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Book Review: The End is Nigh

Reading 150The End is Nigh (The Apocalypse Triptych, Book 1)
Edited by John Joseph Adams and Hugh Howey
Self-Published

My love of all things apocalyptic doesn’t know many bounds; chances are, if there’s the whiff of the end of days surrounding a project, I’ll at least have to give it a look. This has lead me astray in a few cases, especially once we got more and more apocalyptic projects off the ground (I’m looking at you, Revolution), but generally there’s always something worthwhile in apocalyptic work. Either we’re looking at the breakdown of society, revealing our relationship with it through that deconstruction; or we’re uncovering something surprising about us as people as traits emerge free from the binding of societal expectation. Really great apocalyptic fiction strips down complications to get to something fundamental, essential; they tell us what lies underneath all of us when you clear away everything that puts us into the positions we’re in.

When I heard about the Apocalypse Triptych, I was really excited. Not only do we get a great set of stories about a host of different apocalyptic scenarios, but we get a bunch of authors taking the scenario three each phase of the end: the tipping point where a problem spirals out of control; the point where civilization loses its fight against this threat; and what happens afterward, when the dust has settled and the survivors look out over an unrecognizable world. The triptych collection contains a collection of triptych stories, which I certainly haven’t seen done before.

The End is Nigh is the first collection in the series, focusing on the discovery of the threat to civilization. The threats range from the relatively common, like the impending asteroid in Jake Kerr’s “Wedding Day” or the disease apocalypse of “Removal Order” by Tananarive Due, to the truly weird — like the mass suicide depicted in “BRING HER TO ME” by Ben H. Winters or the slow but steady removal of our atmosphere in “Houses Without Air” by Megan Arkenberg. But whatever the cause of our demise, each of the 22 stories brings something new to the end. None of the stories ever feel like a retread of something we’ve seen before, even when dealing with well-worn tropes in the apocalyptic sub-genre.

Take “Wedding Day” for example. Kerr centers the tale around a couple who want nothing more than to get married before the asteroid hits, even though it might mean one person might have to give up her ticket to have a fighting chance in a shelter. The already-engrossing story edges towards the political, as the couple in question are lesbians who are caught in a sort of legal twilight that never had time to get sorted. It’s heartbreaking to see these two stuck where they are, all forward momentum stopped by society crumbling around them. Had they been married, one ticket would have saved both of them or some other arrangement could have been made. As it stands, the nature of their relationship makes things exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

In the bio-apocalypse of “Removal Order,” Due’s protagonist is a young black girl who’s trying to take care of her cancer-stricken grandmother as the medical system falters under the strain of an epidemic ravaging the neighborhood. So often we see these apocalypses through the eyes of people in positions of power who are either able to fight the inevitable or connected enough to escape it. Due’s tale reminds us of all the people who are screaming and dying in the background, those who don’t necessarily have a chance. It’s fascinating to see the familiar landscape of medical disintegration through those eyes.

The diversity of the protagonists aren’t all outright political; in “Spores” by Seanan MacGuire, the same-sex relationship is treated as normal, almost incidental, and the focus is instead on our hero’s struggle to deal with her obsessive-compulsive disorder during the first bloom of a killer that will quickly spiral out of control. Ken Liu’s “The Gods Will Not Be Chained” features an Asian family struggling to deal with the death of their father, and “Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Desirina Boskovich sees the end through the eyes of a woman in a place of power over others, but still helpless in the face of what’s coming.

Even zombies get an intriguing twist. In “Agent Unknown” by David Wellington, a member of the CDC tracks down the spread of an illness that seems to make its victims hyper-violent, mindless killers. The answer to the riddle is effectively chilling, and sets the table for the inevitability of the fall of mankind. Almost every story here is a winner, particularly if you’re read a lot of apocalyptic fiction; either the cause of the end is scene through eyes that make it new again, or the mechanism for the destruction is so strange you have to wonder how they were even thought of.

