Wastelands by Adams, John Joseph, ed., 2008
I don't think that John Joseph Adams is new to SF, but he has been a pretty active editor of anthologies (and the MoF&SF) lately. I see that he has a zombie anthology out too. I think I need to get that one, because if its anything like this one, it will be worth the effort. This anthology is about...you guessed it, The End Of The World, in fifteen to twenty different flavors. Adams has an eye for the more esoteric apocalypse stories, and seems to stay away from straight destruction, doom and gloom. Many of these stories are strong, particularly The People of Sand and Slag, When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth, Artie's Angels, Inertia, Speech Sounds, and The End of the World As We Know It, because they had strong characters, deeply intricate plots, were skilfully written and made excellent use of other tropes. Fuller descriptions are below. I do personally think that a few stinkers found their way in, but if you tend towards the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction way of doing things, or if you like the weirder stories, then this may be your cup of tea all around. As a side note, I think that this book may have the coolest cover of anything published in 2008.
THE END OF THE WHOLE MESS, by Stephen King 1986, originally published in Omni Magazine: Unmemorable story about a false messiah who brings ruin on the world with the ill conceived application of science. Two brilliant brothers grow up busting all academic curves before them. One, the narrator, does something, but we aren't really sure what. The other grows up to be shocked by terrorists and fascinated by wasps. He just cannot figure out why people, like wasps, are so mean. As an adult he discovered a region in Texas where no crime ever occurred. Figuring that it was something in the water the genius distilled it in massive quantities, and dumped it into a volcano that was about to erupt in Indonesia. After it erupts the chemical was spread across the world and everyone calmed down. Unfortunately everyone also got Alzheimerís early, and all the grass in the world died. Very typical mid-career Stephen King in that there is virtually no connection between the action and the result. I cannot imagine a worse choice for a first story.
SALVAGE, by Orson Scott Card, 1986: Post apocalypse story set in the Mormon state of Deseret. Deaver Teague is a salvage man who runs old scrap appliances to the Mormons in Utah. Their capital city is on the shores of the Mormon Sea which has covered up all of Salt Lake City. A few skyscrapers and the pinnacles of the Mormon Tabernacle poke above the waterline. Teague dreams of rowing a boat out to the Tabernacle and looting the "treasure" from it that everyone speaks of in hushed tones. Clearly Teague is not a Mormon. Teague and a few of his friends steal away in the middle of the night and somehow evade the constant lake patrols that are there solely to protect the "treasure." Teague breaks into the temple and finds thousands of flattened metal cans with prayers written on them; but no gold. He realizes that the "treasure" are the hopes, dreams and regrets of the Mormon people and the cans are their embodiment. He floats home and emigrates the hell outta there. I like Card's post-apocalyptic Mormon stories, but he has such a bad reputation because of his fundamentalist religious views that not many people give him a break. Perhaps he should have been a little less emphatic in his non-fiction pieces? Anyway, this one is a little bit overblown, especially in the end. Card goes to great effort to paint the Mormons as the saviors of modern culture, and never passes up a chance to make the rest of us look like barbarians.
THE PEOPLE OF SAND AND SLAG, by Paolo Bacigalupi 2005, originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: One of the best environmental stories to be published in recent memory is in my opinion this story by a relatively new author; The People of Sand and Slag, by Paulo Bacigalupi. Set probably in the far future, it is about how humans have adapted to survive in a completely wrecked environment. Oddly, it really does not qualify as a dystopic vision. In fact, it may even be a utopia, though if it is this one definitely qualifies as an "ambiguous utopia," at least from our perspective.
The People of Sand and Slag is about the lives of a group of three post human guards who live in Montana. The world is dominated by corporations who hire their own private armies to defend their infrastructure. These guards have been assigned to protect a major mining operation. They have been modified heavily with a technology called weeviltech, which allows them to obtain nutrition from absolutely anything. They regularly dine on shale, mine tailings, water laced with heavy metals and even on everyday dirt. They no longer need to breathe oxygen, and can re-grow parts that have been cut off, and in fact, they play make-up games where one submits to having all four of his or her appendages removed as an exercise in trust, just as we close our eyes and fall backwards, trusting that our friends will not let us hit the ground. They are very aggressive, and have extra computer memory and processors built into their brains. They can also add artificial parts to their bodies. One of them appears to be trying to make herself into a human guillotine.
After diner we sat around and sharpened Lisa's skin, implanting blades along her limbs so that she was like a razor from all directions. She'd considered monomol blades, but it was too easy to take a limb off accidentally, and we lost enough body parts as it was without adding to the mayhem. That kind of garbage was for people who didn't have to work: aesthetics from New York City and California.
