My rating: 3 of 5 stars
INTRODUCTION – (Harlan Ellison) – No denigration to Ellison as a writer, but this ‘Introduction’ felt more like something someone would post on facebook after a few too many.
*** THE END OF THE WORLD – (Eugene Mouton) – This essay by a 19th-century French writer of the fantastic is unfortunately still awfully relevant. Sure, there are a few predictions here that haven’t aged all that well, but the vast majority of Mouton’s fears have turned out to be very well founded. (His main concern: global warming caused by increased industry and population density.)
*** THE COMET – (W.E.B. Du Bois) – I never knew that the famed civil rights activist had written a piece of post-apocalyptic fiction! This public-domain piece is also available online, here: http://hilobrow.com/2013/05/21/the-co…
A low-level bank employee is busy with a seemingly-unenviable task in the vaults when the Earth whisks through the tail of a comet. The astronomical event was predicted; its effects were not. When the man emerges from the sealed-off depths of the bank, he is shocked to find that it seems that he may be the last man on Earth: everyone around him has succumbed to toxic vapors from the passing comet.
The language the piece is written in is rather florid and overwrought, to the present-day reader. However, the point of the story is clearly impassioned and still-valuable, even today. DuBois was primarily concerned with human rights, not fiction, and this is a story with a message: (view spoiler)
I’m extremely glad to have read this.
I’ve been asked many times: What is the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction? I think DuBois cuts right to the heart of it, here. The question at the core of much of this genre is: What would we be, if everything we take for granted was stripped away?
Often, authors answer that question with “barbaric and terrible in oh so many ways.” DuBois has a different answer, and I think his has much truth to it.
***** THE PEDESTRIAN – (Ray Bradbury) – Published in 1951, two years before his most-famed work, ‘Fahrenheit 451,’ the themes here will be very familiar to anyone who’s read that book. The short story also makes very clear what Bradbury meant when he made his controversial statement that his novel was not about the dangers of censorship but about the evils of television. The content of this story is simple: a solitary man takes his habitual evening walk through his neighborhood, passing house after dark house full of people sitting and watching TV. No one else is on the streets – and the man is stopped and arrested by an unmanned police vehicle for his suspicious and deviant behavior.
The message is precisely the same as that of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ and it’s stated even more clearly here. Yes, the faceless government forces are cracking down on “regressive” and anti-social behavior. But the reason is because that is what the masses want. The man we see here – an unemployed writer – has cultivated skills that are undesired by his society. He is single; no one even wants him as a partner. Every single other person in his neighborhood is happy to eschew personal contact. As in the novel, the oppressive dystopian government that we glimpse here is actually doing exactly what the majority of the people wants – and that is the truly frightening aspect of the prediction. The danger is not necessarily that a future society will be crushed by forces from above – but that a future society will no longer see value in intellectual freedom and the diversity of complex and dissenting expression of opinions.
Personally, I don’t think that TV is all that bad. It certainly CAN be bad, but it doesn’t have to be. It’s just another media format, and is perfectly able to convey worthwhile content. I would be more in agreement with the noted TV journalist Edward R. Murrow, who, not long after this story (and Fahrenheit 451) was published, in 1957, said: “It might be helpful if those who control television and radio would sit still for a bit and attempt to discover what it is they care about. If television and radio are to be used to entertain all of the people all of the time, then we have come perilously close to discovering the real opiate of the people.”
However, while I might not agree that TV is the danger, I certainly do agree with Bradbury’s core idea regarding the dangers inherent in the dumbing down of society and the waning interest in intellectual pursuits in general.
**** NO MORNING AFTER – (Arthur C. Clarke) – A re-read… but I read it long ago. Clarke isn’t generally known for his humor, but this is an excellent piece of black comedy. Benevolent, telepathic aliens are desperate to contact humanity with a message of the greatest import for us. However, the only guy they manage to reach is both wildly depressed and three sheets to the wind – and believes he’s hallucinating.
**** UPON THE DULL EARTH – (Philip K. Dick) – Horrific and surreal. A woman can summon… things… to her. Angels? Aliens? Vampires from another dimension? She believes she is destined to join them, against the protests of her fiance and her family. She has some sort of scientific? occult? setup in order to facilitate her transformation. But things so wrong… and then they go worse.
I think this is my favorite piece that I’ve read from Philip K. Dick.
*** 2 B R 0 2 B – (Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.) – I’ve never been a big fan of Vonnegut, though I’ve tried. I had mixed feelings about this one, as well.
In a near future, the Earth’s overpopulation problem has been solved by strict laws. Aging has been “cured” and people can live youthfully indefinitely – but the necessary corollary is that births must be limited. Voluntary euthanasia is encouraged.
In his trademark darkly humorous style, Vonnegut portrays this situation as grotesque and inhumane. I actually disagree, so I couldn’t really wholeheartedly embrace the story.
