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 matures 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!

 

Cult Classics: Warriors of the Wasteland

Following the success of Mad Max 2 was a handful of post-apocalyptic B-movies. Among those was The New Barbarians (aka Warriors of the Wasteland), a dirt-cheap Italian knock off. Despite a slow start, this movie actually isn’t terrible, it just has low production values. However, I noticed a lot of similarities between this film and She Wolves of the Wasteland. Both have alternate titles. Both have promising, but underdeveloped plots and concepts. Both suffer from poor editing and a lack of closure. For that reason, let’s use a similar four points system as She Wolves, with one exception.

  1. The Plot
  2. Interesting concepts
  3. Editing
  4. Characters

The Plot: The year is 2019. It has been 9 years since the nuclear holocaust of 2010 (Thanks, Obama). The film begins by focusing on a small caravan who has just discovered “The Signal” a mythological radio frequency which supposedly leads to the last civilization on Earth. Unfortunately, before the tribe can decipher the coordinates, they’re attacked by a rival tribe of motorized marauders called “The Templars” whose only goal is to destroy all human life because reasons.

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The Templars crush their enemies with a mixture of explosives and laser guns. That night, timid humans wrapped up in white cloth (with a strong resemblance to Mad Max buzzards) loot the destroyed caravan. They run for cover when a muscle car (with a glowing green roof) appears form the darkness. Now we meet our hero, Scorpion.

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After looting the scene and killing the buzzards, Scorpion meets with his friendly wasteland mechanic, a 10-year-old boy. With his car repaired, Scorpion drives off to save a van under attack by the Templars. The only survivor of the attack is a woman who Scorpion saves in the nick of time. Scorpion confronts Templar lieutenants, revealing he is an ex-Templar and wants to send a message to the Templar leader, One.

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Scorpion’s car has a neat chrome skull hood ornament, but that bubble dome is way too much.

Scorpion drives off with the woman, attempts to bandage her wound, and then immediately has sex with her. Meanwhile the Templar lieutenants plan to ambush Scorpion against One’s wishes. The ambush turns into a counter attack when Scorpion’s best frenemy Nadir fires on the Templars with exploding arrows.

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Scorpion, the woman, and Nadir then travel to a caravan of peaceful religious people who have also found “The Signal.” The woman decides to stay with the caravan, while Scorpion drives off only to be immediately captured and anally raped by One. The Templars attack the caravan as well, killing the entire tribe almost immediately. Meanwhile, Nadir rescues Scorpion and trains him alongside the child mechanic. Finally, the three return to the religious caravan, rescue the survivors just before their executions, and defeat the Templars.

Interesting Concepts: Although Warriors of the Wasteland uses more sci-fi elements than Mad Max, there are only two truly interesting concepts in this film.

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The Signal is a great idea. A legendary radio signal that will lead those who find it to the last civilization on Earth. To complete the motif, the leader of tribe looking for the promised land is named Moses. The true nature of The Signal is left ambiguous. Both tribes who discover The Signal are immediately attacked by the Templars. However, even the Templar lieutenants believe The Signal to be real.
Apparently, the source of The Signal is only 10 miles from Moses’ camp, but we never learn what happens to it. At the end of the movie, Moses’ tribe is wiped down to three people. The movie ends with the mechanic child grabbing Scorpion’s hand. The audience never learns if The Signal actually led to the promised land or if there is a last civilization at all.

Warriors of the Wasteland is clearly a Road Warrior knockoff, but it builds on car combat. Cars are armed with drills, flamethrowers, laser cannons, missiles, spinning blades to decapitate pedestrians, and laser cannons. Perhaps one of the best examples of car combat in this movie is when a Templar drills through an armored fan, then uses his flamethrower to burn the target from the inside out. Warrior’s car combat relies more on mechanical weapons while Mad Max (especially Fury Road) relies on projectile (thundersticks) and passive (kneecappers) weapons.

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The fanblade of death!

Editing: Each action scene in Warriors was filmed at three different speeds. Whereas Mad Max has fast paced action scenes where you can feel the wind, the danger, and the tension, Warriors of the Wasteland suffers from slower action. Many of the action scenes are purposely slowed down which destroys any sense of tension. This is especially true in the first battle, just five minutes into the movie, where it feels like the Templars are driving at 15 MPH. Additionally, many of the battle scenes have choppy editing which breaks the narrative flow.

Characters: The characters here are totally hit or miss.  For every interesting person in this movie, there are three with no characterization.

