Remember when I split this month’s reading because I was afraid one post for the whole month would be obscenely long? Yeah, I forgot about contest-judging obligations that arrived on the 20th, so this is actually super short.
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THE END OF THE WORLD: STORIES OF THE APOCALYPSE by Various Authors: I’ve said before I have a terrible time with anthologies (it takes me a long time to commit, and most short stories are over before I warm to them sufficiently; also, I want a line of logic I can follow from beginning to end, and a lot of short stories are… “experimental” is the most generous term I can come up with), but since I was already having a terrible reading streak, what’s the harm? At least I like the apocalypse!
The stories themselves date back as far as 1944 and have all been previously published, so if you’re a SF short story aficionado, you may have seen many of them elsewhere. This collection was published in 2010, when nobody in publishing even pretended an interest in diversity; accordingly, the 19 authors include 1 woman and 0 POC. The +/- after each story indicates my positive or negative feeling toward it.
- “The Hum” by Rick Hautala: An irritating hum is driving everyone on the planet to violence. The cause is revealed to be something that ought to shatter perception of the universe as we know it… but abruptly ends in a cheap joke. This was a very short story that felt more like the first scene of something bigger rather than a complete story in itself. –
- “Salvador” by Lucius Shepard: A member of a special forces team murdering their way through Central America has possibly a spiritual experience but more likely drug-induced hallucinations. This story is a personal apocalypse rather than the end of the actual world. Dark, bloody, and well written. +
- “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” by Neil Gaiman: Mild-mannered Peter seeks to hire a hitman to do away with his cheating fiancee’s lover, but the sales associate for the assassin firm tempts him with increasingly fantastic volume discounts. Given the theme of the anthology, I’m sure you can guess where that leads. An amusing, oh-so-civilized extinction story from which I would have chopped the last paragraph for a better stopping point. +
- “The Big Flash” by Norman Spinrad: A pop culture phenomenon shifts public opinion in favor of nuking enemies in Asia. The setup was interesting, but the final countdown to pushing the buttons was a dull, protracted conclusion. –
- “Kindness” by Lester del Rey: Homo sapiens have been replaced by Homo intelligens, and Danny is the last “normal” man in a world of supermen. He has devised a plan to escape his benign circumstances by stealing a spaceship from a museum. The plan goes suspiciously smoothly. I can’t find much fault with the writing, but my enjoyment was reduced by my lack of species pride, which made the benefits of his situation seem far preferable to me than launching oneself into space to get away from smarter people. When the protagonist’s entire motivation doesn’t work for me, the rest of the story follows suit. –
- “The Underdweller” by William F. Nolan: The lone survivor of an alien invasion has been living in the sewers beneath Los Angeles for three years and is cracking under the strain. He risks discovery to raid a bookstore (relatable). Interesting twist to the nature of the monsters trying to destroy him, but again, not deep enough for me to care about his fate. –
- “Lucifer” by Roger Zelazny: The last man on earth fires up a power plant so he can briefly pretend the city below is alive. Another very short tale. Too much power plant maintenance, not enough character/emotion to sell it to me. –
- “To the Storming Gulf” by Gregory Benford: Survivors of nuke/bio warfare set off in search of a supercomputer to so they can communicate with a space station and find out what’s going on. What’s going on is… missiles got launched and much of civilization got wiped out, which we already knew. Once that happens, I’m more interested in how people survive than going back in time to get details about why people with bombs used them, so I wasn’t invested in their pointless quest, despite this one being nearly novella length. –
- “The Feast of Saint Janis” by Michael Swanwick: A representative of the Southwest Africa Trade Company travels to Baltimore to negotiate placement of African physicians at Johns Hopkins to receive specialized training in regard to the genetic diseases plaguing the world. While he waits for a decision it will take a month to make, he’s sent on tour with a Janis Joplin impersonator who was molded into that role via procedures performed at Johns Hopkins as part of a “social engineering” project. This particular experiment has been running annually for 23 years with the same negative results, and as far as I could tell, given the threat issued to the rep at the end, the only point is to warn outsiders “we’re crazy, so don’t fuck with us.” Going to great lengths to prove the obvious is unnecessarily exhausting. –
- “The Wheel” by John Wyndham: In a world where prayers end with “preserve us from the Wheel” (because the devil gave man the wheel, technology developed from there, and the world as it was known eventually ended, perfectly reasonable), young Davie—who doesn’t even know what a “wheel” is—brings home a big box mounted on four round pieces of wood that he just figured would make transportation easier. The priest is sent for, with obvious ominous connotations. Davie’s grandpa tells him to say he found the box like that, but too many people know otherwise for that plan to work. Grandpa is a good dude, and superstitious whackadoos are assholes. ←That’s often a story I like, and this one did the job well. +
- “Jody After the War” by Edward Bryant: It’s a… date? And not a good date, but also not one bad enough to be worth eavesdropping on. I was profoundly uninterested in this. (The funny thing, though, is that when it was published in 1972, the author’s vision of the future included a million pay phones in Denver. There are only 100,000 left in the entire United States now, and 20% of those are in New York. Food for thought about technology we think is so convenient and necessary now becoming a relic instead of growing.) –
- I skipped the OSC story on principle. I bought the book for $1.99, so after seller and publisher shares, he got, at most, a penny of my money (if it was a royalty deal at all and not an up-front fee, in which case he got zero of my pennies). I give enough to LGBT+ causes to cancel any damage he might do with that one cent, so I won’t beat myself up about funding him by buying this book.
