Ten-fifteen. The garden sprinklers whirled up in golden founts, filling the soft morning air with scatterings of brightness. The water pelted windowpanes, running down the charred west side where the house had been burned evenly free of its white paint. The entire west face of the house was black, save for five places. Here the silhouette in paint of a man mowing a lawn. Here, as in a photograph, a woman bent to pick flowers. Still farther over, their images burned on wood in one titanic instant, a small boy, hands flung into the air; higher up, the image of a thrown ball,and opposite him a girl, hands raised to catch a ball which never came down. –Ray Bradbury
This story is a fantastic read, touching on life for a house after some unspecified nuclear disaster 16 years and two months from today. “August 2026: There Will Come Soft Rains” is part of Ray Bradbury’s short story collection, The Martian Chronicles. The story’s real success lives in the details. Bradbury uses rich, vivid description to make the house seem alive, and for all intents and purposes, the house is a living sentient being struggling with the loss of its owners in the wake of an awful calamity. By the end of the story you care about the house and want it — automated, mechanical parts and all — to succeed.
That’s exactly what Toxic Skies bills itself as, and it’s exactly what it delivers. Dr. Tess Martin, played by Anne Heche, is called in to find out how to stop a mysterious virus giving the people a killer dose of avian flu and bubonic plague before it takes down Spokane, Wash., along with the rest of America. While Martin investigates how to stop and eradicate the disease, she uncovers a plot between a major pharmaceutical company and the military, and it’s up to her to get the word out. So allow me to ask again, who doesn’t love a good sci fi, conspiracy made-for-television, straight-to-DVD movie?
I don’t know. I was so excited to get started on By the Waters of Babylon, especially after reading Nightmare Number Three. But this 1937 short story by Stephen Vincent Benét wasn’t as good as the poem two years before. The narrator, a young man, tells the story of his journey to find out what happened to industrial civilization. His search for knowledge leads him to New York City, where he finds out why society collapses under the weight of war.
Although the story itself isn’t bad, the narration style annoys me. Our narrator is supposed to be this tribal man in search of knowledge. But he speaks like the 1930s version of a tribal man for 5,700 words. After a while, you just get tired.
But the cars were in it, of course . . .
and they hunted us
Like rabbits through the cramped streets on that Bloody Monday,
The Madison Avenue busses leading the charge.
A robotic apocalyptic poem! That’s what Stephen Vincent Benét’s Nightmare Number Three is. At first, I was less than excited about reading this little number from The List because of a natural dislike of poetry. But the poem was pretty great. Published in 1935, the piece is about American society’s dependence on machines. The end of the human race begins with automobiles turning against man. Things get worse from that point, leaving the narrator wondering whether he is the last man left on Earth.
As a bonus, there’s a fun little eighth grade quiz about the poem that some teacher somewhere made up. Here’s the link.
Also on The List, John Varley’s The Manhattan Phone Book (Abridged) describes exactly what would happen if a nuclear bomb were dropped on us right now. The short story takes about 10 minutes to read, but the discomfort lingers for much longer than that.
Elizabeth Bear’s And the Deep Blue Sea is another short story found on The List. So far, this is the first story I’ve read from that list from the books and stories I haven’t yet read that is truly postapocalyptic. The story is a classic what happens after the [INSERT DISASTER OF CHOICE HERE] tale, in this case some kind of world-wide devastation following nuclear explosions.
Basically, the mail still has to get delivered, as the narrator points out in the opening sentences. Bear’s protagonist does that on a motorcycle. Although, it’s not clear why the world ended up this way (there are, however, obscure references to “the big one”), Bear does an excellent job of describing what a nuclear-ravaged landscape might look like years after a disaster. The story is easily a half hour read, and definitely well worth the time.
Max Brooks’ “World War Z” is a collection of personal stories from people all over the world about their experiences in the fictional decade-long zombie war.
The book is an easy read because of the format chosen by the author. Using personal accounts of the war in short bursts is an effective vehicle for the telling of the story, and it does allow each character to have his or her own voice, something tough to achieve in any literary genre.
Although there’s a lot to gush over, the story is uneven at times. The first third of the book is fast paced and well developed. The middle of the book was a little overwrought with a hint of, “Have we not learned our lesson, yet?!” The end of the story was just OK. It’s obvious that this kind of story would be difficult to tie into a neat little bow, which is exactly what Brooks tries to do. It just kind of ends abruptly leaving the reader (me) feeling like the story just flamed out. But those problems aside, a good chunk of the characters have incredible insight into American life and our culture, and that’s a good thing.
It doesn’t get any better than this in my world: an apocalyptic newspaperman made-for-tv movie. Infected, a straight-to-DVD movie, stars Gil Bellows, Judd Nelson and Isabella Rossellini. The story centers on two newspaper reporters who uncover an alien plot to take over our bodies so they can breed and save their species. The cast combined with the movie trailer (see above) is where the awesomeness ends. The bad CGI can be forgiven, but the plot points end up being a little too cheesy, even for a B movie.
I just finished reading Grace Aguilar’s “The Escape,” a story I found on The List on The Mixed Up Files of Phnuggle. Not exactly apocalyptic, “The Escape” chronicles the story of a couple concealing their Jewish faith in Portugal at the height of the Inquisition. The story becomes a disaster story, which is really a comment on the way the Jews in Europe were treated during the Victorian Era. If you’re expecting a story about life after the big Victorian plague or natural disaster, this story is not going to deliver that to you. However, it will provide a nice historical perspective on what life was like for Jews living through the Inquisition.