Not-Mad-Max

Scorpion can best be described as Not-Mad-Max. He’s a scavenger who shows up to loot a burning caravan. Other than that, he really has no character, he’s just a nice guy who knows how to fight. The woman sleeps with him because he’s nice to her. The child mechanic helps him because he’s nice. Scorpion even refuses to attack Templars because his real qualm is with One. The result is a boring lead.

Woman

I honestly could not tell you the woman’s name in this movie. Scorpion saves her, sleeps with her, and for the next 45 minutes she patiently waits in his car (even during action scenes) until finally deciding she should follow Moses’ tribe so she can be captured for the finale. Where was she going before Scorpion saved her? Who was she traveling with before they were attacked by Templars? We never find out.

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One is a weird guy. He’s the leader of the Templars, but he only ever fights Scorpion. In the beginning of the movie he rips a bible in half and says “books started this whole apocalypse.”  Maybe Warriors is a sequel to the Fahrenheit 451 movie?
One is a standard bad guy. He kills his own men when they disobey and he whispers to himself before getting into a shouting fit. Whenever a Templar asks him a question, the answer is always some variation of “kill them.” However, there is just a glimmer of extra characterization. During the previously mentioned rape scene, it’s established that all Templars are sodomized by One as an initiation ritual.

Nadir

Nadir should have been the star of this movie. There’s two posters for this movie, one portraying Scorpion, Nadir, the child mechanic, and the woman and another portraying Nadir as white accompanied by the woman. Fred Williamson plays Nadir and uses his natural charisma to create a character who is funny, stern, and perfectly hammy. Williamson’s performance makes the character far more interesting than he actually is. Without the performance, Nadir’s character is a barebones warrior who always appears just in time to save Scorpion from certain doom, which causes Scorpion to resent him.

Although it suffers from slow pacing, Warriors of the Wasteland has some neat ideas. The film takes a few tentative steps toward expanding car combat and it features an interesting religious concept. Unfortunately, the film ends without any real resolution. Once the bad guys are dead, everyone gathers around Scorpion and the movie just ends.

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What is MUTATION: The Wasteland Survival Guide?

MUTATION: The Wasteland Survival guide is a six episode long series exploring the quirky and unusual world of MUTATION, as seen in The Journal of Joe Junkman. The show itself documents the writing of the Mo-Javi Wasteland’s very first survival guide. Charged with writing this book is wasteland legend James Gray and local shyster Joe Junkman. Throughout their journey, our heroes will struggle with radioactive dust storms, water scarcity, and each other.


I want to break character for a moment to say how excited I am to be moving forward with this project. The world of MUTATION has gone through a lot of change since its conception. What originally began as a pen and paper RPG has transformed into serial fiction, a website, and a show. I can’t wait to see where it goes next.

To make a long story short, Ben and I got together in the summer of 2015 and began brainstorming ideas for this short series. Although we have all the footage, brainstorming was about as far as it got. It seems embarrassing now, but we didn’t have a script or anything. Essentially, we had a concept for each episode and a location. For better or worse, almost every scene is improvisational.

When I first established this website, I had no idea what the response would be. These past few months, I’ve been consistently amazed at the hospitality and support I’ve received from the online post-apocalyptic tribe. Thank you for giving us a chance and following our stories week after week.

I’d also like to announce at this time that Ben and I are planning to attend Wasteland Weekend this year! I’ll be in character as James Gray and I believe Ben will appear as Joe Junkman.

We hope to see some of you there! The Rad-Lands wouldn’t be here without you.

-Ron Welch

Hi Ho Silver!

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I hate my life.

So I’m walking through this desert pass, climbing high into the hills surrounding the valley, when I spot another town. As I got closer, I realized that all the buildings were old, rusted. Most of them had collapsed roofing. A sign outside the town read “SILVER MINE.” Being an enterprising man, I decided to go have a look. I was hoping to find signs of ground water to point me in the right direction.

As soon as I stepped onto the main street, I knew something was wrong. I should have turned around right there. I heard rustling coming from a two story tin building to my left, but I figured it was just a rat or maybe a lizard. The point is I really didn’t think any of it. Like an idiot, I continued down the street, looking for anything that might be useful. It was obvious all the buildings had been stripped clean decades ago, probably before the apocalypse.

I admit, I was lost in thought. Visions of scrap crews tearing the place down flashed before my eyes. I considered what I’d do with all that metal. If Saul Fore was still alive, I could probably get the Blacksmiths to buy all the tin. Maybe I could go back to the Boulevard. If not, I could build a wall around Abundance and charge traders a fee to enter the town.

