Wastelands: “The End of the Whole Mess”

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As stated on Twitter, I recently picked up Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse an anthology of post-apocalyptic shorts. The series includes many notable authors, some of whom were recommended to me. With this series, I want to look at each story to get a better grasp on the plot, characters, and the apocalypse itself. This promises to be one of the few times The Rad-lands will be breaking away from specifically post-nuclear fiction.


134-stephen_kingOur first story is “The End of the Whole Mess” by Stephen King. Truthfully, this was the first time I read King. He didn’t disappoint; the prose has a nice flow and is both easy and pleasant to read aloud (so easy, they chose Matthew Broderick to narrate the audiobook).

So what kind of apocalypse is this anyway? Well, we only get hints about the outside world. The story is a cross between stream of consciousness writing and character establishing flashbacks. The apocalyptic setting is really just a framing device to carry the irony. That said, the cause of this apocalypse is Calmative, a water additive dispersed across the entire planet that first made humans docile and later resulted in dementia, cognitive failure, and death. That’s certainly a unique apocalyptic scenario, almost like a reverse Planet of the Apes.

It was certainly a bold editorial choice for the first story in an anthology titled “Wastelands” to recall the backstory of an apocalypse while simultaneously avoiding the portrayal of a traditional wasteland. The reader’s only insight into the present situation is something to the effect of “all the plants are dead.” The reader learns more about the events leading up to the apocalypse than the apocalypse itself. This is a stylistic move by King in which the narrator purposely spends too much time describing the foundational events, leaving little time to describe the actual apocalypse.

“The End of the Whole Mess” has a strong framing device in which the narrator, Howard, injects himself with the water additive, leaving a limited time to tell the story before he loses all cognitive function. From a writer’s perspective, it makes me wonder if King challenged himself to write this story along the time line or if each individual spelling mistake was placed with purpose. King refers to this device several times, giving the narrator opportunity to reflect on the last few pages of writing while describing how the chemical has taken hold of him. Thought this shows the reader the effects of the water additive, it raises two glaring questions.

Since the story is framed as a journal, who is it being written for? Apparently, the plants are all dead and every human infected with the virus eventually loses all mental function. The narrator addresses his story to you (if there are any “you” later on to read this), but it seems the planet is practically dead already. There’s no clear opportunity for a post-apocalyptic society to form as the entire atmosphere has been poisoned by Calmative. So why leave a record?

Second, and to me most confusing, why did Howard inject himself with the chemical? He claims “I never could work without a deadline,” but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We’re told this story could take up thousands of pages, yet the plot device of the drug causes a purposefully rushed ending. Surely, if all rain water is contaminated, the narrator must already be infected. Ultimately, the actual apocalyptic aspect of this story doesn’t matter, because this is really a character study of the narrator’s brother, Bobby.

Bobby is a child prodigy who eventually grows up to be a super-scientist in Texas. Personally, I found his archetype and character arc to be reminiscent of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Herbert West: Reanimator.” Through flashbacks, Bobby is shown to be a child prodigy proficient in all realms of scientific discovery. As an adult, Bobby is confident, condescending, and most importantly insistent on the value of his research. Reading the text aloud, I found myself imagining Jeffery Combs reprising his role as Herbert West.

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How I imagined Bobby

I would have enjoyed seeing Bobby progress on his character arc throughout adulthood. The tension between brothers, with Howard as a reluctant accomplice, again calls back to Herbert West. Although it’s a stylistic choice to meet the demands of the framing device, I thought too much was missing from the ending.

The final part of the story feels like the Wikipedia plot summary from a larger novelette. We never know if Howard had second thoughts about deploying the Calmative or if he truly believed in it. The journey to the volcano and the construction of a delivery device are conveyed in a handful of paragraphs. Perhaps I’m in the minority, but it seems like there should have been a greater emphasis on character development before deploying a super weapon that would permanently alter the minds of every person on Earth. Instead, the framing device demands we rush toward the ending as Howard goes from a few spelling mistakes to complete incoherent gibberish within a page and a half.

