BY SEAN CLARK
Edited by John Joseph Adams
2008, Nightshade Books
It’s tough to review an anthology, seeing as A.) there are myriad voices and styles in a single book B.) the selection are chosen because they are exempletive of something and presumably so because they are good or the best at whatever they were selected for C.) despite this, some entries are inevitably better than others, and it’s hard to score the whole thing without undercutting some and giving others too much credit. So, with that said, my score for this is an attempt to quantify my overall impression of this book, so take from it what you will.
I don’t read too much of this kind of sci-fi, or many sci-fi short stories at all for that matter, but when I saw the roster of authors contributing to this collection I had to pick it up. It’s got writers from all sorts of genres, from sci-fi (Paolo Bacigalupi) and fantasy (George R. R. Martin) to horror (Stephen King) to whatever genre you consider Jonathan Lethem implicated in. Here’s a link to the full list so you can see what I mean.
So, this has a diverse collection of stories. I particularly liked those that took an unique stance on the apocalype. That is, the ones that weren’t set in a Mad Max-ian world, or if they were, those that recognized and played with the clichés in which they worked. “The End of the World As We Know It” by Dale Bailey is a perfect example of this. It always remains aware of itself and the genre around it, allowing a lot of cool meta-fictional elements ooze out of a story that would still be entertaining without it. The stories by Lethem and John Langan, as well as a few of the others in the collection have this similar literary playfulness that really appealed to me.
The Mad Max-ish stories were good too. “Salvage” by Orson Scott Card and “The People of Sand and Slag” by Bacigalupi worked directly within this realm (you know, everyone mostly lives in the desert, because for whatever reason, most of Earth is a desert now; supplies are limited and salvaging remnants of the the late-20th and early-21st century is of the utmost importance; humanity has semi-evolved, either culturally or physically or both into something new and different), but they were still wildly entertaining, and without them this collection would have a gaping void. My favorite was “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neil Barrett, Jr. I This is mostly because it requires us to accept anthropomorphic animals without explanation, which almost always works for me (I’m a sucker for some things).
There are quite a few very original takes on the end of days included in this collection too. Cory Doctorow’s “When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth” tells of computer geeks who run mainframes trying to keep the internet functioning and through it re-establish government order while a plague wipes out those not locked in clean rooms. Martin’s cave dweller story, “Dark, Dark Were The Tunnels” is a great sci-fi/fantasy read. And “Mute” by Gene Wolf is a brilliant story about two children whose parents never come home, and is probably the most literary and thought provoking of the collection. I read it twice.
All in all, books like this are great for commutes, or to have waiting by your couch or bed for a quick pickup story. There’s not a single entry in this compilation that I hated, and there are many that I liked immensely. There are clichés in here for sure, but they are fun ones. And as much as I love zombie stories, I can say that I was pretty happy none showed up in this book. That’s an anthology for another day.
Similar Reads: The Road (McCarthy), Steampunk (VanderMeer & VanderMeer, eds.), Z for Zachariah (O’Brien), The Walking Dead series (Kirkman & Moore/Adlard). The story in this collection titled “Mute” by Gene Wolf reminded me of Ian McEwan’s The Cement Garden. Also, there is a comprehensive sub-genre recommended reading list appended to the end of the book.