Apparently some things never change. And kudos to Bacigalupi for using the word "mayhem" correctly!
The guard's lives get turned upside down when a common, every day, unmodified dog wanders onto the compound that they are guarding. At first they cannot figure out how the thing managed to survive. Then they wonder how it tastes. But before they can strip the dog of its skin and chow down, one of them decides that it would make a cool retro companion and convinces the others to spare it. It turned out that food for the dog was incredibly expensive, and it was constantly getting into trouble. There was dangerous trash all over the place, and all puddles of water were poison to it. They tried to keep the dog alive, but it eventually became too much of a chore and too expensive, so on a vacation to Hawaii they gathered some fuel and oil from a giant slick just off the shore, started a bonfire, then cooked and ate the dog.
At its core this story seems to be asking whether the vulnerable are worth saving. The dog here is an absolute dead end of its evolutionary chain, and there really is nothing that can be done with it, or for it without a great inconvenience. But to us, living here and now, isn't this how we define the more virtuous aspects of our personalities? Is this not where we are trying to go with our society? Don't we want to save things that cannot survive on their own, and don't their various plights collectively touch our hearts? In that respect I have thought in the past that this story is a dystopic vision of the future, with an environment that has been wrecked for no good. But to the characters, this really is no big deal. They spend the end of the story on vacation in Hawaii, and it is every bit as wrecked as Montana was. There were burning pools of fire right off the coast, no plants grew, and there was deadly trash floating in the water and washing up on the beaches. It just did not matter to these people, mainly because no amount of ecological "damage" would ever affect them, but also because this is obviously what they were used to. From their perspective it can easily be said that killing the dog was a way of putting it out of its misery. And a state of misery is definitely what the dog lived in. They even wondered the following, just after finding the dog tangled in a cluster of wire on the beach, panting, bleeding and dying"
"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."
This story is about a bunch of people who find a dog in the wilderness, take care of it, feed it, and feel love from it, but in the end eat it. Substitute the concept of "take it to the pound" for "eating it," and this may be an overblown allegory for the fate of many domestic pets in our society, especially since one of the characters accepts the dog on a whim. Most of those animals die too. This is certainly not the nicest of tales out there, but in any other setting this thing would have been much sadder. Imagine how different things would have been had the people who found the dog been survivors of a nuclear war. Or shipwrecked children on an island. Or some type of morlock who could get no help or assistance from members of the dominant society, and was wandering in the wilderness, starving. In all of those stories the dog would presumably have some sort of social utility. Here it has none, so its death affects the world not at all. At least not immediately. And since all other species are presumably gone too, what use could it possibly serve in the world? Other than to serve as an anchor for our feelings, which can get quite intense about canines, the animal is pretty much as useless as it is doomed to an early death anyway. As for the guards, they have everything that they need freely available in the environment, and have to rely on nobody for anything. They are not bothered in the least by environmental damage, and the way that Bacigalupi described the landscape, I am sure that it is every bit as sublimely beautiful as it is in our world. It is just different. If you can tell me how that is not a utopia, I will buy you a cigar.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell
BREAD AND BOMBS, by M. Rickert, 2003: Interesting story about intolerance after a war. The Manmensuitzender family has moved into a small town and caused quite a bit of controversy. They are refugees, but their government's leaders released a virus that killed children every time it snowed. The parents in the neighborhood refuse to let their children play with the Manmensuitzender girls, but the children go out of their way to make new friends and include them in their play. When one of the white kid's parents sees her son eating candy that the Manmensuitzander girls gave him she convenes a town meeting and whips the other parents into a frenzy. Rickert attempted to balance the delivery of a weapon in snow with the fact that the U.S. dropped bomblets in Iraq that strongly resembled humanitarian food packages, but failed to make his (her?) point clear that everyone is equally guilty of atrocity. In the end the children, disgusted with their parents racism, burn the building that they are meeting in down and conclude that evil has left their world. Written well, but a bit over the top.
HOW WE GOT INTO TOWN AND OUT AGAIN, by Jonathan Lethem, 1996: I first read this story in Gardner Dozois' Year's Best short SF anthology back in 1997 and I didn't really like it too much. I thought it was anticlimactic and pointless. I have reread it several times since then (for some reason I keep stumbling across it), and it has grown on me over time. It's set after some sort of economic collapse. Towns and cities have walls and are very selective about who gets in and out. The world is full of con men and raiders and hobos. Two hobos, a young woman and a pubescent boy, are starving and need some help. They will not be admitted to the nearest town, but they find a couple of men in a van who are obviously running some sort of scam. They join the men and are all admitted. It turns out that the men are running a con and their cover is a travelling show. They gather youths as they travel from town to town, and even more from inside the town, then put them into total-immersion VR suits and jack them into a local machine that is loaded with all kinds of cast-off programs from the internet of our time. The boy is pretty clueless and just jumps around from site to site through an interface that looks like a giant bureau.