That question of character development aside, “The End of the Whole Mess” succeeds because of an interesting concept, a good message, and effective use of an untraditional writing style. While I felt that the story stumbles in a few places, it was obviously chosen as the first anthology in “Wastelands” for a reason. I believe that reason is the fantastic character development we see as a maturing super-scientist is overcome with the grief of a world gone mad. Overall, this is a strong introduction to what promises to be an insightful post-apocalyptic anthology.

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Ron Livingston as Howard

Why did Howard inject himself with Calmative? Tell us in the comments!

 

Police State

“Two weeks hard labor.”

That was the sentence given to me by “his honor” the Judge. Geeze. I can still see that fat sluggish tongue scraping the cheese dust from his bloated lips. Guy looks like a bullfrog with a mustache. And the smell… his whole courtroom smells like a plate of steaming hot puke with a glass of skunked beer.

After my “trial” (if you can call it that), I was shackled, beaten again, and hauled off to the blacksmiths. Saul Fore wouldn’t get me out of this one. For two weeks, he just glanced at me and shook his head. When I called out to him, he said that I was beyond helping. Those words hit a lot harder than the police batons, even if they didn’t leave me covered in purple splotches.

For the past two weeks I’ve been lighting forges, assembling weapons, and handloading fresh bullets. My fingers have turned grey, but it hasn’t been so bad. I’ve actually learned a lot about how guns work. Plus, all this gave me some time to clear my head and think about everything that’s happened in the past few weeks. Besides, hard labor is a lot better than getting thrown out in the wasteland…again.

You’re probably wondering: How did that idiot Joe Junkman get into this mess?

Well, I had just entered the BLVD with Saul Fore our food caravan. It had been a long, but uneventful journey from Abundance. Almost immediately, I spotted a crowd gathered round a band playing on a rusting pickup truck. Then the music hit me. All I could hear was the wonderful strumming of a finely tuned guitar. I ignored Saul Fore’s warning and followed the string of notes drifting through the air. I caught myself nodding my head and shaking my hips. I was in a trance, comfortably numb to the world around me.

That’s partially why I didn’t hear the curfew siren. The other reason is that I had no idea the BLVD had a curfew in the first place. At first, I didn’t even notice the “counselor’s” approached wearing their fancy suits and armed with nightsticks and hand crank sirens. The crowd quickly dispersed, but I had no idea what was happening. Nobody told me anything! Of course the Judge croaked out that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” Seems pretty stupid to me.

It wasn’t long before I was the last person on the street. The counselors boxed me in. One shouted something at me through a megaphone, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I didn’t want any trouble, so I shot my hands up and slowly walked toward the suit with the megaphone. He didn’t like that.

Something slammed into the back of my head. I hit the ground hard. A padded knee rested on top of me as my arms were roughly placed behind my back. I tried to use the old Junkman charm, but that just got me a steel-toed kick to the guts. Bruises. Just what I needed. I’m sure someone will find that attractive.

After all that, I was hauled off to the courthouse to await my trial the following morning. Of course, I had to defend myself in court so it didn’t go well. But all this got me thinking. What if someone were to put an official list of the BLVD’s laws on paper? And what if they sold that list for a few tags? And what if that someone was me?

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I don’t feel so good.

I couldn’t believe it. I went through hell and back to get my measly jug of water, but somehow that bearded bushman had beat me to it. So there I was, looking like an idiot in front of the old soldier and his entire army. To top it all off, my arm was still in excruciating pain after being broken in three places.

It would have been nice if Gray had just let me walk away, but he had to go the extra mile to “help” me. The Australian pulled a chrome tube out of an old leather bag and waved it over my water jug. Surrounding soldiers started chuckling as the tube produced a violent ticking sound.

The bushman raised an eyebrow. “I sure hope you didn’t drink any of this.”

“W-why not?” I stuttered. I honestly had no idea what Gray was talking about.

“It’s contaminated. Radioactive. I’m surprised that jug ain’t glowing.”

Unfortunately, I had already drank about two liters before leaving Urmit’s cave. I was literally dying of thirst, after all. When I told Gray, he and the old man just stared at each other for a few seconds. The old soldier called for one of his men to escort me to the fortress hospital.