The result is a collection of stories that are consistently surprising, engaging and tense. Some of them are clearly setting up for a continuation of the story in later volumes, so they don’t so much end as stop — “The Fifth Day of Deer Camp” in particular feels like an incomplete story, while “BRING HER TO ME” ends in a place that makes you impatient to continue the tale. “Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders is strange and full of energy, but by the time the story ends you’re left wondering if it even counts as pre-apocalyptic at all. These are all definitely worth reading, but it’s clear the structure has suffered in the attempt to break up the tale into three distinct parts.

Even still, the creativity on display in The End is Nigh is well worth the price of admission; I’m really looking forward to seeing how these stories continue and discussing the best, most frightening scenarios with people. If you’re looking for a mix of end-of-the-world stories that are challenging, involving and decidedly left-of-center, then this is the collection for you.

Interested in buying The End is Nigh? Go to the homepage for John Joseph Adams to get it in trade paperback or a variety of e-book formats!

 
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Posted by on October 1, 2014 in Novels, Reading, Reviews

 

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Thursday Prompt: The Future

Writing 150(Author’s Note: This little bit of fiction doesn’t really fit within any of the worlds that I regularly write about, but I have to admit that the main character feels an awful lot like Robert, the main character for Bird. I wanted to capture a sense of frustrated pessimism, but built on a pragmatic basis. I also wanted this to work mostly through dialogue and ‘stage direction’ as it were, but as it’s told from a first-person perspective there’s a little bit of ‘telling’ that shines through.)

“What do you suppose our future is going to look like?” Sarah was lying next to me in our backyard, looking up at the stars. They were much easier to see now that the electricity had gone out.

I sighed and tried not to look at the one star, bigger than the others, twinkling with erratic, angry life. I didn’t want to play this game with her, not now. “I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me?”

She turned, and I could feel her looking at me. “I think it’ll be better than what we have now. Not right away, but eventually. We’ll build new farms and towns, and we’ll go into the cities only to salvage stuff we need.”

I nodded, and couldn’t stop myself from saying: “Where you’ll have to wade through the bones of the dead and can’t do anything about the infections you’ll get, because there’ll be no medicine.” I kept staring up. My eyes kept getting drawn to that star. It was the brightest thing in the sky now, maybe half the size of the moon.

She was quiet after that, for about a minute. I could feel her frowning at me, too. After a while she spoke. “I really wish you wouldn’t do that. You don’t have to ruin everything.”

“I’m not ruining everything. That is.” I pointed to the asteroid, now, forced myself to look at it. She did, too. I heard her gasp slightly and immediately regretted it. Then I felt angry at her for making me feel bad. “I’m just reminding you what’s going to happen.”

“I already know what’s going to happen.” She turned away, then. Away from me, away from the stars. She was staring at Rodney’s doghouse now, I knew. I tried not to think about how he disappeared a week ago, or wonder where he was. People were getting hungry these days. They were trying to stockpile. They were well past the point of being picky.

“No you don’t. You have this pie-in-the-sky idea of what’s going to happen, but you don’t know what’s really going to happen. That thing is going to smash into the planet, Sarah. And when it does, that’s it. The end. Done. You might think that you can climb out of whatever shelter your family has and just start over, but it’s not going to be that easy. It’s going to be months before anybody even sees the sun again. If you survive — and that’s a pretty big if — you’re going to come out to a world that’s died. Completely. All the plants, all the animals. Just gone. You won’t go into the city to salvage anything, because the cities will have melted. The ash will have choked the oceans. The earth will have been scorched away. You can’t grow anything. You can’t build anything. All you can do is eat what you’ve got until it’s gone, and then you’re going to starve to death. That’s what the future is going to look like. And I sure as fuck don’t want to see it.”

There was a voice in my head telling me to stop. I think I heard her gasp, then whimper, then start to cry. But I kept going. I heard my voice getting higher and shriller, carrying through the quiet of the neighborhood, my panic exciting a dog whose family had left him days ago. He barked four times before he went quiet again. He didn’t have much fight left in him.