I didn't notice it right away because I went to other places first. Mr. Sneeze had made me promise I'd always have something new to tell him about so I always opened a few drawers. I went to a tank game but it was boring. Then I found a place called The American History Blood and Wax Museum and I stopped President Lincoln from getting murdered a couple of times. I tried to stop President Kennedy from getting murdered but if I stopped it one way it always happened a different way. I don't know why.
The trip through the internet is basically an endurance test. The men keep the kids suited up for hours at a time, putting them through hours of sheer boredom followed by moments of manufactured fear or cheezy eroticism. The citizens of the town watched on monitors, and the showmen tried to pimp out the girls.
Lethem did a great job with the post apocalyptic themes. Most of the places that the boy visits in his closed-box VR world would have been very familiar to the average internet user of 1997. It was a patchwork of things such as flight simulators, on-line banking sites, personals ads and personal websites. Lethem's voice, which is properly placed, is slightly cynical. The world is dirty, gritty and dangerous, but only slightly more than our world, and that is the real problem with this story. Lethem postulates that public safety has deteriorated so far that towns and villages have to wall themselves up. But the only risk seemed to be dirty old men, emaciated dogs and carnivals that went on too long. I also wonder how a modern city-state style town managed to feed itself without surrounding croplands, which were never to be found (where there are croplands there are jobs, so I presume it would have killed the story). Lenthem reads a lot like Marusek here, primarily because of the use of post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk themes, but also because of the occasional sarcasm.
DARK, DARK WERE THE TUNNELS, by George R.R. Martin, 1974: 500 years after a nuclear war on Earth a group of archaeologists from the Moon have travelled to find out the fate of the Earth and the creatures on it. The surface is still radioactive slag so the remnants of mankind now live a mole-like existence in old subway tunnels and other underground infrastructure. They have evolved to fit their new environment; the high radiation from the war has sped their evolution. They are very sensitive to vibration and light, and in fact many of them no longer have eyes. Gael, an almost blind human travels the tunnels with a rat-like creature, his beloved hunting partner Hissig, with whom he has a powerful psychic connection. The two are also a team, and hunt for giant worms that threaten their hovels and provide meat. Gael senses the humans when they arrived and goes to them, but stays just beyond their sight. The men know that someone is there and they play a game of chase. Eventually Gael and Hissig let themselves be seen. When the men see Hissig they think he is a rat-like monster and kill him, ruining any chance of ever making peace with the Earthlings.
Martin is well known for the high quality of his stories. His reputation is well earned, and this story is good evidence of it. In just a few pages Martin created an interesting world with only a very few plausibility problems. I had some trouble getting past the speed with which the Earthlings evolved to a Morlock like appearance, and the reason for the trip was old and tired (the Moon needs women! Or rather DNA). But the cultures that he created were rich and fully described, at least for his purposes here and the relationship between Gael and Hissig was deep and convincing. Suffice it to say that the good was great and the bad was only a bit stupid.
WAITING FOR THE ZEPHYR, by Tobias S. Bucknell, 2002: Good story, but no ending. A bunch of people live under a glass dome in a nameless suburb with a Wal Mart and a few other stores. Set after a global climactic catastrophe that followed a nuclear war in the middle east, the climate is dry and nothing grows in the unprotected earth. Energy is very scarce and is reserved for the few remaining large cities, leaving the towns and villages to rely on local power generation methods such as wind and solar. There is no petroleum left, so the cities hoard all of the nuclear generated electricity. Spaces between population centers are traversed by masted, wheeled ships that cross the many dust seas and deserts. Mara, a young woman in a small village, has had it with small town life. She is awaiting the arrival of the Zephyr, a four-mast ship. Once it arrived she plans on stowing away, but her family finds out and locked her in the basement until the Zephyr left. Once they let her out she steals a cart with a sail and caught up with the bigger ship. The crew was so impressed with her sailing ability that they offered her a job. Bucknell's "dirt-sailing" technology is not exactly a new one, and the story ended just as it should have gotten started. I am not very familiar with this author, but if he just decided to give us a chapter from a larger work, I would probably never, ever be inclined pick up anything by him again.