- “By Fools Like Me” by Nancy Kress: This is a lesson in worldbuilding in short form. We know the nature of the apocalypse (environmental catastrophe), we have society built on the effects of that apocalypse (small community dependent on agriculture, little water, bad air, dust storms), we have “religion” based on condemnation of forebears (all scavenged remnants of technology are “sins,” and the few trees left are worshiped), and it’s all seamlessly conveyed as part of the story being told. A little girl finds a shrink-wrapped bundle of books washed up on the beach and takes them to her grandmother, who hides them because they’re murdered trees and remnants of an evil time but also reads them because they’re full of magic and wonder. Of course, stories are about “we can’t have nice things,” so unfortunate acts of nature get blamed on the books. I’ve read enough “superstitious whackadoo” stories (as noted above, I’ve a fondness for them) that not much surprises me, but this story did the expected very well. Content warning for child abuse. +
- “The Store of the Worlds” by Robert Sheckley: A guy goes to grubby little shop to trade all his worldly goods and 10 years of his life to have his mind “liberated” to temporarily travel to an alternate-probability world where his deepest desire is fulfilled. Dude has a wife, two kids, a maid. They go sailing on the reg. The poor baby. I was so thoroughly prepared to hate this privileged-yet-unsatisfied douchebag, I didn’t see the twist coming, which warrants a +.
- “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R. R. Martin: Takes place 500 years post a “great disaster” that left the surface a radioactive slagheap. A team from the lunar colony (which took five centuries to recover from being cut off from earth) is searching for planetary survivors who went underground and adapted. They find one, and it goes badly for everyone. Like the first story, it feels like there should be more because what was started wasn’t brought to a satisfying conclusion. –
- “If I Forget Thee, O Earth…” by Arthur C. Clarke: This one had the honor of the most typo-laden sentence: Then the VACUUM sign flashed on and, the outer door parted, before Marvin lay the land which that he had never yet entered. Marvin’s dad takes him on a drive from the moon colony to look at the earth and says it’s not safe to go back yet. Not even in dialogue. And that’s it. –
- “Afterward” by John Helfers: No characters. Just tells you North America split apart along the Rockies, nothing left but ash, only single-celled life in the ocean, etc. Like an episode of Life After People, without the CGI to add visual interest. –
- “When We Went to See the End of the World” by Robert Silverberg: The hosts of a suburban house party brag that they took one of the new “vacations” to view the end of the world, and their thunder is stolen when several other couples say they’ve done it, too. While they’re sharing their stories and bickering over the differences, there are multiple interruptions regarding present-day disasters, which they blow off in favor of their fascination with future disaster. The world is going to hell around them, and they pay money to recreationally watch it die. Originally published in 1972. It’s older than I am, but the more things change, the more they stay the same, yeah? +
- “Flight to Forever” by Poul Anderson: This was another novella, and it uses the space to span 100 billion years or more. Saunders time travels 100 years into the future to repair another time machine he assumes is broken because previous travelers didn’t return as scheduled. They’ve done 20-year jaunts with no problems. He learns, belatedly, that traveling backward in time consumes progressively more energy, and even 70 years backwards would require infinite energy, which he doesn’t have on hand. (Me, at this point: “Why not go back 20 years, since that’s easy, stop, go back another 20 years, lather, rinse, repeat?”) His solution is to go forward in time until he finds the point where technology is sufficiently advanced to send him back to the time he belongs in (because if somebody can figure out how to break the limit of 70 years, it stands to reason THOUSANDS of years should be a piece of cake, I guess). Even thousands of years in the future, however, they tell him 70 is the limit of possibility. So he keeps going forward, and it’s not going well, so he ends up waiting 100 billion years for the universe to end, and then something amazing happens to solve his problem. This story is actually too long to get the point across. Too many stops where nothing happens. Too many stops full of busy-ness but nothing plot-altering. I was relieved to be done with it. –
Top points to Kress and Wyndham, both of whom wrote about awesome elders. Favorable opinion of only 6 out of 19 stories, which is pretty consistent with my anthology reading historically. This took twice as long to read as a novel of comparable length because I was not enjoying myself, but it’s harder to DNF an anthology than a novel because these 10 pages aren’t representative of the next 10 pages because they’re written by different people and maybe the next one will be more to my liking. It’s even difficult to quit one story, knowing it’s only a few pages. The format itself makes me feel trapped, and yet I feel obligated at least twice a year to try to appreciate the art of short story writing. Last year I boldly declared I don’t like chocolate chip cookies and am done with them (in baked form—dough remains awesome); maybe this will be the year I free myself from the self-applied shackles of short stories.