But neither did I. Our family had decided not to survive what was coming. We knew better. If we made it through the impact, we were not equipped in mind or body to handle what would come afterwards. What kind of life would that be? Sarah, sweet and naive, always tried to make things into a fairy tale no matter how bad they were. I think she understood that things would be scary for a little while, but thought it would get better really soon. I knew better. There was no getting better from this. The sooner she understood that, the better off she would be. There would be no more fairy tales. The asteroid would scorch all of that away.

“I don’t want to die,” she said through her tears. Her voice sounded small, afraid. The way it should be.

I turned to her and held her, scooting closer to her warmth. This would be the last time I’d get to do this, I told myself, and I started to cry too.

“I know you don’t,” I said. I kissed her hair, put my arms around her. “But if that thing does what we’re pretty sure it’s going to do, I don’t want to live through that.”

She cried harder, and so did I. I held her and she backed up against me. What else could we do? Far above us, but getting closer all the time, the asteroid brightened the night sky in its unnatural, malevolent way.

 
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Posted by on February 8, 2013 in Thursday Prompt, Writing

 

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Movie Review: Melancholia

Entertainment 150Melancholia (2011)
Starring Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsborough and Kiefer Sutherland
Written and Directed by Lars von Trier

Lars von Trier is one of those directors with a distinct, uncompromising vision. You get the feeling when you see one of his movies that every shot is exactly the way he wanted it to look, and every word is what he wanted you to hear. He is a director with an intimate knowledge of storytelling through movies, and every film he makes is essentially a direct communication from the artist to his audience. He aims to be obtuse, as clearly as possible.

This makes a lot of his movies simultaneously fascinating and impossible. I think critics love him because he uses movies to push people, to confront them with ideas about the world that make them uncomfortable. It’s rare that someone can pull a fast one on audience these days; we love to pick things apart, and love or hate it we typically know exactly what a director is trying to do. With von Trier, even though you can guess the through-line of any movie he leaves big enough gaps that make you question what he means by certain things.

With Melancholia, the entire opening sequence presents itself as a puzzle of surrealist images that you’re not quite sure about even after the movie is over. What’s the deal with the 19th hole? Why do we see the same characters in vastly different places, doing wildly different things? How far does the metaphor go — all the way to the immense blue planet that’s causing birds to drop from the sky, two shadows to fall on the ground, electricity to rise into the air? How much of this stuff matters to understanding the rest of the movie? Even after stewing on it a few days, it’s hard to tell.

As near as I can figure, though, Melancholia is a movie about two different sisters dealing with two different disasters. In the first part, Justine (Dunst) looks to be a happy newlywed with an incredibly blessed life. She just married Eric Northman from True Blood, she was promoted to Art Director at the advertising firm she works in, and her wedding reception is an incredibly high-end affair at her brother-in-law’s (Sutherland) golf course and resort.

As the night goes on, however, things are systematically deconstructed to reveal the horrible truth underneath. Justine suffers from crippling depression that makes her unable to function with those closest to her on what should be her happiest day. Her boss is a controlling tyrant who hires his nephew on the condition that he hounds Justine for the tagline of a new campaign throughout the night. If he doesn’t get it, he’s fired. Her brother-in-law doesn’t think much of Justine or her squabbling, eccentric parents — he’s only interested in making sure she knows how much money he’s spent on this affair and how ridiculous she’s being.

And to be fair, Justine is fairly ridiculous. She frequently slips away from the reception at inopportune moments to be alone, making the tightly-scheduled affair run off track. Her harried sister and doting husband do everything they can think of to make her happy, and she gives them only the mask of gratitude in return. She pisses on her brother-in-law’s golf course and cheats on her husband with the assistant hired specifically to harass her. By the time the sun rises on the uncomfortably dark night, she’s ruined everything that’s been given to her — her job, her fledgling marriage, her relationship with her family. Justine is one of the most unlikable main characters I’ve seen in a long time, but I can’t help but feel a deep sympathy for her.

