Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse by John Joseph Adams


Published by Night Shade Books (

January 2008

ISBN: 978-1-59780-105-8

333 Pages

John Joseph Adams’s Web site:

Wastelands Web site:



Post-apocalyptic stories have long been a popular subset of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  From short stories to novels to movies to television shows, the milieu of a people trying to cope with a world after the collapse of civilization has proven fertile ground for writer’s and reader’s imaginations for many years.  In this collection, John Joseph Adams, long time editor at the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction gathers some of the pre-eminent storytellers and their visions of a devastated world in this admirable collection. The introduction by John Joseph Adams sets the mood and tone for the collection, going into greater detail upon the subgenre.


The End of the Whole Mess by Stephen King is the lead story in this anthology.  A great deal of King’s writing deals with apocalyptic scenarios, worlds ‘thinning’ and the dissolution of civilization.  This story is no different and no less powerful because of its brevity.  In it a pair of brothers unwittingly find themselves responsible for, or the trigger for, the end of civilization.  As a launch story for the anthology, it suitably shows the progression from civilization to apocalypse.


Orson Scott Card’s Salvage is evocative of a world on the fringe, and shows Card’s writing skills in top form.  There is a feeling of complacency in the story that is nearly as frightening as the apocalyptic setting itself. 


Paolo Bacigalupi is a relatively new writer, though in that short time, his stories have gained a great deal of attention.  The stories I’ve read by him were very powerful and The People of Sand and Slag is consistent in that evocation.  In this seemingly far future setting, Bacigalupi evokes powerful scenes with the slightest of words to give both a nightmarish and intriguing scenario.  People cut off limbs at will as a fetish and a normal dog is treated practically as an alien, the people themselves are recognizable as humans only on the surface. Barely at that. 


Class lines and prejudice are still a live and strong in Bread and Bombs by M. Rickert. The story was one of the shorter tales in the anthology but still was able to show one of human civilization’s darker hallmarks surviving through an apocalypse.


Jonathan Lethem takes the trope of roaming wanders in an apocalyptic landscape in How We Got In Town and Out Again. This was an effective story of survival.


The lengths to which humanity will evolve and devolve is on full display in Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels by George R. R. Martin.  This was one of my favorite stories in the collection and had echoes of Wells’s The Time Machine. It was also a great illustration of not only how humanity can evolve, but how lines of communication can deteriorate ending in an ultimately powerful fashion.  .


Waiting for the Zephyr by Tobias S. Buckell is a nice, short tale about one person’s drive to escape the life in which she lives.


It’s been too long since I read a Jack McDevitt story/novel, so I was glad his story Never Despair was in this volume.  Unfortunately I haven’t read Eternity Road, the novel which is connected to this story, but that didn’t matter.  It was as powerful and held the right mix of mystery and implied statements for the story to work really well.


When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth by Cory Doctorow has all the techno-jargon you might expect from Doctorow.  Fortunately, it also has the thoughtfulness and enthrallment Doctorow is known for as well.  It is basically what if the geeks were the only ones to survive the apocalypse.  However, rather than the typical scientists who survived in such stories 20 to 40 years ago, the geeks in this case are computer geeks. 


Still Life With Apocalypse by Richard Kadrey was the shortest story in the anthology, and give the reader a look into the mind of one person trying to make sense of the apocalypse.


Artie’s Angels by Catherine Wells may have been the most emotionally powerful story of the bunch, illustrating a positive legacy amidst the death and ruin of an apocalyptic wasteland. There are echoes of distant legends in this engaging story that ultimately made it resonate very nicely.  


Religious faith is, rightfully so, a common theme in many apocalyptic stories. After all, one of the most widely known stories in the bible is the story of the Rapture. It is with this premise that Jerry Oltion’s Judgment Passed (original to this volume) tinkers.  What if a handful of astronauts return to Earth only to find it empty because Jesus came to take people with Him?  I liked this one quite a bit and I’ll be looking into more of Mr. Oltion’s fiction because of this story.


A brother and sister ponder their loneliness in the world in Gene Wolfe’s Mute.  This was a brisk story that maybe didn’t work as well for me as most of the other fiction I’ve read by Wolfe.  


And the Deep Blue Sea by Elizabeth Bear starts out rather matter-of-factly and wends its way into a moving piece.  The premise may seem hold echoes of Brin’s The Postman, but the story is more effective.


Every time I read an Octavia E. Butler story, I come to the realization that I really need to read more of her work.  It is always powerful, to the point and doesn’t over linger. Speech Sounds, a brief tale of communication and identity, is no different.  


Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus by Neal Barrett, Jr. is one part Mad Max and one part Circus of Dr. Lao.  This was a fun story of weirdness.


Dale Bailey’s The End of the World as We Know It was perhaps the most interesting story in the collection.  At once a parody and homage to apocalyptic fiction, it nonetheless breaks some of those clichés and juxtaposes a global catastrophe with a personal catastrophe.  Despite the overall playful tone of the story, it packed a nice emotional resonance.


Episode Seven: Last Stand Against the Pack in the Kingdom of the Purple Flowers by John Langan was perhaps the most difficult story for me to read.  With page long paragraphs, it was difficult to truly find a rhythm to the story.  Perhaps that was the point, though.  The apocalypse won’t have a cadence and will be nothing but rambling chaos.  In that, the story was effective.


Adams himself penned a nice introduction to the volume, as well as a brief author bios and intros for each story and an appendix for further reading. 


The only stories with which I didn’t quite connect were A Song Before Sunset by David Grigg, Killers by Carol Emshwiller, and Inertia by Nancy Kress. They weren’t bad stories, they just didn’t work as well for me as the other stories in the collection. With 85% of the stories working not just well, but extremely well for me, I can’t help but give this collection the highest recommendation. I think this will be a cornerstone for most reader’s shelves.


© 2008 Rob H. Bedford

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