ALLEGEDLY by Tiffany D. Jackson: At age nine, Mary allegedly killed the three-month-old baby her mother was babysitting. Because Mary is black and the baby was white, this wasn’t a minor news blip about a tragic accident—it was a media sensation, and people were baying for Mary’s blood. Accordingly, this small child was sent to jail, where she had to be kept in solitary confinement for her safety (which is far from safe in a number of ways), until being released to a group home at age 16, which is the Present Day of this story.
Group homes filled with violent adolescent girls are nests of bullying and violence, and Mary, who’s trying to serve out the rest of her sentence in peace so she can get on with her life, is the target of a lot of it. She has the kind of mind that reads encyclopedias for fun, so she’s not thrilled to be stuck in cosmetology school for career path training. She’s secretly training to take the SAT, hoping schools will overlook her history if she scores high enough. She has mandatory “volunteer” hours at a nursing home, where she secretly has a boyfriend, and she’s secretly pregnant. When that secret comes out, as it inevitably must, the adults’ priority is separating Mary from her baby, one way or the other, because a baby killer can’t be allowed access to another baby. Mary wants to keep her child and implores her mother to finally tell the truth about what really happened the night that other baby died. The story is told in Mary’s point of view with periodic excerpts from her case file, all of which exhibit obvious bias of the reporter, calling their validity into question.
Every single character in this book is deeply screwed up, beyond the obvious level of screwed-uppedness apparent when they’re first introduced. Mary is highly sympathetic. She’s intelligent and determined to better her situation beyond the limitations others place upon her. She’s suffered just about every variety of abuse you can think of. She essentially parented her mother, who is a hot mess (for example, as part of her denying any responsibility for Mary, she admits someone “gave” Mary to her as a baby and she only pretended to be her mother—baby-obsessed behavior alluded to far before that event made me suspect she stole the kid). She’s very concerned about the health, safety, and future of Bean, as she calls her bun in the oven. She’s also not necessarily reliable as a narrator, so take everything she says to elicit sympathy as if it’s calculated to elicit sympathy. I was rooting so hard for her to succeed with everything she was trying to do… right up to the point where I began to wonder if it was an elaborate con.
This was a good story, but not a comfortable one. It takes a good author to unsettle me, and I’ll be reading more by Ms. Jackson.
I had to stop there because I had a packet of seven books to judge, about which I am FORBIDDEN TO SPEAK, which is probably in your best interests because my rants would blister your eyeballs. Next time you read a romance that’s reasonably free of copyediting errors, casual racism (toward people who aren’t even in the story—it was just SO important for the author to be an asshole, prejudice had to be inserted at random), and poisonous notions of “manhood,” give yourself an extra moment to savor that experience. When self-curating your reading selection, you cast off a ton of books that obviously aren’t up to your personal standards, which brings up the average quality of the books you do read, which creates a falsely elevated impression of the genre as a whole. Seven books chosen by someone else that you’re obligated to read in full will clear up that impression real quick.
To cleanse my palate, I’ll have to read at least one old favorite or a new book by a reliable author (I’m overdue to revisit my favorite Johanna Lindsey and I’ve been saving a Ruthie Knox book, so maybe both), so there will be at least a little bit of romance next month.