After The End: Recent Apocalypses book review

I’m a little too busy with other projects to post anything new, so here’s yet another recent book review I wrote for the British Science Fiction Association magazine, VECTOR.

Paula Guran (editor) – After the End: Recent Apocalypses

Prime Books, 2013

Paperback, 384pp

$15.95 (from publishers’s website

ISBN 9781607013907

Can you name another genre as destructive in its imaginings as science fiction?  Horror might be nastier, war might be bloodier and religious texts have more WTF, but for sheer megalomania and monomania science fiction has this category all sewn up.  Sure, you might say, as a genre SF aims higher, so has further to fall when things go awry; but doesn’t there seem to be a glut of schadenfreude inherent in our favourite genre?

After the End: Recent ApocalypsesAfter The End has 20 examples of the end of the world, all written over the last five years – meaning, no purple clouds or ravening rays here, I’m afraid.  What it does offer is a fascinating peek into our more recent neuroses.

The world destroyed by environmental collapse, economic collapse, plague, the tragedy of the commons – even old-fashioned nuclear war makes an appearance.  But the method is secondary in these tales.  It’s the aftermath that we’re interested in: who’s survived?  What remains?  Where is there left to go?

The answers to these questions are remarkably varied.

My own favourite, ‘Pump Six’ by Paolo Bacigalupi, is a Brunner-esque tale of humanity’s inability to recognise its own descent into stupidity, mollycoddled by a slowly failing infrastructure that it can no longer maintain.  Bacigalupi’s protagonist’s struggles in vain to shore up a failing near-future world, one clearly based on our own short-sighted, hyper-sexualised and media-saturated times.

Lauren Beukes’ short, sharp satirical shock ‘Chislehurst Messiah’ tickled me mainly because I live near Chislehurst and know it well.  Is it a sly dig at the middle-class heroes of John Wyndham’s ‘cosy catastrophes’ from the 1950s?  Beukes’ own self-obsessed ‘messiah’, adrift in a collapsing corner of suburban London, offers a juicy hit of schadenfreude for even the least class-conscious among us.

Simon Morden’s ‘Never, Never, Three Times Never’ follows a blind man and a woman in a wheelchair struggling to reach the supposed safety of London together.  It drifts perilously close to schmaltz, but is well-written and brief enough to avoid those particular rocks, reaching a conclusion that couldn’t be more life-affirming if it was narrated by Morgan Freeman.

Far more disturbing and pessimistic is Margo Lanagan’s ‘The Fifth Star In The Southern Cross,’ a murky downbeat tale of genetic decay and disintegration brought about by, I think, humanity interbreeding with aliens.  The story’s narrator is almost as unpleasant as the future he lives in.  His genes may be pristine, but if he’s the saviour of the future then you might almost prefer the alternative.

Fortunately, there are brighter visions on offer, such as Carrie Vaughn’s ‘Amaryllis’, reminiscent of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, and Kage Baker’s homely tale of travelling folk, ‘The Books’.  In fact, speaking as a long-time avid consumer of doomsday tales, it was something of a surprise to discover that stories of the apocalypse needn’t be awful and sobering to be readable.  In this collection it was the quieter tales, those in which the best of humanity shines through after the worst has taken its toll, that mostly stayed with me after reading.


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