Half an hour later, I was placed in a bed and put under observation. I didn’t understand. I felt fine, except for my aching arm. Maybe I was immune to radiation or something; that would be a pretty cool superpower. The doctor told me to wait, said radiation sickness gives you a false sense of security or something.

Turns out he was right. A few hours later, I was puking my guts out. I couldn’t even move. Doctor said he had some anti-radiation medicine, but it was going to cost me a few hundred dog-tags. I tried to explain that all of my money had been stolen by a tribe of spider women.

The doctor shrugged his shoulders and said, “Such is life in the wasteland.”

I just hope this doesn’t get any worse.

-Joe Junkman

I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream: Gorrister

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Con-man, pacifist, business woman, Nazi, scientist. Five improbable entities stuck together in a pit of darkness. A prolonged nightmare of 109 years conducted by a sadistic self-aware supercomputer with unlimited power. This is Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream.

Although on the surface IHNMAIMS is a straightforward story about five people trapped in an endless underground complex after a nuclear war, it has transcended into a franchise. The human characters from the short story were greatly expanded upon in the 1995 video game while the supercomputer, AM, gained some depth in a 2001 radio drama. A comic adaptation was created but never published, though a few English panels and the full Spanish version found their way onto the internet. This has become one of my favorite post-apocalyptic stories due to the development of the characters and the themes at play.

In this series, we’ll break down each of the humans: exposing their fatal flaws and then identifying what led them to redemption (and further punishment).

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Gorrister’s comic adaptation

Gorrister. The first character introduced in both the text and the video game. Originally, he was a conscientious objector, a peace marcher. In the game, he was an electrician and truck driver before the machine captured him. The only similarity between the two versions of this character is the spoken wish for death.

Like Benny, Gorrister was made into a parody of his former self. AM transformed an anti-war organizer into a man of indifference. Gorrister no longer cares enough to take action against AM (even if it was possible); all he can do is hope the machine will finally kill him. What’s interesting is that AM didn’t necessarily need to physically alter Gorrister’s mind; it’s possible that the torture and hopeless atmosphere of the machine’s complex was enough to reduce this character into an apathetic shell. Additionally, there’s an excellent irony to be found in this character. Staying out of the war is what led to his eternal torment. Had he been on the front lines of the war, he likely would have been nuked along with everyone else.

AM’s alterations of Gorrister are easily identifiable in the original text. Reduced to a shoulder shrugger, Gorrister sided with Ted in the belief that there was no point in journeying to the ice caverns. Further, even when practically immortal and on the brink of starvation, Gorrister could not be bothered to fight AM’s giant mutant bird. Perhaps he knew that AM would never let him have the flesh or perhaps he knew that fighting the beast was simply not worth it; either way it goes to show that Gorrister’s state of mind has been worn down to complete indifference.

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There is however one exception to Gorrister’s alterations that has always stuck out to me. When Benny is attempting to climb to the surface, Gorrister slaps Ellen to the ground for displaying her concern for Benny. I found it to be particularly interesting that the so-called shoulder shrugger, the so-called objector was so annoyed by Ellen’s concern that he attacked her.  In the comic adaptation, he even goes so far as to kick Ellen in the stomach while she’s already down.

Gorrister’s psychodrama is by far my favorite scenario in the video game. Whereas the other psychodramas rely on riddles and interesting gameplay mechanics, Gorrister’s story is almost entirely metaphorical from beginning to end. From its odd humor to it’s almost steampunk-noire atmosphere this is (in my opinion) one of the best adventure game levels ever made.

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Starting the level, Gorrister cannot determine where he is or what he’s riding due to extreme cloud coverage. This is a clear metaphor for Gorrister’s understanding of the situation; as he uncovers the mystery of the dining room, the airship sinks below the clouds, making everything clear. Further, Gorrister’s heart is literally ripped out of his chest by order of his mother-in-law, a clear allusion to Edna’s effect on the trucker’s marriage. This is just scratching the surface of the excellent metaphorical storytelling present in Gorrister’s psychodrama. Like Nimdok, the events relate to the character’s past, but in Gorrister’s story, they are told in a manner that relates to the situation at hand and gives you a tingly “ah-ha” moment when you realize the connection.

