Robert Frost famously wrote “Some say the world will end in fire / Some say in ice”, and went on to get into some subtext about human desire and hate. If you want to look at that dichotomy in recent end-of-the-world films, you could say that The Road offers more than its share of emotional ice, while something like 2012 features fire, and plenty of it. The deeper meanings of Frost’s poem are fine if you’re a New England poet comfortably sitting by the fire as you look out on a snowy evening, but when you’re fighting off cannibals in a post-apocalyptic horrorscape, worrying about subtext just screws up your aim.
The apocalypse is in vogue right now. Obviously, some of that popularity can be tied to headlines of the last few years, overflowing with dirty bombs, financial meltdowns, and potential pandemics. But before that, there was a gas crisis, and before that a Cold War, and before that a couple of World Wars. There’s always something making us think we might need to bury the canned goods in case marauders come calling. In the foreword to Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, editor John Joseph Adams offers a cursory history of the genre as he muses on the ebb and flow of post-apocalyptic science fiction along with various cultural anxieties. Marking the birth of post-apocalyptic science fiction with the 1826 publication of Mary Shelley’s plague tale The Last Man, Adams proposes that the sub-genre’s as old as science fiction itself.
As such, it’s way past the point where a successful story can coast on the novelty of its apocalypse, or on Twilight Zone-style twists. And it’s not even that we’re necessarily afraid of someone launching a wave of nukes or accidentally releasing a superbug. Adams proposes that post-apocalyptic tales also appeal to the reader’s desire for “adventure, the thrill of discovery, the desire for a new frontier”, and the desire to prove ourselves in a back-to-basics scenario. The modern End Times, according to Adams, are viewed from the perspective of “scientific, psychological, sociological, and physiological changes … in the wake of the apocalypse”. To that end, Wastelands offers 22 stories that explore a wide range of scenarios and philosophies.
Some of the tales found in Wastelands are as bleak as you’d expect. No one emerges unscathed from the good intentions at the heart of Stephen King’s “The End of the Whole Mess”, while loneliness and jealousy rip apart a tenuous calm in Carol Emshwiller’s terrorism-ravaged “Killers”. Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag” portrays a human race that’s mutated wildly in response to centuries upon centuries of pollution, who express wonder and consternation over the discovery of a non-modified dog. George R.R. Martin’s Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels doesn’t express much hope for a chance encounter between two long-separated groups of survivors. If you want an exclamation point on the end of culture after the fall, you can’t do much better than David Grigg’s “A Song Before Sunset”, which follows an elderly man’s quest to gain access to a grand piano in a chained-up concert hall.
The majority of the stories in Wastelands, though, are fairly optimistic, banking on humanity’s ability to persevere. Catherine Wells’s “Artie’s Angels” explores the transformative power of a charismatic youth who leads his fellow urchins via optimism and a chivalric code. Tobias Buckell’s vignette “Waiting for the Zephyr” chronicles a woman’s only shot at escape from hardscrabble life on the fringes. Jerry Oltion’s “Judgment Passed” poses an interesting headscratcher: what would happen if a group of astronauts returned to Earth, only to find that the Rapture had occurred? Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds” finds a small glimmer of hope in the aftermath of tragedy in a world where the population has lost either the ability to read or to speak. And the “spirit” of Winston Churchill shores up a survivor in Jack McDevitt’s “Never Despair”.
Wastelands is a smartly edited collection that picks some of the best post-apocalyptic science fiction of the last 30 years (only one story is original to the anthology). The placement of Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World as We Know It”, as much a wry commentary on end-of-the-world stories as it is an apocalypse story itself, towards the end of the book is a nice touch. So is finishing up with John Langan’s more optimistic response to Bailey, “Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers”.
In the stories presented here, the apocalypse isn’t exactly an afterthought, but it’s often a means to an end — a way to examine the toll on those left behind, and to wonder if the survivors should envy the dead. There’s very little, if any, pie-eyed optimism about New Edens where the sins of the past are blown away on the shock waves of a bomb; there are scars, both mental and physical, involved in surviving the End. You also won’t find any Hollywoodized badasses here, just a lot of ordinary folks trying to get by in some incredibly horrific circumstances — and some good reading in the process.