NEVER DESPAIR, by Jack McDevitt, 1997: This is a story set in McDevitt's Eternity Road universe. I have not read that book yet, but probably will now. Chaka and Quait have buried their childhood friend, Flojian, who banged his head in a big fall. The three live in a post apocalyptic world a few thousand years or so in the future. Society is in a dark age, and they worship the "Road Makers," who build the long strips of concrete that bisect the land. The trio had been sent out to discover the mythological base of the Road Makers, and are in fact the sixth sortie sent out to do just that. With Flojian's death the two survivors have decided to return home in failure. After burying Flojian they spent the night in a cave. A thunderstorm struck and they wanted to stay dry. During the storm a bolt of lightning stuck a power tower hidden in the brush which energized the computer system in the theme park that Chaka and Quait were actually hiding in. An intelligent hologram of Winston Churchill appeared and urged Chaka to "never despair" and "never surrender." I did have a bit of difficulty with the whole lightening-recharging-the-ancient-dynamo thing, but the story is fine overall, even with that dated element in it.
WHEN SYSADMINS RULES THE EARTH, by Cory Doctorow, 2006: Interesting absurdist story about a long series of disasters that hit the Earth all at once one evening. A system administrator is awakened up by his beeper. Something has knocked down his servers in Toronto. He drove into the server farm and found sixty or seventy others there too, all called in at two a.m. to get their machines back on line. The server farm is in a building on the outskirts of the city and was several stories tall. From the top floors of the building the network guys watched Toronto fall.
They made their way to the elevators. One of the building's few windows was there, a thick, shielded porthole. They peered through it as they waited for the elevator. Not much traffic for a Wednesday. Were there more police cars than usual?
Oh my God! Van pointed.
The CN Tower, a giant white-elephant needle of a building loomed to the east of them. It was askew, like a branch stuck in wet sand. Was it moving? It was. It was heeling over, slowly, but gaining speed, falling northeast toward the financial district. In a second, it slid over the tipping point and crashed down. They felt the shock, then heard it, the whole building rocking from the impact. A cloud of dust rose from the wreckage, and there was more thunder as the world's tallest freestanding structure crashed through building after building.
* * * * * *
Felix pried himself off of IRC an hour later. Atlanta had burned. Manhattan was hot - radioactive enough to screw up the webcams looking out over Lincoln Plaza. Everyone blamed Islam until it became clear that Mecca was a smoking pit and the Saudi Royals had been hanged before their palaces.
Pretty much everything that could happen, did happen. Earthquakes, fires, nuclear explosions, poison gas, meteors, plagues, EMP, pitchfork-wielding villagers; you name it and someone in the world died from it. And as absurd as that sounds, Doctorow's point was that even in the face of all of that, the internet would survive. Several of the administrators hid out in the server room, which had air filters, an independent power supply and fuel. They survived the first few nights, even though all of their families still in bed did not. Then using the internet they tried to reorganize society. They communicate with other network people in other secure facilities, all of whom were there because the first thing to go were the sensitive machines that ran the internet. At first they had some success, but as invulnerable as the information superhighway proved to be, it did eventually fall victim to a lack of power as the diesel generators used up all the reserve fuel.
I was pretty impressed with this story. If Doctorow is as good in his other stories in blending ideas and character, I think I will be reading a lot more by him. The story was full of techno-babble (I think that Doctorow was some sort of computer guy before he became a writer), and I found just about all of it confusing. Doctorow has a fast mind and a quick wit, and seems to be as pure a creature of the computer age as I have ever encountered. Even though I have followed him for a bit on BoingBoing.com, I have not yet figured out if he is one of those "
THE LAST OF THE O-FORMS, by James Van Pelt, 2002: In a future world where every creature that is born is some sort of mutant, an annoying father/daughter team travel from town to town with a menagerie of hideous mutant animals including "crocomice" and "unigeese," for example. The daughter is a realist and wanted her father to sell the menagerie. The father refused to acknowledge that nobody wanted to be reminded of what was happening to their own children, and stubbornly persisted in the dream of making a success of the circus. Ho-hum. This story is part of a sequence of stories in which humanity was moving off planet in slower-than-light craft to get away from whatever it was that mutated the young.
STILL LIFE WITH APOCALYPSE, by Richard Kadrey, 2002: Mundane conflicts escalate until a global pandemic of terrorism occurs. It will not stop. People will all kill each other off. The end. Two-and-a-half pages of subtle examination of the consequences of the off-hand wrongs we do to each other, where the author fails to really make his point.
ARTIE'S ANGELS, by Catherine Wells, 2001: Excellent story about a world where the ozone layer has burned off, and humanity survives in enormous domed cities. Most of the rich have left the planet, freeing up protected bunks for the poor. Faye and her parents moved into a slum in the Kansas City dome and Faye was befriended by Artie, a brilliant, gifted savant who also lived in her building. In a city rife with crime Artie and Faye began a gang of bicycle messengers who preached a positive message:
Artie made it his business to see that every child in B9 who kept the Code had a sleek, efficient machine that could carry him or her away from danger. 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.
