The End is Nigh, ed. John Joseph Adams & Hugh Howey

Reviewed by John Sulyok

The End Is Nigh is the first in a series of three anthologies—with The End Is Now and The End Has Come—called The Apocalypse Triptych. The stories herein mostly deal with an imminent apocalypse or with far-off disasters still in their infancy. The 21 stories within the collection are written by some of today’s best and most critically acclaimed SF writers. And for the most part, these stories are written by a sharp hand, though a few lack the focus of their neighbors.

One issue that plagues a number of these stories is the unwillingness by the author to make a choice for a finale. These stories end with something analogous to an ellipsis, leaving the reader to fill in the blanks. But it shouldn’t be on the part of the reader to write an ending. That being said, this is an issue that only applies to a few of the stories.

For the most part, The End Is Nigh is high-class SF, rarely falling into stereotype or cliché, and well worth picking up. Don’t be surprised to see some of these stories nominated at year’s end.

“The Balm and the Wound” by Robin Wasserman

Abraham Walsh—his current alias—is a modern-day snake-oil salesman. His oil of choice, or rather the oil his customers want to buy, is salvation through the word of God. His flock are The Children of Abraham and consist of about forty families looking for the kind of leadership that will save them from Judgment Day. Of course, it’s Abraham himself who tells them when Judgment Day will come—a date chosen at random. Which either means he got lucky or there is something greater at work, because Abraham Walsh was right.

Abraham’s actions in “The Balm and the Wound” ask the question: Can someone do the right thing for the wrong reason? The answer, however, goes undiscovered. The more pertinent question is whether there is value in lies that comfort and reassure when the truth is painful and depressing. This is the crux of the story, but it is only discussed in passing. The remainder of the story is centred on Abraham and the son he didn’t know he had. His son is detached from reality and buys into everything Abraham tells him, making for a bland character that maybe isn’t as creepy as he was intended to be. Overall, the story only glosses over its themes and never manages to say anything about them.

“Heaven is a Place on Planet X” by Desirina Boskovich

The Earth has an appointment for destruction: May 1, 5 p.m. eastern standard time. That’s what the aliens told us, the aliens who have laser cannons pointed at us. But don’t worry, they say, we’ll all wake up on Planet Xyrxiconia in new bodies. It’ll be heavenly. In the meantime, while we wait, we should go about our business as usual…or else an enforcer—one person in a thousand chosen for the service—would use their standard-issue ray gun, or “mister,” to obliterate you. So no tomfoolery, no last-minute trips or adventures, absolutely nothing spontaneous or out of character. Only the obedient can make it to Planet X.

Desirina Boskovich pulls the rug out from under the standard pre-apocalypse trope of living for the moment. It’s refreshing to see another take to this setup getting some attention and being handled in a fun, but intriguing way. If the story suffers at all, it’s that there is too much hand-holding for the reader. One question that should come up in the mind of the reader is about taking information at face value without questioning it, and if the story would have left it to the reader to discover that on their own it would have been a more rewarding experience than it is with the protagonist having the same thoughts. It’s a good story, but it could have used a little more mystique.

“Break! Break! Break!” by Charlie Jane Anders

What’s a gangly kid with poor social skills and a pratfall expert’s sense of bodily control to do to get by in this crazy world? Befriend the girl who threw a brick at your head and film videos of other things falling on you and you falling on other things, of course. And in “Break! Break! Break!” that’s pretty much all that happens for 25 pages.

Yes, there is mention of a drug cartel called the Pan-Asiatic Ecumen, an approximation to a tweet called a Yangar, something known as Zap!mation, and hints at some sort of uprising—a bare-boned attempt to set the story in the near future—but the story has little to do with genre fiction or good storytelling, for that matter. It’s a chore to get through and should be in contention for worst reading experience of 2014.