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From a gameplay perspective, Gorrister’s story has far more choices (and dead ends) than the others. One wrong step can trap the player in an unwinnable situation, especially when dealing with Edna. However, in many ways this only adds to the charm and replayability of a simple roadside honkey-tonk in the middle of the desert.

Although he began as an apathetic husk in the original story, Dreamer’s Guild really knocked it out of the park with Gorrister’s psychodrama. Like Nimdok, Gorrister was greatly expanded upon, allowing him to shift into a three dimensional character. The character’s quest to find death unexpectedly becomes a strongly metaphorical journey of self-discovery and inner peace.

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What other metaphors did you see in Gorrister’s psychodrama? Tell us in the comments!

The Straw That Broke the Camel’s Back

It’s not even funny anymore…

After suffering through the perils of the wasteland, I finally made it back to Abundance. I was beaten up, almost eaten by giant mutant spiders, had all my stuff stolen, wandered through the desert without any water, was captured and almost eaten by a disgusting mutant, AND to top it all off I had my arm broken in three places before I was set free.  So…what do I get for my trouble when I walk into town with a full five gallon jug on my back? Nothing. Absolutely friggen nothing.

I walked into town to find that the town was basically empty. The saloon was all locked up. I heard some hustle and bustle from the fortress wall at the end of the street, so I went to check it out. A line of some hundred people stretched out onto the street. Soldier boys all dressed up in black armor and rusty red fatigues kept the peace from the fortress’ battlements. Something big was happening here.

With nothing else to do, I decide to get in line to see what’s up.  I quickly realized that every person coming out of the fortress was proudly carrying a canteen with a funny looking 47 on it.  Over an hour passed before I passed the fortress gates. I couldn’t believe the inside of this place. Everything was just like the old times! The streets were freshly paved, not a pothole in sight. The buildings were blocky, made of white concrete, and electricity flowed freely. Oasis had nothing on this place.

Another hour passed before I finally got to the front of the line. I came before a table in front of the only two story building on the base. Two guards fumbled with paperwork. The first asked for my canteen. With sharp pain in my arm, I removed my pack and presented the five gallon jug. The two soldiers turned to each other with smarmy grins. One of the goons spoke into a walkie talkie then asked me to step out of line. A few minutes later he showed up.

The notorious James Gray appeared, along with a bald old man wearing a black leather greatcoat covered in medals. The Australian recognized me this time.

“Hey there little buddy, you’re not lookin’ so good. Whatcha got there?”

I presented my jug once again and explained that I had discovered a sustainable water source. I told them that I would just need some workhands to assemble a caravan. The old man let out a light chuckle. His voice was roached out, like he hadn’t had a drink in ages.

“Old Gray here beat’cha too it, son.” He said, placing a fatherly hand on the bushman’s shoulder.

My eyebrow still hasn’t stopped twitching…

-Joe Junkman

How A Boy and His Dog Established a Genre

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Like science, fiction is often built on the shoulders of those who came before.  That is to say, most images from our imagination comes from putting a twist on what we’ve already seen. In horror, we can see a very clear progression from Poe->Lovecraft->Kolchak: the Night Stalker->X-Files. Though it seems odd to say it, building on the work of others is the surest way to come up with new ideas.

In the 1970s, post-nuclear fiction had been developing into a small (but growing) genre for nearly 20 years. Many nuclear holocaust films in the 50s and 60s were about the start (and end) of WWIII rather than survival in the radioactive wastelands to follow. Dr. Strangelove, for example, is counted as a nuclear holocaust film.

In 1975, something happened to solidify the tone of a desert wasteland. Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog provided audiences with a visual medium to express the post-atomic world. The little details in storytelling, set design, and costumes would inevitably shape the Mad Max franchise, the Fallout franchise, and much more.