Wells' story is about the day to day life of Artie and Faye, and how they try to make dome-life livable, which none of them save possibly for Artie will ever escape. Wells' vision is amazing and her execution was phenomenal. I hated that it ended so soon.
JUDGMENT PASSED, by Jerry Oltion, 2008: A group of interstellar voyagers who left Earth many years ago to colonize another planet have returned in failure. When they get back to Earth they find that it is completely empty of people. They learn from newspapers blowing in the breeze that a few years before they arrived Jesus Christ appeared, and called everyone home to Heaven. The eight colonists are the only people left on Earth. Once they figure out what happened, they broke into two groups: Agnostics and (apparently) fanatics. The Captain of the vessel held a prayer service to remind Jesus that there were eight souls that he forgot, while another of the crew went off to NORAD to light off a couple nukes to attract Jesus' attention. Oltion has an understated style. Normally writers who are kind of subtle like him are good at sneaking big issues into the fray without you really noticing until something's coming to a head. Here Oltion starts out big and promising, but ends on a pretty mundane note, at least in comparison to the beginning. He has done much better work before.
MUTE, by Gene Wolfe, 2002: Weird ghost story about the end of it all. Two children search a house for their relative, but find only his corpse in the basement. His ghost is haunting the house. Wolfe suggests that these children are the only two left alive on the planet, appearing to forget that a bus driver dropped the kids off at the beginning of the tale. When I first read Wolfe's Cerberus stories I though that I had found the best author in the history of SF. As I read more of him, I realize how wrong my initial reaction was.
INERTIA, by Nancy Kress, 1990: In this one the world is approaching catastrophe. Somewhere in California there exists a colony; its one of many, and its where the government has for years putting people who were infected with a rare disorder that affects the skin, twisting and scarring it horribly. The rest of the world treats those infected as they would treat lepers. The disease is highly communicable, but it has no effect on longevity or health. The colonies are decades old, and in one a family lives in squalor, but peacefully and happily. They know nothing of the world outside, and in fact are certain that they would be shot if they approached the wall that keeps them in. One evening an uninfected man arrives; a doctor who says that he is doing a study on the long term health effects of the disease. The women smell a rat, but he is hot, and they are lonely, and he has brought food. The man comes back a few times and they get to know him. They are constantly amazed that the guards will let anyone out who has spent even a second in their company. Eventually he fesses up as to why he is really there. Outside the wall the world has gone to hell. War is endemic and humanity is miserable.
He talks about the latest version of martial law, about the failure of the National Guard to control protestors against the South American war until they actually reached the edge of the White House electro-wired zone; about the growing power of the Fundamentalist underground that the other undergrounds - he uses the plural - call "the God gang." He tells us about the industries losing out steadily to Korean and Chinese competitors, the leaping unemployment rate, the ethnic backlash, the cities in fames. Miami. New York. Los Angeles - these had been rioting for years. Now it's Portland, St. Louis, Atlanta, Phoenix. Grand Rapids burning. It's hard to picture.
An underground clique of scientists has learned that a side effect of the disease causes the infected to be passive, non assertive, and even peaceful, no matter what they are confronted with. They also have no drive or initiative, but the scientists feel that humanity is past caring about that. They have come up with a cure for the visible scarring on their skin, but not for the disease that they all carry. The doctor wants to cure as many of the people as possible of their skin lesions, and send them out to infect the world.
Itís been a long time since I have seen a good story where scientists are the good-guys; the heroes. This certainly is not a throwback daring-do kind of story. In fact its one of the most human stories in this book, and by that I mean that all of the characters are sympathetic and fleshed out in detail. Kress is often hit or miss for me, but when she is on, she really is fantastic. I think that this story was perfectly written too. Any more development in the front end about the spread of the disease or the stumbling of civilization or on the back end about the efforts to release the infected and save the world would have made it boring and probably repetitive.
There was one problem with the doctor's plot, though. His cure only affected those with relatively few skin eruptions, so he had to find people that were not that affected. It turned out that there was only one who was suitable; the young daughter of the colony's matriarch. Kress really succeeded well I think with the human element, and especially with the mother. The disease made them care very little about the state of their existence. All around them their colony was crumbling to dust, and was rarely repaired. They still lived on though, and did not care too much. But when the daughter left the colony to try to help the world the mother's love and worry radiated from her brightly. Kress may have taken some emotions from her characters, but they were still capable of love, and cared for each other a great deal.
