Welcome to another end of the world. On the menu today: a virus that has killed 90 percent of the population and left a lot of cults and crazies to squabble over the ruins. Journal of the Plague Year (Abaddon Books, 2014) contains three novellas: Orbital Decay by Malcolm Cross, Dead Kelly by C.B. Harvey, and The Bloody Deluge by Adrian Tchaikovsky, all of which take place in Abaddon’s shared world The Afterblight Chronicles, which already contains over a dozen other novels and novellas.
Though Abaddon describes itself as trying to bring back “the good old days of pulp fiction,” not all of their publications fit the pulp mold. Hooded Man, for example, is an Afterblight Chronicles omnibus of post-apocalyptic Robin Hood retellings by Paul Kane. I’ve read the first in the series, Arrowhead, and the word “pulp” doesn’t do the story justice. See, I don’t really like pulp fiction. But having never had reason to associate Abaddon’s books with it, despite their intentions, and being a fan of apocalyptic lit, I picked up Journal of the Plague Year with enthusiasm.
For those who want the verdict in a nutshell: this is a solid collection. While I did not enjoy Dead Kelly, Orbital Decay and The Bloody Deluge made the purchase worth it—and if you like exploitation and pulp, you might even like Dead Kelly. For those who want to hear about these three novellas in more detail, please follow me through this next door…
Orbital Decay by Malcolm Cross
It is always impressive to see an author who has never been in space manage to convincingly describe the experience of being in space. Granted, Cross has the advantage of a readership who, in all probability, have also never been in space. But Cross did an excellent job of making the setting—an American-Russian space station orbiting Earth—of Orbital Decay feel real, in large part due to the careful spread of details: how zero-gravity makes you feel like you have a head cold because gravity doesn’t help clear your sinuses, how food is eaten, how air does or does not circulate.
I tend to shy away from apocalypse-in-space stories because it is the ruins of humanity and the fight for survival in familiar climes that interest me most. However, Cross’ addition to the Afterblight Chronicles was well paced (that is to say, page-turningly so), with a murder mystery plot that keeps the novella from being only about the end of the world. According to the forward by editor David Moore, Cross is the first author to offer a biological explanation for the virus that has set the scene for the Afterblight storyline.
Six out of seven space suits.
Dead Kelly by CB Harvey
Great title. Decent plot twists. Not so great everything else.
Dead Kelly is an “old-school Ozsploitation” story Moore tells us in the omnibus’ introduction, and the exploitation, B-story, pulp thing is not something I enjoy, to put it lightly. Does Dead Kelly live up to exploitation genre standards? Yes. Is it good action pulp? Maybe. I can’t stand to look at the genre for long enough to find out what makes a good or a bad pulp story. But if you don’t like that sort of thing run, now, before somebody kills you in a fountain of blood and gratuitous violence.
The structure of the novella—a start in the world far post-Cull and then 100 pages of flashback story that never return to that present—felt slapdash because that first far post-Cull scene made promises about where the story was going that it did not keep.
The characters, oh fuck these characters. Again, genre convention, but from outside the lens of exploitation genre device? They were poorly developed cartoons. Dead Kelly is our narrator and a real macho asshole, the kind of cookie-cutter action-film lead who just happens to be the best at killing people, which he does constantly and violently. I would have preferred to follow this story from behind another face—he was such an asshat that I had to force myself to continue reading his PoV. I waited and waited, with ever dwindling hope, for a dash of character development or back story that would make a trip in this dude’s head worth my time, but the only background given to explain this psycho is that he—I kid you fucking not—doesn’t have a dick.
I’m tired of reading about violent, tyrannical assholes, and their plans to rule the world post-apocalypse. Damn it, I want to read about people who have some more creative ideas about what they could do with a sudden clean slate.
One out of seven dismembered babies.
“Armageddons come and go, mate. The world’s still turning, just with less of us on it.” -Dead Kelly, CB Harvey
— Book Punks (@bookpunks) November 20, 2014
The Bloody Deluge by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Now here is a story I can really sink my…eyes into. Set in Poland and Germany, Tchaikovsky’s story explores questions of religion, science, history, and faith as characters from diverse backgrounds come together and clash among the ruins at the end of the world. Science isn’t the easy winner in any argument—in fact, the story’s two scientist PoV characters are both pretty fucking annoying—and religion isn’t the laughable straw man.
Instead of cartoons and stereotypes, Tchaikovsky shows us both sides of every coin in Deluge. We see religious people bending their faith for good and for evil and, very humanly, to annoy people they don’t like. We see scientists holding onto their secular faith in a way that leaves no room for anyone else to tell a story that better fits their needs for understanding the world, and—always fun—we see historical re-enacters doing really well after the apocalypse because now that technology has crashed and burned, their knowledge has become the knowledge that is going to save the human race.
Living in Germany, I could easily see something like Deluge’s New Teutonic Order becoming a thing post-Cull (*shudders*). Some of the characters might be out of their fucking minds, but they all have context, feel three dimensional. The plot—two scientists running from religious fanatics who see their attempts to find a cure for the plague that killed off most of humanity as an act against God—neatly carries the reader through the examination of some deep and complex questions.
Eight point seven out of ten badass horse-riding Roma women.
Where I got it: Dealer’s Room, LonCon3
Where you can get it: The Book Depository (free shipping! to anywhere!)