Anthology books can often be a tough read because the tone can shift sharply from one author to the next. The editor of an anthology shares in my mind the majority of the responsibility for the success or failure of the collection. Add to this the subject matter of the end of the world (where stories can range in tone from deadly serious to farcical) and you have the potential for an uneven, scattershot collection. Thankfully, John Joseph Adams’ collection Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is a taunt, often harrowing view of the aftermath of a lost world.
Adams’ chooses authors who are well-established in the post-apocalyptic genre, such as Orson Scott Card and George R.R. Martin. Each author brings a different slant to examining the same fundamental question: What happens when civilization as we understand it ends? Like its sibling genre the Zombie Apocalypse, End of the World stories generally examines the breakdown of the Hobbesian social contract theory. Without the social order to enforce correct behavior, how humans cope and treat each other becomes the source of immense conflict, which serves to create effective drama.
The tone throughout the collection is bleak and unforgiving at times, such as David Rowland Grigg’s “A Song Before Sunset”, where the old world’s culture is being systematically destroyed by the generation that grew up in the apocalypse caused by the previous culture. The previous culture, particularly one associated with misery and death, is often used as a metaphor for the inevitable fall of civilization as we know it, giving birth to a paradigm shift. The often-depressing tone should be a goal of anyone writing in the genre simply because of the subject matter at hand, unless one is going for a satirical story. There are stories in the collection that have a small amount of hope infused in them such as “Waiting for the Zephyr” by Tobias S. Buckell. His story deals with unbridled youth and the potential to understand and cope with the changing world through escape from a cloistered community in the vast deserts that appear after the apocalypse. Buckell’s story highights one of the aspects of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic literature: While the grander setting is the world before or after it’s been destroyed, the main setting generally deals with local events. In a modern society where countries and people are connected on an almost intimate level, the suddenness of that global connection disappearing is often too much to bear, leading to a renewed wanderlust in characters of this genre.
The majority of stories presented have the overriding theme of continuing on despite overwhelming hopelessness gripping the characters. One such story is Nancy Kress’s “Inertia” which deals with sufferers of a skin disease that makes them virtual lepers, complete with their own designated colonies, but also increases the victim’s passivity. The sense of passive acceptance of an inevitable end is best described by the protagonist’s view that her granddaughter “cannot change the world. It’s too old, too entrenched, too vicious, too there”. Even now after the specter of a Cold War nuclear holocaust is more or less unlikely, there is still an undercurrent presented by apocalyptic writers that the end is coming no matter what.
Another story that details this melancholy is Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World as We Know It”, which eschews many of the tropes (and openly mocks them) of the genre. The protagonist even sees the end of the world twice, once by watching television and once face to face. Baily uses numerous examples such as Krakatoa and the 9/11 attacks to show that the world as we know it is always ending.
Some of the stories examine what happens to those who live well after the apocalypse changes everything. “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R.R. Martin looks at the rapid changes brought about by a nuclear holocaust to an earth-bound population who becomes entirely subterranean. The story “Artie’s Angels” by Catherine Wells creates a post-apocalyptic Arthurian-like legend that comes face to face with the brutal nihilism a dying world could produce. Wells’s story also highlights how true events can become grand stories which become myths that potentially lead to change, which I think is what some post-apocalyptic writers of the older generations still cling to.
Beneath all of these stories sits the resolute troll, so to speak, of loss; an inexplicable, incalculable loss that cripples the mind and body worse than any disease. As our society has become more technologically advanced, we as people have become disconnected from day to day self-sufficiency, relying on our conveniences to propel us forward. Apocalyptic fiction serves as a reminder that the current state of affairs is ultimately fragile and can be swept away as easily as leaves off a porch. For fans of the genre, this anthology is a good representation of strong storytelling. I especially recommend this collection to anyone who hasn’t been exposed to apocalyptic literature as a good starter course before moving into the heavyweights of the genre.