January 2008

Blythe Boyer

fiction

Wastelands: Stories of Life After Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams

Wastelands: Stories of Life After Apocalypse collects 23 stories that range in publication dates from 1973 to 2006. Some of the stories have aged more gracefully than others. The questions raised by the powerful allegory of death envisioned as total Apocalypse fall by the wayside as editor John Joseph Adams gives too much leeway to the biggest stars of the speculative fiction world. As it is, I can wholly recommend half of the stories collected here. Wastelands ultimately fails as a collection because its editor did not allow a cohesive philosophy to guide his choices for the collection.

I admit that the author list is quite impressive: Stephen King, Octavia Butler, and Gene Wolfe join many other popular genre writers. Some of the authors are very disappointing, though. Dale Bailey wonders why readers and writers would choose to obsess over the image of a ruined world. As Adams points out in his introduction, Bailey’s story -- titled, blandly, “The End of the World as We Know It” -- “grew out of Bailey’s attempt to understand our rather morbid fascination of the genre and the prospect of our own extinction.” It is a sign of good writing when an author can make a personal question interesting to a greater audience; Bailey does not rise to the occasion here. Instead, he displays a great deal of contempt for the reader. For example, he addresses the reader here:

You, like Wyndham, may be curious about the catastrophe that has befallen everyone in the world around him. You may even be wondering why Wyndham has survived.            

End-of-the-world tales typically make a big deal about such things, but Wyndham’s curiosity will never be satisfied. Unfortunately, neither will yours.

Shit happens.

It’s the end of the world after all.

He continues to interject in his story in the same blowhard fashion, ostensibly deconstructing the “end-of-the-world tale.” Unfortunately for him, his story is collected with a series of other stories that often prove him wrong. On top of that, the comparisons make it plain that his narrative voice, uncompelling plot, and forgettable characters leave him with a bad story. He references Day of the Triffids, a post-apocalyptic novel written in 1951 that was used as the basis for the movie 28 Days Later: “Here’s one of my favorite end-of-the world scenarios by the way: Carnivorous plants.” Thankfully, Bailey’s story doesn’t have the legs that Triffids do, and will fall away quickly.

Much stronger was “Speech Sounds” by Octavia Butler, in which mankind is suddenly struck speechless or illiterate -- one loses their faculty for the spoken or the written word, irreplaceably. It’s not (as Bailey lists in his story) either a man-made or natural disaster that wipes away the world, but a chance spasm of evolution that effectively destroys any means of collaboration, without which, civilization is impossible. An observant woman moves through this world, and her adventure is poignant and relatable, especially to anyone who has felt isolated in a crowd of people. The reader can understand and see, if perhaps not hear, the new world that she lives in and the rules it entails. The premise of the story rises into a philosophical question about the false impression we hold dear, that the ability to communicate with one another decreases the isolation between people. Butler dwells admirably in this realm.

In “Mute,” Gene Wolfe puts a deceptively simple spin on the post-apocalyptic themes of isolation and survival by introducing two children -- a boy and his younger sister -- as his main characters. The world around them is almost certainly empty, and their only company is the ghost of their father and a television stuck on mute that replays the same footage of a talking man. The two characters respond so differently to their situation that the story subtly becomes a study of exploration and transition into adulthood. While the brother explores each room of the house and hopes to discover something new in this dead world, his sister Jill watches the man on TV over and over again, trying to learn to read his lips and decipher his message. She knows it is now meaningless, but may help to remind them of the way life used to be. The eerie quiet that surrounds them would quickly drive an adult crazy, but the children adapt to it in a startling way.

Along with Lethem’s “How We Got Into Town And Out Again” and “A Song Before Sunset” by David Grigg, Wolfe turns the tropes of the apocalypse in on themselves and creates new rules for short fiction. Each one examines stripped-down human behavior and what our actions mean in our day-to-day life. Another inspired inclusion is “Judgment Passed” by Jerry Oltion. Mr. Oltion’s wry treatment of his character’s disastrous decision is refreshing in its forgiving tone, even as the author undermines the very foundations of morality.

As unsuccessful as Dale Bailey's story is, its unanswered question still remains: Why do we enjoy reading post-apocalyptic scenarios? Part of my response lies in the meaning of the word apocalypse, whose literal translation is “the lifting of the veil,” or a revelation of something otherwise hidden from mankind. I, like most people, often wonder what meaning this thing called life holds. There is mystery and beauty, but also sadness and the understanding that the ultimate end of life is just that -- the end. Each one of us has one waiting somewhere in the future, which we will face all alone. By bringing the very personal response to these ideas into being as a post-apocalyptic story, authors and their readers hope to mitigate some of the isolation provoked by the thought of death. The dystopian story also serves to remind us to be tremendously thankful for the good things we enjoy, to not take them for granted, and to be ready to lose them. As they say, you can’t take it with you when you go.

Perhaps we readers, and the dystopian authors we love, are being self-indulgent by letting ourselves imagine a scenario where the whole world belongs to us. But I don’t think so. I think we are exploring notions of how the world we were born into actually works, how sometimes the smallest action can change it -- maybe for the worse, to follow the paths outlined in this collection, but maybe for the better.

In Wastelands, the range of imaginative reactions to life after the end of the world, from saddest to most exuberant, is inspiring. What other collection of stories will show you the plight of surviving Mormons in a flooded Salt Lake City in Orson Scott Card’s “Salvage,” then move into an supremely cheesy appearance of Winston Churchill in McDevitt’s “Never Despair”? While I can’t recommend Wastelands as a whole, there are a handful of stories that even the most well-read fan of post-apocalyptic fiction should read.

Wastelands: Stories of Life After Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams
Night Shade Books
ISBN: 978-1-59780-105-8
331 pages