Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams (2008) 331 p.

I’ve always enjoyed post-apocalyptic fiction, even if I’ve gone off it a bit in recent years. I can’t remember where I had this book recommended to me, but it’s been sitting on my shelf for quite a while and eventually I got around to it. Adams has collated some impressive big names for this anthology, including Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Jonathon Lethem and George R.R. Martin. Unfortunately, aside from a few stand-out stories, this is a mostly forgettable collection.

Adams kicks the anthology off with, in his own words, a “stand-out story” from Stephen King which “packs an emotional punch.” On the contrary, I found King’s “The End of the Whole Mess” to be an enormously tiresome story, dripping in the tedious kitsch that’s come to define most of his work since the 1990s. I was very surprised, then, to discover that it was actually written in 1986 – a fact which is now putting me off reading King’s short story collection Nightmares and Dreamscapes, which is sitting on my TBR pile. Not a great start.

The next story, Orson Scott Card’s “Salvage,” is unremarkable, but is followed by Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag,” probably the strongest piece in the book. Set in an environmentally devastated future where humans have genetically modified themselves to the point where they can regrow severed limbs and survive by eating sand, the story follows a group of security workers at a mine in the desolate wasteland of North America who discover, amid the slagheaps and toxic run-off creeks, a scrappy, wretched dog. The narrator’s mild feelings of affection for the dog versus the hassle of keeping it alive was something I found quite relatable. It’s arguable as to whether this is a post-apocalyptic story at all, since society is still functioning and thriving, but whatever.

Jonathon Lethem’s “How We Got Into Town And Out Again” is another solid entry, very readable and weirdly touching. George R.R. Martin’s “Dark, Dark Were The Tunnels” is an interesting story relayed through incredibly awkward exposition. A few more mediocre stories later, we come to Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth,” relating the apocalypse (a bit of a grab-bag apocalypse that doesn’t make much sense, it must be said) from the viewpoint of tech geeks in a data centre trying to keep the internet infrastructure up and running. Doctorow is an adorably irredeemable nerd, and while this is ultimately not a great story, it was an interesting and original take on things.

That’s followed by “The Last of the O-Forms,” by James van Pelt, in which every new lifeform on Earth is born mutated; a sad and often creepy story. Gene Wolfe’s “Mute,” a few entries later, is a strange allegorical story. After recently finishing The Book of the New Sun, I’m wasn’t in the mood to deconstruct more symbolism out of Wolfe’s writing, and this post I found “decoding” the story makes me suspect he has one of the more pretentious fan groups going.

Elizabeth Bear’s “And the Deep Blue Sea” is a solid story following a motorcycle courier as she makes her way across the nuclear wasteland of the American South-West, harassed by a devil figure she’s apparently made a pact with. It’s immediately followed by Octavia E. Butler’s “Speech Sounds,” easily one of the best stories in the book, involving a truly original apocalypse in which a virus robs people of their ability to speak, communicate or understand each other.

That, unfortunately, is about it for the stories in this anthology that I had anything more than a mild opinion on. I only thought four stories were really, definitely worth reading – “The People of Sand and Slag,” “How We Got Into Town and Out Again,” “And The Deep Blue Sea” and “Speech Sounds.” There other stories were either unremarkable, mediocre or somewhat interesting but heavily flawed. It’s also unbalanced, with most of the more decent stories in the first half; I found the downhill stretch to be quite a slog. Even for a fan of the genre, I can’t strongly recommend this book – the few really good stories within are probably collected elsewhere.

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