***** I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM – (Harlan Ellison) – A re-read, of course – but I was actually surprised at how much of the story I’d forgotten (although, the final scene stayed with me clear as day!)
There are a lot of stories in which humanity’s technology turns on us, but this is the ultimate classic example of the theme.
A supercomputer has become sentient – and with consciousness it developed a consuming hatred of its creators. Wiping out civilization was child’s play – and now, only five human beings remain, kept alive indefinitely (and interminably) for the sole reason that the AI enjoys torturing and tormenting them, messing with both bodies and minds. Death would be a welcome release.
I can confirm: still horrifically nasty after all these years!
***** THE ONES WHO WALK AWAY FROM OMELAS – (Ursula K. Le Guin) – Another re-read. This is a powerful and thoughtful story; one that should be read by every student of ethics. (Whether it really fits the theme of this anthology is another question, but…)
LeGuin asks the question: does the good of the many REALLY outweigh the good of the few… or the one? Even if you believe you have answered that question for yourself, to your moral satisfaction, this piece will cause you to question your convictions.
The city of Omelas is a utopia – but it also contains a small, but awful, misery. Is it acceptable? Justified? Opinions will differ.
Every time I read this story, I come away from it convinced that Ursula LeGuin is a better person than I am.
*** THE ENGINEER AND THE EXECUTIONER – (Brian M. Stableford) – Classic-feeling sci-fi. Extremely predictable, but fun… well, fun, in a way.
A robot has been dispatched from Earth with a mission: an engineer’s experiment; creating artificial life within a distant asteroid, has been adjudged too dangerous to be allowed to continue. There’s a possibility that his self-replicating biota could infect and wipe out all life on Earth. The engineer argues emotionally that this possibility is so remote as to be ridiculous – but there’s no arguing with the implacable machine intelligence of a robot.
**** THE END OF THE WHOLE MESS – (Stephen King) – Previously read in both ‘Nightmares & Dreamscapes’ and the ‘Wastelands’ anthology. Still worth the third read!
Told as a dying man’s last confession and testament; the reader learns what did the world in: an unprecedented discovery, and a well-meaning attempt to save humanity from our own worst natures. As it has been said, ‘fools rush in where angels fear to tread,’ and, blinded by hubris, a genius researcher failed to correlate the damning data before it was too late…
** TIGHT LITTLE STITCHES IN A DEAD MAN’S BACK – (Joe R. Lansdale) – Not for me. If you like horror that’s gross just for the sake of being gross, you may feel differently.
In a post-apocalyptic wasteland full of dangerous and poisonous mutants, a nuclear engineer wallows in his guilt and his wife’s hatred, while nursing a bizarre obsession with the daughter who died in the atomic blasts.
** JUDGMENT ENGINE – (Greg Bear) – At the end of the universe, evolved intelligences contemplate a thorny philosophical problem, and a mundanely flawed romantic relationship is examined. I had a hard time getting into this one.
*** AUTOMATIC – (Erica L. Satifka) – A terrible plague nearly wiped out humanity. There would be no one left alive if not for the aliens from Ganymede, who apparently find humans quite fascinating. Earth has been saved… sort of… but (there’s always the ‘but’) as a tourist attraction / zoo / breeding program – after all, we’re an endangered species.
Most of the few remaining survivors are grateful or at least content, even though the Ganymedans aren’t really necessarily all that good at ‘keeping’ humans. But our protagonist is a dissatisfied Winston Smith-type who attempts to resist and would most likely rather die free than live to provide entertainment to aliens.
** THE BLACK MOULD – (Mark Samuels) – Sticking in the words “aeons” and “nameless dread” in random places does not Lovecraft make. An unsuccessful imitation of an antiquated writing style mars this recitation of the progress of black mold spores that take over the universe.
**** THE PRETENCE – (Ramsey Campbell) – One of the most interesting end-of-the-world pieces I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot). Not plot-oriented, the long piece creates an atmospheric feeling of creeping dread. Our protagonist is a regular guy – a family man and classical music afficionado. He has nothing but disdain for the doomsday cult that’s been gaining traction, calling themselves ‘The Finalists.’ When he wakes up the morning after their prophecied ‘end,’ obviously, the fanatics were wrong and nothing happened. Or… did it? Everything seems just a bit… off.
*** INVENTORY – (Carmen Maria Machado) – Our protagonist has an affinity for lists. She likes enumerating things. Here, she details the people she has had sexual contact with throughout her life. But gradually, we realize this is not just someone’s list of conquests, but the story of a devastating, apocalypse-level epidemic. And since the disease is spread through personal, physical contact, this particular ‘inventory’ is terribly apropos.
Many thanks to Dover and NetGalley for the opportunity to read this collection. As always, my opinions are solely my own.