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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

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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Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse

Wastelands by John Jospeh AdamsReview: Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalypse, edited by John Joseph Adams (Night Shade Books, 2008)

He only wanted to make the world a better place. To stop us fighting, arguing, wasting our time on petty disagreements. He thought it would help. And it did, for a while. People were kinder and gentler. They laughed with each other, they played games, they enjoyed life. But soon, that was all they did. Then the memories started to disappear, and before long they couldn’t do anything, not even take care of themselves. And by then it was too late. No-one who could have reversed the effects had the brainpower any more. Goodnight humanity.

Thus runs Stephen King’s gloriously bleak ‘The End Of The Whole Mess‘, the first tale in Wastelands: Stories Of The Apocalyose, a diverse collection of post-apocalyptic short fiction from the master of the sci-fi compendium John Joseph Adams. King’s story, narrated in diary form by one Howard Fornoy, tells of how his genius younger brother Robert inadvertently brought mankind to a grinding halt. In an attempt to alleviate our more violent instincts he researches a chemical synthesised from water in the mysteriously peaceful small town of La Plata. Using a volcanic eruption to disperse the ‘cure’ around the globe he is at first elated by the effects. All too late he realises that it doesn’t stop there – the drug eventually leads to a state indistinguishable from Alzheimer’s. The final few journal entries by Howard are a respectful hat-tip to Daniel Keyes’ heartbreaking classic Flowers For Algernon as the narrator’s own mental powers slowly slip away.

Post-apocalyptic fiction usually carries a reputation for being excessively dark – grim and nihilistic are the order of the day. However by corralling 22 stories from some of today’s finest SF/Fantasy authors, John Joseph Adams has turned Wastelands into a vehicle from smashing such stereotypes into the dust. Yes, there are some ultimate downers to be found in these pages, Paulo Bagiaculpi’s ‘People Of Sand And Slag‘ being one example which may have you reaching for the Kleenex. It’s not all doom and gloom though, there is comedy to be found as well as sheer aching beauty in some of these visions of the future.

The apocalypse can take many forms, such as the one encountered Octavia Butler’s silent ‘Speech Sounds‘. She imagines a disease sweeping the world and removing the ability to communicate. To differing degrees people suddenly find themselves robbed of speech and handwriting skills but otherwise unimpaired. The paranoia instilled by a sudden total dependence on body languages and the ambiguities which lie within soon has the world in flames. The intellectually isolated population tries to get on as best as it can but find that it’s difficult to live in a world where even an apparent favour from a stranger could be fraught with danger.

An old favourite of mine, Cory Doctorow’s ‘When Sysadmins Ruled The Earth‘ makes a welcome appearance in Wastelands. By turns dark and yet comically surreal it foists an almost slapstick, accidental armageddon upon us. One freak occurrence leads to panic in another area, setting off riots which trigger a terrorist attack which leads to an overreaching response – you see where this is going. In the space of a single evening every government and terrorist group has unleashed their arsenals, carpeting the world in nuclear, biological and conventional devastation. Our hero, Felix, is called to his Toronto data center just as events are picking up. One of the first manifestations of the looming catastrophe is a worm knocking out his routers and as sysadmin he slumps out of bed, leaving his wife and daughter behind, and gets to work. It’s the last time he sees them alive. Safe inside the vault-like server storage unit, he and his other nerd friends weather the events in safety. Piecing together what they can by communicating with similar safe havens around the globe they proceed to construct an internet-based government to cope with the disaster. Unfortunately it transpires that getting geeks to agree on politics is a process similar to herding cats.

Wastelands helped to forge John Joseph Adams’s reputation as one of our finest curators of short fiction. His other anthologies such as The Mad Scientist’s Guide To World Domination demonstrate a similar eclecticism and eye for the exceptional. While not every tale in this collection is perfect the average hit rate is astoundingly high, with far too many favourites for me to list here. Fans of the post-apocalypse or just well-told sci-fi and fantasy tales in general should stop off for a while to recharge their batteries. From Dale Bailey’s sardonic ‘The End Of The World As We Know It‘ to Neal Barrett Jr’s gleefully silly ‘Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus‘ there is truly something here for everyone

Oh, and Jerry Oltion’s ‘Judgement Passed‘ may be the single finest piece of writing about The Rapture ever conceived…

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Filed under Anthology, Fantasy, Post-Apocalypse, Science Fiction