This anthology of end-of-the-world stories from two dozen big-name and up-and-coming writers is nothing like the Hollywood blockbuster apocalypse experience, all stirring music and flashy effects, tidily wrapped up with a life-affirming ending in under two hours. Nor is it much like the sprawling genre novels of cosmic disaster that we like so much. You could stack the dead characters in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire like cordwood and get a wall longer than Hadrian’s, but we keep reading because there are still characters to root for, and moments of hope for a world that hasn’t altogether ended.
Adams and Howey’s planned three-volume anthology series The Apocalypse Triptych opens with a volume of stories that cover the moment the old world ends. A second volume, The End Is Now, will feature stories set in the midst of the chaos between, and The End Has Come will focus on the beginnings of whatever gets built from the ashes.
The structure of The End Is Nigh shapes a very specific emotional rhythm and, if you try to read the book straight through over a few days, a reading experience unlike any other I’ve had. Each author has come up with a different take on how the world might end, and each story presents a different vision of what the world that’s ending is like.
The viewpoint characters are all deliciously different from each other and their predicaments grow increasingly extreme in their deliciously different and often absurd ways, until the not-so-delicious moment when the worlds and stories end. No matter how funny, juicy, or satirically entertaining the story has been up to that moment, the world’s end hits like a knife to the gut. You’re still reeling when the story slams into its last sentence and ejects you before you can find some way to ask, But what happened next?
And then, dear reader, you turn the page and go through it all again. You try not to get too attached to the main characters, whose odds of survival two weeks past the final paragraph range from pretty slim to definitely toast.
You try to withhold a little of your empathy from whatever and whoever the main characters care about, because the whole premise of the anthology requires that most or all of what they care about will be lost or destroyed in the worst available way.
Alas, these writers are just too damn good. You’ll care. Your efforts to retreat into aesthetic consideration and assessment of writerly craft will fail. They’ll pull you in, these writers, they’ll make you laugh and see, and they’ll break your heart.
Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of personal preference. Or maybe personal stamina. About a third of the way through the book, my willingness to poke my own amygdala with a stick gave out, and I could not read one more page. In about six months, I will probably remember the stellar quality of the stories I did make it through and then I’ll try dipping back in, a story or two at a time, over the rest of the year. However, I want to put out my endorsement-with-caveats early in the book’s life cycle, while it can do the most good.
Some of these stories will make it onto the award ballots and into the year’s best anthologies, and deservedly so. The anthology as a whole will probably be up for best anthology on some ballots, too, and I’ll be rooting for Adams and Howey. Taken one at a time, some of these stories are as much fun as, and way smarter than, any asteroid-filled effects extravaganza you can popcorn your way through.
Just don’t try to read The End Is Nigh in a weekend reading binge, or a weeklong one for that matter. If you’ve been thinking for a while that maybe you would benefit from taking antidepressants, don’t start reading until you have your prescription filled. Not just in hand. Filled. Don’t start reading after a bad breakup, or after you get laid off from your job, or in the exact moment when a sizable real-world country erupts into blazing civil war.
An old professor of mine used to lament about the necessity of assigning really long novels over short periods of time. “Reading Wings of the Dove in one week is like chugging a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream,” he would say. Not that I’ve ever tried to do anything that unnatural with Bailey’s, but it always seemed like an apt comparison to me. In that spirit, as it were, I recommend some pairings for your reading of The End Is Nigh, so you’ll have something useful to do with the restless pacing and free-floating sense of urgency these stories will elicit from you.
Before you order the anthology, get yourself a copy of Kathy Harrison’s Just in Case: How to Be Self-Sufficient When the Unexpected Happens and Creek Stewart’s Build the Perfect Bug-Out Bag. Having followed some advice from each of those books served me well while I weathered Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey. If the world ends before you get the batteries loaded in your flashlights, well, at least you’ll have slept a little easier between bouts of reading The End Is Nigh.
Sarah Avery’s short story “The War of the Wheat Berry Year” appeared in the last print issue of Black Gate. A related novella, “The Imlen Bastard,” is slated to appear in BG‘s new online incarnation. Her contemporary fantasy novella collection, Tales from Rugosa Coven, follows the adventures of some very modern Pagans in a supernatural version of New Jersey even weirder than the one you think you know. You can keep up with her at her website, sarahavery.com, and follow her on Twitter.