John Joseph Adams is the assistant editor at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. His reviews and articles have appeared in various magazines, including Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine show. He is also the print news correspondent for SCI FI Wire. His website is http://www.johnjosephadams.com/
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is Adams's first anthology and contains post-apocalyptic stories from Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, Orson Scott Card, and nineteen others who have an extraordinary gift for storytelling. The anthology's official webpage is http://www.johnjosephadams.com/wastelands/
Rob Darnell: It's no secret that you've had a love for post-apocalyptic stories for a while now. When did this begin and what brought it on?
John Adams: My first exposure to post-apocalyptic settings was the video game Wasteland that I played obsessively when I was in my early teens. (And you can probably now guess where I got the title of my anthology from.) Later, another video game, Fallout (and Fallout 2) came along, and further fueled my passion for the sub-genre. Once the Fallout games came around, I was already doing a lot of genre reading, and so the games set me off in search of post-apocalyptic literature.
RD: A lot of post-apocalyptic stories that were written over twenty years ago seem to suggest that around this time we were supposed to have witnessed great destruction and collapse of civilization. But here we are in 2008 and most of it hasn't happened. Would you say these stories still have a voice?
JA: Sure they do; I think post-apocalyptic literature is as relevant now as it's ever been. It first rose to prominence in the 50s, when we were living through the Cold War, and the threat of annihilation (nuclear or otherwise) was a very real possibility. The enemies have changed, but the threat remains the same—and in a way, this new threat is even more frightening, because before, with the Cold War, you had the whole notion of mutually assured destruction to keep anyone from attacking.
But science fiction has never really been about predicting the future anyway; writers imagine brave new worlds and all that, but at its core, it's always been more about commenting on the present.
RD: What do you think we will see in the future?
JA: I'm not sure, but I prefer to let the writers do all the imagining, that way when I read their stories I'll be surprised.
If you're asking how do I think the world will end, I'd have to say that humanity will doom itself. There are plenty of natural roads to apocalypse—asteroid impacts, plague, etc.—but I'm pretty convinced if the end does come, it'll be by our own hand. I'm optimistic that this won't happen at all, mind you, but if it does, that seems to me the most likely scenario.
RD: Wastelands is a collection of twenty-two stories, several of them were written by some very popular authors. There must have been a lot of work involved in getting all these stories together.
JA: Actually, I'd already done a lot of the work before I even conceived of this anthology. I'd written an article on post-apocalyptic SF for The Internet Review of Science Fiction a couple years ago, so I'd done a huge amount of research and reading into the sub-genre, and so already had a lot of stories in mind when I decided to put the anthology together.
It was writing that article that inspired me to try and sell an anthology. When I was doing all that research, I couldn't help but notice that there was a distinct lack of post-apocalyptic anthologies out there. There was basically one reprint anthology (Beyond Armageddon) and one original anthology (After the Fall). There was also an entry in Jerry Pournelle's There Will Be War series, called After Armageddon, which mixed reprints and originals. But other than that, nada.
Initially, I tried to sell an original anthology; when I found no takers, I decided to try a reprint anthology. So I put together a table of contents and worked up a proposal and gave it to my agent (Jenny Rappaport of the L. Perkins Agency). Much to my delight and surprise, she sold it. And in what seems like record time too. It was only a span of a few months. I first sent her the proposal in late September 2006, and by January we had a deal already. I don't recall exactly when it all went down, but any way you slice it, that's really fast.
RD: Did you pull this whole project off yourself?
JA: Well, I had some help, of course. I asked the advice of several friends and colleagues, regarding both the assembling of anthologies and story recommendations. And I owe a lot to my agent, without whom I'm sure I wouldn't have sold the book. And, well, I could go on and on thanking people, but I did dedicate a whole page in the book to acknowledgements.
RD: You mentioned that Ellen Datlow had some advice on putting together an anthology, which you found to be much help. You also express gratitude to Gordon Van Gelder for all that he has taught you about editing. What secrets did they share with you? What are the tricks to the trade?
JA: When I first thought about putting my first anthology proposal together, I really had no idea how to go about doing it: what should be in it, how long it should be, etc. Since Ellen's sold dozens of anthologies, I figured she'd have one handy that I could look at. And she did—she sent me the proposal for one of her anthologies (one that had sold), so I was able to use that as a template. Also, later, she told me what I needed to know about the author-anthologist contract. All critically useful information.
As for Gordon, it's harder to summarize what he's taught me. Basically, when I started at Fantasy & Science Fiction I was a clueless newbie. I mean, I had studied writing in college—I got the job right out of college—but I had no editorial experience. The extent of my knowledge was derived from doing a lot of reading and from working in a bookstore for a couple years.
But as far as secrets and tricks go, I'm not sure there are any.
RD: Are any of the stories in Wastelands favorites of yours?
JA: Well, I certainly like them all quite a lot. I don't want to single out one over any of the others. I will say that Carol Emshwiller's story, "Killers" and John Langan's "Episode Seven," are special to me in that they were originally written at my instigation; when I was trying to sell that original post-apocalyptic anthology, Carol and John were two of the authors I'd approached to write stories for me. So since I wasn't able to sell that original anthology, I'm glad I eventually got to publish them in an anthology. Or doubly-glad, rather—I was pretty happy to see them first published in F&SF, too. Jerry Oltion's story would have been in that original anthology also, and since the story was still available, I'm glad to be able put it into print.
RD: Your first idea was to publish an anthology of original stories, do you think you'll try that again?