I was caught off guard by a pressurized hiss from a second floor window. I didn’t have time to turn my head before I was caught under a net. The more I struggled, the faster the lace tightened. It was tearing at my skin like razor wire! I couldn’t move. I could hardly breathe. My lungs were caught in a vice. All I could do was helplessly gasp for air.

I saw the silhouette of a woman standing over me.

Then, everything went black.

-Joe Junkman

Wasteland Angel: The Mad Max Arcade

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Wasteland Angel is a post-nuclear themed vehicular arcade shooter from indie developers Octane Games. I like to pick up any post-apocalyptic games I can find, especially indie games, just to see how they use the setting. With that in mind, Wasteland Angel is a serviceable top-down arcade shooter, though not an especially great post-apocalyptic arcade shooter.

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Although an arcade shooter, Wasteland Angel boasts a story, told in comic book form, about the titular Angel (essentially a female Mad Max) driving across post-nuclear America to find an old acquaintance. In her quest, she will pass through a number of villages, each of which is being attacked by slavers with either a generic raider, Russian militant, or super mutant theme.

There are six chapters in Wasteland Angel, each of which is split into four levels. The first two levels always consist of slaughtering wave after wave of enemies as they try to abduct settlers from the local village. The third level is a boss battle in which you must “trick” a super vehicle into running over a napalm trail or land mines. The fourth level is a bonus round in first person, either a rampage mission or a race (against time, not AI cars).

Unfortunately, this formula gets old very quickly. There’s just not enough variety, either in enemies or gameplay. Once you’ve played the first two chapters, there’s really no reason to continue unless you want to finish the story.
The first two missions of every chapter are incredibly tedious as you must fight off hundreds of vehicles across 20+ waves. Worse is that there’s little variety in enemies. Even the boss battles are recycled.

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Same boss fight. New coat of paint.

There are three enemies in Wasteland Angel with a different coat of paint for each faction:

  1. Vehicle that only attacks you
  2. Vehicle that either attacks you or collects slaves
  3. Vehicle that only collects slaves

Occasionally, enemies will use your own items against you (some will leave a trail of napalm behind them), but between monotonous waves and little enemy variation, there’s not a lot to see here.

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It’s fun to make enemies SPLAT!

All this isn’t to say that Wasteland Angel isn’t fun. Although fleeting, there is some fun to be had with the vehicular aspect as well as the wasteland motif. Being that you’re in a car, your car makes wide, realistic turns. Guns only point toward the front of the car, meaning that players who adopt naval strategy will find themselves with more health and more time. Interestingly, cars react somewhat realistically to bullets. If bullets only graze your target, no damage is done and the player is treated to a metallic ping.  When a car is satisfyingly destroyed, it will often leave a driver in its place who will either shoot at the player or run away. Bonus points are granted for splattering raiders with your car. There’s great combat feedback and the car controls feel like Mad Max, albeit with more bullets, rockets, and mini-nukes.

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Challenge me! Show me your high score!

                Wasteland Angel’s tone and art style lies somewhere between Mad Max and Fallout. Small details, such as kneecappers, were added to enemy cars to make them look more wastelandish. The bandit character models are surprisingly detailed in a classic Road Warrior style. However, the Fallout art style shines through in the titular Angel, who wears a pink skirt and a pink bow-tie in her hair.  The opening menu and the post-mission score card both take on a 1960s pinup motif, adding to that Fallout feel. Additionally, Wasteland Angel includes super mutant rip-offs for its final act. Unfortunately, because the game chose a middle of the road approach to its art style, it inevitably comes off as generic. There are hundreds of pictures of post-apocalyptic cars on Deviantart, but many of them are drawn in the same style, a style which Wasteland Angel followed as well.

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You only see enemies up close in bonus missions, but they’re surprisingly detailed!

Finally, I’m not sure that the post-nuclear atmosphere was the best choice for this game.
I enjoyed it, but there’s a dissonance between the setting and the action. The post-apocalyptic genre is always about scarcity in one form or another, but Wasteland Angel has the player firing hundreds of bullets per second while facing off against hundreds of enemies in a single battle. Infinite ammo and near infinite enemies don’t really reflect the setting Octane Games has chosen.
This game would have worked better as the story of a sci-fi bounty hunter saving planetary settlers from space pirates. Such a narrative would have better connected with the gameplay and could have improved review scores.

As it stands, Wasteland Angel is fun for maybe an hour. There are some fun aspects with the car controls, bonus missions, and weapons, but they don’t make up for the long and tedious missions or the copy/pasted boss battles. Although I always try to recommend a piece of media to some specific person, I can only recommend Wasteland Angel for 30-45 minutes. It’s forgettable

If you’re interested in Wasteland Angel you can get it here.

 

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.