Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is an anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction published by Night Shade Books in January 2008, edited by John Joseph Adams.
The anthology includes 22 stories, plus an introduction by the editor. According to the anthology’s official web site, “Wastelands explores the scientific, psychological, and philosophical questions of what it means to remain human in the wake of Armageddon.” It received very positive reviews, with critics describing it as “belong[ing] in most sf or short fiction collections” and “a well-chosen selection of well-crafted stories, offering something to please nearly every postapocalyptic palate.”
I – STEPHEN KING – THE END OF THE WHOLE MESS
The story, narrated by Howard Fornoy in the form of a personal journal, recounts the life of his genius younger brother, Robert Fornoy. Bobby, a child prodigy whose adult interests led him to study a variety of scientific disciplines, discovered a chemical that reduces the aggressive tendencies of humans and other organisms. While doing sociological research in Texas, Bobby used crime statistics to create a crude topographical map which displayed a geographical pattern of violent crime. Examining the map, Robert noted diminishing levels of crime centered on the town of La Plata. When he arrives to investigate, he finds that this town has never had any violent crime. Bobby is ultimately able to determine that the cause of the non-aggression is the presence of a chemical unique to the town’s water supply, a phenomenon that is mentioned in (but had nothing to do with the causations of) King’s earlier novel It. Even minimal exposure to the chemical will quickly calm an angry person or animal, and Bobby has been able to isolate the chemical and distill it to concentrated form.
The nonviolent atmosphere of the Waco area had been noticed and investigated before, mostly by sociologists. Bobby said that when you fed enough statistical data on Waco and similar areas into a computer-population density, mean age, mean economic level, mean educational level, and dozens of other factors-what you got back was a whopper of an anomaly. Scholarly papers are rarely jocular, but even so, several of the better than fifty Bobby had read on the subject suggested ironically that maybe it was “something in the water.”
“If the idiotic human race can manage to hold itself together for another six months, I’m betting it’ll hold itself together for all time.”
II – ORSON SCOTT CARD – SALVAGE
In a post-apocalyptic America, Deaver Teague makes a living salvaging things left behind from before the war. Although he makes more money than a lot of people, he knows that he won’t be able to do this job forever. When he hears a couple of truck drivers talking about some gold hidden in a Mormon temple in the now flooded Salt Lake City he decides to go and look for it. Deaver can’t do this by himself so he goes to two of his friends, who are not very religious Mormons, and asks them for help. Reluctantly they agree. His friend Lehi gets some diving equipment and his friend Rain agrees to take him out to the temple in her boat. On the way Deaver tells them about how he was orphaned even though he doesn’t like to talk about it because he believes that friends don’t keep secrets from each other. When they arrive at the temple Deaver dives down into the building and comes up with some pieces of metal which he believes to be the hidden gold. When he gets to the surface, he finds out that they are prayers that people have scratched into flattened tin cans and thrown into the temple windows. When he discovers that his friends knew that people were coming out here and doing this, he feels betrayed because they didn’t tell him and he decides to move away.
Those two people in the back of the boat, he felt kind of sorry for them. They still lived in the drowned city, they belonged down there, and the fact they couldn’t go there broke their hearts. But not Deaver. His city wasn’t even built yet. His city was tomorrow.
III – PAOLO BACIGALUPI – THE PEOPLE OF SAND AND SLAG
What would happen if a number of predicted future possibilities come to pass at the same time? Specifically, body modifications which permit people to live on radioactive sludge, metal leavings, rocks and sand; bodies which feel no pain when injured; bodies which heal so fast even death is no longer a possibility – and this is the human experience for centuries? Why would you care any longer about hurting yourself? Video games would no longer be important because everyone could easily have the excitement of war, destruction, deathless murder and change of physical attributes without penalty, all in actual fact. Whatever you could imagine for yourself is absolutely possible. Rambo would be a pussy in this future environment.
Jaak laughed. His bleeding stopped. “Damn. Check that out.” He lifted his arm until the animal dangled fully out of the stream, dripping. “I got me a pet.”
