Wastelands: The New Apocalypse

Posted: January 23, 2021 in Book reviews, Post-Apocalyptic
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Edited by John Joseph Adams

I’m the kind of contrarian who, on a blazing hot summer’s day, would squirrel myself away in a cool, dark cinema (and will again once its safe to do so) so perhaps its no great surprise that during a pandemic I would find comfort in an anthology of post-apocalyptic stories.

Some may find this curious but to me it makes perfect sense. Much as fictional horror helps us process the real horrors of the world, what better way to deal with a pandemic that, terrible as it is isn’t going to destroy humanity, than by getting lost in stories where characters really are facing the end of it all.

This is far more than a collection of mere Mad Max clones, and Adams has pulled together an interesting, and eclectic collection of stories. For starters there’s dizzying array of apocalypses on offer, from your run of the mill nuclear Armageddon to your biological weapon running amok. There’s climate change and alien invasion and simple even ennui as deep time ensures that humanity is simply too bored to go on.

And the characters are as varied as the settings. Adams has drawn writers from a diverse background, which means we get to see as many women as men facing the end of the world, with people of different ethnicities and sexualities struggling with Armageddon. There’s even disabled and trans characters. On both counts this helps keep the collection fresh though there’s still action aplenty.

There’s over 30 stories on offer, so I’m not going to go through them all, but here’s a selection of ones I particularly enjoyed.

The Last to Matter by Adam-Troy Castro is a surreal jaunt to the far future. It’s completely bizarre and could have been annoying as hell but somehow Castro keeps the right side of weird.

Where Would You Be Now by Carrie Vaughn shines a positive light on the post-apocalyptic environment, taking unexpected turns and flipping the usual evil brigands’ trope.

The Elephants Crematorium by Timothy Mudie depicts a world where no more babies are born but rather than focus on how humans react to this the story instead relates to elephants, and it’s genuinely moving.

As Good as New by Charlie Jane Anders takes the monkey’s paw/genie of the lamp tale and gives it a fresh end of the world spin. Original and amusing.

Cannibal Acts by Maureen F. McHugh takes grim subject matter but layers it with emotion. Nowhere near as lurid as the titles suggests.

Shooting the Apocalypse by Paolo Bacigalupi feels very prescient, featuring a photographer and a journalist looking for a story in a near future world where climate change has caused drought to blight various southern American states. It’s tale of desperate people risking everything to cross borders feels scarily like it’s only a few years away from being reality.

Come on Down by Meg Ellison shows how even the most curious of things, a game show, can provide hope in the most trying of times.

Polly Wanna Cracker? by Greg Van Eekhout is another quite surreal, far future entry, but it’s amusing and features a great last line.

I really enjoyed And the Rest Of Us Wait by Corrine Duyvis, set in an underground shelter it follows a young Latvian pop star who also happens to be disabled. Another story that essays the curious things people might take hope in, while also detailing the difficulties the differently abled might face in the event of the apocalypse. A story I desperately wanted to continue.

So Sharp, So Bright, So Final by Seanan McGuire is, on the face of it a zombie tale, but Seanan gives it an inventive, grounded twist, and it’s very well written.

Snow by Dale Bailey starts out as a tale of disease sweeping the world, but morphs into something else entirely, and takes a heart-breaking journey into the dividing line between love and survival.

The Air Is Chalk by Richard Kadrey has echoes of The Omega Man, the central character a celebrity bodyguard trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles menaced by…well some very strange monsters!

Finally Francisca Montoya’s Almanac Of Things That Can Kill You by Shaenon K. Garrity rounds off the collection. An inventive entry that on the face of it is merely a list of the various deaths available at the end of the world, yet still manages to tell a story.

As with any anthology there’s good and bad, but there were very few tales I didn’t enjoy on some level. The only flaw is that it’s quite a weighty tome, which meant that, by around three quarters of the way in, even I was starting to tire of the end of the world, but that’s a minor foible. A very good anthology.

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