“The Gods Will Not Be Chained” by Ken Liu

Maddie’s having a hard time at her new school. The popular girls are giving her trouble for no reason that she can see. It’s been tough for Maddie, having to move and start over because her dad died. She tries to be brave and show that she’s not bothered. One night everything changes when she gets an instant message spoken only in emoji—emoticons. Her dad was a computer programmer and taught her all sorts of stuff. So when she tries to trace the message, it flusters her because it doesn’t have an ID. When her mom tries to figure out who is messaging her daughter, her mom is more than flustered, because the sender couldn’t possibly be the sender. He’s supposed to be dead.

This initial lead-in is quickly resolved, the other girls begin to leave her alone. The larger story then unfolds, but as good as Ken Liu’s writing is on a line-by-line basis, the plot is predictable to the point that the reader will know what dialogue is coming and what events it will lead to. Moreover, there is no point of tension in the story at all, and it’s only at the very end that we’re told anything about an impending disaster. Ken Liu has and will produce better work than this.

“Wedding Day” by Jake Kerr

Venice? The hills of Kilimanjaro? There’s really only one place Em and Lynn want to get married—their home state of Texas. But for the last ten years that hasn’t even been an option for them. Now, however, with an asteroid heading for Earth, old opinions on what marriage should be are no longer relevant. For Em and Lynn, that’s the only silver lining to the “Near Extinction Event.” But when it’s determined that the impact will be in South Dakota, their first concern has to be to survive, though they are at the mercy of the world’s best efforts at evacuation.

Em and Lynn feel like real people. The disaster feels like it really is looming. There is genuine empathy felt for these characters and the world at large. Jake Kerr has written one of those few stories that can get a reader’s heart rate up in anticipation. It’s worth the cost of admission for this story alone.

“Removal Order” by Tananarive Due

Nayima takes care of her Gram. Gram is dying of cancer. It’s difficult for both of them. Gram’s sores cause her pain, and cause Nayima the discomfort of inhaling their rot as she cleans the wounds. Even the perpetual scent of burning forest isn’t enough to mask the odor of looming death. But Nayima struggles on. At least they haven’t come into contact with the 72-hour flu. Not directly, anyway. They do have to keep moving as more and more of the town is burnt in an attempt to fight the bug. For Nayima, “Removal Order” is about moving on, whatever that might mean.

Tananarive Due paints a desolate picture of what fighting a disease looks like. There is pain, there are wounds, but there is also love, and an understanding that doing what’s best doesn’t always seem right. Nayima’s and her Gram’s struggles are heartbreaking, but their portrayal helps to bring the reader into their world. If the story lacks anything, it’s something to be hopeful about.

“System Reset” by Tobias S. Buckell

Toto and Charlie are looking to make a quick buck. They’re “skiptracers,” and they’re going to make a pretty penny, if they catch their target: Norton Haswell. Haswell is what the media would call a hacker—someone who uses their expertise in computer networks to get into all the places the government won’t even acknowledge the existences of. Charlie and Haswell are fairly evenly matched in ability, and come close in ideals too, so when Haswell is about to reset the system, what will Charlie do?

“System Reset” is a been-there-done-that story. Two friends try to catch a villain behind the proper authority’s back, only to find that the villain isn’t necessarily wrong, just misguided. The story doesn’t deviate from expectations on the plot. It comes, it goes, and it’s over, much like Toto and Charlie’s quest.

“This Unkempt World is Falling to Pieces” by Jamie Ford

It’s 1910 and “The Tramp” is the sensation of the newspapers and the wires. The last time it passed by it was known as Halley’s Comet. This time, however, it comes bearing more than excitement. People are in a panic over reports that the comet’s tail will cloak the world in poison. So tonight, people have gathered in Seattle’s Sorrento Hotel to enjoy the spectacle, come what may. Darwin Chinn Qi works at the hotel with Lucy, and this may be his last chance to get her attention.