Three people live and work at a mining operation for SesCo, Jaak, Lisa and Chen. They are happy enough protecting the Montana property, watching over the bio-robots, mechanical equipment and computers. They spend their off-hours having sex and playing immersive war-game video games. Nuking unexpected visitors to the property is their hope. Without violence, life is boring. So when their monitors show something moving within the perimeter of the company’s territory, they gleefully set out to destroy or kill whatever has wandered in or invaded; they don’t care which. Shockingly, they discover a dog, a REAL dog. Jaak wants to keep it.
“It’s hard to believe we ever lived long enough to evolve out of that. If you chop off its legs, they won’t regrow.” She cocked her head, fascinated. “It’s as delicate as rock. You break it, and it never comes back together.” She reached out to stroke the matted fur of the animal. “It’s as easy to kill as the hunter.”
They take a vote after Jaak agrees to pay for it’s food out of his pay, because it needs specialized pellets of food which are only available for scientific experimental animals. Something about the dog’s aspect is vaguely appealing, but soon the trio discovers it is a fragile being, its natural abilities being of limited entertainment value.
“It sure can make you think,” I muttered. I fed Lisa another handful of sand. “If someone came from the past, to meet us here and now, what do you think they’d say about us? Would they even call us human?”
Lisa looked at me seriously. “No, they’d call us gods.”
Is the dog worth protecting and keeping alive? The trio will soon need to decide as the expenses of its food continue and it becomes obvious the friendly creature needs constant care.
IV – M. RICKERT – BREAD AND BOMBS
Rickert says that she wrote this story in response to news reports concerning food packages being dropped in Afghanistan which were wrapped in the same color packaging as bombs — which detonated when picked up by hungry children. Many authors have been moved to write 9/11 stories; this is Rickert’s.
Now, when summer approaches, I count the weeks when the apple trees and lilacs are in blossom, the tulips and daffodils in bloom before they droop with summer’s heat, and I think how it is so much like that period of our innocence, that waking into the world with all its incandescence, before being subdued by its shadows into what we have become.
V – JONATHAN LETHEM – HOW WE GOT IN TOWN AND OUT AGAIN
I have really liked this story about two scavangers who end up in a game show. Lewis, the boy, ends up in a personal ads VR area. It made me laugh as he kept on swiping through women’s profiles, never quite finding one he liked.
I started to wonder how long ago these women were from. I didn’t like the way they were making me feel, sort of guilty and bullied at the same time. I didn’t think I could make any of them happy the way they were hoping but I didn’t think I was going to get a chance to try, anyway.
The joke comes full circle when the story ends with a request to travel to where all the hot single ladies are in:
“Let’s go up to San Francisco,” I said. “There’s a lot of lonely women there.” I was making a joke of course.
VI – GEORGE R. R MARTIN – DARK, DARK WERE THE TUNNELS
“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls,” he said softly.
Historically, the first contact between different cultures has resulted in cruel and violent — either consciously or unconsciously — actions by the more advanced cultures. Failures of communication have prevented communities from benefiting from each other and prospering. Instead, when cultures who can not communicate with each other converge the difficulties of transmitting information produces a plethora of disagreements, misunderstandings, and wrongdoings. The theme of communication is widespread in science fiction. Michael R. Collings’ “A Paradigm for Communication” explains, “Almost by its nature, science fiction deals with problems of language and communication”. How two cultures interact upon first meeting is deeply connected to how they communicate and the language they use. Understanding each other is only possible through patient analyses of new stressful circumstances. In George R. R. Martin’s “Dark, Dark were the Tunnels” the evolutionary gap between its characters is less to blame for the culminating conflict than the failure of language and communication.
VII – TOBIAS S. BUCKELL – WAITING FOR THE ZEPHYR
When the fuel went, Mara’s town turned to windpower. They struggled on as the lights left, as the cities fell fallow, and plastic became a memory. Their only link to the outside world is the Zephyr, and now it too has not shown up.
