Poor short stories. That near-dead art form which is represented at its very worst in The New Yorker, yet is a factory-regular writer like Stephen King’s best, most literary work should get more love. It doesn’t, no matter how much people who bemoan this keep right on bemoaning it.
As previously noted on Tuesday Apocalypse, while reviewing a piece by io9’s Charlie Jane Anders, the apocalypse goes rather well in a short format. I haven’t read enough sci-fi in my life, partially because of the genre propensity to give us novels 600 or 800 pages long. (I keep looking at Lucifer’s Hammer on Amazon, then thinking, “but it’s just so long.”) Not to mention, my lack of patience for sci-fi voice, which is all I can think of when I try to read David Brin.
Here, the vaguely artful, plotless quality of New Yorker short fiction (they’re all poor man’s Raymond Carver, except Carver had things happen, I swear) is replaced by ruminations on humanity, and the end; all that good, forever praying-it’s-not-topical stuff. And sci-fi voice appears in this June, 2014 compilation, but it does not take over.
This is only round one in the so-called Apocalypse Triptych, and it it deals with the cusp of things. It’s, as Adams writes in the introduction, the grizzled prophet with the familiar sign. Several authors’ stories apparently tie together across the trio, making me immediately prepared to fork over another $4.99 after digging the first story, and then wishing it were longer.
Like any good novel with different point of view characters, or even nonfiction that switches locale, a short story collection is always about wanting more. You resent each switch to each new place, person, and thing, and then you resent the fact when that in turn ends. Nearly every story in the collection provokes this reaction, to greater and lesser degrees. The only one that truly didn’t is the penultimate story, which brought only nausea. Each story is big, but small, and sympathetic, even in the face of everything coming down upon our point of view character’s ears. Here they are, in order:
“The Balm and the Wound” by Robin Wasserman: Charlatan gets his. A sympathetic enough portrait of a cult leader who pretends to be able to predict the end of the world, and what happens when he is left with a long-lost son who becomes all too true a believer.
“Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Deserina Boskovich: Fun combination of alien invasion, oppressive government, and potential for it’s all a fraud anyway. (Because, oh God, the things our characters do, when they are told to. Terrible things.)
“Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders: As much as I dig Anders, I was vaguely disappointed at the ratio of unknown to known about the end here. On the other hand, she may have actually followed the guidelines most of all. “The match” that lights the end only happens after a character-heavy story of a boy obsessed with being a stuntman, and it’s in a great big mob that is about to turn into a massacre. The political situation, and the cult or militia that seems to be spreading is intriguing, but it is not enough.
“The Gods Will Not be Chained” by Ken Liu: Girl loses dad, dad is turned into emoji-using AI, who still loves her, but often chats with other conscious computers who are losing patience with humanity. Good, touching look at death and losing someone, with a satisfactory level of open-ended “uh oh” at the end.
“Wedding Day” by Jake Kerr: A sweet, sentimental, but still stomach-clenchingly anxious look at a lesbian couple trying to save themselves in the face of an asteroid headed squarely for the United States. (Gay marriage, y’all. In case of just such an event.)
“Removal Order” by Tananarive Rue: I always say I get bored by mechanism of survival stories, unless they’re survival in the wilderness stories, and I am nine (or they are true). Apocalypse-wise, I want my money shot of misery and dread when It hits. I want my waiting for the end and the incomprehensible horror that brings (Lovecraft ain’t got nothing…). And yet, this story of a girl staying in her ruined neighborhood her with cancer-ridden grandma as a plague draws ever closer, and fires burn, worked. Some people would read it and assume Nayima should have left her dying grandma ages before, and some won’t. And neither of them is wrong. I also like the cop character, who is both a human being, and believably menacing.
“System Reset” by Tobias S. Bucknell: Future hunters go after a cyber-libertarian-terrorist, who once tried to hack a senator’s car into crashing. But turns out he’s worse than that, and has a plan to set off nukes and EMP the whole damn world. His villain’s explanation is that governments leech off of the tech know-how of those who know, while trying to control them and their skills. Solution? Send the world back into the stone age, then flee to Nerd’s Gulch. Our hero’s partner scorns this Randian vision, noting that trade and exchange makes things possible, not hunkering down and hugging your server tight, while feeing superior. Villain sets off the nukes anyway, but hero’s partner manages to magically have the previously-hidden skills to hastily change the ICMBs to not spare Nerd’s Gulch. Misery must be equal. This bothered me, because dammit, even if it’s unfair and the creeps broke the world, you might want there to be working tech in the world somewhere. The entire story seemed to shift between condemning and then endorsing cyber-libertarianism multiple times. For a second, I really thought it was a libertarian response to Objectivism. Probably not. But the shift mostly works, and does the detective vibe, and the ending which really is properly “nigh.”
“This Unkempt World is Falling to Pieces” by Jamie Ford: Half-Chinese Hotel worker in San Francisco waits for Hale-Bop to kill everyone, or not, and pines for hotel maid. Nice mostly-historical setting, nice picture of idle/in denial rich waiting for the comet.