There’s a nice little twist that comes off more as social commentary than plot, but other than that there really isn’t much going for this story. It moves along at a steady pace, never getting caught up on any one thing, but ultimately doesn’t go anywhere from a character development point of view.

“BRING HER TO ME” by Ben H. Winters

Annebel and Kenneth can hear the voice of God. As can everyone else. He’s made himself heard in their minds for the past 24 years. Now it’s the day before everyone eats the tartar, the poison from it helping their journey. Tomorrow they’ll have “gone through.” But one thing worries Annabel and Kenneth: their daughter, Pea, is deaf. That is to say, she can hear, she just can’t hear Him. What does that mean? They wonder. And what does He mean when he tells Annabel, BRING HER TO ME? And what does Pea think about it all?

Usually when someone can hear the voice of God, they’re considered to be crazy. But what happens when everyone hears it, except one person? It’s a frightening position to be in, and Ben H. Winters does a good job kneading the tension by shifting the story’s point of view between the characters. Though the ending isn’t quite satisfying.

“In the Air” by Hugh Howey

It’s too late now, John has already made his decision, the decision his wife Barbara and daughter Emily will have to live with for the rest of their lives. Would they ever forgive him? For the longest time he didn’t even know what he was doing, was just a small cog in the gear…advancing the end of the world. It’s in their blood and 12 billion people don’t even know it.

Hugh Howey’s prose is captivating, it begs to be part of larger works. And while “In the Air” accomplishes what it sets out to do, it could have been so much more, given a longer format. The story uses flashbacks to build John’s character and situation. Put plainly, I wanted more. I wanted to experience more of this story.

“Goodnight Moon” by Annie Bellet

When you know the end is coming, what do you do given your circumstances? Do you save yourself, or save others? What do you say to the people who matter? In the end, who really does matter? What would you do just for yourself? These are the questions for Neta Goodwin to consider in her last moments at the International Listening Base on the moon, just hours before a dwarf planet will collide with it.

Despite a premise that will have global ramifications, “Goodnight Moon” is a small story about a few people and their actions within a few short hours. The decisions made by the characters are based on who and what they are, with their nationalities, ages, and roles all playing factors. In the end, however, we’re shown that those factors that do so much to separate us from our neighbors, bear little meaning, and small acts are what really matter.

“Dancing with Death in the Land of Nod” by Will McIntosh

The nodding virus doesn’t kill. It creates a form of paralysis. And that might even be worse than death. Two thousand people in Wilkes-Barre contracted it. Up until now, Johnny’s first concern was his Alzheimer-addled father and his father’s failing drive-in theater. Now, with the nodding virus all around him, he looks to his neighbor’s daughter, Kelly, half his age, to show him what to do when the world is slowly falling out from under you.

The nodding virus doesn’t completely paralyze. It makes people prisoners in their own body: they can look and see, they can eat, and can even hold positions others have articulated them into. It’s a terrifying notion that an entire population could find themselves in this state. If only the story would have focused on that a little more, and a little less on Johnny and his father, because their situation with the theatre is little more than a plot device. It’s irrelevant to the meat of the story, which is Johnny’s and Kelly’s situation in the wake of the outbreak. It’s a good read, but the focus isn’t where it really needs to be.

“Houses Without Air” by Megan Arkenberg

Beth’s project is called Immerse, a virtual reality simulator that goes beyond the senses of sight and sound to include touch and smell. Her roommate, Farah, is an artist who creates in three-dimensional mediums, rather than ink and paper. Their projects keep them occupied even as global oxygen levels continue to decline. If any intelligent life ever exists on Earth in the future, it’ll be up to them to decide what value, if any, there are in these last vestiges of humanity.

We’re told that a global extinction is about to occur, but we’re not told how people and governments are reacting to the situation. It feels like Beth and Farah are the only two people left on Earth and that they’re not too concerned with day-to-day problems like where their food and supplies are coming from. It makes the entire story seem trivial and weightless. If they don’t care about their situation, why should the reader?