Ever since the petroleum collapse, with the Middle East nuked into oblivion and portions of Europe glowing, the country had been trying to replace an entire infrastructure based on oil.
Almost two generations later it was succeeding.
The large cities used more nuclear power, or even harnessed the sewer systems, but small towns were hit the hardest. Accustomed to power, but dropped off the line, isolated, a minor Dark Age had descended on them. Life based itself here on bare essentials; water and wind.
This was short and pretty terrible story. Nothing of note happens and nothing is described in detail.
VIII – JACK MCDEVITT – NEVER DESPAIR
“That’s the way of it in these places. Some of its illusion; some of it’s something else. But I wish you’d woke me.”
“Never Despair” tells the story of Chaka Milana, a woman who leaves her hometown in search of a storied place that holds the secrets of the Roadmakers, the almost-mythical builders of the concrete strips that cover the land, and the ruined cities with towers so high that a person could not ascend one in a day. In the course of her journey, Chaka encounters a encounters a historical avatar of a man she doesn’t recognize, but whom the reader most certainly will.
IX – CORY DOCTOROW – WHEN SYSADMINS RULED THE EARTH
When multiple terrorist acts bring the world to its knees, the future of mankind rests in the hands of a few, mostly overweight, data center geeks.
“Massive flashworm attack. Some jackass with a zero-day exploit has got every Windows box on the net running Monte Carlo probes on every IP block, including IPv6. The big Ciscos all run administrative interfaces over v6, and they all fall over if they get more than ten simultaneous probes, which means that just about every interchange has gone down. DNS is screwy, too-like maybe someone poisoned the zone transfer last night. Oh, and there’s an email and IM component that sends pretty lifelike messages to everyone in your address book, barfing up Eliza-dialog that keys off of your logged email and messages to get you to open a trojan.”
An interesting, quick apocalyptic story following several sys admins who live because of their jobs. There’s a lot of heart ache, heroism, & some doses of humor along the way. I started reading this & realized I’d already read it just a couple of years ago. I still like it and hit “Submit” if you agree.
X – JAMES VAN PELT – THE LAST OF THE O-FORMS
This short story is regarding a father and daughter who run a travelling zoo full of mutated animals after the outbreak of a genetic plague. This plague effected not only animals but humans as well. Healthy children became a rarity.
Up the hill, the tigerzelle hooted, and, just beyond the fence, barely visible by flashlight, the Mississippi gurgled and wept.
XI – RICHARD KADREY – STILL LIFE WITH APOCALYPSE
Kadrey says that the story came from a dream image of horse carcasses being dragged from canals under industrial lights. He took that image and turned it into a snapshot of life after everything has fallen apart–about the people left behind and the jobs they do to fill their days, about the poor slobs who have to clean up the mess at the end of the world.
I can’t say how long it’s been since the world went to pieces. All the clocks seem to have stopped. A couple of kids built a sundial, but with half the cities in the world still burning the sky is mostly a swirling soup of ash. We keep warm by looting the libraries I used to wade through, burning first the old periodicals, then the card catalogs, bestsellers and self-help books, finally working our way up to the first editions.
XII – CATHERINE WELLS – ARTIE’S ANGELS
When you set out to perpetrate a lie, I suppose it’s counterproductive to write down the truth like this. But whatever population survives here on Earth is not likely to read this, much less believe it. Most of them can’t read anymore as it is-not Book English, anyway-and it will probably get worse before it gets better. Much, much worse.
This story, which first appeared in Realms of Fantasy, was inspired by a disturbing dream Wells had more than 30 years ago. In the dream, a young man shimmied up a drainpipe in a tenement to visit his friend; and although he was a good person, someone came to his bicycle shop and fired a shotgun through the plate glass window. The senselessness and injustice of that dream event haunted Wells, and years later, as she rode a tandem bicycle along the back roads of Arizona, she imagined a post-apocalyptic society involving bicycles and young man such as the one in her dream, and “Artie’s Angels” was the result.
