Jul 2, 2010

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

I am a sucker for thematic short story collections. Although I respect "best of the year" books, there is something much more focused in an overarching theme. Years could be generally weak (although, thankfully, recent ones haven't been), and so the "best of..." collection suffers. But with themes you just know that if the editor has done his or her job, it is going to be good.

That said, I am an even bigger sucker for apocalyptic SF. Not the Mad Max b-movie kind, but the thought-provoking, inventive, chilling predictions of the many, many ways in which civilization or the world as we know it could be destroyed. So, naturally, when I noticed the gorgeous cover of Wastelands, and then the names written on it, I simply had to read it.

In one word, this apocalyptic collection is superb! The amount of genuinely brilliant fiction inside is staggering. John Joseph Adams has opted for established names, and those deliver stories that range between light-hearted quests - such as Jack McDevvit's Never Despair (set in the universe of his post-apocalyptic novel Eternity Road) - and poetic pieces like Gene Wolfe's delicate and silently horrifying Mute. There are tragic tales (George R. R. Martin's beautiful Dark, Dark Were The Tunnels) and there are tales of violence and strife (Paolo Bacigalupi's The People of Sand and Slag). And above all lies the theme of a world that has been, but is no more. An idea that holds as much hope as it does horror.

Two stories deserve special mention:

One of the most original entries in this collection is Octavia Butler's Speech Sounds in which the "apocalypse" has appeared in the form of a disease that renders most of humanity incapable of recognizing and producing speech or written words. People have reverted to a deteriorating primitive society that resorts to violence as the alternative to communication. But the effects of the disease are not passed to further generations, and hope is born anew.

Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin has to be my favorite story in Wastelands. A few centuries after a nuclear war has destroyed Earth's surface, a form of humanity has survived deep underground, developing telepathic connection to the mutated animals that also dwell in the tunnels. Then a shuttle from the dying Moon colony - the only remnant of an age long gone - lands in search of survivors and resources. And the meeting between the two civilizations is not what any of them might expect.

Of course, not all stories in this collection are equally good. Stephen King's The End of the Whole Mess is more or less Stephen King being his usual manipulative self, using easily recognizable ways of extracting the appropriate reaction from his readers. Orson Scott Card's Salvage on the other hand - part of his "Mormon Sea" cycle - could very well be set on an alien planet with no change of setting whatsoever. The apocalypse has happened a long time ago, and Card is a lot more interested in exploring his religion than anything else.

Still, there isn't even one weak story in Wastelands, and the good ones are pure joy. Adams starts each entry with an introduction to both the author, and the story itself, and I found many of those really interesting. There is also a "For further reading" list at the end of the book, which contains almost every work of apocalyptic SF that's worth its salt.

All in all, Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is as good as they get. There are both new, and old names, an amazingly wide range of themes and styles, and an overall quality that is truly rare even in this type of collection.


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