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Sequel City Part 4 – The End Is Now

The End Is Now by John Joseph AdamsReview: The End Is Now by John Joseph Adams & Hugh Howey (ed.) (Broad Reach Publishing, 2014)

First off, apologies for the brief hiatus. I was first interrupted from my reading reverie by the fact that my countrymen, in a dazzling display of cowardice, naivety and gullibility, rejected the chance to decide their own future and decided instead to be ruled from another country by a party which the entire country has outright rejected for the past three decades. It was kinda like being in a sci-fi movie actually, a whole week of “Did that actually just happen…?” before I even began to come to terms with the enormity of it. And then there was the diving. I’m now officially a Rescue Diver which means if any of you happen to find yourself in trouble on the high seas you just have to holler, I’ll drag you out and CPR you back to life. Two week where my only reading companion was the PADI Rescue Diver manual. Anyways, back to business as usual so on with the show…

Rounding off the current spate of wonderful and eagerly awaited sequels in my reading pile has been The End Is Now, follow up to the stellar The End Is Nigh and midway point of the Apocalypse Triptych. Ably curated by anthology maestro John Joseph Adams and current post-apoc-fic darling Hugh Howey, the series shifts from impending armageddons to works in progress. Almost every story in the book is a continuation from the first installment but worry not, there’s just enough exposition and background to fill in new readers without annoying those already up to speed.

My review of the previous book was glowing to say the least so did the authors manage to keep up the pace for round two? The answer is a mighty hell yes. The majority of the stories pick up exactly where their predecessors left off, meaning with some you’re pushed straight into the action without a pause for breath. For example, reading Scott ‘Infected‘ Sigler’s The Sixth Day Of Deer Camp feels as though you just put the preceding chapter down yesterday. You’re right back in the same freezing North American cabin, with the same group of semi-drunk hunters and the same crashed alien vessel in the woods outside. The invasion is in progress and this gaggle of everyday Joes have to figure out whether to brave the snowbound road to the nearest town (if it’s still there), bunker down and hope it all blows over or go on the offensive. They’re Americans. They have guns. Guess which one they choose…

That tale in particular exemplifies one of the overarching themes which seems to have manifested in many of these, a focus on the humanity, loss and sadness rather than the gratuitous carnage which reduces much of the rest of the genre to Schumacher-esque pastiche. What starts out as a rather insane push for mankind’s survival turns into a deeply upsetting realisation that the fearsome, inhuman invaders are not all that different from us. I really didn’t expect the turn this one took and it’s all the better for it. Another winner in this field was Annie Bellet’s touching Goodnight Stars, one of the more down-to-earth tales (kinda literally) which opts for a heart-breaking family angle and absolutely nails it.

The rest of the book is a wonderful mixture of destruction, disease and death in all its splendour. Special mention for insanity goes to Charlie Jane ‘io9’ Anders’s Rock Manning Can’t Hear You. I have no idea where this idea came from or where it’s going but there sure isn’t another apocalypse like it out there. However, cream of the crop must surely Fruiting Bodies by Seanan McGuire aka Mira Grant. I’d like to state here and now that fungal fiction is definitely the ickiest, most flesh-creeping idea ever to crawl out of anyone’s warped mind. Between Seanan’s series and The Girl With All The Gifts (to be reviewed in a few days) I’d be happy never to eat a mushroom again. Or touch anything. Or even breathe. Seriously. Fruiting Bodies manages to combine an utterly revolting concept of a genetically engineered fungi gone wrong with a tragic tale of a mother and daughter fighting to survive in an incredibly hostile environment. I didn’t know whether to puke or cry.

While you may want to check out the first book before jumping in – and you really, really should – The End Is Now is a fun ride for anyone who just wants to see the whole word burn. Adams and Howey gave a shitload of matches and gasoline to some of the finest genre authors of today. Boy, do they know how to use them.