The Code was fairly simple at that point: Take care of your bike and your friends; never fight when you can run; study and learn; make things better for everyone, not just yourself. Those same tenets were required of everyone in his pack.
XIII – JERRY OLTION – JUDGMENT PASSED
“Judgment Passed,” which is original to this volume, tells of the Biblical day of judgment from a rationalist viewpoint; a starship crew returns to Earth to find that the rapture has occurred without them. Oltion has strong views on religion–namely that it’s a scourge on humanity–that led him to write this story, which speculates on whether or not being “left behind” would be such a bad thing.
“The entire population of the world disappears, every newspaper we find has stories about the Second Coming of Christ-complete with pictures-and all the graveyards are empty. Doesn’t that make a believer out of you?”
XIV – GENE WOLFE – MUTE
This story is about two children who return home, find an empty house, and are forced to grow up in a hurry. The ending was a bit creepy tho.
That night she undressed in the dark bedroom they had made their own, in the lightless house, folding clothes she could not see and laying them as neatly as her fingers could manage upon an invisible chair before slipping between the sheets.
Warm and naked, her brother followed her half a minute later. “You know, Jelly,” he said as he drew her to him, “we’re probably the only live people in the whole world.”
XV – NANCY KRESS – INERTIA
An incurable and highly contagious disease causes disfiguring “skin rope” tumors and flattened affect; consequently, all its sufferers are stripped of their rights and forced into sealed quarantine camps. Sixty years later, Dr McHabe visits a camp and reveals to the detainees that he has an illegal cure for the disease’s physical symptoms — and that its psychiatric symptoms have kept the camps from descending into violent anarchy like the rest of the world.
Research on the disease is illegal. Everyone Outside is afraid of a leak: a virus somehow getting out on a mosquito, a bird, even as a spore.” “Nothing has gotten out in all these years
XVI – ELIZABETH BEAR – AND THE DEAP BLUE SEA
Bear’s fascination with abandoned places, and the fact that she lived for years in Las Vegas — “America’s Nuclear City” — led her to write this story. As research for this piece, she says she learned how to move safely through a radioactive zone, which should come in handy should the events leading up to this story ever come to pass.
PS: I really liked the colours used to depict Las Vegas but that was about it.
The sky overhead was flat blue like cheap turquoise. A pall of dust showed burnt sienna, the inversion layer trapped inside the ring of mountains that made her horizon in four directions.
XVII – OCTAVIA E. BUTLER – SPEECH SOUNDS
A mysterious pandemic leaves civilization in ruins and severely limits humankind’s ability to communicate. Some are deprived of their ability to read or write, while others lose the ability to speak. They identify themselves by carrying items or symbols that function as names. People communicate among themselves through universally understood sign language and gestures that can often exacerbate misunderstandings and conflicts. Additionally, it seems that as a result of the illness and their handicap, many ordinary people are easily prone to uncontrollable feelings of jealousy, resentment, and rage over their own impairments and the ability of others.
He shook his fist at the bearded man and shouted. There seemed to be words in his shout, but Rye could not understand them. She did not know whether this was his fault or hers. She had heard so little coherent human speech for the past three years, she was no longer certain how well she recognized it, no longer certain of the degree of her own impairment.
You know what? I really liked this story. The drama of not being understood by another. A disease that takes what is most precious away but still leaves the body intact. Suicide is the preferred option by many but when there is a little bit of hope in the future, all changes.
XVIII – CAROL EMSHWILLER – KILLERS
“Killers” grew out of Emshwiller’s objections to the war in Iraq. The American people have been told that we’re fighting terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them here. This story ponders what it would be like afterward if such a war did come to our shores.
It’s a woman’s town now. Full of women’s arts and crafts… Quilt makers, sweater knitters… And the women do the heavy work. There’s a good roof repair group and there’s carpenters
There’s a village in the mountains where the women do everything. The men have gone to war, some of the women too, but when they returned, they settled high up in the mountains and did not go home anymore, crazy and suffering from PTSD. Some that did return did so to steal and to murder. Our heroine lives alone after she burried her sick mother and one day she finds a killer. Malnourished and stinking up to heaven and unable to move, but she thinks this is the same person who committed a murder.
