not deadly transmissible disease, who are forced into leper colonies and live on discarded and donated goods. They have no contact with the greater world or its politics. A doctor wants to sneak an infected girl with minimally visible disfigurement out of the camp to spread the placidity that's a side effect of the disease to the general public.

"And the Deep Blue Sea" by Elizabeth Bear is about a motorcycle courier in the nuclear remains of Nevada, who made a little deal with the devil, on what may be her final courier run.

Octavia Butler's "Speech Sounds" I've also read elsewhere. It's about some sort of agent that takes away people's ability to create and understand speech, and society's reaction to it. Excellent.

Carol Emswhiller's "Killers," like Rickert's piece, is about a society so steeped in hatred of the Other that people do unthinkable things. The intro to the piece says it "grew out of [her] objections to the war in Iraq," and that's very clear.

"Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" by Neal Barrett, Jr, was interesting but ultimately didn't work for me. Del and Ginny run a traveling show where Ginny advertises a variety of sexual personas, which are actually VR experiences. There are sapient animals (I think? I didn't quite get that part), and the peak conflict of the piece revolves around Ginny's Possum and the Dog of a mechanic they hired to tune up the van.

"The End of the World as We Know It" by Dale Bailey is about the sole survivor of the apocalypse, a middle-aged UPS driver, coming to grips with the end of everything. It's as much a meta-commentary on post-apocalyptic fiction as it is a story, which I thought was interesting.

"A Song Before Sunset" by David Grigg is about an older man who wants to play the piano one more time in a run-down world where culture is forgotten and Vandalmen smash things for fun.

"Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of Purple Flowers" by John Langan is about what it says in the title. It was influenced by Bailey's piece above. Jackie and Wayne are on the run from a pack of wild dogs, which suddenly appeared one day. Wayne has a Plan to get rid of the pack, but Jackie notices something terrifying about him while he's enacting it.

There are a lot of stories in this anthology, and only a few of them were misses for me. To me, that's a success.

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