Short Story Collection : Wastelands: Stories of Apocalypse Edited by John Joseph Adams

There is always something captivating about the concept of apocalypse, right?
Is it that dread, that helplessness? Or as Joseph Adams claims, it appeals to our sense of adventure, that thrill of discovery, the desire for a new frontier? And yet here we are on the other side of the fence thinking that all this is all in a distant future. We all have had dreams of a desolate, deserted Earth littered with abandoned broken down hulks of concrete and asphalt that stretch from nowhere to nowhere or is it visions of a dying world suffocating on noxious fumes and people wasting away from radiation? 

Whatever be your imaginations of a post-apocalyptic world – guaranteed they are going to be blown away by the visions of these twenty-two different works of genius from over the last two decades, smartly edited and collated in this one slim volume, aptly called the Wastelands by John Joseph Adams.

Wastelands is a definitive collection about an all-too possible bleak future as envisioned through the words of some of the best known authors across genres – Stephen King, Paulo Bacigalupi, GRR Martin, Carol Emshwiller, Catherine Wells, Elizabeth Bear – to name a few. Personally, I would rate at least fifteen stories in that to be gold-standard – hard-hitting commentary on humanity’s ability to persevere in the face of the worst adversities they have ever faced, some that sock you in the head with its grim, bleak tenuous  outlook on such life and others that shine with the light of hope and optimism. For most parts, the setting on the post-apocalyptic earth is what the Americans would called, the dustbowl. An arid, lifeless landscape resembling a desert where plants have wilted and given up on the will to live and humans scrounge by for most parts just to barely survive.  For the others, it is set in the ruins of a city with abandoned bridges and lonely stretches of asphalt leading to nowhere.

That said, while for most stories the tone is grim and serious, the ultimate takeaway is that of hope. Of survival against odds and these odds take various shapes – nuclear radiation, medical cures gone awry, even a theme of Judgment Day and the act of cleansing by Jesus. It runs the whole gamut of how or why the life on Earth went busto! And yet that plays of minimal interest in most of the stories – we focus on the brilliant characterization in each story and learn about their travails in such a dismal world and how they shine despite the circumstances.

For me, stand out stories that clearly struck a chord and also kind of made me ponder about the same for a long while were – “People of Sand and Slag” by Paulo Bacigalupi, “End of the whole mess” by Stephen King, “Inertia” by Nancy Kress, “Dark, Dark were the Tunnels” by George RR Martin, “Artie’s Angels” by Catherine Wells, “Judgment Passed” by Jerry Oltion.

The collection begins with the inimitable Stephen King’s first-person narrative story called the “End of the Whole Mess” – about a writer Howard on his last-gasp-dying breath trying to recount how he and his younger “Messiah” genius brother tried to “correct” the world by inventing this “calming” drug – the side effects are terrible and the whole world goes into utter chaos. It’s a poignant story full of pathos – edgy because it’s written as a self-styled confession by the narrator, begging forgiveness and redemption for himself, having done that final act of mercy for the whole world, which sadly may never be. Terrific characterization as King takes us deep into the narrator’s mind and relives his childhood and growing up and how things came to such a terrifying state as it is now. However as with most King stories, I hated the ending. Sudden and forced, without resolution to the problem at hand.

The most desolate and disturbing of the lot was Paulo’s story about a distant future where humans cease to live – there are only bio-engineered humanoids which survive on sand, can grow limbs, stick themselves up with razors or shiny halogen lamps all over. it’s told from the point of view of one such and it recounts with a complete lack of remorse or even a glimmer of hope of what they do with the last surviving organic dog that the group finds on one of their clean-up missions. It’s a tale of how science has made humans immortal and how they find a “lesser” evolved species, a perfectly normal dog that cannot alter to adapt to the harsher environs of the Earth, forcing the bio-jobs to question their heritage and purpose in life. Very very disturbing, harrowingly real, all too plausible situation that can arise. I salute the genius of Paulo and now have resolved to read the Wind-Up Girl as soon as am through with my current book.

Judgment Passed is perhaps one of the best imagined renditions of a second-coming of the son of God – who whisks away the entire population to heaven or God knows where. A group of explorers returning from space get left behind.  The group is divided on their opinion and wishes – one of them goes crazy to be called upon by God and this creates some effective suspenseful drama. A beautifully original premise, some heavy-duty questions around God and religion and faith,

Artie’s Angels and Inertia are everything that a short fiction should be. Creating unforgettable characters, vivid and layered within just a few pages, drama and emotional turmoil amidst harsh unforgiving external circumstances that forces character arc evolution and at the same time, leaves us spell bound and wanting more – with a masterful conclusion that forces us to question and speculate. Wham! Artie’s Angels tells the story of the “have-nots” and that lotus which grows out of the muck, a smart intelligent boy named Artie who becomes the beacon of hope for an entire riff-raff neighborhood of boys and girls – and who sacrifices a ticket to redemption  as he doesn’t want to break the bonds of friendship.  Essentially more a story about symbolism around hope and sacrifice set amidst a bleak surrounding. 

Inertia is Nancy Kress’s genius, a thought-provoking read about a future colony on Earth              that is quarantined because of a horrific disfiguring disease. An outsider comes one day into this colony and discovers that people living within the colony are far more civilized than the barbaric post-apocalyptic outside world. Can this disease itself be a solution to Earth’s problems? Kress ends the story on a cliff-hanger letting the reader decide which direction It moves onto. But it skims through a lot of interesting arenas – an SF-setting of a quarantined colony, familial issues, futility ( the laid back complacent manner of the residents within), hope ( the arrival of a stranger with a cure for the disease). Great read.

The collection is finished off with yet another good story – around the themes of survival against a pack of man-eating carnivores straight out of your wildest nightmares and pitched against a pair of protagonists who have the odds stacked against them. It’s a gripping adventure but the narrative style – never ending sentences with extremely long run-on passages didn’t help the pacing or general reading style.

There are quite a few other good reads well worth your time and Joseph Adams even goes onto sketch out a bibliography of possible next reads on the same topic.  It’s a fantastic collection and every fan of Fantasy or Science Fiction who has ever salivated around the prospects of a dying earth should get their hands on this one. The end of the world as we imagined it or come alive through the words of such brilliant authors, is a potent image that will linger in your mind.


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