Instead of ending him, she gives him a bath and to my amusement, does what they did in The Intoucheables.
I decide to shave him and cut his hair. He won’t notice. If he’d been more conscious I’d have asked him if he wanted a moustache or a little goatee but I’m glad he isn’t. I have fun with different haircuts, different sideburns, smaller and smaller moustaches until there’s none. Hair, too. I take off more than I meant to, except what does it matter, he’s a dead man.
I’m not sure why she saved him but I’m thinking maybe she liked company and even this deadly person was better than a silent one. She goes hunting for “rabbits” which are no more than fat rats and we get to see that the world in winter is like death valley (110 degrees F (=43C). She grows attached to the man and decides to introduce him to the group of women living in the village. To her dismay, he seems instantly attracted to a very beautiful woman from the reservation and in full jealous rage, she runs back home and brings back his hat and his cross-bow incriminating him for the murder. The women dispense a quick justice and hang him. What really chilled me was the last line. I do think they were cannibalising their captures.
They hung Joe up in the depository. I told them not to tell me anything about it. I’d rather not know when we get around to using him.
XIX – NEAL BARRETT, JR. – GINNY SWEETHIPS’ FLYING CIRCUS
This story, which was a finalist for both the Hugo and Nebula Awards, introduces readers to Ginny Sweethips and her traveling roadshow that makes its living selling sex, tacos, and dangerous drugs. Her companions are her driver and carnival barker Del, and Possum Dark who lives for the moments when he can spray lead across the land.
So, without further adieu, here she is, gents: Ginny Sweethips. Isn’t she all you ever dreamed of?
“Ginny Sweethips, gents,” Del announced with a flair, “giving you her own interpretation of Barbara Jean, the Cheerleader Next Door. Innocent as snow, yet a little bit wicked and willing to learn, if Biff the Quarterback will only teach her. Now, what do you say to that?”
Ginny is a roadshow attraction, a real woman, not one of those plastic machines that look like one. And she’s available for a very, very dear price. (I had to giggle as a gallon of gas is getting more expensive as 2022 goes on)
Ginny’s real as rain, and she’s yours in the role of your choice. Seven minutes of bliss. It’ll seem like a lifetime, gents, I promise you that. Your goods gladly returned if I’m a liar. And all for only a U.S. gallon of gas!”
XX – DALE BAILEY – THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT
This story, which was a finalist for the Nebula Award, grew out of Bailey’s attempt to understand our rather morbid fascination with the genre and the prospect of our own extinction. “The End of the World as We Know It” is about the lone survivor of an apocalypse attempting to grapple with the emotional dimension of his loss. But more than that, it’s an end-of-the-world story about how end-of-the-world stories actually work.
One thing Bailey realized in writing the story is that the world is ending for someone every minute of every day. He says, “We don’t need the destruction of entire cities to know what it’s like to survive a catastrophe. Whenever we lose someone we love deeply we experience the end of the world as we know it. The central idea of the story is not merely that the apocalypse is coming, but that it’s coming for you. And there’s nothing you can do to avoid it.”
End-of-the-world stories usually come in one of two varieties. In the first, the world ends with a natural disaster, either unprecedented or on an unprecedented scale. Floods lead all other contenders-God himself, we’re told, is fond of that one-though plagues have their advocates. A renewed ice age is also popular. Ditto drought.
In the second variety, irresponsible human beings bring it on themselves. Mad scientists and corrupt bureaucrats, usually. An exchange of ICBMs is the typical route, although the scenario has dated in the present geo-political environment.
Feel free to mix and match.
Genetically engineered flu virus, anyone? Melting polar ice caps?
