Wastelands – stories of life after apocalypse
Edited by John Joseph Adams
Nightshade Books, 2008, $15.95, pp352
ISBN 978-1-59780-1-5-8

This review first appeared on The SF Site
Back when I was just a lad, during the Cold War heyday of the 1980s, anthologies like this seemed to be two-a-penny, only back then all the stories in them were post-nuclear war, since that was obviously the way the world was going to end.  Hell, I certainly believed it.

John Joseph Adams' new anthology, Wastelands – Stories Of Life After the Apocalypse, collects 22 stories together, the majority from the 21st century, although some reach back to the mutually assured destruction of the1980s, and a couple even hail from the crazy 1970s.  Is this anthology a result of the new age of insecurity and Terror (with a capital 'T') that we live in?  It might be argued so, because nuclear Armageddon seldom rears its ugly head here; instead the eponymous apocalypse is more likely to be biological, a post 9/11 war of attrition or even the Biblical Day of Judgment.  It seems that if the nukes are less likely to fall these days then there are plenty of other horrors waiting to replace them.  Adams' anthology is more concerned with what happens after the end, although that 'end' is still addressed in most of the stories.

What I found particularly interesting were the varying levels of optimism and pessimism that pervade all these stories; very few are completely negative.  There are the stories where it's the end, and, yes, it is terrible; stories that are negative but sad, rather than miserable; and surprisingly there are many others that are actually quite positive – it's bad, but there's hope, or at least, some nobility.  One of my favorites, Paolo Bacigalupi's 'The People Of Sand And Slag', even manages to turn the post-apocalypse story on its head, with a humanity triumphant and triumphal, but at a cost most of us would rather not pay.

Wayward biology seems the most popular way to finish us off at the moment, whether man-made or as part of Nature's bounty.  Stephen King begins the anthology with the solid tale of a well-meaning genius creating a plague, ironically, to save us all; both Octavia E. Butler's 'Speech Sounds' and Nancy Kress's 'Inertia' - two quieter stories in a book full of bangs, crashes and whimpers - have a not dissimilar malaise appear from nowhere; and Dale Bailey's 'The End Of The World As We Know It' deconstructs our fascination with doomsday plagues in an attempt to understand what makes them so relentlessly contagious as a meme.  Then, of course, there's Cory Doctorow's 'When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth', one of the weaker tales here, which throws everything but the kitchen sink at an embattled mankind.

Not all the stories are so literal: 'And The Deep Blue Sea' by Elizabeth Bear expertly channels Zelazny's Damnation Alley, whereas Gene Wolfe's 'Mute' is closer to a modern-day Brothers Grimm.  John Langan's 'Episode Seven: Last Stand Against The Pack In The Kingdom Of The Purple Flowers' might be mistaken for a more conventional apocalypse from the 1970s - kinetic and patently ridiculous, until you're suddenly in the middle of it, not unlike the few good parts of Zack Snyder's 2004 remake of Dawn Of The Dead.

Personally, I prefer my Armageddon raw and bloody, but even so I enjoyed all of the stories here.  Wastelands has a good spread of potential gotterdammerungs available, which range right across the stylistic and emotional spectrum.  All of human life is contained in these stories of our doom: from the despairing to the resigned, from the hopeful to the resolute.  In a genre that deals with such extreme circumstances perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that extremes of human emotion take center-stage.  What is more surprising is that so many different emotions should find their place here.

Wastelands is a fine anthology: an educational introduction to the subgenre and a well-chosen jog of the memory for the more experienced connoisseur of calamity.  And much as you might not expect Armageddon to have a sequel, I live in hope that there might yet be a Wastelands 2.
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