“BRING HER TO ME” by Jamie Winters: Oh man, this one is great, and this one KILLED ME with its ending. How dare it end there, and bless it for ending there, and all the other emotions one feels when something ends there. A collapsing cult city (the lack of clarity about the size of the outside world, or whether it is there at all is frustrating and intriguing) has almost reached the day it has been waiting for. A woman goes door to door to remind people. A mother is terrified that a secret about her daughter will be revealed, and she argues about it with her husband. The daughter can’t come on the journey that has something alarming to do with the careful preparation of poisoned meat. Is the daughter deaf, as seems to be suggested? No, she’s just deaf to the voice of God that has been booming in every single other person’s head for the past 30 years. The parents are hearing “BRING HER TO ME” but does that mean the daughter can complete the act, or that God has (somehow) even worse plans for her? She can’t hear, so she can’t believe. The night before the God-commanded ritual suicide that will help them all cross over, the deaf girl meets a boy who has a crush on her, who has his own unshareable secret. It’s human, and hopeful, and alarming, and sweet, and I punched the couch several times while reading. I love the lack of obfuscation: that yep, it’s just God in everyone’s heads. It just is. But run anyway.
“In the Air” by Hugh Howey: Michael Crichton-y, and not in a bad way, and not just because it’s a terrifying countdown to nanobot-induced armageddon. A stressful portrait of a dad trying to hide the truth from his family while saving them, and of a quiet war fought with nanobots, that feels more tangible than all that gray goo talk.
“Goodnight Moon” by Annie Bellet: A sad, carefully-paced story of residents of a moon base. This is the only story that ends not on earth (though earth is about to have a rough, albeit not-apocalyptic time). It has the boldness to involve heroic self-sacrifice for the sake of a pregnant woman, a drunk Russian, and colleagues facing death holding hands, without apologizing for how badly done that could have been. It therefore isn’t.
“Dancing With Death in the Land of Nod” by Will McIntosh: A loser with an Alzheimer’s-ridden dad who bought a drive-in on a whim faces what is basically a plague of advanced Parkinsonian paralysis. A neighbor girl helps him realize that helping people who are probably dead anyway is better than falling apart. Nice story; kind of “Testament”-like in its doomed optimism.
“Houses Without Air” by Megan Arkenberg: Finally, a real disappointment, though one with promising elements. As the earth dies of slow asphyxiation, thanks in part to the Yellowstone Caldera, a scientist working on perfect virtual reality and a woman whose job it is to build memorials for tragedies room together in DC, and try to pay tribute to the earth. There’s something trying to come out here with the woman’s polar opposite jobs, and the emptiness of the virtual reality that was supposed to include the five senses, but has no other people in it. It’s not there, though. The whole thing is ephemeral. I’d be pleasantly satisfied by this story in The New Yorker, but not in a collection this strong.
“The Fifth Day of Deer Camp” by Scott Sigler: Old Michigan men! Snow! Aliens! A stalwart older man who won’t let them panic, and then it ends! There had better be more in the next volume.
“Enjoy the Moment” by Jack Sigler: A well-crafted story of an astrophysicist trying to find a legacy, and who unfortunately discovers the rogue star that is going to smush us all out — albeit, in 20 years. The tone, and the weight of the characters, and the events feel like a novel, without feeling like you’ve missed the rest of the book. There’s a bit of the small things in life hope, hence the title. The only wrong note is the last paragraph, which is too much of a punchline.
“Pretty Soon the Four Horseman Are Going to Come Through” by Nancy Kress: A poor trash kind of mother wonders why one of her daughters is so passive, and why some of her schoolmates are the same. It has something to do with a volcano. And maybe aliens. Not a bad story, it just doesn’t quite work as credible.
“Spores” by Seanan McGuire: An OCD-ridden lab tech and her wife and daughter, plus some deadly mold that resulted from the lab tech’s colleagues playing God, all for a crisper apple and more succulent peach. The love and the snotty teen daughter the couple shares, and the horror of the mold are all equally well-described.
“She’s Got a Ticket to Ride” by Jonathan Macberry: Hard-boiled snatcher of youths who end up in drug houses or cults has to go after a serene 19-year-old who is right about the end of the world after all.
“Agent Unknown” by Dave Wellington: Is it zombies? Plague? No, just virulent prions. And the only way to potentially save humanity is such a horrifying bummer — especially to a libertarian — that it’s harder to leave the story than some. It also opens the possibility of a novel-length story about what happens after. Even if it’s not feasible. Decent story, with only so-so, thriller-type writing.
“Enlightenment” by Matthew Mather: Fuck you, Matthew Mather. Is this story about eating disorders, sustainability, collapse of society? Is it an indictment of sacrificial religions, self-harm, or meat-eating? I don’t know, but fuck you, the only thing I have had close to meat since reading it is tuna salad. Autocannibalism cults: officially the worst way for us all to go out. The writing is okay, then excessive. Because come on. Come on, dude.
“Shooting the Apocalypse” by Paolo Bacigalupi: Decent story of a photojournalist roaming the Southwest, in a world where all of dehydrating Texas is desperate to cross the border back into the United States. Journalists in the bad future thing could be fun, but this feels like a chunk of a novel in the more unfinished way. I wouldn’t mind more of it, though.
“Love Perverts” by Sarah Langan: An asteroid is coming to hit earth, and a very messed up teen is trying to save himself and his equally messed up friend — or, more to the point, save his baby sister from his creep, abandoning parents who have left their blue collar horror town with her in tow. Ugly, but well-written, it might be my post-“Enlightenment” uneasiness that made me not appreciate the story as much. The final lines are fitting to end the compilation, but I almost wish it had ended on “She’s Got a Ticket to Ride.”
Conclusion: Not enough aliens, but more than worth the $4.99 I paid. No story was a complete waste of time (just dinner), and each had impressive world-building, and a palpable, lingering feeling of the decay, exhaustion, and ruin of those worlds.