XXI – DAVID GRIGG – A SONG BEFORE SUNSET
Grigg says that the seed of the story was a line in Chekhov’s “Three Sisters” where Tuzenbach says (of one of the sisters), “Fancy being able to play so exquisitely, and yet having nobody, nobody at all to appreciate it!” It was this sad irony of wasted talent that started Grigg thinking about how the very talented might cope–or not cope–once our civilization was no more. If, as Grigg says, culture is an epiphenomenon of civilization, without civilization, would culture be entirely irrelevant?
It was almost dark when he reached his home, a weather-stained stone house hedged around with the tangled jungle of an overgrown garden. Inside, he carefully lit each of the smoky candles in the living room, calling up a cancerous light that spread relentlessly into the corners. His door was locked and barred, and at last he sat in peace before the wood wormed piano in the main room. He sighed a little as his fingers tapped at the yellowed and splitting keys, and felt an accustomed sorrow as the fractured notes ascended.
I really loved the gothic style of this story – the use of adjectives to “set-the-scene” and immerse you into the darkness that comes with a life-changing event. This is another story of hunger and rat-dishes – it’s almost like they are easy to catch compared to chicken, pigeons and fish! Then one evening a Vandall comes in to his hall as he’s playing the piano and plans to destroy the piano and kill him. Parnell, our guy, fights the aggressor, kills him and then seeing that there’s no place for music in this post-apocalyptic world, destroys his own piano.
XXII – JOHN LANGAN – EPISODE SEVEN: LAST STAND AGAINST THE PACK IN THE KINGDOM OF THE PURPLE FLOWERS
“Episode Seven” is reinvention of a story Langan wrote in his early twenties. This current version was influenced by another story in this volume: “The End of the World As We Know It” by Dale Bailey. “Dale’s story is a great revision of the classic, mid-century post-apocalypse story,” Langan says. “I admired what he’d achieved, but I also felt a bit of rivalry, a desire to show that not everyone would roll over and go gently into that good night.”
PS: This book is written with very few paragraphs which makes it look like one long rant. Here’s an excerpt of a dog attack and you can’t see any breaks. It helps set the urgency of the tone, the desperation but I would like some coherent sentences here and there!
..”now-then the picture window exploded inwards and a massive, snarling shape was standing in the living room, shaking glass off itself the way a dog might shake off water-she screamed, feet kicking her away from it, right up onto the couch-there was an instant for her to register the sheer size of the thing, its bulk: it had to stand four feet at the shoulder, with a hump that arched its back another foot over that, its head big as a Thanksgiving turkey, its feet the size of diner plates; and to think simultaneously, What’s a hyena doing in upstate New York? and This is no hyena-before it pounced on Glenn, who had paused, arm upraised, when the window blew in-the thing caught his extended arm in its blunt jaws and tore it off at the shoulder: the crack and snap of bone and rip of sinew combining with the jet of blood and the scream from Glenn’s throat and the growl from the thing’s, a bass roar with the shriek of a violin on top of it-the thing held Glenn’s arm dangling from its mouth like a puppy with a chew toy, then tossed the arm to one side with a flick of its head and lunged at him, while Wayne scrambled out of the way, his face blank with terror, and Jackie joined her scream to Glenn’s as the thing bulled him back against the wall and seized his head between its teeth, his voice climbing registers she wouldn’t have thought possible, surely his vocal cords would have to give out-she didn’t know how much more she could bear-the thing brought its jaws together; there was a pop and crunch like an egg surrendering to the pressure of a hand; and Glenn’s scream stopped; although Jackie’s continued, pouring out her horror at what she was watching at the top of her lungs-even when Wayne found his feet, stumbled across the living room to her, right past where the thing was busy feeding, almost slipped on a large piece of glass, took her hand, and started pulling her to the front door, which was still open, only to stop as a new sound flooded the air, a high-pitched cacophony like an orchestra out of tune, and dark shapes (who knew how many? twenty? thirty? more?) galloped up the road, almost to the end of her driveway-Wayne’s hand trembled in hers as if he were being electrocuted; later, she would understand that his mind had been on the point of breaking, some fundamental motor about to snap its belt and seize up-she was taking in breath for another scream, because it was hard to take in enough air for a long scream when you were six and a half months pregnant