AND THE DEEP BLUE SEA, by Elizabeth Bear, 2005: In a post nuclear war southwest U.S. a motorcycle delivery woman, Angharad Crowther, travelled from Phoenix, AZ to Reno, NV with a package containing much needed stem cells. The southwest is absolutely wrecked, cities have been abandoned, and wide stretches of desert are heavily irradiated. What little society remains depends heavily on these delivery drivers. Angharad is hands-down the best of the best, but not because of any natural ability. To be sure, she has that, but she has also made a deal with the devil. She left on this trip with a few weeks to go before her side of the bargain has to be performed. But Satan has made her a new offer. If she agrees to let him have the package, he will give her additional years on Earth. If she refuses, then he promises to keep her from reaching her destination. But the deal that she originally made with him requires that she always deliver her package, without fail. If he causes her to fail now, then he will have welched on the deal and forfeited his right to collect her soul. That doesn't mean that ole Legba can't make her life miserable along the way. He takes her gas and water, sets fire to the land she must travel through, blows radiated dust all over her, and moves cities and oases in the desert. This is not a story like That Hell Bound Train where the devil is outsmarted. Instead the devil is spited, and spited well. Atmospheric without being wishy-washy, sublime in its descriptions, and fully in the vein of supernatural tales without adhering to the traditional tropes of that subgenre, Bear did a great job in the telling of this tale.
SPEECH SOUNDS, by Octavia E. Butler, 1983: Speech Sounds is one of the most original post-apocalypse stories out there. It is a short story that was written by Octavia Butler who was known primarily as a novelist. I would have loved to see this story turned into a novel before Butler's death. I doubt that she ever had any plans to do that, but I still dream about how good the book would have been. The story is set in Los Angeles several years after a pandemic that caused almost everyone in the world to stroke. Most of the people have suffered some serious sequalae as a result of the strokes. Practically nobody can speak, though some have a little ability. For some reason those who were left-handed suffered less than others. Rye is a left handed woman has lost the ability to remember things. One day she was on a bus (one of the very few still running in Los Angeles) when two men started to fight. Because of the mental damage of the disease, very few people retained the quality of self-control, and even those that did were extremely frustrated because they could no longer speak or communicate at all with others. Fighting, even with guns, was a frequent occurrence everywhere. As the fight got more intense and dangerous a police officer pulled the bus over and threw a tear gas grenade inside. Most on the bus were shocked at this because there were no longer any police. But this one was a bit different. He had completely lost the ability to speak or understand spoken language, but he had retained enough of his senses to remember his job, and to continue doing it. Rye and the cop both recognized that they were both relatively unaffected, so the officer asked Rye to go with him when he left. She did, and after exchanging "name tokens" with each other (a bit of wheat for Rye, and a piece of obsidian for the cop, whom she assumed was named Black) the two found that they could get along. Black propositioned Rye and after the deed was done Rye dreamed of luring Black back to her house and setting up home with him. Before that could happen however, Black was killed in a domestic violence encounter.
The world that Butler built here was very interesting and incredibly detailed for a short story. I would not expect any less from this author, though. It was basically a world full of angry imbeciles who were likely to do violence to anyone for any one of a variety of reasons. But they were all very sympathetic. The psychically wounded were walking everywhere. Nobody was unaffected, though at this point a new generation of normal children were starting to mature. Most of them were hidden away carefully, because the affected were very likely to kill them because they could speak and think normally, and the affected were very jealous of them. After Black and the couple who were battling in the street had killed each other, two young children ran out to stand over the dead body of their mother:
"No!" the girl repeated. She came to stand beside the woman. "Go away!" she told Rye.
"Don't talk," the little boy said to her. There was no blurring or confusing of sounds. Both children had spoken and Rye had understood.
Fluent speech! Had the woman died because she could talk and had taught her children to talk? Had she been killed by a husband's festering anger or by a stranger's jealous rage? And the children...they must have been born after the silence. Had the disease run its course, then? Or were these children simply immune? Certainly they had had time to fall sick and silent. Rye's mind leaped ahead. What if children of three or fewer years were safe and able to learn language? What if all they needed were teachers. Teachers and proctors.
Butler ended this story with a shocking revelation that would be practically criminal of me to reveal here. Fortunately this story is widely available now. Most recently it was reprinted in Night Shade Book's Wastelands anthology, edited by John Joseph Adams of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
KILLERS, by Carol Emshwiller, 2006: Post war story where all the men have been killed, save for the crazies who live on a nearby mountain top. One evening one of the men descend to a barely surviving village of women. One of the residents thinks that the man is her long lost brother. She took him in, fed him, cleaned him up and let him stay with her, but he was still too much the wild man. Once he has spent some time with her she realizes that he is not her brother. In her mind she starts to play house with him. She had kept him a secret, but something that big in a village so small can't be kept secret for too long. The woman brought the man to a village meeting where all the other women started to make plays for him, including a Paiute woman who was visiting from native lands. In a sudden fit of jealousy she killed him and ate him.