“Enjoy the Moment” by Jack McDevitt

Some people are content to live their lives away from the spotlight, raising a family and doing good things for others being enough to make them happy. Others, though, hope to make a larger impact, hope to be remembered for something extraordinary. Maryam Gibson has spent her first thirty years in anonymity, save for her colleagues. She’s dedicated herself to unlocking the secrets in dark matter. But now she just wants to make sure her name will outlive her, so she’s decided to look for a comet. She ends up finding something in the vastness of space that will pay earth a visit in about twenty years…but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

“Enjoy the Moment” is about humanity: what we want, what we need, what we think, and especially how we react. Maryam wants to be remembered, but her husband is content to lead a simple life. People are generally curious, but don’t always want the answers if they aren’t convenient for them. Jack McDevitt tells a simple story that has a lot to say without seeming so, and without taking the fun out of impending doom.

“Pretty Soon the Four Horsemen are Going to Come Riding Through” by Nancy Kress

A few years ago a volcano erupted in Indonesia. It was an abnormally large event, spewing dust into the upper atmosphere and down into the air that would eventually reach New York. The red fog of volcanic ash held its own mystery: the particles weren’t entirely terrestrial…or at least weren’t known to have been.

Now there’s a seemingly smaller mystery: Carrie Drucker. Her mom, Ms. Drucker, has done her best to raise Carrie and her sister, Sophie, well. She moved them to a better neighborhood and better school. Sophie still gets in trouble at times, but now the unexpected has happened: Ms. Drucker has been called to the school because of Carrie. Her teacher says Carrie is a pacifist, more so than she should be for her young age. Ms. Drucker doesn’t see any reason to worry…though she will look into it on her own.

Nancy Kress does a good job of keeping the two parts of the story separate and the mystery of their connection obscured. The reader is rewarded when they start putting small pieces of the puzzle together without much hand-holding from the prose. It’s nice to be treated as an intelligent reader, with the answer held out of eye-shot for a change.

“Spores” by Seanan McGuire

When Megan smells nectarine pie, she becomes slightly agitated. That’s because she works in a high-security bio lab and nectarine pie deviates from the usual smells. Megan is acutely aware of these types of deviations. She suffers from OCD, takes medication, but can still find herself at the mercy of her fears. It’s something her wife, Rachel, and their daughter, Nikki, have worked hard to live with. Sometimes, however, Megan’s need to clean and scrub and bleach is actually a boon, like when the bowl of fruit—fresh just yesterday—is overtaken by a dense, grey mold. A dense, grey, fervent mold…

“Spores” is really less about the spores as it is about Megan’s OCD. Internet memes abound these days with people wearing OCD as a badge of honor because they dislike crooked floor tiles or uneven road lines. Actual OCD is a debilitating problem that can ruin relationships, if not lives. The descriptions of Megan’s plight are apt and give a great insight on the disorder. The plot with the spores is wrapped nicely around this inner struggle. If there is a fault, however, it’s that the spores seem like a smaller problem than the story tells us it is. Information is missing that would show and not tell us that more than the local area is in danger.

“She’s Got a Ticket to Ride” by Jonathan Maberry

Doomsday cults come and go, usually as their date with destiny comes and goes without much ado. But sometimes they go out with a bang, or with some spiked fruit punch. Sometimes those drinking the punch are just misled kids looking for answers, looking for something better than their perceived terrible lives. Sometimes their families try to get them back. Sometimes they call John Poe. And even though most of these cults are based on lies and misdirection, sometimes they do teach the science and sometime the science is hard to disprove. The Church of the Nomad World says Nibiru is coming, and this time, the doomsday cult may just be right.

The story is told by John Poe, a man who doesn’t mince his words and who makes sure he’s on top of the latest science findings so he can combat the teachings of the cults he’s faced with. Poe’s character, then, lends itself to credibility. But when he’s faced with credibility, his and the reader’s own doubts start to creep in. It’s a sly ploy on Jonathan Maberry’s part, but works to put holes into that wall that usually separates the fictional world from the real one, making the reader think: What if?