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Filed under Anthology, Dystopian, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction, Short Stories

Silo Series by Hugh Howey

Silo Series by Hugh HoweyReview: The Silo series (Wool, Shift and Dust) by Hugh Howey (self-published, 2011-2013)

God-damn it, I hate it when I’m late to the party. By now I’m sure you’ve heard of Hugh Howey and his self-published, post-apocalyptic series. If so it’s for one of two reasons. Firstly, Howey garnered quite a bit of attention for achieving 7-figure sales before publishers wanted a piece of the action. His subsequent acceptance of a mere 6-figure print deal and his retention of ebook rights is a glorious sign of things to come for the industry. Secondly, it’s fucking awesome. Sorry for the language but not since A Song Of Ice And Fire have I plowed through a book series with such fervour. It’s as good as the reviews say and then some, having me devour all 1,500 or so pages in a mere 8 or 9 days – and that’s while holding down a full-time job and finding a new place to live. So what’s the big deal?

Silo, originally published as 9 installments and recently released as three omnibus editions, kicks off a few hundred years into the future. The situation is dire. Mankind is reduced to a subterranean existence in a silo beneath the ground. Over a hundred stories deep, the gargantuan dwelling is subdivided into farms, mechanical areas, living quarters, even an entire mysterious IT section. The only evidence of an outside existence comes via cameras atop the silo, capturing images which are displayed on giant screens in the top-floor canteen. The images portray an ugly truth – an utterly desolate outside world, devoid of any life and totally hostile.

Life in the silo is strictly regimented. The floor-plan echoes the stratification of society, with the more affluent citizens up top looking down on the progressively grimier, less refined occupants ending in the mechanical department in the very lowest recesses. The rules are strict . Occupations, and therefore one’s place on the ladder, are chosen early on and rarely altered. Relationships must be officially approved and recognised and childbirth proceeds according to rare lotteries to ensure population control. The laws of the land are written in a book called The Pact, drafted by those who came before and enforced by the mayor, the sheriff and the head of IT. First and foremost among the laws is that you do not talk about the outside world or about any desire to leave the silo. The punishment for wanting to leave is simple – your wish is granted.

It’s difficult to say any more without giving away major plot elements so I’ll stick with the earlier parts of the series. It all opens with the silo’s sheriff breaking the ultimate taboo and preparing himself for his final journey outside. He knows what happens next, the cleaning. Offenders are sentenced to don a protective suit and proceed through an airlock, armed only with some rags and fluid intended to clean the topside cameras. After the task is carried out the cleaner is free to walk as far as they can before the suit breaks down under the strain of the toxic atmosphere and they breathe their last. So why did he do it, essentially committing suicide for no gain? It transpires that his wife took the exact same action years previously, leaving him to imprison and sentence her, but not without leaving some clues behind. It seems that The Pact might not be all there is to the world, that there may yet be hope beyond the silo walls.

From this launchpad, Silo proceeds to spin an epic tale covering all manner of topics. There are politics thrown in, from the state of the world at large to the way society functions in the microcosm of the silo. References are thrown about to such things as the Stanford Prison Experiment and other forays into the darker side of human nature. There’s the inevitable look at technology and how best to proceed with it, both the dangers and the benefits. It’s also a rather beautiful study of the characters themselves. Howey has some impressive insights into the nature of human resilience, our potential in the face of adversity and also the ease with which we can be drawn to the dark side and made complicit in the most awful of actions.

However the star of the show is surely the silo itself. It’s an amazing construction both in terms of engineering and of literary achievement. By the end of the first chapter you’ll already feel the walls closing in around you and be itching to escape. You can hear the water dripping down in the depths, sense the darkness approaching all around you, even feel your legs ache as the protagonists embark on days-long journeys from bottom to top. The bustle of life in the stairwells is almost palpable, faces of the citizens peering out from every corner. You can even feel the atmosphere change as you’re dragged from section to section – the sterile, pristine canteen of the top floor in sharp contrast to the sweaty, noisy, grease-covered generator room down in the depths. It’s a tiny, confined world but one which is as well-formed and perfectly realised as any planet in the epic sci-fi and fantasy canon.

I’m trying to be objective here but I honestly can’t pick fault with the series right now. I’ve read criticism regarding the flow of the books stemming from the periodic nature of their publication and the fact that much of it was being made up on the fly. I have to disagree strongly there. Everything hangs together well, the story arcs all make sense and the characters develop in very believable ways. The writing itself is never going to win any literary awards but Howey has a true knack for descriptive story-telling and is clearly well-read on the may themes present throughout the books. It’s hard not to like something written in such a deservedly confident style.