Personally, I loved this story, but I have a soft spot in my heart for Carol Emshwiller. l think that she is in her nineties now, but she is every bit as quirky as she was in the 1960's. Here is a sample of her writing. It's not typical; nothing about Emshwiller is typical.
But that's the way the war was, hardly a beginning and hardly an end. Wars aren't like they used to be - with two clearly separated sides. The enemy was among us even before it started. They could never win a real old-fashioned war with us, they were weak and lot tech, but low tech was good enough as long as there were lots of them. You never knew who to trust, and we still don't. Our side put all we could in internment camps, practically everybody with black eyes and hair and olive skin, but you can't get them all. And then the war went on so long we used up all our resources, but they still had theirs - sabotage doesn't ever have to stop. They escaped from the camps. Actually they just walked away. The guards had walked away too.
One big run on sentence surrounded by terse and truncated blips of language. Read quickly and it makes no sense. But read slowly there is a pretty clearly expressed idea there. Emshwiller seems to be a small press maven. She is still active, and has produced two novels (her first two, I think, in a 40-plus year career) and two or three short story collections in the last decade.
GINNY SWEETHIPS' FLYING CIRCUS, by Neal Barrett, Jr., 1988: Post apocalyptic story about a travelling bordello, staffed by Ginny herself, a human female, an intelligent, bellicose, genetically altered weasel (marsupial?) named Possum Dark, and Del, an android. Ginny Sweethips' wagon travels from town to town where she stops for one night each, puts on a bawdy show, then services anyone who is willing to pay her in gasoline. But Ginny has a technological trick that she uses to blow the men's minds without her having to touch them. Unfortunately the trick has broken, so after pulling into a new town she found a repairman to fix it for her. The repair was botched, so the next time Ginny used it she harmed her clients. Unfortunately the clients were a group of malcontented insurance salesman who tried to kill her. Moro, the repairman, realized the problem and helped save them before the salesman could get their revenge. This was a somewhat atmospheric entropy tale with absurdist elements to it. The characterization was the strongest element, but I did not like many of the other elements. What few absurdist elements there were, were not strong enough to make me suspend disbelief totally, and even though I think that is what is required to read this story in the proper light, I never cared enough to do it.
THE END OF THE WOLRLD AS WE KNOW IT, by Dale Bailey, 2004: This is an absolutely amazing, first rate story of ideas, centered on a last-man-on-Earth plot. Bailey told his story in a wonderful throwback style where he uses psychological, last man and post apocalyptic themes to inform his ideas, which are really what he is talking about (the ideas, that is. Not the themes). This may be one of the best post apocalypse stories out there, and will likely make the coveted "Omphalos' Yearly Re-read List," which is so coveted that you are only hearing about it now for the first time.
Wyndham (ha!), a stuck-in-the-glorious-rut-of-middle-age UPS driver woke up one morning and discovered that his loving wife and daughter had died during the night. In a blind panic he searched his neighborhood and discovered that everyone else was dead too. In fact, Wyndham quickly realized that everyone but him has died. He wandered away from his home, practically catatonic. When his wits returned he found a house for shelter, removed the corpses of the previous owners, and laid in a good stock of gin. Before Wyndham could drink himself to death an equally wounded woman moved in downstairs. They were the only two people left, it seemed. Nothing about the reason for the catastrophe is explained. In fact:
You, like Wyhdham, may be curious about the catastrophe that has befallen everyone in the world around him. You may even be wondering why Wyndham has survived.
End-of-the-world tales typically make a big deal about such things, but Wyndham's curiosity will never be satisfied. Unfortunately, neither will yours.
It's the end of the world after all.
I loved the story telling technique Bailey employed. It was for the most part told in third-person semi-omniscient, although Bailey did screw up a little and slipped back into first person at inappropriate times. But his voice was bitter and seething in places, and then sarcastic in some others, and even at times acquiescent and submissive. The change-up in tone was perfect for this tale, which was really not at all about the various stages of grief, or about getting over the catastrophe and putting things back together again, but about the completely debilitating power of emotional shock. With one exception where the woman tried to seduce Wyndham, the two characters were too wounded to do anything but drink and stare at the walls. That may sound pretty boring, but not in the capable hands of this author who was more interested in having his characters buck the old-fashioned "WE HAVE A HOLY DUTY TO REPOPULATE THE EARTH" cliche.
Stylistically Bailey is gifted. Here he jumped back and forth between the plot of the story and short, angry sentences about the history of mass deaths, both real and literary, and the ways that authors craft stories about them.
Sometimes the whole sex thing causes the end of the world.