A Boy and His Dog would define the tone of the post-nuclear genre in 4 ways:

  1. The Wasteland
  2. Settlements
  3. Clothing
  4. Mutants

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 The Wasteland: A Boy and His Dog portrays the world as an endless post-apocalyptic desert. This would set the backdrop for the entire genre as even Fallout 3 (a game set in Washington D.C.) was comprised of desert. However, A Boy and His Dog redefined the post-nuclear landscape by setting the entire thing in the deserts of Arizona. From a storytelling perspective, this puts the audience in the mindset that life is hard, water is scarce, food is hard to come by, and the survivors are more than likely to be desperate bandits (creating a sci-fi wild west motif). Years later, Mad Max and Fallout would use the concept of endless radioactive desert to build their own universes.

What’s interesting about the wasteland of A Boy and His Dog is most of the world we see is still in one piece. Everything is underground, usually in a somewhat serviceable condition. Early in the film, Vic and Blood come across a slave driver mining cans of food. In the second act, Vic takes refuge in an underground hospital.
40 years later, the Mad Max video game would expand on this idea with The Dunes, an area of the wasteland which is functionally identical.

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The third act of A Boy and His Dog takes place in an underground bunker/town called Topeka. The American government has survived and upholds a caricature of 1950s America with a powerful metal fist. This seems like a clear jumping point for Fallout to build off of, especially since the tone of 1950’s Americana took greater hold of the series from Fallout 3 onward.

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Settlements: Using the visual medium, A Boy and His Dog was able to craft a living world full of tiny details to express the desperation and restructuring of the post-nuclear world. As all the resources are buried underground, survivors are forced to make their homes out of junk. The opening credits depict a hut made from nothing but discarded tires. Vic begins his adventure in a lean-to made from sheet metal and barrels. The wasteland theater has a wall made of car parts, sheet metal, and other junk, reminiscent of Fallout’s Junktown and The Road Warrior’s refinery.

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These little details demonstrate how, even decades after the apocalypse, survivors have only done what is necessary to trade with each other and survive. A Boy and His Dog was stuck in the post-apocalyptic mindset, but began the movement toward the post-post-apocalyptic genre, a concept that was fully developed by Fallout.
Mad Max 3 and Fallout would later develop towns and settlements with unique cultures, but it all began with A Boy and his Dog.

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Notice how each costume is just a collection of random junk

Clothing: From the savage biker gear of Mad Max to the settler outfits in Fallout, Wasteland attire is generally described as a mixture of whatever you can cobble together. Nowhere is this truer than in A Boy and His Dog. The tone for clothing is set fairly early with the slave driver. His outfit is a mixture of things that look interesting, but have no practical use: a leopard print naval hat, several brightly colored quilts, a crest of feathers, and a handful of gold rings. This shows the breakdown into tribalism and feudalism seen in both Mad Max 2 and Fallout.

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Extravagance over practicality.

It is easy to see how A Boy and His Dog influenced post-nuclear fashion as a cosplay of any character from the film would fit right in at Wasteland Weekend. For 40 years, the manner in which post-nuclear survivors choose their clothes has remained the same.

Mutants: One of the best parts about the post-nuclear genre is the mutants. Post-apocalyptic scenarios with zombies are generally limited to caricatures of humans, with some variation of speed and muscle mass. Nuclear mutants can be (and have been) nearly anything as there is no limit to how familiar creatures can be twisted into something utterly monstrous.

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The burnpit screamer: a creature so mysterious, it has never been seen.

A Boy and His Dog established future use of mutants with Blood the talking dog and followed that with the legendary burnpit screamers.  Although certainly unrealistic, mutants bring danger, fear, and life to the wasteland. The incorporation of mutants portrays a changing world, one that will never be the same and practically puts the audience on another planet. Mutants are critical to the post-nuclear genre as they make the world feel alive. The Fallout, S.T.A.L.K.E.R., and Metro franchises owes much of their success to the addition of creatures transformed by radiation.

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Although Mad Max 2 defined the functionality of the post-nuclear genre,  A Boy and His Dog set the tone and feel nearly a decade years before. Despite being 40 years old, Harlan Ellison’s work has become a cult icon of the genre and will continue to inspire, despite its outward simplicity.