Long story short – go get started on these books right now. They’re going to creep into your subconscious like nothing else and your life will be the better for it.

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The End Is Nigh by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (ed.)

The End Is Nigh by John Joseph AdamsReview: The End Is Nigh (edited) by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey (Broad Reach Publishing, 2014)

“Post-apocalyptic fiction is about worlds that have already burned. Apocalyptic fiction is about worlds that are burning. The End Is Nigh is about the match.”

Well that kind of gives the game away, doesn’t it? John Joseph Adams, uncontested king of the sci-fi anthology and curator or the wonderful Wastelands, is back with a rather unique take on apocalyptica. In partnership with Hugh Howey, bestselling author of the Wool series, he has once more brought together some of the brightest names in the genre to give us the Apocalypse Triptych. Rather the the typical focus on the aftermath of whichever disaster happens to befall humanity he instead holds a magnifying glass to three distinct phases, gathered in three chronological volumes.

The End Is Nigh is probably the first ever collection of pre-apocalyptic fiction. It’s the beginning of the end, the spark which gives rise to the ultimate inferno. It’s also, perhaps surprisingly, the most disturbing period of Armageddon. Everything seems so normal, life going on as if nothing were amiss. But someone, somewhere, always knows, always has the inside track. Whether an agent of mankind’s demise or simply an unfortunate observer in the wrong place at a horrific time, these are the people who tell us their tales.

As might be expected, The End Is Nigh pulls together an impressive variety of apocalypses. Everyone’s used to the holy trinity of aliens, nukes and plagues (including zombies in that last category). This book covers all of the above and then some. The alien invasion tale The Fifth Day Of Deer Camp provides us with a wonderful cliffhanger as a group of ageing, beer-soaked hunting buddies stumble across a UFO beside their backwoods cabin. According to the radio, similar craft have begun laying waste to the rest of civilisation. It’s a classic “what would you do?” situation, leaving you standing shivering outside the hunting lodge, miles from anywhere, shotgun in hand and alien ship duly glowing.

There’s room in here for a couple of more realistic – even inevitable – cosmic catastrophes. Heaven Is A Place On Planet X takes us down the religious cult road, a group of eschatologically-fixated evangelists holding out in their commune and awaiting the end of days in their compound – the end heralded by the wandering Planet X. A familiar story from the newspapers, except this bunch happen to be right. In The Balm And The Wound another collision is imminent, this time with the moon. This most poignant of tales has the moonbase astronauts discover their fate, only to realise that precious few of them can make the escape to earth – and that even those who do return will still face almost certain death and unimaginable hardship. Despite opening the volume, this story stuck with me as the most moving by virtue of its relative realism and imposing yet almost banal bleakness.

And moving away from the Michael Bay mixture of explosions and carnage we have yet more vignettes featuring more subtle scenarios, no less deadly for their relative restraint. System Reset takes a new spin on the nuclear threat as a hacker underground determines to return mankind to the stone age by launching its nuclear arsenal yet having them explode safely far above the Earth’s surface. The resulting EMP bursts will fry any electronic equipment, except for the hackers’ own safe zone. Although that zone may not be as safe as they had anticipated. An the award for most outright eerie tale goes to Spores. Despite taking an anti-GMO line which earns it big minus points in my book it still manages to win favour through its superbly creepy and unstoppable fungal growth, one which still makes my skin crawl to recall it.

The rest of the tales live up to the same high standards of entertainment and originality as those already mentioned but that’s not all The End Is Nigh has to offer. This is just part one, remember? First installment of the Apocalypse Triptych. So not only are there two further volumes to anticipate with joy but Adams and Howey managed to convince most of the authors to participate for the duration. So what we really have here is the Epic Book Of Catastrophic Cliffhangers. It’s just as evil as it sounds. So please do follow up my recommendation to grab and savour a copy of this book, but be wary of your patience levels. I’m already counting the days to Vol. 2 with Song-Of-Ice-And-Fire-esque desperation.

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Filed under Dystopian, Science Fiction, Short Stories