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 a unique apocalyptic scenario, almost like a reverse Planet of the Apes.

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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?

Unlucky Charm

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. Continue reading

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: Continue reading