JA: That depends—do you mean will I try to publish another original anthology in general, or specifically an original post-apocalyptic anthology? I'll definitely be pitching other original anthologies on other subjects—in fact, my agent has a couple of proposals circulating right now. As for trying an original post-apocalyptic anthology again. . .well, I'd like to think that the success of Wastelands so far has demonstrated that there's a market for a book on the theme it's just a matter of convincing a publisher that the market will bear another one.
In fact, I already did sell an original anthology—to Prime Books. It's called Seeds of Change, and should be out some time this summer—August, theoretically. The stories focus on technological, scientific, political, and cultural paradigm shifts, and the ramifications of such shifts on societies. It has stories by Ken MacLeod, Jay Lake, Tobias S. Buckell, among others.
RD: Since Wastelands was released, do you feel it was a success? Are sales looking good?
JA: Yes, by all accounts it's been a terrific success so far. The reviews have been almost universally positive, and it's been selling really well—so well, in fact, that Night Shade has already ordered a second printing. Which makes me very happy, not only because it means I should be seeing royalties at some point, but also because this success bodes well for me being able to sell more anthologies in the future.
RD: What can you tell us about yourself? Who is John Joseph Adams when he's not being the editor?
JA: Over the past several years, I've spent so much of my life thinking about, talking about, or writing about science fiction and fantasy, I'm no longer sure where the line is—I mean, when am I not being an editor? That's the nice thing about working in a career that you love—you can just kind of throw yourself into it and not worry about silly things like the difference between "work hours" and "play time."
But to get at the heart of your question, I think, is to tell you something about me that doesn't have anything to do with science fiction or fantasy. Well, once you peel off the label that says "science fiction geek," underneath you'll find one that says "metalhead." I recently filled out a music memes on my blog, and discovered that I have 5861 tracks on my iPod; I'd say 95% of those are metal. Of course, like SF, metal can be divided into many sub-genres. I like a lot of melodic death metal, metalcore, thrash, and lately, have been listening to a lot of folk metal, which is probably not as strange as it sounds—think of it as Fins singing about Vikings, with accordions, violins, and blast beats.
Aside from that, I'm more than a little obsessed with television—I suppose it's the serial storytelling format that I like so much about it. When I'm reading, I'm almost always reading SF or fantasy, but with TV, I watch a more wide variety of programs, from genre stuff like Battlestar Galactica and Lost to traditional dramas like Friday Night Lights, or police procedurals like The Wire or Dexter (which I think is the best show on television right now). Also, I really, really like Survivor, which will probably surprise some people. It seems like something I should apologize for, but screw that—I don't believe in "guilty pleasures"—if you like something, like it, and don't be ashamed about it.
But I guess all I did was talk about other kinds of entertainment I enjoy, didn't I? I wonder what that says about me? Let me think what else there is to tell. . . . Well, I have a dog, I live in New Jersey, and I voted for Obama in the Super Tuesday primary.
So, yeah, I'm one of those lefty-liberals. One of the reviews for Wastelands on Amazon.com seemed to feel that my politics influenced the stories I selected for the anthology, and he took me to task for it. I think almost all post-apocalyptic fiction has at least a hint of social commentary to it, but I didn't think that the book leaned very far to the left or right politically. Fair enough, though, he's entitled to his opinion. But can't we at least agree that the end of the world would be bad?
RD: What post-apocalyptic novels or movies would you recommend?
JA: Books? I can recommend a ton of those. I mentioned an article I wrote for IROSF earlier—well, it consisted of a short introduction to the sub-genre and an extended reading list. An expanded version of that reading list is included in an appendix to Wastelands. (You can also access it via the Wastelands website, if you're so inclined.) But off the top of my head, the top five post-apocalyptic novels are A Canticle For Leibowitz, Earth Abides, No Blade of Grass, The Long Loud Silence, and The Day of the Triffids (or The Chrysalids—I can never decide which is better, and they're both by John Wyndham, so that only confuses the matter).
As for movies, well, there are a lot of films that employ post-apocalyptic settings but not too many of them are what I'd call "good." There's good things about a lot of them, but good movies overall? Not really.
That said, there's the classics, like Mad Max and The Road Warrior. And then there's the adaptation of On the Beach. Although it's been frequently vilified, I've always kind of liked The Postman. (It's not as good as the novella, but I rather liked it.)
And although they're really zombie movies primarily, 28 Days Later and 28 Weeks Later both have lots of good post-apocalyptic elements to them. The latter film especially.
There are movies like that—movies that employ post-apocalyptic settings, but which aren't really primarily about life after apocalypse.
Probably the best one of that sort I can think of is 12 Monkeys. It's more of a time travel movie, really, but it does have some great apocalyptic elements. One of my favorite SF movies of all time, actually.
RD: What can you tell us about your upcoming zombie anthology and when can we expect to see it out?
JA: Well, I was going to call it No More Room in Hell, but the publisher felt it didn't say "zombie" clearly enough, so it looks like we're going to call it The Living Dead. Night Shade Books is planning to publish it in September or October 2008. It's going to be a huge book—230,000 words of fiction. It'll include zombies of all types, from the Romero-style zombie to the voodoo zombie to the techno-zombie. I haven't secured all of the permissions yet, but it's going to be a pretty impressive table of contents. Stephen King, Clive Barker, Laurell K. Hamilton, Neil Gaiman, and George R. R. Martin are some of the authors who are already on board. In addition to the big names, I've also got a lot of really great stuff from some authors you probably haven't heard of, so it's going to be a good mix, I think.
I guess it was sort of the natural follow-up to a book like Wastelands. After an apocalypse, hell is sure to fill up, and there will be no where else for the dead to go but back to the land of the living, where they will, of course, feast upon human flesh.