In fact, if you'll permit me to reference Adam and eve just one more time, sex and death have been connected to the end of the world ever since - well, the beginning of the world. Eve, despite warnings to the contrary, eats of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil and realizes she's naked - that is, a sexual being. Then she introduces Adam to the idea by giving him a bite of that fruit.
God punishes Adam and Eve for their transgression by kicking them out of Paradise and introducing death into the world. And there you have it: the first apocalypse, Eros and Thanatos all tied up into one neat little bundle, and it's all Eve's fault.
No wonder feminists don't like that story. It's a pretty corrosive view of feminine sexuality when you think about it.
And then he went on to discuss an incredible story by James Tiptree, Jr. called Houston, Houston. Do You Read.
Honestly, this one felt so real to me, it was like it was written by someone with survivor's guilt. Someone who was so traumatized that they were incapable of moving on, and had stuck in their head that the notion that any attempt to create a new family would be an insult to the old one; as if it were some stupid way to replace them. Sarcastic, angry, and also pathetically submissive to fate, this story caught me like a prize fighter's trick left hook, and it alone makes the book's cover price worth every penny. This should be required reading somewhere.
A SONG BEFORE SUNSET, by David Grigg, 1976: Post nuclear war story in England about a starving, half-dead old man who longs to find some of the former beauty in his life from before the war. The "Piano Man" makes a living trapping rats and trading them to "Tumbledown Woman" for things he needs to survive. One day he showed up at her caravan and traded a bunch of rats for an iron bar. Piano Man uses the bar to break into an abandoned and padlocked concert hall. During the trade Tumbledown mentions to him that a group of raiders called the Vandals are moving through London, burning and destroying the few remaining vestiges of culture like collections of art that survivors have gathered, and libraries. Unperturbed by the sight of smoke a few blocks away from the concert hall, Piano Man enters the abandoned hall, covers his tracks as best he can, and makes his way to the stage. There he finds an ancient piano, which he begins to tune by hand. Of course the Vandals are moving through his neighborhood, and one of them hears the plinking of the piano and follows the sounds to find Piano Man. Overcome with anger at what the Vandals are doing, Piano Man finds it within him to club the Vandal to death before he can be killed himself, then turns on the piano and destroys it. Honestly, I had no idea why Piano Man did this. Perhaps it was to prevent the Vandals from doing it themselves; I don't know. But the ending makes little to no sense. Personally I found it hard to follow at first. Consider: The landscape is obviously wrecked, and everybody is starving. I found it hard to believe that an old man who told us that he would not be able to catch any more rats for several days would willingly trade away the entirety of his only food source for an iron bar. He did put it to good use eventually, but there was no foreshadowing; not even a thought about what he was going to do with it, other than lug it around. This story is one big question mark.
EPISODE SEVEN: LAST STAND AGAINST THE PACK IN THE KINGDOM OF THE PURPLE FLOWERS, by John Langan, 2007: Another supernatural post apocalypse story. This one feels to me like another fragment of a book (UG!). Jackie, a young mother-to-be, and her boyfriend-by-default, Wayne, are trekking through a depopulated New Jersey several hours ahead of a pack of monsters. In the weeks past a disease from a passing meteor killed almost everyone in the world, then grew beautiful purple flowers that ate the flesh of the dead. Langdon never explained where the monsters, called "The Pack," came from, but suggested that the were either supernatural creatures or passengers from the meteor. Wayne is an RPG'er, and has devised a series of traps that has been slowly winnowing down the numbers of The Pack. Jackie is starting to get big, and will not be able to travel much further. The couple cross a bridge into NYC and await the pack, which only has a few members in it after the last trap; a bomb left in a mall that basically brought the place down on their heads. Jackie is hiding behind a few cars that are filled with the purple-bulbed remains of their former occupants, and has realized that Wayne is playing a very dangerous game. She contemplates how far she will be able to go without him, and dreads the coming confrontation with the remnants of the pack.
I am not such a big fan of the New Weird style of story telling. This one, which I place in that category, left me a bit dry. The science is an absolute mess, and Langdon employed a slightly experimental mode of story telling, where the chapter headings, if read without the accompanying text of the story, tell the basic story in five or six sentences. It was also a bit hard for me to swallow the magic-like elements of the story. It seemed that Langdon wanted to tell a SF story, and he certainly applied the thematic styles of SF storytelling, but failed utterly to give any semblance of a rational explanation for what was going on. I did like the way that Langdon developed Jackie's character. That element of the story was very realistic, and pretty interesting. Wayne's character was nothing but an over-developed plot element, but Jackie was a full fledged person who earned my sympathy. Pretty typical for MoF&SF, in my opinion.