“Agent Unknown” by David Wellington

Whitman is a senior field agent with the CDC, and he’s been hot on the trail of the outbreak, trying to capture an infected subject. The problem is because of their aggressive behaviour, they’re usually shot and killed before he gets a chance to take one in. Working with Director Philips—a former neurosurgeon—they’re trying not only to find a cure, but to find out what exactly it is they’re dealing with. When the answers finally come, it’s nothing short of an end-of-the-world scenario.

“Agent Unknown” is the hard-SF equivalent to the zombie-outbreak story. Almost everything is grounded in reality (or at the very least, believability). The part that really says “zombie apocalypse” are the red eyes the infected have. Whether or not that has any scientific bearing, it turns the infected people into monsters, which makes their destruction less to think about, even though the characters struggle with it. The emotional impact is lessened by this othering, and diminishes the story a little. That being said, it’s very well written and begs to be longer, which is great because it’s a prequel to David Wellington’s upcoming novel, Positive.

“Enlightenment” by Matthew Mather

Effie isn’t happy with herself. She’s overweight, introverted, and looking for answers to her place in life. She’s been attending church meetings, hoping to find those answers. What she finds is Michael, a soft-spoken, extremely intelligent, charming man with a bionic arm. It’s too good to be true for someone like him, to have an interest in her. But she hopes he does, and so when she’s invited to his house for dinner—among his other guests—she promises to eat everything he serves. Her life is forever changed as she becomes enlightened.

“Enlightenment” takes the most liberal approach to the end of the world theme. It’s really just a variation on stories from movies like Saw and Hostel, as seen from the side of the twisted individual, with a veil of self-righteousness thrown over it. Every turn of the plot is telegraphed beforehand and characters really don’t behave like real people. They all feel like plot devices with very little to say beyond the shock value.

“Shooting the Apocalypse” by Paolo Bacigalupi

Timo can find the stories. He’s able to find the small details that matter through the lens of his camera, the details that make the viewer feel something. He’s been working with Lucy. She can find stories, too. She’s able to get to the root of a story through the people surrounding it. She’s able to make it matter. Now, in Phoenix, next to the Central Arizona Project, Timo has found their next story: a dead Texan, strung up as an offering. It’s not uncommon to find Texans who have come looking for water in Phoenix to turn up dead, but Timo is sure there is a story here and Lucy is willing to cross dangerous lines to find it.

“Shooting the Apocalypse” feels like literary non-fiction, like gonzo journalism about the US/Mexican border. In this future, the states have become separated and travel is no longer permitted, forcing many to risk their lives to save their lives. There is sharp, to-the-point world building, but the story of Timo and Lucy looking for the story doesn’t end up feeling like a full story. It feels like the first few chapters of a longer work, and thus may leave the reader unfulfilled.

“Love Perverts” by Sarah Langan

Aporia is coming. She’s a one mile-wide asteroid denser than iron. They’re going to send nukes, but they’ll only crack her and spread her devastation around. Tom and Jules are making the best of the situation. She’s been raving pretty hard, he’s just been angry (and horny, not that he understands why). The anger part is pretty obvious: his family had tickets to the shelter in Offutt, but he didn’t get one. He was the one they decided should be left behind. Maybe because he’s gay, he’s not really sure. But Tom isn’t going to just sit around and let Aporia take everything away from him.

Trying to predict how people would react in an “end of the world” scenario isn’t easy. Maybe people will riot, maybe they’ll act out their bucket list, or maybe they’ll keep calm and hope for the best. The issue with “Love Perverts” isn’t what the characters do, it’s the characters themselves. Tom and Jules and the other characters lack engaging personalities. They exist, they act, and then their story ends. Very little about them makes the reader care at all what their destiny may be.