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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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The Light Shines in a Trenchcoat

Reading 150I’ve recently come to appreciate the singular pleasure of a good detective story. I’ve been on a bit of a run with them of late, and I think it started with the broken-down post-millennial duo of True Detective‘s Hart and Cohle. It took Nic Pizzolatto’s spitshine of the detective story to really get me to sink my teeth into it, to understand the very interesting places it could take you. Since then I’ve been reading them in various genre mash-ups almost exclusively.

First stop: Harry Dresden and the modern-fantastic world of the Dresden Files. I’m mostly familiar with the setting through the excellent RPG, but I read the first book (Storm Front) and found it pretty OK. The second — Fool Moon — features the wizard Harry battling a host of different werewolf factions, each with their different abilities and goals. I’m a sucker for modern fantasy and especially werewolves, so this story was right up my alley. It’s also a notable improvement on the first novel in the series, so I’m excited to get to the rest of them. There are fifteen(!!) volumes so far; I have a lot of catching up to do.

After that I read two books in the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters. The first book is about a New Hampshire detective named Hank Palace solving a murder set up to look like a suicide, six months before an asteroid plows into the planet — likely destroying all life on Earth. The second, Countdown City, picks up a mere two and a half months from impact. Winters takes great pains to imagine what America would look like when civilization has essentially laid down to die; individuals abandon their lot in life to do the things they’ve always wanted and society grinds to a halt. People who stick to their posts are suddenly the crazy ones, so Detective Palace cuts a really unusual figure in the world of the novel. He’s fascinating, and the book tackles head-on one of the things that most fascinates me about pre-apocalyptic literature — the way people behave when the pretense of civilization is stripped away completely.

In many ways, the pulp-novel detective is a lone figure of morality standing out in the background of a complicated and semi-lawless world. In almost all of the detective stories I’ve read so far (admittedly, a small sample size), the protagonist is of a type: tall but not physically threatening, with a single-minded focus on solving the case, an eye towards clothes or accessories that have deep personal symbolism for them and a knack for getting the crap kicked out of them. Before the current run of detective stories I read (and reviewed) Forests of the Night by S.A. Swann, another sci-fi detective story featuring an eight-foot-tall anthropomorphic tiger named Nohar Rajasthan. Harry, Hank and Nohar are thematic brothers of a sort, all idealists with a pragmatic view of the world.

I have a massive soft spot for characters who give themselves over to an ideal, even though they’re painfully aware of their limitations. None of these guys are the paragon of law and order, but they believe in the ideals of justice, fair play and morality. The fantastic backdrops of their settings make the world that much more wild and dangerous, but they stick it out just the same. Morality is different when you’re sharing the world with a host of species who are, in effect, alien. How do you tell a vampire that killing is wrong, especially when it probably looks at human beings the way we look at cattle? How do you deal with the Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario of a werewolf, where a sentient being really isn’t in control of themselves in certain situations? Do you still punish a good man just because he turns into a monster under circumstances not under his control?

The Last Policemen trilogy takes this devotion to law and order to an existential extreme. Everyone knows that there is an end date to our civilization, so what’s the point of keeping it going until then? The idea shows us just how fragile the agreements we make for one another are, and the value of keeping them anyway. There was a really striking passage in Countdown City that perfectly encapsulates this:

Because a promise is a promise…and civilization is just a bunch of promises, that’s all it is. A mortgage, a wedding vow, a promise to obey the law, a pledge to enforce it. And now the world is falling apart, the whole rickety world, and every broken promise is a small rock tossed at the wooden side of its tumbling form.

The detectives in these stories have made promises to help people however they can, and they will not let themselves off the hook on that. Even if they get it wrong, even if they put themselves in physical danger, even if helping people puts them at cross-purposes with the law at times. In many ways, these guys are superheroes without the “super”; all they have is the rugged determination that they have to do the right thing because if they don’t, who will?

There’s something tremendously engaging about that to me; the deeply-flawed man, shoring up the doubts and weaknesses in his mind with the symbols of moral authority he feels attached to, fighting his own character as well as the darker forces in the world to serve this ideal that may never be attained. It’s so hard to engage with the world that flies so consistently in the face of that ideal; it’s one of the reasons why fundamentalists create echo chambers for themselves. But here is our noble detective, well aware of the weakness and wickedness of men, striving to be something more while accepting the world just as it is.

I’ll be moving away from detective novels for a little while — the third book in the Liveship Traders trilogy has been calling my name for some time now — but it’s nice to know that Harry and Hank (and even Nohan) have new tests waiting for them in future books. I’ll be cheering them on again soon.

 

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