Why? Because I identify with that level of depression. When you’re in a hole that deep, you go a little crazy — even if you realize what you’re doing you feel unable to stop yourself. Your sense of perspective breaks down, and you stop thinking about long-term consequences, or how other people might feel. The only thing that matters is easing the pain as much as possible so you can make it to the next moment. It doesn’t matter how destructive an act you’re perpetrating; if it eases your suffering, then it’s fair game. In some ways, it’s better if what you do makes a mess of things. Crazy, broken people don’t deserve nice things and the pressures that come with them. In some ways, having nothing means being burdened by nothing, and laying down your burdens is the only thing worth doing in a deep depression.

In the second part, Claire is preparing for the arrival of Justine at the bottom of her spiral and the rogue planet Melancholia, also reaching the end of its journey. According to the scientists, the planet should fly by Earth in a few days, stealing some of its atmosphere but doing no lasting harm. Claire’s husband John is annoyed by her fears about Melancholia and Justine’s melancholy, and he spends most of the time being curt with both of them. Of course, it turns out that the planet is going to hit Earth after all, and Justine, Claire and John must deal with the reality that the world will end.

Here is the tragedy of the movie. John responds in the most despicable and cowardly way possible, and his reaction is hardly worth mentioning here. I can definitely sympathize with his impulse — his actions inspired a fairly long conversation between Ryan and I — but the way he does it makes it one of the most selfish things I’ve ever seen. It leaves Claire completely alone to face the horror of what’s coming, along with her young son.

Justine responds to the news with a calm, fatalistic detachment. Claire must deal with what’s happening completely alone, while struggling with how to handle the news with her son. Justine is of no help; when Claire asks that they do something “nice” for the end to distract themselves away from it, her sister mocks her and calls her plan a “piece of shit”.

With the end coming, we see Justine and Claire grow increasingly isolated. Justine has retreated away from the world and into her depression a long time ago; the absolute end of everything just represents the ultimate laying down of her burdens. Claire can’t reach out to anyone, and with no outlet for her pain and bewilderment she simply falls apart. It’s an awful thing to watch, but it also illustrates the true price of depression.

I don’t mean to say that depressed people suck and inconvenience the lives of the people around them. That would be a horrible thing to say and simply add to the feeling of unbearable burden that depressed people must carry with them. But I do think that depression is a condition that takes you away from the world and puts you in a hell of your own making. At its worst, it forces you to withdraw inward so deeply that your view of the world is incredibly warped. Everything loops back to the pain you feel, and you begin to grow so sensitive to it that you shut down to avoid it.

It’s an awful feeling. During a scene where Claire has to physically drag Justine into the bathroom to wash her, my heart broke for both of them. I can empathize with what Justine is going through in that moment; just the motion of taking a step or lifting your leg might cause something to break within you that you just can’t handle. But I also feel terrible for Claire; she’s devoting so much time and energy to a person who is incapable of appreciating it, or of helping herself. It’s a thankless and difficult job, and no one recognizes the work she’s doing or the sacrifices she’s made.

By the end of the movie, Justine, Claire and her son on a hill as the planet approaches. They hold hands as the sky is filled with intense blue light and the wind begins to roar around them. But the final image is something that I’ll never forget — Justine, serene in her withdrawal, closes her eyes and accepts her fate. She’s completely oblivious to her sister’s suffering; Claire is rocking back and forth, her eyes squeezed shut and her hands over her ears when the blast wave hits. She had to bear the terror of her last moments alone, even though she was surrounded by family.

Even though Justine is presumably the main character, I feel like the movie is really Claire’s. And my reaction to the movie is entirely personal, drawn by my own experiences. I think back to all of the people who’ve tried to drag me from my worst depressions, the people who sacrificed time and effort to bring me up. I think about all of the people that I’ve disappointed, hurt and abandoned because my depression had made me too self-focused to see what I was doing. All of them become Claire, wild with need and suffering, closing their eyes in pure terror. It’s a terrible thing to know that there are so many people who love so freely and are ignored and unappreciated.

I know I’m not Justine, but I’ve been Justine. And Melancholia paints an uncompromising portrait of what depression looks like to other people, what it does to the people who suffer it and the people around them. It makes me feel a deep sympathy for everyone stuck in that situation. And it makes me glad that it’s over.

Rating: 8/10.

 

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